Let’s be honest, admitting that you’re at all “religious” right now is comparable to what lepers must have felt as they shouted “unclean!” while walking the crowded streets of ancient cities. Millenials are the quickest to say, “I’m spiritual, but NOT religious,” and many surveys of demographic data shows that “none” is the fastest-growing religious affiliation in America today. But, to me, all these gymnastics around the word “religious” and “religion” just reveal the fact that we are all really confused about what they actually mean, so I want to break down this concept.
The practice of religion throughout the sweep of human history and cultures is vast and complicated, and while one blog post won’t nail it down, I’m convinced that continuing to avoid the term “religious” will only contribute to further confusion, not resolve it. Especially in our cultural moment, identifying the religious impulse we all share may actually help to identify a way forward through our bitter divisions and antagonisms.
For the purposes of this argument, I contend that religions have, at minimum, three common components: a claim about human purpose (What is the point of existence? What is the ‘good life?’ Or, you could say, what is ‘salvation?’); a claim about what threatens this purpose (What is wrong with the world? What is the ultimate problem? What barriers stand between us and our collective/individual salvation?); and, importantly, what are the rules/rituals/practices for participating in the effort to avoid the threat and advance the good. So, in sum, religion proposes an understanding of our purpose, our problems, and how we should engage in practices.
Defined and understood this way, it should be apparent that religion, and the religious impulse in all of us, is unavoidable, whether it is highly organized or unstructured, zealous or lazy, profound or trivial. I’ll get to politics, but first let me give some examples to flesh out this definition.
First, in an ancient, agriculturally-based, pagan society organized around tribal deities, the immediate purpose was to survive and perpetuate one’s lineage. The problems that threatened this purpose were legion - war, conflict, disease, infertility, but especially droughts, floods and agricultural crises. The practices, therefore (in addition to sensible farming) were to show devotion, loyalty, and worship to the god(s) who were understood to command the sun, rain, flooding, storms, fertility of the soil, etc. In larger, more bureaucratic, societies, such practices were mediated by priests and structured religious systems, which were understood to have direct access to the deities in question. After all, if you imagine yourself as a peasant farmer eking out an existence in such times, you would be grateful for a priestly-figure who has spent their life communicating with and understanding the deities that could snuff out your crops, and therefore could more effectively communicate your needs to the gods, and be make it more likely your worship/sacrifices would be received positively. Your very existence literally depended on all of this working out.*
As a side note, imagine the power these priests and religious systems accrued in such a world, where everything was understood to be subject to the whims of the gods. This power would be intoxicating, and it should be no surprise that the corruption of religious systems was (and is) common. We even see this in the degradation of the temple and priestly system over the course of the Old Testament, which Jesus judges harshly in his famous temple protest depicted in the four Gospels. But I digress….
Now, I can hear you saying, “This is all well and good as an insight into ancient history, but I can’t see any connection to our culture right now. Haven’t we moved past all that pagan, agricultural stuff? What’s your point?”
See, it’s the “Haven’t we moved past that stuff?” language that I have an issue with, and I hear it all the time. But I submit to you that, even though a modern, late-capitalist, democratic, technologically-based society looks quite different from the ancient, tribal, pagan, agriculturally-based society in the above example, we would be foolish to say that we don’t wrestle with our own questions of purpose, problems and practices that function in a similar way as those ancient religious systems did. We just aren’t honest about it.
I’ll explain what I mean with a current example.
Imagine a young adult who shows up for a weekly (daily?) ritual at a chic coffee shop, books in hand, orders a latte, and spends over 5 minutes positioning the drink, and a book or two, precisely for a quick picture, followed by another 5 minutes trying various filters and captions for a social media post, finally uploading it only to find out that the drink is now too cold to be enjoyed. And the individual can only make it through 2 pages of their chosen book before checking to see how many people have interacted with the new post, and then of course returning the favor by clicking on, sharing, and ‘liking’ similar posts from friends at various coffee shops in various cities.**
This situation can be understood religiously. The individual’s purpose is to be seen by, and connected to, as many people as possible, but only as an online image/persona that portrays exactly how this individual wishes to be known, in this case as literate, hip, trendy, and with great taste in coffee. The problem is crowded social media spaces, competition from more aesthetically-pleasing profiles and posts, and on a deeper level, probably profound discontentment and insecurity with one’s actual person-hood, and maybe loneliness and dis-connection from others. The practices to combat this are crafting perfect pictures, memorable jokes/captions, and submitting them to the “cloud” for judgement. The priests are our peers and the religious system is techno-algorithms, mediating the worthiness of our sacrifices, elevating them or rejecting them. Salvation is to go “viral,” damnation is to be publicly shamed, or simply ignored. The hours we spend on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter probably rival the hours our peasant ancestors spent at the local temple.
Now, let us move to the topic at hand: politics in our cultural climate through a religious lens. Consider the passionate, active, politically-engaged individual. This person may wear a MAGA-hat, attend rallies, and regularly jump into heated social media exchanges. Or they may wear a #BLM or #MeToo T-shirt, attend protests, and also regularly jump into heated social media debates. Their purpose: to see the perfect social order, the utopian organization of our political system, finally realized. This is the goal, and it is of ultimate importance. The problem then becomes those who are contending for a different vision of social organization, of political governance. In such a religiously-charged atmosphere, those with different socio-political visions do not simply have different ideas that can be discussed, but are no less than an existential threat to our collective salvation. They must therefore be condemned unequivocally, with a zealous, religious passion. Political groups become religious organizations, and are formed around the common practices that emerge: chanting slogans and mantras (“Lock her up!” “Not my president!”), wearing markers and vestments (hats and T-shirts), sharing hashtags, disrupting events and speeches, shouting people down via social media outlets, shaming them in public, and massive communal protests and marches. Some members engage in evangelizing efforts, recruiting others to their cause, and others become prophets, delivering judgments and disastrous predictions in an attempt to scare us into proper action.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with impassioned civic participation. History is replete with great civic reformers who passionately disrupted the status quo, and part of the gift of participatory democracy is the opportunity to do so.
But, to my mind, there are at least 3 disturbing issues at play in our politics-as-religion cultural moment: 1) a deep hypocrisy; 2) short-sighted vision; and 3) exclusivist practice.
First, it’s simply hypocritical to deny that one is at all religious, while indulging in religious impulses and practices through the guise of politics. Just own it. We are all religious, and we simply direct it in different ways. And especially in the absence of a meaningful explicitly-religious community, it makes sense that political structures in a participatory democracy would provide opportunities for individuals to find identity and common purpose. But I would contend, in an ultimate sense, that political machinations cannot provide what healthy religion can.
Which leads to my second concern: short-sighted vision. If we let politics define our notion of salvation, I’m worried about where that leads us. What happens if “your side” gets enough power (whatever that means) to implement its perfect social vision? Are we then “saved?” Are you that confident in your political party’s ability to realize a utopia? How long will it last? Or do you expect it to be global in scope? What if it doesn’t work the way you imagine? What about all the others who don’t align with this vision and will presumably still be citizens? Do you really think they will all simply “repent” and join the ranks? Or, more likely, will they be embittered by their own loss of power and influence in such a way that foments yet more anger and division, thereby fracturing the utopia you hoped to create? These questions, I think, start to reveal that political-religion can only take us so far.
And, finally, political-religion is remarkably exclusive. Political parties are not only marked by boundaries around policy ideas, but these boundaries are defined by what they are set against. Free-market economics are decisively not socialist. Pro-life is not pro-choice, and conservative-traditional marriage is not progressive-marriage-equality. These boundaries function, and are effective at galvanizing action, only as long as those who disagree are present and active. To create in-group identity and purpose, an out-group must be created and maintained. Political-religion must exclude, or it loses its purpose.
But what if there was an actual religion that proposed equal membership and participation of all peoples? What if such a religion put forward a vision of human purpose that transcended cultural difference, while not shying away from the problems that impede us and have wreaked destruction in our world? What if this religion enabled us to rightly own the fact that we have screwed up, while instilling hope for genuine change and the assurance of the ultimate redemption of all things? What if such a religion invited all to practice collectively, knowing that in a mysterious way we will be contributing to our Good Earth’s renewal without also shouldering the impossible burden that it’s all up to me and my tribe. What if this religion wasn’t dependent on dry, rote, static practices, but was able to adapt to every human culture without losing its central, hopeful purpose? What if someone once lived and walked among us, loving indiscriminately, calling out corruption, showing us how this religion could function and gently inviting us into this better way? And what if we killed him in response, thinking his way was foolish and impossible? And what if, somehow, he didn’t die?
*Looking back on world history, most of us obviously don’t believe there were actual, divine agents behind every religious system like this, but it was an effective way of making sense of the world. There is, of course, a ton of literature on the history of ancient world religions for further study. I particularly like the account in Yuval Harari’s book ‘Sapiens.’
**I made up this specific instance, but it’s based on many, many real-world observations and inspired by accounts in both Alan Noble’s new book, “Disruptive Witness,” and James K.A. Smith’s book “You Are What You Love.”