The Rise of Politics, the Decline of Faith

Measuring religious decline is a tricky business.  How can we measure abstract ideas, principles, and so on?  Well, one helpful guide is to try and see if anything makes a move to displace an idea.

Some interesting but disheartening stuff from Marginal Revolution confirms that politics may be so divisive because politics is becoming a new religion.  By that I mean, politics is becoming the bell-weather by which many make their most important decisions.

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

To test for political prejudice, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale implicit association test with 2,000 adults. They found people’s political bias to be much larger than their racial bias. When Democrats see “joy,” it’s much easier for them to click on a corner that says “Democratic” and “good” than on one that says “Republican” and “good.”

To find out whether such attitudes predict behavior, Iyengar and Westwood undertook a follow-up study. They asked more than 1,000 people to look at the resumes of several high-school seniors and say which ones should be awarded a scholarship. Some of these resumes contained racial cues (“president of the African American Student Association”) while others had political ones (“president of the Young Republicans”).

Race mattered. African-American participants preferred the African-American candidates 73 percent to 27 percent. Whites showed a modest preference for African-American candidates, as well, though by a significantly smaller margin. But partisanship made a much bigger difference. Both Democrats and Republicans selected their in-party candidate about 80 percent of the time.

These findings remind of Toynbee’s words,

A crushing victory of Science over Religion would be a disaster, for if Science succeeded in expelling the Higher Religions from the human heart, she would not be able to prevent the lower religions from taking their place (Matt. 12:43-45).

We need not call politics part of the “victory of Science” per se to see the similarities.

If we continue the trends outlined in the study above, politics will become almost tribal, and little will then separate us from barbarism.  De Tocqueville’s fears about the tyranny of the majority may then come fully home to roost.

The two greatest (in my opinion) theologians of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, had different visions of political life for Christians.  Augustine believed the “City of God” operated along different lines than the “City of Man.”  While Christians can potentially live at peace with the City of Man, the two really have nothing to do with each other.  Christians should not fool themselves into thinking that they can accomplish meaningful redemptive acts operating within the City of Man.  He writes,

When these two cities began to run their course by a series of deaths and births, the citizen of this world was the first-born, and after him the stranger in this world . . .

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, (Genesis 4:17) but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. For the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives . . .

And again,

. . . it has come to pass that the two cities could not have common laws of religion, and that the heavenly city has been compelled in this matter to dissent, and to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions, except in so far as the minds of their enemies have been alarmed by the multitude of the Christians and quelled by the manifest protection of God accorded to them. This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God.

Aquinas saw more hope for integration of the Christian and political life.  With Aristotle, he saw governments as natural to life together.  We would still have something akin to government even if we lived without sin, for government is mainly about rightly ordering our life together, just as God rightly orders the orbits of planets.

Aquinas and Augustine complement each other in some parts and appear exclusive in others.  Their visions of government differ fundamentally, but the Church can take counsel from both.  Perhaps the model we adopt should depend on the context.  Augustine wrote in the waning days of the Roman Empire when a stark contrast between pagan and Christian could easily be seen.  Official power in Rome came with all the necessary attendant pagan trappings.  Rome dedicated itself to earthly glory.  In this environment more spiritual and even physical separation of Christians from government might be warranted.

Aquinas wrote in a much different time, when the overwhelming majority of people accepted key Christian doctrines and exceptions.  Some kings and nobles may not have been Christians themselves, but the hypothetical possibility of applying Christian principles to governance existed.  Thus, Christians could “use” the state more effectively and with less spiritual risk in his day.

We should ask which of these two contexts most fits our current situation.*

I recently attempted to read Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks.  After Book III or thereabouts I put in down in frustration.  I just could not keep up with all of the Hingest’s killing the Umvold’s marrying the Griselda’s.  I got lost in the maze.  I mentioned my frustration to a colleague and superior medievalist.  He replied along the lines of, “Of course those parts are confusing — Gregory doesn’t care about politics.  He’s really interested in what’s happening with the Church.  That’s where he focuses his attention and does his best writing.”  With this insight I plan on trying Gregory again sometime.

The time may have arrived for the American Church to follow Gregory’s lead, not just for our sake, but for the sake of those around us.

*We should think that Augustine preached a withdrawal from civic life altogether, or that he advocated for Christian “holy huddles.”  Rather, I see Augustine advocating an approach that would help the Church maintain its salty taste.  We shouldn’t enter games where the rules are by design stacked against the God’s command to love one another, to consider others better than ourselves.  Every Congressman, Senator, and President must think primarily of their base.  Every negotiation, every law (so it appears) is formed not from trust but from negotiating partners that start with an untenable position and then give grudgingly.