Why Politics Became a ‘Replacement Religion’
David Zahl thinks there’s a reason our politics is so divisive these days. In part, it’s because our society has become less religious in a formal sense, and our confidence in traditional expressions of faith has eroded. Even so, the deep human needs we used to try to meet through our churches and synagogues haven’t gone away, so we seek to meet these needs elsewhere.
Politics has become “today’s most popular replacement religion,” Zahl writes in Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It. The founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, Zahl is the editor-in-chief of the Mockingbird website and co-host of The Mockingcast.
You mention a Seinfeld episode from 1994 that you consider prophetic. Tell us about it.
Elaine has met a guy and tells Jerry she’s in love, he’s perfect. So Jerry with characteristic detachment says, “Uh-huh. And what’s his stand on … abortion?” Elaine says he has to be pro-choice because he’s “so good-looking.” Of course, it turns out that this perfect guy is not pro-choice and Elaine has to break up with him. The joke is on Elaine, who is so doctrinaire and obsessive and opinionated about things, and it seems exaggerated and funny at the time. But today, these kinds of conflicts are pretty ordinary in our relationships.
This has an unfortunate effect on our politics, too?
It does. The religious fervor which we apply to political matters leads us into political cults, in which we regard politicians as either saviors or devils incarnate. They become cult leaders. We rarely talk these days about them as statesmen or public servants, and we act as if they have magical powers, which sets us up for deep disappointment and vilification of them. If we feel they have betrayed us, they can be condemned to a kind of secular hell.
During “town halls” with presidential candidates, ordinary citizens routinely tell the candidate some very personal story about their own individual circumstances and ask the candidate what they are going to do about it.
That’s what I mean about assigning magical powers to them. The rhetoric of political life has a universal aspect to it, where there will be “no exceptions” to some policy. Everyone who wants a coronavirus test will get one, with no exceptions. Something denied to anyone is seen as being denied to everyone.
Like “No Child Left Behind”?
That’s another example, and politicians who either don’t adopt this universalist approach are assumed to have bad intentions, to be acting in bad faith. But of course we set the standards too high, and no one is satisfied with the results. Then you get the narcissism of small differences, I think it is called, where we constantly divide over smaller and smaller considerations. When we apply this kind of thinking and feeling to politics, we often reserve our deepest animosity for those we are actually closest to, ideologically, because they fall short of the mark.
In the early days of this country, politicians were praised for being “disinterested.” This didn’t mean “uninterested,” but that they could rise above their individual interests in a given matter and make decisions based on more objective considerations, for the public good. Today, we seem to seek something different. Presidential candidates, in a debate, for example, will say, “This to me is personal,” and then relate something from their past, in which they are usually the victim of some injustice or some other unfortunate circumstance.
That’s true, too. Everything becomes a Hollywood narrative, in which we are emotionally involved in this or that cause. As Jonathan Haidt argues, we craft these narratives in which we exploit our personal histories for different purposes. But of course we carefully edit these personal histories to make ourselves look as good as possible, so it contributes to this false sense of self — and to the need to find meaning in life which we then seek in politics. It’s a consequence in part of the idea that no truth is unassailable but our personal truth and our emotional experience.
You say we seek a sense of belonging in our politics. When I read that, I thought of all those memoirs of American intellectuals who became communists in the 1930s through the 1950s and said that subordinating themselves to this cause gave them a sense of belonging.
You see that with fascism as well, attaching ourselves to some great cause — some historical march toward Kingdom Come. That’s important to people who deep down are afraid that their lives don’t matter much. And this politics of belonging goes from who belongs to who belongs the most. That’s why you see the great animosity reserved for people you are closest to in the political group but fail to live up to 100% of the program. As someone who grew up in churches where there was constant denominational hair-splitting, I’m well aware of this tendency. Today, though, you see it more and more in our political lives.
In recent months, we’ve experienced two waves of intense public concern — COVID-19 and the protests following the death of George Floyd. How, if at all, have our responses reflected the seculosity you describe? The response to the pandemic seems positively apocalyptic.
I think “apocalyptic” is precisely the right word. Toward the beginning of the pandemic especially, when all the toilet paper vanished and whatnot, the anxiety level itself was almost world-ending — revealing just how much faith we’d put in things that were less secure than we’d believed them to be. We were all rushing around in a panic, grasping for control and of course righteousness, usually at the expense of others. Everyone I would run into had a sense of the “right response” to the situation, which of course gave us the permission to indulge in all sorts of shaming and judgments of those around us. The fear of condemnation from one’s peers became almost as palpable as the fear of the virus itself, clouding the way forward. Blame and scapegoating — the sense that we could be saved if just those people over there got out of the way — the eternal stakes of it all, the hope for salvation in the form of a given leader, it all felt and continues to feel very religious.
How about the response to George Floyd’s death, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and even the concern over Confederate statues?
There was a meme going around in June that said, “… and just like that, everyone went from being experts on advanced epidemiology to experts in civil rights law.” And what I took it to mean was that almost as soon as these events had taken place, you had folks co-opting them for their own sense of “enoughness” — and then lording that over others. The demonstrations were born out of a moral urgency that I wouldn’t want to diminish — a sense of genuine righteousness when it comes to matters of race and equality. And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of the moral certainty involved appears to mimic more merciless forms of fundamentalism, at least in the fear and reactivity it has birthed. I don’t know quite what the answer is — Lord knows we do not want to give injustice a pass. Yet demands for atonement without a clear vision of reconciliation or redemption seem pretty hopeless to me. I guess as a religious person, I get nervous about the damage that totalizing narratives can do, especially when untempered by humility and love.
Finally, you write that politics today is less an expression of our attitudes toward government and public policy than about our own sense of self. Can you explain?
People are expected to have a politics. We want to know of someone, “What’s your politics?” It is no longer just opinions we might have about how we want the government to operate and what the effect of some policy or other might have on people and the society. It’s not so much about the facts on the ground as on our sense of self. We adopt attitudes based on what they say about us, whether it says something good about me or bad about me. Our politics forms too great a sense of our main identity and how we regard others. This is where the whole idea of virtue signaling — or moral preening, as I sometimes think of it — comes in. And this isn’t good for our culture or the way we organize ourselves for common political ends. It’s unhealthy. Politics can’t meet these needs, and it becomes more polarized and divisive when we expect it to do so.
Reach Zahl at 203.253.3032 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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