As a teenager, I was very involved in my church youth group. Pursuant to that, I attended more than my fair share of special events, music festivals, revivals, retreats, camps, etc. Among the countless sermons I heard at these events, one recurring theme harped on over and over again was that humans have a “God-shaped hole” in their hearts. We may try to fill it with some variation of the usual suspects – e.g., sex, drugs, rock and roll, etc. – but none of it will satisfy. Until we turn to God to find ultimate meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment, we will lurch from fleeting pleasure to fleeting pleasure until we die, ultimately empty and alone.
Though the core premise is, of course, disputable, it is hard to dispute the reality that people have an emptiness that can’t be filled. There certainly wold be far fewer pop songs about forlorn lovers, unrequited love, heartbreak, loneliness, etc., if this were not the case. So we as humans look around to get some satisfaction. And politics is a great way to fill the void.
Politics can hit all the same bumpers that religion does – a unified worldview, a cause to fight for, an ideology to disseminate, heroes to celebrate, shared rituals and symbols, coded language laden with rhetorical significance, community, etc. It is no wonder, then, that political philosophers have referred to politics as religion. Or that commentators have identified an American civil religion. It is unsurprising that, when the early Caesars sought to consolidate their authority and accumulate power, they created the Imperial Cult, with the Emperors joining – or sometimes displacing – the traditional deities in the religious practice of the citizenry.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so, absent something else to provide existential meaning (or sometimes in addition to other things), people look to politics as a way to orient themselves and give structure and significance to their lives. At the very least, it provides a controlling (meta)narrative in which to situate ourselves.
Sitting through two weeks of political conventions and paying relatively close attention to them, I am reminded of this more than ever. Both the RNC and the DNC have seemed at times to be more church service than political convention, complete with catchy music firing people up and speakers engaging in call-and-response. Short, memorable chants punctuate speeches, unifying the crowds in much the same way as uttering the liturgy unites a congregation in worship.
Which has me concerned. Because all religions have heads. And those heads command absolute allegiance, or stand in the place of the deity that does. This is true even for decentralized and/or polytheistic religions, albeit on a more fractured and localized scale. And, though I tend to think much of the rhetoric used in the context of campaigns is grossly hyperbolic, I do agree with the general assessment that America has never been so ripe for tyranny. Decades of bipartisan executive overreach have eroded separation of powers and made it easy for anyone with autocratic tendencies to tip our republic into chaos – apres moi, le deluge. And we have two major-party candidates who seem more than willing to do so if it advances their own personal self-interest. Shamefully, their respective parties have, at the end of the day (notwithstanding some resistance leading up to acquiescence), greeted them with thunderous applause.
I’ve been Lockean in my political ethos ever since I knew what that meant. But maybe Hobbes was right – ultimately, humans fear, more than anything, the brutish state of nature, which is a “war of all against all”; and, as such, they desire a leader to provide security through assertive rule, willing to sacrifice what liberties must be foregone in order to obtain said security.
It seems, like Vladimir and Estragon, we are waiting for the Politico to come. In our case, we are waiting for the Politico to come to inspire us, to give us hope, to lead us, to be our champion, to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives, etc. Unfortunately, we are going to be disappointed, no matter who wins in the fall, because we have misplaced our hope, trust, and affection. There are consequences to setting up golden calves. And I worry how bad it might get before this fever snaps, if it does at all.
*Waiting for Godot is an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. Among the various interpretations of the play, one reading views the play as a commentary on faith. The protagonists converse with each other while “waiting for Godot,” or “God,” who never shows up, thus frustrating the characters’ expectations.