The Better Letter: Religious People

Politics as holy war.

John Prine, who died recently from COVID-19, wrote this amazing song, here performed by Tedeschi Trucks Band and sung by Susan Tedeschi.

“Just give me one thing | that I can hold on to.”

Great music well performed is an almost religious experience. Maybe not almost. Religious experience — more specifically, a sort of non-religious religion — is the subject of this week’s TBL.

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Religious People

“[T]his is a Christian nation.” Moreover, “[i]f we examine the constitutions of the various states, we find in them a constant recognition of religious obligations.”

These claims are not from some tract put out by The Moral Majority. They come straight from the Supreme Court of the United States.

But it was 1892, you say?

Okay, how about Justice William O. Douglas (yes, that one), speaking for the Court fully 60 years later?

“We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions.”

Still, despite what the Supreme Court and Robert Jeffress have said, even if it once was, America is not a Christian nation today.

When I was nine years old, a Time cover asked, “Is God Dead?” It was the magazine’s first text-only cover. It inspired 3,421 letters from readers, the most ever and most of them negative. Even Bob Dylan criticized it: “If you were God, how would you like to see that written about yourself?” There were more than a few angry sermons preached in response, too.

Then, at least in the public consciousness, the idea of atheism was largely limited to a few radical theologian types and other academics, most protected by tenure. Today, while the numbers are still small*, they are growing, and they seem to represent the intellectual consensus. Indeed, as of 1998, only 10 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believed in God or immortality.

We may not be a Christian nation anymore, and perhaps never were, but we’re still religious, even if and when we don’t believe in any sort of god.

The theologian Paul Tillich argued that the essence of religious attitudes is “ultimate concern.” It is also overwhelmingly real and valuable, so much so that all other things appear empty and worthless. As such, it demands total surrender and promises total fulfillment.

Today, in a world increasingly disinterested in the transcendent, that means politics, as Joseph Bottum prophetically warned. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the central current of America that of morals and manners, which are increasingly established and arbitrated by politics. Even religious rituals have been politically appropriated. To be sure, (mostly mainline) religion has played its part in this transition, eliminating the personal aspects of redemption and, via the “social gospel,” going all-in on the social, structural, and societal aspects of sin.

As Augustine taught, our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. From a psychological perspective, religious belief appears to be intuitive. Cognitive scientists describe humans as having a “god-shaped hole” or a “god-engine.” In today’s America, this intense spiritual hunger is expressed more and more often with respect to political rather than personal transformation.

If your political opponents are deemed not merely wrong, but evil, as President Trump would have it, politics as religion is hard to dispute. We are all sheep or goats, saved or lost, elect or damned. 

And if your political images are apocalyptic, politics as religion is hard to deny. Every election is of the “Flight 93” variety. The president is an “existential threat.” Hillary Clinton dismisses Donald Trump as an “illegitimate president.” Those who support him are “deplorables.” Meanwhile, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” President Trump declared

Christopher Hitchens’s primary argument against religion was that it poisons everything because only religion can make good people do evil things. Politics says, “Hold my beer.”

For example, Noam Chomsky spent years dismissing and minimizing reports of the killing fields in Cambodia as Western propaganda while Michel Foucault, the postmodern philosopher, defended the cruelty of the Iranian Revolution by claiming that Iran does not “have the same regime of truth as ours.” In conversation with the Polish anti-Stalinist dissident Adam Michnik, the philosopher Jurgen Habermas foreshadowed cancel culture by admitting “he had avoided any fundamental confrontation with Stalinism” because he did not want “applause from the wrong side.” 

But there is still worse.

A recent poll finds that for people under 30, 44 percent want people who donate to Donald Trump to be fired and 27 percent want people who donate to Joe Biden to be fired. And parents today have a bigger problem with their children dating outside of their political party than outside of their race or their faith.

That’s no way to run a country.

What Lincoln called “the bonds of affection” are crucial to self-government. Real relationships with people we disagree with, perhaps vehemently, enable us to recognize one another as fellow citizens rather than mortal enemies, despite our differences. The politics of persuasion and compromise beat the politics of destruction and eternal opposition anytime.

Before you accuse me of thinking doing this is easy or even always possible, I hasten to add that people and policies can be and are evil. Just remember that’s a religious judgment more than a political one.

I don’t say this lightly. If we can’t figure out a way to work around or get past this view of politics as holy war, real civil war may become inevitable. It was surely necessary and important but, remember how that worked out last time?


* Four percent of Americans are atheists today. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, our levels of certainty have gone down significantly, and there is a far wider diversity of views expressed.

Totally Worth It

Irony alertOn Christianity and politics. A people map of the U.S. The funniest, unless it was this, or this, or this. The most amazing. The most tragic. The most wonderful. The scariest. The most incredible. The coolest. The saddest. The silliest. The smartest. The snarkiest. The nicest. The craziest. The most insane. The most heart-warming, unless it was this. On August 11, Citigroup wired Brigade Capital $176 million — which is $174.5 million more than the $1.5 million the bank intended to send. The hedge fund is now going to court rather than give the money back. 

Widespread Panic is a southern rock jam band from Athens, Georgia. Founding WSP member Todd Nance died this week. In his honor, here’s WSP’s Feelin’ Alright


This week’s benediction is a catchy, upbeat gospel tune from Jonathan McReynolds - Not Lucky, I'm Loved

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 26 (August 21, 2020)