The MTV Awards have come and gone (in case you were unaware) and like many televised awards shows of the last several years, the show was filled with entertainers using their public platform to express their political views. Host Katy Perry made a not-so-subtle suggestion that America today was no different than the society in The Handmaid’s Tale. This fact may have slipped past your attention. Whereas once upon a time it was shocking to see such things—as when Marlon Brando sent up a Native American woman during the Oscars to discuss the plight of her people—nowadays hardly any acceptance speech passes at a television, film, or music awards show without some actor, producer, or singer delivering prepared remarks on this or that topic of the day. Such political posturing and preaching thus has become rather pedestrian.
It’s the odd phenomenon described by G.K. Chesterton, that a society reaches a point where people think themselves brave or controversial for stating an opinion shared by everyone in the room, as the man in the bar who says, “I suppose I’m being quite heretical,” and then looks around for applause. Contrary to the hysterical claims of the Twitter accounts of certain celebs, for all its many problems, if our nation had truly fallen into a dictatorship, they would be whisked off stage the moment they uttered a word against the regime, or their door broken down the minute they clicked “Post” on their latest Facebook status. The very fact that they are allowed to protest puts the lie to their protest.
Do not mistake me to say that these people are not entitled to publicly express their opinions. Of course they are, as anyone is. But why has this opinionated proliferation occurred? Why are athletes being encouraged to “speak out,” and journalists claiming they need to set aside objectivity, and Taylor Swift being pilloried for not being overtly political?
Why have politics begun to consume our culture so rapidly?
The need to worship, to devote oneself to something, to recognize that which is greater than you are and serve it, is essential to human nature. The proper object of this desire is God, but in an increasingly irreligious age, like the man who has quit smoking and chews gum instead to satisfy that urge, we have turned to politics as our summum bonum. The particular arrangement in our present day is the perfect storm for this to occur: a hyper-polarized party system coupled with the constant output of social media means that we have the ability to instantly and incessantly engage in political rancor. Politics is tangibly at our fingertips 24/7. It is our national fidget spinner.
Perhaps clarity can be increased by considering the question in this way: as we were all taught that the two things you don’t discuss at the dinner table (more widely applied to social life) are politics and religion, and if politics is suddenly “on the table,” so to speak, why not faith as well? Would people not be equally justified to begin using nationally televised events to make evangelistic statements? Imagine a baseball player using his post-game press conference to proclaim that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ and to invite all those watching to be reconciled to the faith, or an actress using her acceptance speech to declare that abortion is a violation of the dignity and rights of the unborn as children made in the image of God and should be outlawed. What would the reaction be?
Certainly the response would be negative. But notice that nearly every argument that might be given for why such talk would be inappropriate could be equally applied to political speech in such circumstances. “You shouldn’t push your private beliefs on other people.” “People have differing opinions on this—we can’t impose our views on them.” “You just don’t talk about these things in public!” Why is it acceptable to “push” (or present, to be more charitable) one’s private political beliefs in public, but not one’s religious beliefs? Why is it an “imposition” of a controversial opinion in one case but not the other? Why is one case inherently public but not the other?
The source of this attitude is a prejudice that has been pushing religion and religious language out of the public square over the last several decades. (You might be surprised as just how often presidents and politicians of the recent past have invoked God, Providence, Christ, or the idea that this is a Christian nation.) There is a lingering—or malingering—belief in the culture that religion is inherently private because it is inherently irrational. The thinking goes that if one believes in a deity that’s well and good for them, but there’s no discussing these things, no use of reason, logic, facts, or evidence that could contribute to opening up a person to faith, because such things are unprovable, and inarguable. And “proof” is taken here in the empirical sense, that unless the object of one’s faith can be measured, weighed, and categorized, it could not be proven, and thus could not exist.
Most people are not aware of the philosophical presuppositions that inform their worldviews, and thus many Americans are not aware that they are, in some ways at least, operative materialist empiricists—even many of the religious ones. Inoculating ourselves against these ideas, by realizing that reason is larger than science, that faith is (or can be) eminently reasonable, and that politics is nowhere near the top of the list of the most important things in life, would go a long way toward restoring the health to our society, and to our souls.