Is the Decline of Christianity in America Leading to the Rise of Political Extremism?

As churches and other religious communities in the United States find themselves with declining membership and attendance, some have argued that a new religion, the political cult, has taken their place.

In a recent exchange of arguments, three social commentators tackled the argument of whether the declining influence of Christianity in western culture has fueled the rise of political extremism.

Andrew Sullivan, author and columnist with New York Magazine, had a piece published Dec. 7 titled “America’s New Religions” that argued politics was filling the “need for meaning” found with growing secularization.

“Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being,” wrote Sullivan, who defined “religion” as “a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying ‘Truth’ or God (or gods).”

“The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults.”

Sullivan went on to describe political cults as “new and crude,” saying that they lack refinement and experience, with examples being found on both ends of the spectrum.

“We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical,” continued Sullivan.

“They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”

Sullivan warned that these cults, both left and right “threaten liberal democracy” due to their rejection of compromise, doubt, reason, and the “primacy of the individual.”

“They demonstrate, to my mind, how profoundly liberal democracy has actually depended on the complement of a tolerant Christianity to sustain itself — as many earlier liberals (Tocqueville, for example) understood,” he noted.

Ezra Klein, founder and editor-at-large at Vox, penned a Dec. 11 rebuttal to Sullivan’s piece, arguing that “Sullivan’s essay on political tribalism shows he’s blinded by his own.”

“Yet even as Sullivan decries political tribalism, here is his theory of it: A decline in people practicing his form of Christian faith has led to a rise in ‘political cultists’ who find their ultimate meaning in politics, who will stop at nothing to achieve their political goals, and who cannot be reasoned or compromised with,” wrote Klein.

“This is not an analysis of the thinking deepening our political divides, but a demonstration of it.”

Klein also argued that Sullivan’s analysis was “ahistorical,” pointing to past times when American politics was violent and disruptive even though Christianity was more widely practiced.

“The consensus is that American politics was far more illiberal in our past than in our present,” continued Klein.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Michael Gryboski

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