The religion of American Politics

image: Apostle St. Simon the Zelot

When are we willing to fight for our views?  Simon the Zelot was a disciple of Jesus.  He advocated aggression with the Romans.  He literally fought for his views.  I find it odd that Simon was one of the twelve disciples because Jesus seemed very much against violence (unless one considers the story of the  money changers in the temple!)  Politically I consider myself a moderate independent and normally I do not view political views something to fight over…disagree certainly, but this does not include violence!

My political views fall somewhere between a conservative Democrat and a liberal Republican, but since these political positions no longer exist I find my views falling more and more into a vacuum.  I stopped affiliating with the Democratic Party in my late 20’s, but I never switched to the Republican Party.  I have increasingly felt dismayed by the inability of politicians to compromise, to understand the value of the middle ground.  Today political partisanship has brought us to new levels of government dysfunction.  Frankly, it’s getting difficult to relate to my fellow Americans.

I was moved by the speeches made at Senator John McCain’s memorial service as well as those given for President George Bush.  We heard much about their civility and we owe a great deal to the leadership of these two men who served our country with distinction in and out of politics.  Strangely enough when George Bush was elected president I believed the opposite was true.  During Reagan’s term in office I felt our country’s political body was becoming ever more divided.  But after two years of Trump in office I look back with fondness at all Republican presidents before him.

The use of the phrase “middle of the road” began in America towards the end of the 19th century. “It was used to describe the policies of political parties who attempted to avoid alienating any particular set of voters by saying very little of substance which might annoy them (nothing changes). The term was especially aimed at The Populist Party (or People’s) Party. “

Being a moderate isn’t the same as having political views that fall in the middle of the road.  I am not sitting on the fence, as in I’m unsure of one way or the other.  I have strong political views that are shaped by moral and ethical standards.   I’m not on the same page as those in the fringes left or right, which more and more I see as extremism.  I recall once hearing someone say that the danger of having views in the ‘middle of the road’ is that you will likely get run over!  Some days I sense that danger more than ever!

Increasingly battle lines are being drawn between liberals on the left and conservatives on the right.  The results of the midterm elections made it clear that Americans are polarized not on the basis of class or even ideology, but on political identity.  The United States is suffering from a “cold Civil War” and it doesn’t bode well for us at this critical time in history.  We should be uniting to confront the challenge of climate change, resource depletion, and economic inequality.  We should be reaching across the aisle and across borders to help others in desperate need rather than building more walls to define an identity.

As the rate of climate change increases and the costs of weather related disasters takes a greater toll around the world it is more important than ever that Americans lead by example.  Americans have the opportunity to adopt renewable energy and to reduce our consumption of resources.  We use more energy per capita than any other country and we should reduce the most!  Nothing is going to be easy.  Political and economic solutions will not be easy.  No solutions will work everywhere or for everyone.  The human population has grown into overshoot and we in the developed world need to think rationally and act calmly or we will likely make matters much, much worse.  How will it benefit the world if we enter a third world war?

I recently read an article in the NY magazine written by Andrew Sullivan that I found very thought provoking.   He describes our political divide as America’s new religion and he is talking about both liberals and conservatives.   “And so we’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion. It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults. Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion. And both cults really do minimize the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.”

“And this is how they threaten liberal democracy. They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise.  They demonstrate, to my mind, how profoundly liberal democracy has actually depended on the complement of a tolerant Christianity to sustain itself — as many earlier liberals (Tocqueville, for example) understood.”

“It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power. It was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project, thus renewing it. It was on these foundations that liberalism was built, and it is by these foundations it has endured. The question we face in contemporary times is whether a political system built upon such a religion can endure when belief in that religion has become a shadow of its future self.”

“Will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away? I’m beginning to suspect it can’t.  And won’t.”

Thought provoking indeed!  I see a real chance that America could fall into the dustbin of history.  How will the world be affected if this should happen?   Probably the last time in recent memory when the world’s nation states faced a great challenge was when the democratic nations of Europe fought against Hitler and Nazis.  I’m not suggesting that American hegemony is great for the world.  But I wonder how people will enjoy Russian and Chinese ambitions to rule the world?  Sullivan writes about the impact watching the HBO movie Darkest Hour, and Churchill’s rejection in May of 1940 of England trying to accommodate Hitler and preserve the nation.  Sullivan described his reaction to the scene in the movie with Churchill.

“And I realized how profoundly I yearn for something like that to reappear in America. The toll of Trump is so deep. In so many ways, he has come close to de-legitimizing this country and entire West, aroused the worst instincts within us, fed fear rather than confronting it, and has been rewarded for his depravity in the most depressing way by everything that is foul on the right and nothing that is noble.”

“I want to believe in America again, its decency and freedom, its hostility, bred in its bones, toward tyranny of any kind, its kindness and generosity. I need what someone once called the audacity of hope. I’ve witnessed this America ever since I arrived — especially its embrace of immigrants — which is why it is hard to see Trump tearing migrant children from their parents. That America is still out there, I tell myself, as the midterms demonstrated. It can build. But who, one wonders, is our Churchill? And when will he or she emerge?”

Indeed, will great leaders ever arrive?  And what if they don’t?  Is America great or is it the people?  Certainly it isn’t the aristocracy that has recently arisen.  It isn’t the Trump family view of America as the center of the universe (especially since Trump views the center of the universe as himself).  The world may not be fortunate enough to receive the appearance of a Gandhi or Christ, a Buddha, or Mohammad, a Churchill, JFK, or Martin Luther King Jr. to lead and inspire people to sacrifice what is needed.  But perhaps in their absence we can look to ourselves.  Perhaps we as individuals can each rise to greatness.  We can step forward and do our best…or at least do what we can.

I sincerely hope that faith can sustain you.  I know it sustains me.  But ultimately, it is individuals that make a difference. We each in our way must do what we can, even in the absence of faith, to make our future tenable.  We can’t expect others to take care of us.  We can’t expect solutions.  But we can treat others with respect and dignity…the way we all want to be treated.  We won’t likely find solutions, but we may find outcomes we can live with.

Religion isn’t always about what we think we know or believe.  Sometimes religion is simply finding a way of living with the unknown.

5 Replies to “The religion of American Politics”

  1. A fine thoughtful essay, Jody. More thoughtful, in my opinion, than Andrew Sullivan’s. But then, I have a hard time taking someone seriously who who can work himself into such a lather over the word “intersectional.” Still, it is a lively essay. And I appreciate that he takes spirituality and the search for meaning so seriously.
    I agree with you that we would be better served by looking to ourselves for answers than to some Great Leader. Haven’t we had enough of them?
    How we will learn to work together towards addressing issues such as climate change in a non-hierarchical way, without succumbing to the tribal psychology of needing a Leader? It is something that, perhaps, we are learning to do now – “in real time” as Sullivan puts it.

  2. One of the things I’ve come to believe after placing faith in the political system and its ‘leaders’ for decades is that this faith has been completely misplaced. As a result, I stopped voting years ago. I see the electoral process as a means of enabling and encouraging an increasingly corrupt and criminal cadre of individuals and vested interests that are far more interested in using the various systems to enrich themselves and supporters, and to expand their power and influence. It matters not which party or individual holds the reins of power. The system is used to concentrate power in fewer hands and continue extracting wealth from the majority. There is no ‘fixing’ this. Elections are a sham. A scam to give the illusion of input into decision-making and choice of paths. This is particularly true the larger and more expansive the system. Federal/nation-state governments. State/provincial governments. Large urban governments. They do not ‘represent’ the ‘average’ voter but the vested interests that helped place them in power and themselves.
    Throw on top of this criminal political system a credit/debt-based monetary/economic system that requires infinite growth on a finite planet and we have the recipe for collapse; regardless of our wishes to the contrary.
    This is not the ‘fault’ of a flawed leader such as Donald Trump. He is simply the latest in a long line of ‘leaders’ who use and exploit the various systems.
    Collapse is coming. Whether it is because the Ponzi-like monetary/economic system finally implodes or the exploitation of finite resources finally becomes untenable or our overshoot of the natural carrying capacity of our environment finally hits home may be moot. And your conclusion that we can’t expect others, but especially the State, to take care of us is probably bang on. Pursing a life of increasing localization of production, and self-reliance/sufficiency may be our best, last hope. Having faith in far-off politicians and governments who have historically been shown to be anything but helpful in these regards is entirely misplaced. Unfortunately, our governments–even smaller local ones–who chase the infinite growth chalice are simply helping speed our journey towards the cliff…

  3. Jody,
    Always encouraging to read a piece that has you nodding your head often in agreement. Not that that is what I look for in my readings. But, I find my self in a similar political predicament, with no solution in sight.
    Happy New Years,

    1. Brian,
      I rarely think of solutions, as if we could solve the problems. I don’t have much faith in government. There is occasionally a “flash” where someone says something and I think “Wow! They nailed it!” but the moment passes and I realize that everyone else seemed to miss the moment. Life really comes down to the work we face each day. It is what it is. Politics are never exactly what we want but in reality they reflect our views and turmoil. They are often mundane, rarely momentous. Mostly politics are simply the necessity of getting along.

      It is hard for me to think of politics just now. My father died on Dec. 24th. My husband and I just returned tonight from a trip to Minnesota for my father’s funeral. At 87 he had lived a long and full life. He went “downhill” very fast. The last two years seemed to fly by and each time I saw him I couldn’t believe the changes. In some ways I feel fortunate. My father lived to ripe old age and enjoyed his life almost up to the very end. When the end came it came relatively quickly.
      It was a beautiful service, a celebration of his life. It was held in the small Lutheran church that our family attended most of my life. It was bitter sweet. There were people who came up to me and their first words were “You probably don’t remember me…” and I didn’t. But their words touched me. The stories. The laughter. The tears. How can one explain what it means to belong. These were my people. Many hadn’t seen me for years, even decades. Yet, I was Bob’s daughter. I belonged. I felt…..whole. The hole in my heart that I never expected…was somehow filled. These people in one way or another made me feel that my father was important. His life mattered. My life mattered.
      How absolutely essential it is to belong in community. Our roots go deep. The soil is rich because our father tended it. I would not be who I am if not for him. I would not be who I am if I didn’t belong.
      My mother, my siblings, my nieces and nephew, their spouses, their children…we gathered together as family. We cried, we laughed, we admired pictures, we hoisted our drinks. We decided to gather again in summer. We are family. We are more than just individual people living our lives.

      I could feel my father’s spirit smiling. I thought “Look what you started dad. Look what you left behind.” I could feel his approval and it filled me with laughter and love. His spirit was with us. The mystery of life came full circle, the way we hope it will. We all want to will live a long full life and in the end know it is our time.

      A week before his death my sister asked him about death. “Are you ready?” His answer was straight forward. “Yes. I’m pretty sure I am. ” How can we know more than that?

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