For the first time in recorded history, church membership in the United States has dropped below 50 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. While progressives, secularists and other religious skeptics may celebrate this trend, the sociopolitical ramifications of declining church attendance have been anything but beneficial.
How Americans should respond to these developments was the subject of a recent discussion between two leading experts on Christian and Islamic political theology. Luke Bretherton, Professor at United Methodist-affiliated Duke Divinity School, and Shadi Hamid, Fellow at the Brookings Institute, jointly appeared on an episode of the Faith Angle podcast, hosted by Josh Good of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Bretherton described the trajectory of human history as told by anti-religion Atheists like Richard Dawkins as being like “showering off” muck and mud of religious superstition; with minds free of polluting agents the nations will finally experience a flowering of rationality and humanism in politics and society. But a better metaphor would be a jacuzzi, where we must all sit together in “warm and feted water” with our deep-held convictions swirling around and mixing. Our passions don’t disappear, they are just reformed and repurposed.
This hasn’t led to the American electorate abandoning spiritual convictions; instead, it has precipitated a religious devotion to politics for Democrats and Republicans. “A Trump rally is a religious phenomenon. So is a Biden rally,” Bretherton proposed. The explosion in liberal parodies of Catholic votive candles bearing the image of Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comes to mind.
Hamid, a Muslim, described how the elevation of politics to a religious devotion in America marked a significant shift in the stakes of winning and losing elections. He contrasted the United States with Arab nations he had studied around the time of the Arab Spring: in those nations, winning political power can be a matter of life and death because the metaphysical and ethical commitments worth dying over are all imputed to the state. The great advantage of liberal democracy is that it enables politics to be about the penultimate, leaving questions of final judgement to God alone. This mindset can be encapsulated in the Arabic phrase “allāhu ʾaʿlam,” which means “only God knows.”
Both commentators expressed consternation at the growing extremism on the political left and right as a result of politics taking the form of religion. The solution, however, is not to water-down our beliefs or be less honest about the real philosophical and theological differences.
Hamid expressed admiration for the early 20th century Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Reformed Theologian Abraham Kuyper as a guide to addressing our political climate. During Kuyper’s time there was growing tension in the Netherlands between Catholics, Protestants, socialists, liberals and secularists without a clear solution. Kuyper proposed “Pillarisation,” where each different group would agree to build its own parallel institutions, from newspapers to schools to social clubs, without imposing their “thick” conceptions of human flourishing on each other.
The Duke professor added that Jacques Maritain, a Catholic theologian and political philosopher who influenced the post-WWII order, had always conceived of liberal democracy as more relational and institutionally thick than individualistic.
Both scholars also agreed that democracy must have as much room as possible for thick differences, such as between different religions. Demonizing much of the population as racist or otherwise beyond saving is not helpful in this regard, as Hamid argued. Instead, we must bring in as many people as possible. Bretherton described this as a complicated dance: we must be asking truly deep ethical questions and living our lives accordingly, yet not kill, coerce or otherwise force people we disagree with out of society. Hamid described this as asking existential questions without existential politics, which means acknowledging, however grudgingly, that we will not be able to resolve metaphysical problems politically.
Bretherton was also critical of the tendency for conservatives to utilize a kind of “weaponized nostalgia” which looks to the past as mostly uncorrupted compared to the present. Despite the rallying cry of “Make America Great Again” most women and ethnic minorities would probably not prefer to live in 1950s America. But while conservatives have the tendency to whitewash the past, progressives see history as primarily a story of oppression and seek revolutionary change. Neither are the right outlook.