Friday, April 2, 2021
But what we’re witnessing, it seems to me, is not a collapse in the religious impulse as such. The need to transcend, to find meaning, and purpose, is eternal for humans. The soaring popularity of meditation and yoga, and the greater acceptance and use of psychedelic drugs to replicate the effect of practiced spirituality helps reveal the need. And fake religions — like the Prosperity Gospel — spring up where tradition and theology have already surrendered to greed.
But the most dangerous manifestation of the collapse of the old religions, with their millennia of experience and honing, is the conflation of religious impulses and politics. The fusion of evangelical Christianity with the Republican party blasphemously climaxed in the Trump cult. I’ve written before about Christianism, precisely to distinguish it from Christianity. And it was hard not to notice classic wooden crosses raised aloft among the crowd that invaded the Capitol last January 6. They jostled next to Confederate flags and Trump merch. Some, like Eric Metaxas, have completely lost the plot. And if the contemporary GOP is, for many, the most visible symbol of organized Christianity in America, how can you blame them for despising it?
And in wokeness, you see a similar tragedy. The transcendent has been banished in favor of a profoundly atheist view of the world as merely the arrangement of power structures. But the zeal of religious faith propels the ideology. It is Manichean — seeing the world only as good or evil, antiracist or racist, with virtue attached, horrifyingly, to skin color or gender. It can brook no compromise. It denies the individual soul. It seeks to punish and banish sinners as zealously as it insists on a total psychological re-birth for everyone who joins up. It demands confessions of sin; it requires the renunciation of the self in favor of the identity group; it urges, as so many sermons do, that people “do the work” every day to bring about the Kingdom of Anti-Racism.
These pseudo-religions will fail. They are too worldly, too rooted in contemporary culture wars, too baldly tribal, and too shallow in their understanding of the world to have much staying power. But they can do immense damage to souls and our society in the meantime. They lack the one thing that endures in religious practice: something transcendent that makes the failure in our lives redemptive, and sees politics merely as the necessary art of attending to the imperfect.
It took centuries for Christianity to begin to model that kind of humility and conviction, and to reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. And it would be a terrible shame if America threw that glorious inheritance away.