January 6 at the Capitol

When politics becomes religion

Politics sometimes becomes religion for people. This is a fact.

It is dangerous when politics becomes religion for people. This is my conviction.

This phenomenon seems most likely to happen when a culturally established religion fades to become merely politics, which can then go steroidal to become a new kind of political religion.

In other words, the reality I am trying to get at is when religion fades to become politics which then supercharges to become political religion.

People often get killed when this happens. It is stirring among us in America.

Four sources are feeding this concern for me right now. First, Trumpist Christian insurrection. The first has been brewing for awhile and erupted on Jan. 6, when that mob of thousands stormed the Capitol building in Washington. We learned during that day, and afterward, that some of the mob were radicalized Trumpist Christians acting explicitly in the name of their faith. It had long been apparent that for some, Donald Trump had become something like an object of worship in himself or perhaps, in which loyalty to him became a misbegotten expression of the worship of God. On that awful day, for some, that worship became insurrection.

Second, Nazi political religion. I am working on a long-range project revisiting the question of what happened to Christianity in Nazi Germany. At this moment I am reading Ralf Georg Reuth’s 1990 biography of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The most striking thing about this biography is evidence from Goebbels’ voluminous speeches and writings of his religious interpretation of all things Adolf Hitler, which was consistent for two decades. Goebbels had for a time been a devout Roman Catholic. But in his twenties and thereafter, Hitler became his object of worship. He said or wrote stuff like this 1936 journal entry, all the time:

“A nation commended itself to God through its spokesman and placed its fate and its life trustingly in His hands.”

One had the feeling that all of Germany had been transformed into a single, enormous house of God uniting all classes, professions, and religious denominations. And now its intermediary stepped up to the throne of the Almighty to bear witness to will and work, and to pray for his mercy and protection for a future that still lay uncertain and inscrutable before our eyes … That was religion in its most profound and mysterious sense. A nation commended itself to God through its spokesman and placed its fate and its life trustingly in His hands.

It is hard to distinguish exactly who the referents are when male pronouns are used in this statement.

Third, ardent progressive politics, weakening progressive theology. I have had the privilege of an advance reading of a forthcoming book by George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk called One Faith No Longer. You can see advance publicity on the book here. It is to be released in July. Confidentiality prevents me saying anything more than the PR copy already suggests: progressive and conservative Christians no longer share one faith; and, say the authors, one source of the difference is that progressives define themselves more by their social justice commitments than by their theological claims.

While I do not agree that conservatives have avoided the high politicization of their faith, I can confidently say from experience that many progressive U.S. Christians are much, much clearer about their political commitments than their theological beliefs. It is also the case that one is much, much more likely to be banished from the progressive U.S. Christian community for getting some aspect of one’s politics wrong than from theological heterodoxy.

“Many progressive U.S. Christians are much, much clearer about their political commitments than their theological beliefs.”

One reason I wrote my recent book After Evangelicalism was to make a theological proposal for post-evangelical and progressive Christians, rather than just more politics and social ethics. I do wonder about politics replacing and/or becoming religion on the progressive left.

Fourth, Pope John Paul II on communism. A student in a class presentation this week found this most appropriate 1991 quote from Pope John Paul II:

When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a “secular religion” which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society — which possesses its own autonomy and laws — can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God.

In this excerpt, John Paul II was clearly referring to communism, then in the process of collapsing, and probably also the Nazism under which he suffered as a young Polish priest-in-training. Both were totalitarian utopian “secular” political ideologies that clearly reflected completely corrupt versions of Christian eschatology — the classless society, the thousand-year Reich. Both were convinced of the purity of their aims and the glory of their millenarian visions if only they could be realized. Both believed that any means could and must be used to reach their goals. Both shed the blood of innocent millions.

I venture the proposal that when religion becomes politics in lands in which Christianity was once dominant and is now fading, it often carries forward large rhetorical and structural elements of the Christianity that is dying. It’s Goebbels taking Catholicism and making it into ultranationalism and then Hitlerism. It’s white “lapsed evangelicals” trading in Jesus for Trump.

“People simply confuse the old object of Christian worship with the deeply unworthy new object of political worship.”

Once this happens, many people simply confuse the old object of Christian worship with the deeply unworthy new object of political worship. This, of course, is the very definition of idolatry. And finally, the passionate energy that once had gone into religion now gets transferred and even steroidal in service to the new political cause or messiah.

As has often been said, people need something to worship. John Calvin was right on this at least: “The human heart is a perpetual idol factory.”

Perhaps the best contribution Christians can make to U.S. public life at this moment might be to recall the difference between worshipping Jesus and undertaking whatever political projects one feels led to undertake. They may be deeply intertwined. But they are not the same.

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