Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Choices, often false

Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese mulls our social circumstances at at the National Catholic Reporter: Churches and political parties are in the same pickle. He draws a parallel:

... the percent of people who do not identify with a political party has been increasing just as the percent of people who do not identify with a religion are increasing. This is bad news for both political parties and churches.

... The reasons people abandon organized religion and political parties are similar.

  • The institution is not fulfilling their needs. Both parties and churches are not serving the felt needs of many people, especially the young.
  • They do not believe in its platform (teachings). Parties and churches are speaking to activists and elites, not to real people.
  • They are disillusioned with the institution's leadership. Political and religious leaders have been caught in lies and cover-ups. Too many have been caught in sexual and financial impropriety. They do not believe in transparency. They use their positions for their own advancement rather than in service to their people. ...
In short, people feel betrayed and abandoned by the institution, and their response is to abandon the institution whether it is a party or a church.

This seems a neat comparison. But is it accurate? The more I chew on it, the less I think the parallel works.

The U.S. society in which we live is above all else an individualistic consumer society. Most of the time, we're bombarded by any number of commercial interests which teach that our greatest freedom is to make choices. This usually amounts to buying one thing or another that we may or may not need. And if we're lucky enough to be able to be in the game -- to choose the latest thing we want -- we can feel pretty good about the world.

Churches and political parties belong to different orders in our lives.

Once upon a time -- nearly all of human history -- God was not a choice. Getting right with God (however conceived) was a necessity and that usually happened by being in relationship with God's institutional manifestation, in whatever form this dominated in a particular society. Some combination of science and ethical formation within individualistic and consumerist culture has made God merely optional, a choice among many, in our society. The "nones" opt out because they can. They are no less acting conventionally than those of us who opt in. (We who opt in usually think God is not a choice, but that is another topic.)

The state, on the other hand, is not optional.

If we are comfortable with how our world is working, we can think the state doesn't matter to us. This is nonsense; the only way I can tease it out is that some of us think the state is working for us. The state sets the parameters of our lives, whether through regulating what and how we can possess what we "own," through organizing the systems that make living together possible like transport and schools, and by empowering police and armies with the power of life and death. Getting off the grid, or out of the realm of the state, is fantasy.

By accident of birth, we live in a quasi-democratic polity in which citizens have some levers with which to influence, even control, the activity of the state. We are citizens, not objects to be moved around. This is unusual in human history, as unusual as the notion that God is a choice. But it has considerable reality, however remote that may feel.

Political parties are among, but not the entirety, of how citizens can corral the state to our benefit and purposes. Identifying with parties is optional. Being a citizen, and hence an actor or potential actor in how our society shapes itself, is not optional.

Taking seriously the difference between how God-choice and citizenship-choice work in our world easily explains one of jarring paradoxes of this election season -- evangelical Christian attachment to that anti-moral monster, the Orange blob. Evangelical leaders have absorbed the reality that, in their society, citizenship trumps all. (Damn that man for polluting a useful metaphor.) As Robert Putnam and David Campbell concluded in American Grace,

When religion and politics were initially inconsistent, religious commitment, not political commitment, was more likely to change.

It's the (North) American way.

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