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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Politics and Political Issues as Religion

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Apr 24, 2013

By Thom Nickels

A developing trend in American culture today is how people are replacing the gap in their lives once filled by religion. Religion and church attendance used to be central in the lives of most Americans, but according to almost every poll, this is no longer the case. Many people have lost trust in institutions, both secular and religious, and tend to adopt a view of skeptical detachment. If you want proof of this, just walk into all the half-empty churches on Sunday. Synagogue attendance is also down, according to most poll numbers.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center found a major decline in mainline Protestantism, with Catholics barely holding their own in terms of numbers (no mention was made of Orthodox Christians, which is standard fare in the world of pollsters). Pew also found that in 2013, close to 20% of Americans did not identify with any religion. The vast majority of these non-identifiers, or "nones" as they are called, are not atheists or agnostics but people who are indifferent to religion despite the fact that Pew found that 74% of them were raised in religious traditions. The large numbers of people who "identify with a faith tradition culturally but not theologically" would include people who observe Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving without any classic religious associations.

Losing your religion is considered by many to be part of the growing up process. Chucking the so-called "brainwashed" data we received from parents during childhood is seen by some as the beginning of adult independence. While chucking the beliefs of our parents and starting from scratch in some cases can be a good thing, all too often this sort of obliteration stems from selfish personal reasons rather than theological ones. Just because the parental "God info" was given to us as children, doesn’t necessarily mean that the "info" is false. Another part of the growing up process is a willingness to admit this fact.

The huge religious spectrum—from mainstream denominations to cults, sects and organizations (like Scientology) that seem to ape religion—can be confusing to the uninitiated. In Christianity, for instance, there are conservative and progressive churches that are often at war with one another when it comes to social issues. Among Christians there are also those who act as cheerleaders for their brand of church, applauding those who leave one brand for another.

No wonder some people opt to walk away from religion rather than subject themselves to this overwhelming Tower of Babel of clashing and overlapping voices that must seem like a George Crumb concert gone awry. Still, it’s my belief that people who grow up with religion, but then walk away from it, are left with a vacancy to fill. Do they sometimes, without even knowing it, spend the rest of their lives trying to fill that spiritual vacancy with any number of ordinary things from life? Like politics?

We’ve all met people who are so ardently political that their happiness as human beings seems to be dependent on whether their favored political ideology is "winning" the war in Washington or in the world of popular opinion. During the last presidential election, for instance, I encountered people who viewed either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as their authentic "personal savior". I noticed that these people would seem to fall into a deep depression, or even prolonged fits of anger, if it appeared that the opposing candidate was "winning." The same is true in the post-election world, where ideologues of both the right and left see the world and everybody around them through a narrow political lens—the "saved" and the "unsaved."

I may be as wet as a catfish in the Schuylkill, but it’s my theory that when there is no God, no faith, no belief in a divine purpose, then things like politics can take on an imbalanced transcendental importance. It’s not that people of faith cannot hold strong political opinions, or that people without faith cannot be balanced or moderate in their views. They certainly can be and are balanced in many cases. The general trend, however, is in the opposite direction, for it seems to me that the "faith replacement" people approach their brand of politics more as holy dogma and often have little tolerance for people who disagree with them. Some of these people will even end friendships over political disagreements.

While I consider myself a political progressive, I have noticed that progressives can be far less tolerant of differences in this area than so-called reactionary conservatives. Once I attracted the wrath of the transgender community because I used the wrong terminology when describing my first meeting with a trans person back in the late 1970s. Although I try to have thick skin as a journalist, the attacks I experienced then topped the scales in the mean and vicious department. But I’ll spare you the details.

"Faith replacement" people can use many social causes to fill in empty spiritual gaps. They can go to radical extremes with vegetarianism, animal rights, feminism, LGBT rights, music, UFOs, Rand Paul, yoga (which is its own religion, actually), dogs, or Sunday brunch. While these alliances and activities may be terrific causes and pastimes, to elevate them into a kind of dogmatic lifestyle is something else entirely.

Exotic eastern practices like meditation and yoga have replaced religion for many people despite the fact that they are only relaxation techniques to help soothe the mind or help the body "stretch." I call these things mental aerobics, but as answers to the deeper questions of life they offer little if anything. Because they are dogma-free products, their merits are extolled in a culture that has come to disapprove of narrow interpretations of spirituality. Ultimately, however, it has been my experience that yoga and meditation leave most of their adherents feeling empty and unfulfilled.

On a lighter note, there are other things that "faith replacement" people tend to do to fill in those huge spiritual gaps. For instance, there is the Sunday brunch, something that many use as a replacement for church on Sunday. In an article entitled How Locals Spend a Sunday: The Church of Axe in Venice Beach, writer Andrea Arria-Devoe says, "For those of us who do not attend church or any other religious institution, Axe feels like a fitting Sunday substitute. There’s a monastic quality to the restaurant: its neutral hues, austere tables and benches, the earthy scent of incense."

But as that Schuylkill catfish might say if it could talk: Okay, whatever.
Former Catholic convent at Girard near Broad Street, North Philadelphia.
The days when being a Catholic nun was serious business. Pre-stretch pant suit days.
Same order of nuns in the new Novus Ordo chapel.