Has the decline of Christianity led to extremist political cults in America?

People take part in an anti-Donald Trump, pro-immigration protest outside the Plaza Hotel, where U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke, in the Manhattan borough of New York December 11, 2015.
People take part in an anti-Donald Trump, pro-immigration protest outside the Plaza Hotel, where U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke, in the Manhattan borough of New York December 11, 2015. | (Photo: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

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.

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“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.

“The era Sullivan looks back on fondly was, by almost any measure, more illiberal in its politics and more fundamental in its conflicts, in part because the meaning of America — who got to participate in it, and whose claims it heard — was so deeply contested.”

Warren Henry, contributor to the conservative publication The Federalist, defended Sullivan and argued in a Dec. 13 piece that Klein’s rebuttal was “grossly oversimplified.”

Henry quoted from influential seventeenth century philosopher John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” which stated in part that the “toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Locke’s principles were transmitted to Americans by pre-Revolutionary pastors. Thomas Jefferson took those principles to their logical conclusion in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which extended freedom to all faiths,” wrote Henry.

“Sullivan is not claiming that ‘Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict.’ Rather, he is claiming the Lockean idea of tolerance allows political conflict to replace (or separate from) religious conflict in the philosophical sense.”

Henry went on to argue that the political cult intolerance Sullivan described can be seen on the Vox website itself.

“Fanatical intolerance also fuels the desire to destroy institutions protecting the heretics. This is why Klein’s website promotes 'The case for abolishing the Supreme Court,' and attacks the Senate and the Electoral College,” continued Henry.

“Moreover, elevating group identity over the individual leads to the left’s current disregard for the presumption of innocence and other basic tenets of due process. It leads to the illiberalism Sullivan describes.”

Sullivan also responded to Klein's rebuttal, explaining in a Dec. 14 piece he took issue with Klein's focus on tribalism, explaining that his original piece was meant to focus on "cults" not "tribes."

"... they’re not the same thing. A tribalism based on race or region or gender or partisanship, for example, is not a religious phenomenon," responded Sullivan. 

"At best, Klein seems to be saying that all politics and life is tribal, and that every political argument is ultimately a tribal one. And I profoundly disagree. So, I might add, would every leading light of the liberal philosophical tradition. Was Locke tribalist? Montesquieu? Constant? Tocqueville? Rawls? Please." 

"The core subject of the column was what happens to politics once God is dead and my point is far from new or original," Sullivan continued. "It is that the religious impulse will always be part of human nature, and it will occupy politics if it no longer finds expression in a spiritual space. Think of Soviet communism as a replacement religion for Orthodox Christianity, or national socialism for Protestantism. These were, in many ways, atheist theocracies, with all of the mind control and none of the occasional acts of mercy. They saturated politics with the question of ultimate meaning; and, in that feverish quest, they killed tens of millions of people and enslaved the rest. Red-blooded religious fanaticism has no time for liberalism." 

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