Acton Institute Powerblog

Politics as religion: The moral weakness of secular orthodoxies

Although Christianity appears to be on the decline across America, we continue to see the rise of personal spiritualities and politics as religion. With a corresponding lack of moral imagination, we see the over-spiritualization of much else, particularly when it comes to ideological tribalism.

On the Left, we are pressed by a series of identitarian creeds, each based on arbitrary notions of equality and justice and enforced by dogmatic coercion and cultural banishment. On the Right, we see the over-elevation of narrow nationalism to religious heights, leading to a clumsy conflation of Christian witness with particular forms of political control. Both bear recognizable religious vocabularies, priorities and impulses, yet each puts certain political positions and ideals of social conformity at the forefront.

“We’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion,” Andrew Sullivan recently observed. “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.”

Political orthodoxies have always held sway, of course. But this time there’s a bigger spiritual and moral vacuum to be filled, allowing such movements to more easily masquerade as causes “bigger than ourselves.” Unfortunately, without a proper grounding in a divine moral order, our selves are still ultimately at the center.

In an essay at Law and Liberty, Mark T. Mitchell notes that while many of our modern political movements may not begin with quests for power and control, our idealism is bound to bend in that direction without a robust and transcendent moral framework.

“Equality, rights, freedom, democracy, justice, tolerance — these are all noble ideals worth defending,” writes Mitchell. “However, when they are stripped of any metaphysical source and wed to raw power, they become parodies of the real thing. Equality is reduced to identity; rights are demanded for some and denied to others; justice becomes a weapon; tolerance becomes intolerant; freedom descends into tyranny. When power and purity are at the center, the center will not hold.”

Focusing specifically on the common manifestations among progressives, Mitchell observes their peculiar tendency to build their notions of human rights and equality on Christian foundations — all while simultaneously and energetically rejecting those same valuable sources. The result is a self-contradicting stew which hits some notes of truth and goodness but is ultimately devoid of any moral substance:

The moral energy of the radical Left depends on the residue left over from a repudiated Christian past. How can that be? Consider: The language of human rights is only coherent if each human person possesses moral value ultimately rooted in a divine order. This intuition is expressed in the familiar words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Humans possess rights because each human possesses God-given moral value. Decouple the language of rights from this theological foundation and rights become mere assertions, having the appearance of moral content but lacking any moral substance.

The same is true of the idea of equality, which is perhaps the most cherished value of the Left. The Declaration affirms that all are created equal, and thus equality and rights stand or fall together with a commitment to a divine order. From this we can develop a coherent account of justice, democracy, and even tolerance. Justice—and this includes racial justice—is, as thinkers from Augustine to Martin Luther King Jr. understood, rooted in a God-ordained moral order. In this sense, an unjust law is no law at all, for it runs counter to the moral order of creation. Modern democracy, which depends on the moral equality of each person, also has its roots in his same metaphysical structure. Even tolerance finds a home here, for tolerance assumes the existence of a hierarchy of moral goods. One only tolerates a position one disagrees with: “I find your position repugnant, but for the sake of peace, stability, friendship, etc. I will tolerate your position.” Of course, tolerance has turned out to be a transient virtue, for once the leftists gain power, the call for tolerance is replaced with an impulse to punish and purge.

Thus, the ideals at the heart of the radical Left—equality, rights, democracy, justice, tolerance—are derived from a Christian view of the human person. Dispense with orthodox Christianity, as most leftists have, and what remains are moral concepts deprived of any moral root. They are free-floating ideals carrying a moral echo but lacking a moral, and ultimately divine, source.

Over at The Dispatch, David French observes something similar. Not only have our political movements become a series of flimsy, weak-kneed religions, but they have given way to a petty fundamentalism of sorts. Yes, we are facing secular orthodoxies with a lack of enduring moral foundations, but these newfound faiths also seem to be increasingly empty of basic charity, humility, or empathy. For example, as David Brooks points out, we see increasing anti-intellectualism on the Right, reinforced by increasing “intellectual segregation” on the Left. Each feeds off the other in a frenetic worship of political conformity.

“It’s the fierce existential certainty of the fundamentalist that is so often the root of authoritarianism and illiberalism,” French writes. “That impulse lies at the heart of much of the Christian nationalist/integralist critique of classical liberalism. That impulse lies at the heart of the speech code and the metastasizing intolerance of woke capitalism … Fundamentalism purports to fill that eternity-sized hole in the human heart, and it thus provides a person with a sense of burning purpose and meaning.

As for how we might resist such impulses, we need a cultural awakening — a remembrance of the divine source of our moral order. We need religious faithfulness not to abstract causes, but to a particular something and someone that is far stronger than our idols of self-indulgence and political cause-crafting.

For French, this includes a series of difficult, ground-level pursuits:

What is to be done with our nation’s toxic fundamentalist revival? … First, reaffirm our nation’s commitments to pluralism. It is central to our classical liberal founding that error does, in fact, have rights. Second, construct and cultivate opposing institutions that model the values of humility, charity, and free inquiry that we seek to advance. Third, maintain a wide-open door to converts. And fourth, pray without ceasing for our nation and its people.

Fortunately, we need not wait for political powers or spontaneous spiritual revival to begin filling that void. If Christianity is truly a fountainhead of civilization — the source of true and enduring notions of freedom, equality, human rights, and patriotism — we can bear witness to the light in the midst of social darkness and confusion.

“Ironically,” Mitchell concludes, “in these times of cultural disintegration and political turmoil, the most radical option might be a return to the very things we abandoned, to the source of moral truth and human dignity, and to the only hope for racial reconciliation.”

If we are to overcome our petty political tribalism and its corresponding swells of political-religious fanaticism, this is where reigniting the flames of truth of justice begins.

(Photo credit: “Climate Angels” at an Extinction Rebellion rally. John Englart. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.