The deep mistake both liberals and zealots are making about religion and politics

The deep mistake both liberals and zealots are making about religion and politics
people sitting on pew bench inside cathedral
Photo by James Owen on Unsplash

It's Good Friday, a good time to talk about religion and politics. Gallup released a poll Monday showing the number of people belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque is the lowest it's been since the opinion surveyor started asking in 1937. It's the first time religious membership has been below 50 percent, according to Gallup.

This news has been met by two perspectives that dominate the national discourse on politics and religion. Though they appear to be at odds, indeed, they are at odds, they are nevertheless mutually reinforcing. In reality, these diametrically opposed views work together to misinform the electorate as to the real nature of the relationship between religion and politics, thus encouraging people to choose sides when they need not choose, thus enabling dangerous people to act in increasingly dangerous ways.

On the one hand are agnostics or non-religious liberals who are either indifferent to religion or hostile to it. These people are always more interested in the politics side of the relationship between politics and religion, and they can be found in virtually all elite press, especially in the op-eds pages. On the other hand are the zealots. Religion is the goal, politics the means. While the liberals think of religion and politics as two things, not so for the zealots. As "the political" was to Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt,1 "the religious" is for them. Neither ends, ever. Those who have managed to find a spot in the elite press have done so by mastering the appearance of being reasonable.

Just so I'm clear, I side with the non-religious liberals. Every time. What's maddening, however, is their tendency to magnify the preferred way of seeing the world among the zealots. While the liberals see reasons of their own for why religious membership has declined below the majority for the first time in 80-some years, they have, without (I suspect) meaning to, come to the same dangerous conclusion as the zealots. They have concluded, even celebrated, that America is becoming increasingly secularized.

So much to unpack. First, religious membership is a bad measure of religion. I mean, it used to be a good one, but not anymore. People still attend church occasionally. They still think of themselves as Methodists and whatever. They still celebrate religious holidays; they still honor religious traditions. But the institutions of religion have been in a state of precipitous decay for 20 years the way most other institutions have been.

Even the word "religion" smacks of institutional rot. That has certainly been the sad experience of lay Catholics faced with sex crimes in the priesthood. That will likely be the experience of the next generation of white evangelical Protestants who will puzzle over their seniors' devotion to a lying, thieving, philandering sadist.2 From this context has arisen the idea that "I'm spiritual but not religious," which is really another way of saying "I'm religious but I don't want to say so," which is a reason I suspect religion is not so much in decline as changing in ways we can't yet understand. It is evolving such that the old ways of measuring its political impact aren't as accurate as they used to be.

Second, and this is my main point, is that secularization is not the absence of religion. Religious people and secular people are not by principled necessity at opposite ends. Religious people can be secular at times. Secular people can be religious at times. The same person can be religious and secular at the same time. Secularization is not, or should not, be a goal in and of itself. It is a means, rather, to an end, namely liberty.

Non-religious liberals of the kind that populate elite op-ed pages have lost sight of this. I suspect many of them believe religion itself is the problem, and they believe this, because they have accepted uncritically what the zealots themselves believe when they say the only way to be a religious person is by first being a conservative person. In doing so, non-religious liberals are locked in a mutually reinforcing relationship in which they end up enabling the zealots' efforts to install a theocratic fuhrer-king.3

All religions have liberal traditions. They may be buried. They may have been silenced. But they are there. More importantly, for liberals, is that these traditions be given oxygen, which is to say, be given the freedom they need to thrive. For the zealots, the point of religion is not doing unto others as you would have done unto you. It is not bringing the greatest good to the greatest number. It's about dominance. To the extent the liberals know this, it's from the inside of the zealots' preferred view, which means they are fighting against freedom even as they fight for a secularized America.

A secular society is not one in which religion is absent. A secular society is one in which there is enough room for the vast varieties of religious feeling to be expressed openly and safely, inside and outside the realm of politics. Liberals should pursue religious diversity with the same oomph with which they pursue racial diversity. With enough time and effort, perhaps religion will stop being a byword for conservative. That would be good for religion. That would also be good for American politics.

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