Over the past few years, political rhetoric in many Western countries appears to have attained levels of hyperbole and hysteria that we haven’t seen for some time. One NPR commentator recently went so far as to describe Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the United States Supreme Court as “the end of the world as we know it.”
That type of language, I’d submit, should be reserved for truly catastrophic events like the Nazi attempt to wipe Jews off the face of the earth or the Communist Khmer Rouge’s slaughter of 2 million people in Cambodia. But the apocalyptic phraseology being employed today to describe, for instance, someone’s nomination to high judicial office or Britain’s decision to leave the European Union tells us something about how some people in the West treat politics. It has effectively become the focus of religious-like hopes. And when, as it inevitably must, politics fails to deliver on the fullest realization of such aspirations (and often not at all), it’s unsurprising that the resulting fury is expressed in terms akin to the Hebrew Prophets berating unfaithful kings of Israel and Judaea.
It’s easy to have disdain for politics and those who choose to enter that world. The popularity of expressions like “the Swamp” owes something to widespread awareness that political life is a source of self-aggrandizement for individuals of all political persuasions. Of course, self-enrichment through cronyism and political lobbying is as old as Rome itself. Occasionally, however, the sheer brazenness of it all provokes backlashes, invariably deserved.
Politics nevertheless remains the appropriate realm for societies to address some very important issues. These range from how we realize liberty and justice in societies composed of imperfect human beings, to determining which matters are the responsibility of government and which are not. Yet this is far removed from treating politics as something akin to a religious enterprise or imagining that a type of earthly heaven can be established through political activity. Such mindsets are bound to produce inflated expectations of politics and therefore, eventually, colossal disappointments and, in due course, the search for enemies to blame and destroy.
One instance of politics-becoming-religion is called “immanentizing the eschaton.” The expression first appears to have been used by the German philosopher Eric Voegelin to describe the outlook of those who believe that humans can bring about heaven-on-earth through their own efforts.
Marxism’s provision of an all-embracing explanation of history and its account of a perfect society’s ensuing emergence sometime in the future is perhaps the most advanced expression of this phenomenon. Being rooted in atheism and philosophical materialism, Marxism couldn’t help but propose a very this-worldly theory of human salvation and redemption. The religious-like character of Marxism is well-documented. But Marxism isn’t the only ideology with distinctly religious features. In his 1963 book Mill and Liberalism, the Cambridge political philosopher Maurice Cowling argued that John Stuart Mill’s liberalism amounted to the creation of a full-blown replacement for supernatural religion.
It isn’t hard to understand how such transformations occur. Humans appear wired to think about and engage religious questions. Even the convinced atheist has presumably inquired into whether the universe has transcendental origins and what this means for rightly ordering human choice and action. In short, the religious impulse with human beings seems indestructible. Hence, many who abandon their religion, or who have never known religious faith, find an outlet in political thought and activity for their natural inclination to search for the ultimate and satisfy their longing for a world that’s finally set to rights.
But secular-minded people aren’t the only people who fall into the trap of making politics their faith. Plenty of religious believers invest religious-like hopes in politics.
Consider, for instance, those Christian social justice activists who seem uninterested in, or even disdainful, of Christian doctrines that the Church regards as explaining the fullness of reality to man, but who endlessly insist that Christians must address any number of political questions in very specific ways. You can be fairly sure that a social justice activist’s faith has largely collapsed into politics when he plainly could care less about, say, the divinity of Jesus Christ or the integrity of the sacraments, but insists that you’re an unfaithful Christian because, for instance, you think minimum wage laws are counterproductive or that most foreign aid does more harm than good.
The point is when Christians try to absolutize what are largely prudential matters – or, conversely, attempt to “prudentialize” moral absolutes like the impermissibility of legalizing euthanasia – it’s usually an indication that some form of politics, whether conservative or liberal, center-right or center-left, has become their real religion. Before you know it, they look, sound, and are just another secular NGO.
Tendencies to absolutize politics have even taken on theological expression at different points of history. Some forms of liberation theology that gained traction in the late-1960s exemplified this. One reason why those liberation theologies which rely heavily upon Marxist analysis are irreconcilable with Church teaching is that they reduce the content of Christian faith to politics.
In a letter to his fellow Jesuits in 1980, the Jesuit General, Father Pedro Arrupe (hardly a knee-jerk reactionary) pointed out that Marxist analysis “as it is normally understood . . . implies in fact a concept of human history which contradicts the Christian view of humankind and society, and leads to strategies which threaten Christian values and attitudes.” To Arrupe’s mind, one such contradiction was how Marxist analysis led to the collapse of Christian belief and action into politics.
Quoting the Latin American Catholic bishops who gathered together at Puebla in Mexico in 1979, Arrupe noted “that theological reflection based on Marxist analysis runs the risk of leading to ‘the total politicization of Christian existence, the disintegration of the language of faith into that of the social sciences and the draining away of the transcendental dimension of Christian salvation’.” The very substance of Christian faith is thus replaced by an understanding of the world that, by definition, condenses Christian faith and morality to very secular forms of thought and action.
From that, it’s only a short step to abandoning even nominal adherence to Christian faith. As one priest wrote in a 2014 reflection on liberation theology’s impact upon Latin American Catholicism, “my students who are laypeople and clergy in Latin America give testimony to their experience in their parishes: wherever and whenever liberation theology has entered, people have lost their faith.”
We’re thus left with the question of how to help people understand what politics can and can’t do. It’s not that we should actively discourage citizens from regarding politics as a place to discuss and even pursue solutions to particular problems. The real issue is how we desacralize the realm of politics so that political debates aren’t invested with the fervor of something equivalent to a holy war that leads us into the wilderness of hyperbole or results in people demonizing each other.
In the case of those who have lost or never had religious faith, one way forward is to underscore something which should be obvious to everyone: that humans are, and always will be, imperfect. This truth — which is instantly confirmed by looking at our own lives and the lives of those around us — is often portrayed as a conservative insight into the human condition. It’s more accurately understood as a warning against utopianism. The non-believer who recognizes the folly of thinking and acting in a utopian manner is surely less likely to see politics as the route to a type of secular salvation.
As far as Christians are concerned, one way to make a similar point is to remind them of the Christian insight that neither the effects of original sin nor the freedom of people to sin can be eradicated from the human condition. Thanks to the Fall, we are stuck with the former, while the latter is a side-effect of God giving us the freedom to choose to the narrow path that leads life. If you grasp the full import of these truths, it’s improbable that you will regard politics as a vessel for establishing the Kingdom of God in all its fullness in the here-and-now.
This isn’t to suggest that the much-needed desacralization of politics is a counsel to complacency in the face of injustice and evil. Certainly, as Benedict XVI once wrote, “the formation of just structures is not directly the duty of the Church.” He immediately added, however, justice “belongs to the world of politics, the sphere of the autonomous use of reason.”
The apparent intractability of many problems isn’t therefore an excuse for political inertia or a basis for opposing any change whatsoever. Nor does it give us license, for instance, to shrug our shoulders when our Jewish neighbor is hauled off to a concentration camp, or to cease working to protect unborn humans and the disabled from being treated as sub-humans, or to write off the ongoing slaughter of Middle-Eastern and African Christians by jihadists as something which we can’t really do much about. That would be to abandon our concrete responsibilities to our fellow man as well as to demean human reason’s capacity to know and promote the good and minimize evil.
Understanding, however, that politics isn’t capable of fixing everything for eternity does help us recognize that, in this world, relative justice is the norm. The alternative is to imagine that we’re somehow capable of rendering the type of definitive justice that, Christianity teaches, will only be realized at the end of time when God renders judgment on all of us. And to think that way would be to commit the folly of imagining that we are God.
To suppose that a society of perfect freedom and justice can be created in this world through human efforts is thus the height of hubris. But the more such religious expectations seep into our politics, the more poisoned and frenetic, I’m afraid, we can safely assume our politics will become.