“Our politics are taking on a religious shape”

Michael Brendan Dougherty has a nice column on the emerging genre of advice columns on how to handle yourself at family holiday gatherings, presenting a roundup of links to current Thanksgiving examples, then saying:

These advice columns are becoming a genre unto themselves. The stock villain: crazy right-wing uncle, the jokes about stuffing.

But going on to make an important observation about them:

But I recognize them by what they unwittingly emulate: guides for religious evangelism. The gentle, righteous self-regard, the slightly orthogonal response guides, the implied urgency to cure your loved ones of their ignorance. Your raging uncle will know the truth, and the truth will set him free.

That’s a problem. Our politics are taking on a religious shape. Increasingly we allow politics to form our moral identity and self-conception. We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the "elect" who share our convictions, and convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself. And so one of the best, least religious holidays in the calendar becomes a chance to deliver your uncle up as a sinner in the hands of an angry niece.

Please read the entire column, it’s brief and very funny. But it’s not what got me thinking. That happened because of a brief comment on the column from Alan Jacobs, where I first found the link:

Michael Brendan Dougherty, speaking truth. Because there’s one thing almost every one of these pieces shares: the serene conviction that there is absolutely nothing that any of us could learn from people whose politics are other than ours. [Emphasis added]

That conviction lies at the heart of the fruitless, soul-destroying interactions that Dougherty caricatures. Thanks to Jacobs for pointing it out, and giving me something to ponder.

I’ll add my own observation: although Dougherty is exactly right to say that “our politics are taking on a religious shape”, it is only because our current religion is badly misshapen in the same ways. Perhaps the source of the ugliness lies elsewhere, and politics and religion are coming to resemble one another because the source has had its way with both.

Anyway, I think it’s worth pondering that these particular observations about politics are just as applicable to what passes for engaged Christianity these days:

  • “We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the “elect” who share our convictions.”
  • “[We] convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives [who disagree with us] are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself.”
  • “There is absolutely nothing that any of us could learn from people whose [doctrinal views\ are other than ours.”