By Gary Laderman, Religion Dispatches, July 17, 2011
Gary Laderman is Director of Religion Dispatches and Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University. His most recent book is Sacred Matters.
Let’s just face the facts…The Republican Party is no longer a political party—it’s a full-fledged religious movement. The political ideology fueling this movement is religious to the core; and while it might be easiest to label the religious element “Christian,” that designation is too broad and generous for the true complexities at work here…This makes sense not so much because of any real Christian message it contains but rather because it offers an unequivocal command: followers are children who must be obedient in the face of authority…Republicanity is a culture that merges politics and religion…and unashamedly and unreservedly blows apart the longed-for “wall of separation” keeping the two spheres separate. Now more than ever the case can be made that our politics are a form of religion and that religion is the new politics.
Let’s just face the facts and not kid ourselves anymore. Yes, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee… er, tea: The Republican Party is no longer a political party—it’s a full-fledged religious movement. The political ideology fueling this movement is religious to the core; and while it might be easiest to label the religious element “Christian,” that designation is too broad and generous for the true complexities at work here.
Still, if I were a communications consultant hired for lots of money to create a new brand for the Republicans, I’d replace the elephant with a cross, perhaps appropriating that popular bumper sticker of a child kneeling in the shadow of a cross. This makes sense not so much because of any real Christian message it contains but rather because it offers an unequivocal command: followers are children who must be obedient in the face of authority.
But what does it really mean to argue that the Republican Party, a movement with a distinctive religious culture, is a new kind of religion we might as well call “Republicanity”? Let me count the ways. (And please, don’t try this at home—I’m a professional religion-ist, it’s what I do for a living. Really.)
Every religion has a mythology, or sacred stories that describe and explain the origins of the universe, the creation of humans, the meaning of death, and so on. The Hindus have their Vedas; the Jews look to the Hebrew Bible; Neo-pagans draw from ancient Druids for some of their myths.
Republicanity’s myths are being manufactured by the mythbuilders over at Wallbuilders. In case anyone is confused, we in religious studies are not mythbusters. Let’s remember that myths are not about verifiable historical facts; they’re sacred stories that provide orientation, identity, community boundaries, etc. for a religious group. It’s not our job to tear down and deconstruct these cherished myths, though anyone with an education beyond high school or any training in the academic study of history should question the assertions being produced by David Barton and his Wallbuilders comrades, since they do claim to be “historians.”
The myths of Republicanity are fairly obvious and easy to identify when uttered by the faithful: glorifying the Founding Fathers as saints, inserting God into the nation’s origins, and demonizing the US government when policy disagreements occur.
Every religion has rituals—communal acts that bond social groups together at specified times and with specific actions signaling ultimate values and commitments. Muslims pray five times a day to demonstrate their fidelity to Allah; Rastafarians smoke cannabis for spiritual sustenance; the ancient Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice to appease the gods.
Likewise, Republicanity is rife with ritual acts of the sacred variety. One of the most recent examples is the signing of yet another pledge, “The Marriage Vow—A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family,” drafted by The Family Leader, an Iowa-based organization. Signing pledges (against raising taxes, for lowering the debt, agreeing that this is a “Christian nation”) is all the rage these days, with adherents of Republicanity understanding the public ritual act of participating as a demonstration of their own fidelity to certain core principles. Town hall meetings to vent anger and frustration, public events more akin to religious revivals than political rallies, and following Fox news, religiously, at certain intervals throughout the day, are a few other examples of rituals performing their role in a religious movement: to energize the faithful, differentiate insiders from outsiders, and establish what is sacred and what is profane.
Every religion has its own ethical teachings which provide moral guidelines for how to act, identify the good guys from the bad guys, and determine the right course of action in an often ambiguous world. Tibetan Buddhists emphasize compassion as a critical component of ethical behavior; members of the Peyote Church follow the Peyote Way, seeking to live a more holistic and balanced life; Scientologists include in their creed an ethical commitment to the belief that all men (and I assume women too) have an inalienable right to their sanity.
Republicanity is no different, possessing its own set of ethical commitments that define its moral universe. It is like the most narrow and conservative religious cultures in its absolutist ethical positions and refusal to tolerate any difference of opinion. Obedience to authority—at the moment embodied in prominent charismatic leaders like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum (okay, this last one is short on charisma but people still seem to listen anyway)—is critical to the success of this religious movement, with the primary sacred textual sources legitimating the moral universe drawn from the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
What is the operative creed for Republicanity? This is, by no means, an exhaustive list: Money rules and wealth is the greatest good; the natural world is at the disposal of humans who can exploit it with no fear or consequences; every American should own a gun; screw the “golden rule,” the world is populated with evil threats to the American way, including Muslims, gays, immigrants, liberals, and of course that group of individuals who represent the gravest danger to Republicanity: smart people (read: “intellectuals”).
Most religions have a God or multiple gods who rule the universe and the lives of humans on this Earth, leaving members preoccupied with seeking greater understanding of the power and influence of divine powers. One of the Orishas, or manifestations of God, in the Santería religion is Oshun, a spirit associated with love, beauty, and intimacy; Mormons understand God the Father (and the Heavenly Mother) as having a physical body; Wiccans, as the letter writer below notes, “worship divinity in both male and female forms.”*
Republicanity is built on a theology of divine presence in national affairs that looks in some instances like a form of theo-fascism—particularly when leaders claim an intimate knowledge of God’s will and being chosen by Him (no goddesses in this religion) to purify America. If we asked all the presidential candidates to state whether they are doing God’s will in the world certainly most, if not all, would answer in the affirmative.
Some even assert a direct link and special relationship with God (like Michele Bachmann, who understands herself and her career in divine terms). As RD’s own Julie Ingersoll and Sarah Posner have demonstrated, a deeply-held and ubiquitous strand of Christian Reconstructionism undergirds many of the positions taken by leaders in the Republican religious movement, and the core of that theology might be boiled down to this simple formula: God is on my side, so I’m right and you’re wrong about what it means to be an American.
Taken all together, Republicanity is a culture that merges politics and religion (maybe better identified as a form of “poligion,” as one of my teachers used to say) and unashamedly and unreservedly blows apart the longed-for “wall of separation” keeping the two spheres separate. Now more than ever the case can be made that our politics are a form of religion and that religion is the new politics.