As vaccine distribution continues and we inch closer to a normal summer, America’s religious communities face both good news and bad news.
The good news for churches? COVID-19 did little to hamper their congregants’ loyalties. Nine of 10 Protestant churchgoers, one recent poll says, plan to return to their pre-pandemic congregation as soon as it is safe. Ten percent (10%) of all American adults — religious or not — plan to attend church more post-pandemic than they did before.
The bad news, though, is the rise of a new religion: politics, which attracted its own set of converts during the pandemic.
The problem, some would say, is not just the rise of politics and fall of faith. Politics are not inherently bad, nor are all Americans theists. But as politics replace faith, fueled by hate, the irony (and danger) of it isn’t lost on religious politicians themselves. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Latter-day Saint, decried this pandemic-era mentality and the shift from pews to PACs: “We may not have any real friends, and we may not know our neighbors, but at least we can hate the same people together on Facebook. And that’s bringing people together in this new type of religion.”
Cox’s recent podcast interview with Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis is well worth a listen, but his comments on the intersection of politics and religion deserve special consideration. “We used to be a religious people that engaged in politics,” he lamented. “Now, politics has become a religion for many people.”
While religious leaders have warned against the increasing secularization of America, perhaps a more troubling trend is the religious putting faith in the wrong things. As Shadi Hamid wrote in an essay for The Atlantic, “American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief.” People are leaving pews for political parties, and their devotion, their donations and even their deities are subsequently replaced. “This is what religion without religion looks like,” Hamid said.
Religion without religion is not just counterintuitive — it’s dangerous. While the political arena can provide the community and the sense of belonging that others find in religion, little in politics feeds the natural human yearnings for moral blamelessness and an understanding of eternal truth. Looking to politicians to save us from all of life’s problems — to view them as saviors — borders on idolatry.
It’s a problem that can be found on all sides of the political spectrum, albeit in different forms. “On the left, the ‘woke’ take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends,” Hamid wrote. On the right, extremism clumps itself in groups — in the cult of QAnon, for example — in its own brand of “cancel culture,” in literal golden idols.
As the political extremists become more and more devout, the millions who both practice religion and participate in politics — one in a moral capacity, the other in a civic one — find themselves isolated. Those with whom they used to share a pew now seem converted to a different creed. It’s the extremists, the faithful without a faith, who’ve distanced themselves. Gov. Cox noted: “When (politics) becomes religion to you, then anybody who disagrees is a heretic and evil.”
Cox, in expressing disappointment with some of the religious community’s resistance to COVID-19 safety precautions, mask mandates and vaccines, said, “I’m trying to have enough grace for people who disagree on both sides,” he conceded.
Grace is a crucial ingredient. Our chapels, mosques and temples should be forums of forgiveness, not siloed chambers. There, more than any other place, our political differences are put aside, not flaunted; unity comes from a higher, holier purpose; and collective grief leads to collective comfort. Allowing politics to drive our faith, and not vice-versa, leads to tribalistic communities, not Zion.
How we heal our churches stems from the same reason we have churches: to care for those in need and to strive for personal improvement. Separating and ignoring is antithetical to caring for one another and healing ourselves. Intrafaith reconciliation should be easier than uniting our nation as a whole, as we look to the same Healer — so long as our faith in him hasn’t long been replaced.
“We are a nation of believers,” Shadi Hamid wrote. “If only Americans could begin believing in politics less fervently, realizing instead that life is elsewhere.”