The danger of making a religion of politics

The effort to explain rising internal opposition to liberal democracy has become a cottage industry in the past decade. (Image: Pixabay)
The effort to explain rising internal opposition to liberal democracy has become a cottage industry in the past decade. (Image: Pixabay)

Summary

Perfectionism and moral zeal conflict with the pluralism a free society needs.

The Declaration of Independence summarizes liberalism—not as a political creed opposed to conservatism, but as a philosophical account of government. This theory rests on truths held to be self-evident: that all human beings are created equal; that they have certain rights no one can take from them and which they can’t surrender; that these rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that legitimate government exists to secure these rights and is based on the consent of individuals who regard themselves as together forming a distinct people; that this consent is revocable when the government undermines its proper ends; and that the people reserve the right to reform or replace it with other institutions better suited to promoting these ends.

Liberalism is built on political and personal liberty: the freedom we have to authorize government and to pursue the happiness we define for ourselves.

In modern times, societies that have embraced liberal principles have authorized forms of government in which political power is exercised primarily through legislative, executive and judicial institutions secured by constitutions that define the limits of this power. In turn, the right to exercise political power rests on the equal votes of all adult members of the society, exercised through regular elections, with peaceful continuation or transfer of power prompted by the will of the majority. Liberal principles have also substantially broadened the range of choices individuals can make about how they earn a living and lead their private lives.

Beginning in the early 1970s, this understanding of government and society enjoyed a surge of support worldwide. Between 1973 and 2005, according to the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung, the number of governments rated as liberal democracies more than doubled. Since then, the number of liberal democracies has fallen, while attacks on this form of government have intensified. Some attacks are external, from autocratic governments such as Russia and China, whose leaders view liberal democracy as a threat to their power. Other attacks are internal, led by those who see liberalism as a source of political and moral decline.

The effort to explain rising internal opposition to liberal democracy has become a cottage industry in the past decade. In an op-ed for the Washington Post last month, journalist Fareed Zakaria argued that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union, rapid economic and social changes have corroded communal life and empowered minority groups in ways that have “unnerved" longstanding majorities. “Freedom and autonomy often come at the expense of authority and tradition," Mr. Zakaria wrote. “As the binding forces of religion and custom fade, the individual gains, but communities often lose." The result, he said: We are freer but lonelier, and we struggle to fill our sense of emptiness.

New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed, contending last month that dissatisfied Americans are feeling an absence of “meaning, belonging, and recognition." Like Mr. Zakaria, he suggests that infusing liberal politics with moral meaning is the remedy for the declining power of religion.

I have two qualms with this argument. First, it minimizes simpler explanations for the declining confidence in liberal democracy. One is that the U.S. has been ill-governed for the past two decades. Consider the record: two costly, mostly failed wars; a financial crisis from which it took years to recover; a pandemic during which Americans experienced more restrictions and more deaths per capita than many other advanced societies; a postpandemic inflationary surge; cultural conflict that has polarized politics. Against this backdrop, we need not invoke religion to explain declining confidence in liberal institutions, which are, like all forms of government, judged mostly by their fruits.

Second, if the decline of religion is contributing to the weakening of liberalism, it is dangerous to look to politics as the solution. Yes, politics can be an arena of common purpose during wartime, economic calamity or natural catastrophe. For those seeking social change, political movements offer the satisfaction of collective action guided by shared moral commitments.

But for most people, a sense of true purpose and belonging won’t come through politics. This is especially true in liberal societies without enforced religious orthodoxies, whose denizens pursue their own conceptions of meaning and worth mostly in families, voluntary associations, religious institutions and work.

When we ask politics to fill the role vacated by religion, the consequences are dangerous. The natural longing for perfection shifts from heaven to a realm that resists it. Doctrinal commitment to a set of secular ideas is pitted against the diversity of belief inherent in free societies. A religious-like fervor for a particular set of political values undermines the spirit of conciliation that makes peaceful common life possible.

To cure our current ills, better governance is a safer bet than a politics of meaning, even one designed to bolster liberal principles and hopes.

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