Said the host in his interview of Senator Coons yesterday, “I actually think our politics are close to breaking apart here.” I agree – the American political system is being stretched to its limits. What I find fascinating is how we got here.
It has long been an anti-religious trope that religion is a matter of such passion that it is antithetical to democracy – failing to realize that it is untempered passion that is the problem, not religion. This is plainly evident in our current political mess wherein matters of identity have come to be matters of such passion that they threaten to overwhelm our politics. I pointed out last week, in the wake of the now truly insignificant Google firing, that Rod Dreher had attached the word “heresy” to identity challenges. That is a religious word attached to a secular issue; identity has taken on religious levels of significance. As Charlottesville has made plain it is not the passion associated with the religions of old that threaten our democracy, it is the passions of the “new religion” of identity.
We have come to associate matters of identity with matters of justice, but they are not the same thing. This association helps explain where the identity religion passion comes from, but that does not change the fact that the association is not an equality. Slavery is unjust. Slavery in the United States was practiced only with a specific identity group, hence the association. But that said, slavery was the injustice, identity was simply a complicating factor. Yet we have, through this association, imbued matters of identity with the passion we generally reserve only for gross injustice. This not only inflames our politics as we are witnessing; it cheapens the actual injustice – warping our sense of right and wrong.
The beginning of the end of the injustice of the slave trade came not in the United States, but in Great Britain. The US owned the slaves, but it was Britain that brought them here and it was the grit and determination of William Wilberforce that ended the British slave trade. Wilberforce was deeply passionate, but his passion was tempered with immense patience – and that defines the point where we can distinguish between good religion and not-so-good religion.
Islam is a problematic religion because rather than seek to temper its passions it chooses to channel them into violence; violence to either punish or force conversation of the non-Muslim. Christianity on the other hand seeks to temper the passion of its adherents. Consider the story of Jesus arrest prior to His trial and execution. When one of Jesus’ followers attacked a member of the party there to arrest Him, cutting off an ear, Jesus rebukes His follower and heals the man injured by the attack. Christianity chastises those who allow their passions to lead them to evil ends.
But the new identity religion has no code one way or the other, it is simply passion unfettered and unchanneled. Our democracy is ill-equipped to deal with such passion. This is why there is so much confusion on how to deal with Islamic terror and why we seem almost powerless in the face of this identity religion onslaught. It is a constant theme of the Hillsdale Dialogues that the Founders were often quite passionate on issues, but that they set those passions aside for purposes of deliberation to move the country forward. But given that all there is to the new identity religion is passion, how can it be set aside?
The answer, of course, is that old religion must do battle with new religion. Only religion has the power to rein in passion. This is not the government’s fight – it is the church’s.
The effort can begin by a return on the part of the church to considering ethics. I am not sure if the average Christian today could explain reasonably why murder is ethically more abhorrent than racism (even if racism is pretty abhorrent on its own) or why an insult is not a mortal sin. Christianity starts with salvation, but it does not end there.
A brief footnote: I can hear any number of my Jewish friends bringing up the Holocaust in light of my distinction between the injustice of slavery and the complicating factor of identity. There is a huge difference between the two situations. The Holocaust was an attempt at genocide which is an injustice all its own and identity is inseparably bound with that injustice. The murderous, unjust, impulse in genocide is driven by the identity of its victims. Slavers did not want to end Africans, they needed them. But they also could have just as easily visited their injustice on some other identity group – the bond between identity and the injustice is breakable. The unjust impulse in slavery is driven by greed, not the identity of its victims.