The Political: An Idol?

“If God exists, then by necessity is he the thing most worthy of study and devotion.” With that thought, I went from a secularly-raised individual with an interest in religion to a religious individual with an obsession with secular philosophy. Put otherwise, I realized that if God is real, then questions about him must take precedence, hence my devotion to the subjects of literature, philosophy, and theology (disciplines which I find best explore the “big” questions). But my little truism has a flipside: if God exists, politics must be up-ended. While we are all imperfect (that is we all forget this flipside), recent events have seen the worst manifestations of ideological-political commitments from religious people (Left and Right).

Before I examine particular examples, I’d like to explore precisely what putting religion before ideological-political loyalties means. It means that neither markets nor democratic revolutions may take precedence over the Gospel. It means turning the other cheek in daily life and resisting the temptations of sensationalist headlines. It means never forgetting that “love is consent to the fact that there exists authentic otherness.” In a word, it means listening and living the message of Jesus Christ, and saying “to hell” with everything else (and I say that as a lover and reader of authors as diverse as Chaucer, Hegel, Heidegger, and Vonnegut).

In particular, commitment to religion requires one to place faith in one’s chosen religious body (for me the Catholic Church) before otherwise appealing political ideas. Laudato Si must first speak to me as a human being, and only secondarily as a capitalist, a socialist, an oil baron, or a tree-hugger. I’ve explored the radically apolitical impact of the pope’s encyclical before, so I needn’t bore the reader again. Suffice it to say that the document becomes political only when the reader decides to approach it as such, and not as a work of spirituality, a call to authentic religious renewal. Christ overturned the tables of money-changers, criticized Jewish leaders, and denounced the rich, but he was hardly the political messiah expected by most 1st-century Jews. The general reactions to the papal encyclical indicate a double standard. Many say that criticism of markets must be a political power-play, but Christ’s finger-wagging at the Pharisees and their practices must be something else. But, perhaps, both are spiritual teachings, related to, but supervening on, the political. To me, the answer shines forth, clear.

Same-sex marriage has been the same maelstrom of political responses. On the Religious Left, anyone opposed must be a bigot, who ignores the law of love. On the Religious Right, homosexuality itself often requires demonization and comparison to the destruction of Sodom. In my mind, commitment to a particular political position already looks past the Gospels. But, perhaps, this position requires further explication.

Putting religion before ideological-political commitments means relating to the, occasionally (and perhaps intrinsically, I am undecided on this matter) apolitical character of the Christian faith. Turn the other cheek? Give to anyone who asks? Accept martyrdom before the renunciation of faith / a turn to violence (cf. St. Stephen)? Please. These beautiful, beautiful commandments are transformative on a personal level, but bound for destruction at the level of political superstructure. Opening all the borders is the ultimate in hospitality. Doing it on the personal level is to obey the Lord; doing it at the national level is to invite unrest, cultural tensions, and likely, violence. Note that the Gospel, then, is difficult to apply within our narrow political categories (or any political categories, perhaps). The Sermon on the Mount can transform individual lives (and thereby transform the political realm), but an attempt at direct application to the political realm would, at best, be impossible, and, at worst, require violence.

Back to the marriage issue, then. If one believes that same-sex marriage is impermissible, then clearly one must not actively support such endeavors. At the same time, any hateful comments are clearly out of line with the Gospel. The question, then, becomes an individual one, a question of application of the Gospel to everyday life, not a question of political action (in any immediate sense). Jesus lived among sinners, and as sinners, so do we. The times cannot change that the commandments of Christ require us to love, mandate a duty to the Other.

In general, then, we can see that the Gospels require an internal, a personal transformation, not a political realization of Gospel principles. St. Augustine knew this; Marx did not. To paraphrase Tolstoy (and the Gospel of Luke), the Kingdom of God is in you. True commitment to faith means concentrating on this transformation, through and in community. The community may only be transformed once the person is, the political gives way when the culture does, and the culture is composed of individuals.

Practically, that means not looking for ways to fit capitalism (or socialism, or what have you) into one’s faith, because that is to make an idol of an ideology, to deny the iconic power of Christ in the face of worldly desires. Markets are acceptable when they result in justice. Government manipulation of economic forces is acceptable when it results in justice. But most important is the principle of personal, spiritual transformation. Living as a beacon of Christian justice in a dark, and often unfair, world is more important than any particular ideological precept. We were made to glorify one God, not to fashion idols. And, I hate to break it to you (and me), but it’s time we break our idols, renounce the primacy of politics and look toward the transformative power of divine mercy and love.

Chase Padusniak is a doctoral student at Princeton University, where he specializes in medieval English literature.

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6 thoughts on “The Political: An Idol?

  1. “If God exists, then by necessity is he the thing most worthy of study and devotion.”

    Is this a quote, or your own thought? I have had a similar thought: If God is the greatest reality in the universe, then what greater call is there than to seek to know and understand that reality?

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    1. Yes, it is of my own making. It’s just a thought I’ve had from time to time that has kept me re-evaluating my actions, since accepting the faith.

      I like your version as well, though in many ways, I prefer to put less emphasis on the idea of “understanding” for fear of its more insidious manifestations (over-curiosity, ambition, etc.). That said, all things of such a nature can be distorted!

      Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Hello there,
    Hope you don’t mind me stopping by to check out your own personal nook of the net! Ideologically, you and I are poles apart, but you have a fantastic flair for writing. Philosophically, you’re way out of my league, but I can still appreciate good writing when I see it.
    All the best
    Bex

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi!

      Thank you for your kind words. It’s always good to be able to dialogue across ideological, religious, etc. lines, and I really do appreciate your appreciation (haha) of my writing, despite disagreeing. It truly means a lot, and it gives me hope for the future of political-cultural dialogue!

      Many thanks and God bless,
      Chase

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You might enjoy Jacques Ellul’s The Political Illusion and The Subversion of Christianity. He sees the realm of the political as the realm of compulsion, not the realm of freedom. Do Christians have any sort of mandate to compel, especially non-Christians? On the other hand, the realm of freedom is scary; it requires taking responsibility and developing the competence and wisdom to not just hand one’s power over to the State and develop a dependence on the state, like a child depends on his parents.

    You might also consult the “ontology of violence” which John Milbank claims is at the core of the modern conception of the secular, in Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (think Hobbes’ “state of nature”). If there is no guaranteed synchronization between my will and yours (taking into account fallenness), such that there is a common good to which we can both voluntarily contribute, then all that is left is to balance my power against yours to minimize violence (or divert it to economic violence). Naturalism cannot possibly justify such a highly contingent synchronization of wills: evolution prunes branches which do not compete well enough and that is that. Pretending that things are otherwise would be platitudes—unless indeed God created the world with certain properties I like to call ‘mind-dependent’: the anthropic principle cannot support their existence.

    Finally, you might want to look into the concept of mediating structures (sample definition); the 2009 First Things Mediating Institutions revisits a 1977 book Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger wrote on the topic. Berger has a chapter on it in his 1977 Facing Up to Modernity and he identifies the mediating structure as where morality and [coercive] power meet. Destroy the mediating structure and power has no adversary; Ellul would say that the political becomes autonomous and thus amoral. Political individualism has no role for mediating structures; indeed, they stand in the way to what I can’t help describing as the ideal of laws of nature (federal laws) completely determining all interactions of the particles (autonomous individuals). It is said that the social no longer emulates the kosmos†, but I think atomism infects all realms of human thought these days.

    † see Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity

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