We are in a new era of political belief. But are today’s adherents of widely divergent political movements—-such as Progressivism and Trumpism—-merely recycling ancient themes?
Today’s Political Climate
Since the 2016 US election, many have talked about today’s “heated political climate.” It seems that something new is afoot. Political movements have become more violent. What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 is one example. We saw a horde of white supremacists shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Their demonstration was replete with symbols of the fascist movements of the 1930s: mass torch-bearing, swastikas and other white nationalist symbols.
On the other side we saw members of ANTIFA—-the anti-fascist proponents of the far left—-clad in riot gear, carrying batons and aggressively walking into the crowd of white nationalists.
We saw the first death of a political protestor in recent memory.
In recent times the political climate has run red hot. National political figures promote incitement of the sort we have not seen before. Hillary Clinton tars conservatives with the tag “deplorables”. Congresswoman Maxine Waters urges her followers to “get a crowd together” and go after politicians with whom they disagree. President Trump riles up anti-immigrant and racial animus with wildly provocative charges and he disparages his opponents. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is Pocahontas, Senator Marco Rubio is Little Marco.)
In all this I can’t help but notice the zeal with which both sides pursue their agendas.
The exaggerated emotion of adherents on both the right and left is eerily familiar. So too is the intransigence of these political warriors, that is, their absolute insistence on the validity and moral righteousness of their beliefs.
Where have we seen this before?
The answer is religion.
Political Affiliation as Religion
Is today’s political affiliation a form of religion?
Political affiliation as religion is a metaphor. And, as with all metaphors, the accuracy of the comparison is imperfect.
For example, unlike religion, political affiliation does not have a creation myth, an explanation for the origins of the universe, sacred scriptures, holy places, sacrifices, or prayer. And yet, political affiliation and religion do share an impressive array of common traits. In this post I consider a few of these.
Both religion and political affiliation arose with, and are often sustained by, charismatic leaders. Followers attach themselves to these figures with intense loyalty. All three Abrahamic religions—-Judasim, Christianity and Islam—originated with a charismatic leader: Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Modern political affiliations are almost always associated with charismatic founders or leaders. Todays’ Progressives swoon over Bernie Sanders. (Bumper stickers shout “Feel the Bern.”) Others on the political left quote charismatic leaders from Leon Trotsky to Che Guevara to Barack Obama. Followers’ devotion to these figureheads is strikingly similar to devotion to religious figures.
Anchors and Explanations
The world is a scary place. Without the emotional anchor of political belief or religious faith, things appear wildly out of control and unpredictable.
Both religion and political affiliation provide a satisfying explanation for the way things are. They also soothe by giving an explanation for disorder, want, violence, disease, war—-in short, why things are not right in the world. For religion, that explanation is provided by the devil (Christianity), God’s wrath for straying from His path (Judaism) and the wrong actions of non-believers and infidels (Islam).
Modern Progressives have a stand-in for these causes of disorder: the capitalist system, racism, sexism, the male patriarchy, homophobia, income inequality and an unjust criminal justice system, among others. Conservatives, on the other hand, are likely to point to other causes for societal problems: abandonment of yesterday’s moral codes, lack of religious observance, promiscuity, homosexuality, abortion, and above all, breakdown of the family.
For both religious adherents and political affiliates there is hell to pay for wrong belief and wrong behavior.
Christianity and Islam make no bones about the infallibility of their doctrines. The Catholic Church has a history of defining many aspects of its theology as infallible. This notion of infallibility is also front-and-center in Islam: the Koran is the final word of God’s prophet Mohammed and is not subject to interpretation for the rest of history. Those who would do so may be defined as apostates and be subject to the death penalty. If Jews are to believe the Book of Job, God is so powerful and omnipotent that man must not only unquestioningly accept His commandments, but he must do so in full recognition that he will never be able to understand why God acts as he does.
To anyone who has ever gotten to know political Progressives on the far left (as I have), this severe insistence on doctrine is familiar. When I joined the Workers’ World party as a teenager I attended Marxism class. There our leaders—seasoned revolutionaries, graduates of the labor conflicts of the 1930s—instructed us in Marxist theory. We learned that the world is divided into opposing groups with irreconcilable differences: bourgeoisie versus proletariat. Through their ownership of the means of production, the bourgeoisie exploited the workers or proletariat by expropriating their labor. The greed of the capitalists led to their ever greater wealth and the inevitable impoverishment of the proletariat, which in turn led to revolution.
If this doesn’t sound to you like a battle between good and evil ending in redemption, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s religion all over again.
Belonging and Being Right
Both political affiliation and religion satisfy the deep human need to belong. Because both political adherents and religious followers tend to associate with those who share their beliefs, exposure to new ideas is limited, further reinforcing the individual’s belief that his group’s belief system is correct. This is usually accompanied by the corollary belief that non-adherents are either misguided or malevolently wrong. And that belief is just a skip, jump and a hop away from a sense of moral superiority. That is why adherents of both political affiliations and religions often sound smug.
Listening to a fellow adherent talk about why the other camp is “so wrong” delineates which beliefs are permissible and which are not. A devout Muslim must not question Mohammed’s motives. A Progressive must not say that the economic failure of some ethnic minorities is due to their own behavior rather than to “institutional racism.”
A Cover for Bad Behavior
A friend recently pointed out to me that religious and political affiliations allow some people to engage in behaviors for which they might otherwise be publicly censured. In the Workers’ World Party, I often heard party members excoriate members of the Socialist Workers’ Party for deviating from the beliefs of the former—for example, about whether it is proper to build the revolution in Russia first, or to bypass Russia and organize in capitalist countries. Thus, what to any normal American would be a debate about doctrinal minutia, became a legitimate way to disrespect others.
In contemporary America, Democratic Socialists are unashamed to demonize conservatives as cruel and heartless, even in the face of conservative policies that have helped the poor. Today’s social justice warriors righteously believe that threats and harassment—-for example, shutting down campus speakers and harassing politicians in public places—-are justified.
When religious and political adherents are challenged by opponents, they discredit or minimize the opponents’ criticisms.
Christian theologians introduced the religious concept of replacement theology. This is the idea that God had determined that a new Covenant through Jesus Christ superseded God’s original covenant with the Jewish people. This rendered Christians, not Jews, the definitive people of God. When Mohammed came along 700 years later he proclaimed that the new Muslim faith superseded both Judaism and Christianity.
Both replacement projects sought to discredit the earlier competition.
Discrediting strategies also characterize political adherents such as progressives. So, for example, when a white person questioned a black pro-reparations activist about the fairness of her position, the activist demeaned the questioner’s motive: “The reason you feel that way is that you are not used to having your white privilege questioned.” In the face of this type of social justice argument, it may not be useful to raise any questions. It won’t get you anywhere.
Future Rewards and Use of Rituals
Religions draw their power from a promise of a future reward after the adherent has died. That reward is a place in heaven. Although little recognized, political progressives dangle a similar reward in front of their followers. That reward is a utopian society, one that is completely fair to all, free of all the nasty “isms”—-sexism, racism, nationalism, even “lookism” for those who are fatter than they should be. Perhaps more realistically, conservatives promise a strong, safe and proud nation for their children and grandchildren.
Religions all have rituals and use special paraphernalia such as unique garments, the Eucharist, phylactery and prayer rugs. What is less often acknowledged is the use of ritual and paraphernalia among political adherents. So, for example, Make America Great Again hats and shirts are de-rigueur among the most ardent Trump supporters. In the 1970s most campus radicals had at least one item of clothing or a poster of Che Guevara. And of course, buttons and bumper stickers announcing one’s preferred candidate or political view are ubiquitous. Conservatives are likely to begin their rallies and meetings with a salute to the flag, recitation of the pledge of allegiance or singing of the Star Spangled Banner.
The Bible Said It Long Ago
Right or wrong, the ideas of modern day Progressives, Democratic Socialists, Conservative Republicans, White Nationalists and others speak to the needs of significant numbers of people in America today.
Today’s advocates of the left and right and those in between, may believe they offer something new. But whatever the validity of the ideas of these groups, what they are doing and saying is not new. The same human needs that led to religion, today lead to political affiliation.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).