All Politics Are Religious


A former Speaker of the House and congressman from Massachusetts, Tip O’Neill, is known for, among other things, coining the phrase, “all politics is local.” As a writer for FiveThirtyEight points out, this isn’t really the case, at least not all the time. However, the underlying principle of what O’Neill was saying is probably true: Effective politics and politicians must address the issues that people care about the most. As the FiveThirtyEight article points out, that may be–even may often be–local issues, but it can be, and just as often is, national or international issues, a trend that has arguably grown since the end of WWII. What O’Neill seems to imply is that “most important” will always translate into “local.” What the FiveThirtyEight article seems to imply–along with, it appears, much of contemporary American society–is that “most important” will always translate into “political,” whether or not the particular political arena is local, national, or international in scope.

In this post, I am going to defend an alternative proposition. Actually, I am defending two propositions:

  1. What people consider to be “most important” is always, ultimately, a religious question.
  2. All politics are religious

Taking a cue from Tip O’Neill’s underlying principle, I can state my argument deductively, thus:

Proposition 1: Effective politics must address those issues that people consider most important.

Proposition 2: The issues that people consider most important are, in an ultimate sense, religious in nature.

Therefore,

Conclusion: All politics are, in an ultimate sense, religious in nature.

Proposition 1 is a restatement of what I take to be O’Neill’s fundamental point. I also take it to be a given presupposition for a society governed by democratic and republican principles. For these reasons, I treat Proposition 1 as true, prima facie. Step 1 in my argument, then, is to defend the proposition that those things that people consider most important are, in an ultimate sense, religious in nature.

The Most Important Things Are Religious Things

The heterodox Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich developed what is probably the best and most accurate definition of faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned.” As one reviewer of Tillich’s ideas put it: this “definition of faith helps us to perceive the religious element of our lives not simply as one component among others, but as that which unifies all our life’s efforts, beliefs, and attitudes.” In other words, faith or our “ultimate concern” is our transcendent justification for doing the things we do. Everyone does things, and even if we don’t realize it or pay much attention to it, each of us has transcendent assumptions that justify those things that we do. One of the things we all do is politics.

Drawing on the political philosophy of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas observed that “to live in society” is inherent in human nature. Living “in society” means, of course, living with, among, and around other people who are not members of our immediate family. As families grow, branch off, and migrate, society becomes more and more complex, necessitating structures and institutions for managing and reducing that complexity. Politics is one such structure or institution. In its most pragmatic sense, politics is the means and methods by which a complex society decides upon public issues requiring collective action. In modern democratic societies, political disagreements, more often than not, revolve around the question of which issues can or ought to be addressed in a public, collective manner. It isn’t a question of whether we ought to act collectively but one of what we ought to do collectively. Or more consistent with my libertarian leanings, what we ought to refrain from doing collectively.

My libertarian leanings are not the only reason why a focus on what ought not be done is probably a better way of framing the political question. Another, possibly the best, reason for focusing on what shouldn’t be done is the collective nature of politics itself. Doing something collectively requires a consensus. If five people are going to do something collectively, then they must develop a consensus on what exactly is to be done and at least a general plan of how they are going to accomplish whatever it is they are doing. This way of looking at it essentially lays out what we think of as law and policy. A law lays out what is to be done. A policy is a map or plan for fulfilling or executing the law.

It is at this point that I need to introduce a new concept to my argument: coercive force. Government, by nature, involves an element of coercive force. The Bible recognizes this, for example, in Romans 13:1-7, where Paul calls government a wielder of the sword in punishing wrongdoing, which justifies it in doing other things like levying taxes. In political theory, this is known as the “monopoly of violence.” It is the idea that governments, in order to accomplish their legitimate purposes, are the sole possessor of a right to coerce behavior using violence or the threat of violence.

Returning to the example of five people in the prior paragraph, if we can conceive of these five people as both the members and government of some sort of micro-society, the monopoly on violence implies that the concensus threshold for coercive force is three out of the five. Assuming three of the five agree on what is to be done, then the three are justified in using or threatening violence in order to coerce the other two. This, of course, includes measures up to and including the killing of the two dissenters, depending on the particular goal or policy to be acheived.

When we conceive of politics in these terms, it is easier to see why focusing on what is off limits is a safer–one might even say more ethical–means of discussing what is or what should be included within the realm of the political.

Getting back to the main thread of my argument: If Paul Tillich is right about the meaning of faith (and I’m convinced that he is), then the “most important issues” that we expect our politicians to address are the objects of our faith, our “ultimate concerns.” But this raises a new question: Where do we get these “ultimate concerns?” By what process or means do we identify them? As it turns out, Tillich provides us with another term that helps answer the question: the “Ground of Being.”

Some analysts of Tillich’s thought give the superficial definition of this term as merely nothing more than his definition of God. Although this is, in a sense, correct, it is much more. Tillich was, above all things, an existentialist. Those who simply equate his concept of the “Ground of Being” with the traditional concept of God reverse his priorities. They treat Tillich as primarily a Christian who uses theology to answer the problems of existentialism. My reading of Tillich suggests that the opposite is true. Tillich is primarily an existentialist who uses that philosophy to answer the problems of Christianity. Understanding what I mean by that requires a bit of unpacking.

If Tillich were a Christian using theology to answer the fundamental existential problem of the apparent meaninglessness and absurdity of being, then he would affirm the personal, revelatory, and intelligent aspects of God. This is precisely what he does not do. Instead, he accepts the apparent meaninglessness and absurdity of life as a given, which he poses as the answer to the Christian question (or, more broadly, the theistic question) of how can we know who God is and what he desires in relationship to us. He claims that our knowledge of the “Ground of Being” is through the analogy of our own being. To know God, we must know ourselves. This is the inverse proposition of Christianity, which is that to know ourselves we must know God.

What should be clear in that analysis is that my use of Tillich to craft my argument is not intended to be an endorsement of his theology. Rather, I use Tillich because I think he had a very accurate mark on the pulse of modernity and the (at the time he wrote) developing postmodernity that permeates our current collective intellect. Like Sartre, who tried to solve the problem of existentialism by suggesting a sort of intentional transcendence that, whatever object of “ultimate concern” it is finally directed toward, must begin its process of discovery through an examination of one’s own self-reflection on how the “ultimte concern” is discovered. Both Tillich and Sartre, in different ways, suggest that meaning–even transcendent meaning–is found in the individual self. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, is firmly on the side of discovering transcendent meaning via the transcendent God who came down to us rather than expecting us–quite prepostorously–to go up to him.

This is why my digression about coercive force and the monopoly of violence was not merely tangential to my main argument. In modern, democratic, diverse, pluralistic societies, which by all accounts appear to be the types of societies we ought to pursue normatively, there can be little hope of acheiving any sort of consensus on “ultimate concerns” because there are as many “Grounds of Being” as there are individuals in the society. At least, that’s the case if Paul Tillich is correct. And even though I reject his approach and his conclusions, most of the participants in our political system–self-identified Christians included–accept his approach and his conclusions, even if they’ve never heard of Paul Tillich (or Jean Paul Sartre).

All Politics are, in an Ultimate Sense, Religious

Tillich is undeniably correct about one thing: Whatever it is we consider our objects of “ultimate concern,” they will inevitably derive from whatever it is we worship, whatever it is we consider to be the “Ground of Being.” Even Tillich himself pointed out that, on a fundamental level, the “Ground of Being” is the ultimate concern.

A little bit earlier than Tillich, at the dawn of the 20th century, John Dewey develped a unique view of the philosophy of pragmatism. One of Dewey’s observations was that if you wanted to know someone’s values–that which they prioritized above all else–then what you ought to do is observe their behaviors. Applying this to the argument presented here, one might say that if you want to know what someone considers to be the “Ground of Being,” then you have to discover their faith, their “ultimate concerns.” Coming again full circle, back to Tip O’Neill and his implied emphasis on the “most important things,” to know what someone’s “ultimate concerns” are, then you should observe that which they demand of politicians.

Throughout this post I have utilized the term religious to describe the ultimate source of our political ideas. Perhaps, instead, I should have used the term metaphysical. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that asks questions about ultimate and universal things. What is the nature of ultimate reality? What aspects of that ultimate reality are universal to all other parts of reality? These are the fundamental metaphysical questions. Our contemporary society, as pointed out by Tillich, who is representative of the reigning perspective, would suggest that ultimate reality is defined by each of us. That is to say, of course, that there is no ultimate reality. There is only our own experience of reality, whatever that may be. The only universal in such a scenario is that we all exist, at least it would appear so. Most people who deny any religious faith, and those who profess a religious faith but claim some perspective of religious neutrality, adopt this perspective without even realizing it. The consequence being that most people who claim no religion or some ideal form of neutrality fail to recognize that this perspective, in itself, is a religious–a metaphysical–assertion.

To say that no religion is true is to stake out a religious position. To say that all religions are true or that religions are true insofar as they serve some personal purpose is to stake out a religious position. To claim no religious perspective is a religious perspective because everyone has some kind of religious belief and some kind of belief about religion. These positions, even when we are not aware of them or the chain of presuppositions that they ground, inform our opinions, theories, and behaviors regarding our ideal political society.

I realize that in popular discourse this is not a popular position. In light of the incessant warnings about ascendant white Christian nationalism and the scourge of religiously motivated political violence, with an emphasis on why Christians in particular are susceptible to potentially becoming domestic terrorists, quite a few people will probably recoil at my suggestion that all political thinking is religiously (or metaphysically) derived. But I should point out that this idea is not controversial in academic political science and political philosophy. Few social forces shape society and culture like religion, to include a society’s political institutions. This is certainly true when one considers the evidence from history. I’m not denying that some people abuse Christian ideas and symbols to make racist-nationalist claims, nor that people–including self-described Christians–might try to justify violence using religion. But the way to address these problems is not to deny, redact, or revise the role that religious thinking has and continues to play in political thinking. Rather, we should understand it, engage it, and openly discuss it without fear.

These and many other topics (an almost endless list of them) are linked to the fact that political ideas derive from religious ideas. These topics, their links, and the controversies that surround them form the bulk of what I hope to discuss on this website. Overall, my goal is not merely to engage in intellectual history or academic exploration, although that is certainly a part of it. I also, primarily, seek to defend Christianity from attacks based in erroneous and false conceptions of how religion and politics relate to one another or ought to relate to one another. To that end, I hope to bring about–even if on a small scale–some level of understanding between people with different ideas.

All that and more is to come. Thank you for reading.

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