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Opinion

In Theory: As religion declines in America, is political tribalism filling a vacuum left behind?

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Los Angeles youth join a nationwide strike from school as they protest climate change and strike for the Green New Deal and “other necessary actions to solve the climate crisis,” at City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

In a recent essay titled “America’s New Religions,” published on New York Magazine’s Intelligencer website, writer Andrew Sullivan adds his name to a growing list of cultural observers who believe established faiths in the U.S. are giving way to political tribalism.

The desire for religious fulfillment is “in our genes,” Sullivan writes, and as Christianity wanes in America, he believes two discrete political “religions” have taken its place in a search for meaning: Trumpism and “the cult of social justice.”

The former, Sullivan argues, appeals to Evangelicals, who, following their religious impulses, voted for President Trump despite his being “the least Christian person in America.” The latter, though not as appealing to Evangelicals, reflects the same zealous attachment to dogma and conviction, offering an ideology that views the world in absolute terms and shames anyone who commits trespass.

Q. Is adherence to political ideology taking the place of traditional faith in America?

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There is no doubt that throughout our nation’s history many have replaced faith in God with political ideology. “Trumpism” and social justice are just modern incarnations of that error. But for generations, Americans, indeed people across the planet, have been replacing faith in the true God with a multitude of religions, ideologies and earthly pursuits. If the only way to follow God is through faith in Jesus Christ, and it is, then of course there are a myriad of other ways one might go astray from him.

God’s people are primarily distinguished by the highest allegiance to him alone. With the very first of the Ten Commandments God told his people: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Those who wish to follow him today must have that written on their hearts. When that’s true we can avoid a multitude of errors and heartaches.

If you’ve replaced God with other things someone can take your false gods away, as Laban falsely accused Jacob of stealing his idolatrous statues: “Why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:30). How sad that your gods can be stolen from your possession, voted out of office or legislated out of existence. In the Bible most often replacements for the true God are addressed in the plural. Few people have only one replacement for the true God. Many people vainly run from one substitute to another, one candidate or party to another, one addiction to another. Allegiance to God alone sets us free from these false masters, from being torn one way and then the other. And ultimately false gods must fall before the true God, even as the Philistine statue of Dagon literally fell down before the stolen ark of God they had placed in his temple. Through each of the 10 plagues God declared victory over the false gods of Egypt.

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Though they may be confronted by the various zealous adherences of the secular public around them, God’s people still agree with the timeless words of the apostle Paul: “For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through him” (1 Corinthians 8: 5-6).

Pastor Jon Barta

Burbank

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Christians have two citizenships: the one of earth and the one of Heaven. We have our ultimate allegiance to Christ, but we also “pledge allegiance to the flag.” We believe that we, more than anyone, should be the best of citizens on “this terrestrial ball” because we seek to bring some of Paradise into the current realm. We pray to God “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven,” and so we live our faith, and we Americans live it in a peculiar country that has Christianity as part-and-parcel of its basic fabric. My fellow citizens of heaven are most responsible for establishing this earthly nation’s freedoms, rights, education and laws.

Perhaps we do confuse the secular and the sacred at times because they have fortuitously walked lockstep in the past, but our continuing desire to obey divine law compels us to take advantage where we may, and America lends itself to this by having as our motto, “In God We Trust.” We know our country isn’t Christian, per se, but it has managed to foster freedom and a great measure of peace for our people as a result of our ostensibly God-fearing persona.

So why do so many Christians rally to Trump, unlike those on the left who rarely identify as Evangelicals? Because, despite whatever sort of private life Trump has, he has an affinity for those who believe America is a place where genuine good has the best opportunity to show itself. Trump was not elected to lead a church, he was elected by church people because he, unlike his competitors, best seemed likely to safeguard the church’s American inroads. We believe in social justice and good morals, but I fear the opposition chooses social justice based on subjective morals; morals of pop society and waves of fickle cause. Without God as the lawgiver, humankind is left to all its political correctness, snowflakian tyranny, and mobbish thought-police. Yes, there’s a growing, “religious” faith in that stuff, and if the church ceases to be a player, it won’t be Paradise America’s destiny will manifest — it will be the other place.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem, MA, MDiv

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Tujunga

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Our mainstream religious institutions are waning by some measures and our political divisions are widening by any measure, but I don’t buy that the former are “giving way” to the latter. I know of no evidence that religious decline has caused or led to our polarized politics.

If there is now a massive new “cult of social justice” — and I fervently hope so! — it came as a direct result of the stunning shock of election night 2016, and the horror of life with this most unqualified and, yes, unchristian, man as our nation’s leader.

The population of what I term the so-called (because actual evangelical sects long predate U.S. ultraconservative religious fundamentalists who stole the name) evangelicals who voted for Trump overlap significantly with his white, non-college-educated, base. Distracted by racial/ethnic myths into accepting or ignoring his hoohaa that serving the ultra-rich would somehow magically improve their own shaky hold on prosperity, and betrayed by the Democratic Party, they held their religious noses and voted their mistaken idea of their own economic interests. Sad on all counts.

Sullivan uses a very broad definition of religion, basically as anything giving one’s life meaning, making any enjoyable activity definable as a faith. My other problem with his essay, entertaining though it is, is that I recognize neither Trump voters nor social justice warriors in his sweeping stereotypes. Both groups are well-represented among my immediate family and close friends in real life, so I know their traits cannot be this neatly generalized.

Roberta Medford

Atheist

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