Personal Religion and Political Populism

I have long sensed an important connection between the rise of populism in American political polarization and the impact of personal religion in American culture. Both emerge from disillusionment with institutional authorities. Both reflect the individualism that has shaped American culture. Both reveal how the quest for absolute meaning has turned inward. Each reinforces the other. 

By “Personal Religion”, I mean a self-selected set of beliefs about God, and personally customized spiritual practice, that may or not be internally consistent or externally shared, that shapes an individual’s view of the world and the meaning of life. 

By “Political Populism”, I mean a political movement that juxtaposes “the people” (perceived as normal  or average citizens leading oppressed and vaguely defined traditional lifestyles) against “the elite” (perceived as eccentric or elite minorities leading privileged and vaguely defined extreme lifestyles). 

The “personalization” of religion often precedes and feeds a “populist” political movement. Religion is always the “canary in the mine shaft” for cultural change. For years the institutional church has been in decline, suffocated by scandal, self-interest, hypocrisy and other evils. But the same evils often take longer to suffocate the credibility of political leaders and institutions. The death of the church should have alerted everyone in the cultural mineshaft that dangerous toxins were in the air. 

There are historic illustrations. The demise of the Catholic church preceded the demise of Medieval power structures; the decline of both Protestant and Catholic churches preceded the revolutions and conflicts that began in the early 19th century with Napoleon, and the collapse of the Ancien Regimes  in the after 1918. The collapse of the Protestant Evangelical church in Europe preceded the fascist mythologies in the 1930’s. The collapse of global church integrity anticipated the collapse of the  European colonialism, the collapse of the British Empire following World War 2, and, I think, the current collapse of the century known as the “American Era” (roughly 1945 – 2016). 

Our contemporary experience of the “canary in the mine shaft” is playing out somewhat differently in America than in Europe and Australia. I think this is because the accommodation of the church (especially the evangelical church) to American nationalism has been allowed to continue longer without serious objection.  

In other cultures and countries, Personalized Religion may be passionate, perhaps even violently so, but passions tend to be rooted in traditional religious allegiances or at least contemporary interpretations of what “traditional” religion means vis a vis secularity. It is tied to sectarian identities. Personal religion in America can be just as passionate but tends to be rooted in multiple lifestyle experiences and eccentric interpretations of what or who God is. It is tied to economic success.  

The triumph of Personalized Religion outside America is measured by theological conformity (and the success of theocratic governance). The triumph of Personalized Religion inside America is measured by control of government policy (and the success of cultural uniformity). 

In other countries and cultures, Political Populism is experience differently. Politics may be confrontational, perhaps even violently so, but the confrontation tends to be factional and regional, and therefore more predictable and negotiable, rather than personal and relational, and therefore less predictable and relationally volatile as it is in America. For example, global violence tends to be more intentional and represents the anger of an organized group, while American violence is increasingly spontaneous and represents the anger of an alienated individual. 

The triumph of Political Populism outside North America is measured by national security (and the success of ethnic cleansing). The triumph of Political Populism within North America is measured by individual wealth (and the success of ideological cleansing). 

Both religion and politics balance two dynamics: Power and Limitation, Freedom and Meaning. Freedom mediates or regulates power; limitation mediates or regulates religion. The freer we become, the more meaning fades. The ego replaces other absolutes that once provided meaning in life and all that is left is loneliness and purposelessness. On the other hand, the more limited we become by traditions and mores, the more enslaved we become. External forces take away our self-determination and all that is left is addiction and anger.  

(My Tillich society friends and other academics will see in this Tillich’s distinctions between “autonomy” and “heteronomy”. The balance of these two dynamics is the yearning for what Tillich described as “theonomy” or “life in the Spirit”). 

In order to build peace and find meaning, people must accept a degree of powerlessness and surrender to communal absolutes. But in order to exercise freedom and pursue self-fulfillment, people must assert power and generate personal absolutes. Each dynamic is a personal struggle, and the tension between each dynamic is a public struggle. It is a constant tension between self confidence and self doubt, and between group harmony and group disharmony.  

It seems to me that political populism and personal religion in American today have at least five things in common … each of which impacts global cultures. 

Paranoia about external threats 

Political populism is a defense mechanism and expression of anger at being neglected or disempowered. Personal religion can take many forms, but for many it is also a personal defense against the threat of emptiness and meaninglessness and an expression of anger at the betrayal of traditional religious institutions. Just as populism would build walls against immigration, and refuse to listen to any moral critique, so also personal religion would build walls between ideologies and dogmas, and refuse to accept any theological critique. 

Struggle for verifiable truth 

Both personal religion and populism struggle with finding truth. There is no respect for diversity and no patience for dialogue, and there is no “appeal” to test biases and opinions against some objective standard shared by all. For populists, anything that contradicts opinion (no matter how bigoted) is “fake news”. For personal religionists, anything that contradicts individual definitions of the Holy (no matter how bizarre) is “judgmentalism”. 

Blurring of ethical boundaries and professional standards 

Both personal religion and populism inevitably blur ethical boundaries. The end always justifies the means. Uniformity of opinion and ideological agreement must be obtained even though traditional family or interpersonal values are compromised. People become opponents and objects, rather than human beings and persons in their own right. Similarly, professional boundaries are blurred. The traditional categories of accountability (attitude, integrity, competence, teamwork) no longer count. Populists enlist amateurs to negotiate treaties and manage complex programs; personal religionists listen to untrained and inexperienced voices to set policies and define relationships. 

Gurus and demagogues 

Both personal religion and political populism inevitably turn to charismatic or persuasive personalities for leadership. In the absence of verifiable truth and ethical boundaries, that make dialogue and democracy itself work, they turn to authoritarian leaders who use manipulation and abuse power to force uniformity and establish an uneasy peace between the powerful and the powerless. Absolute individualism eventually leads to the loss of freedom. 

Ephemeral commitments and short-sighted thinking 

In the end, neither personal religion nor political populism work. Neither can sustain justice or peace. Neither can preserve integrity or community. The failure always leads to a period of chaos, which may be violent; or psychological or economic depression, which may be severe. This is because political populism and personal religion are, by their very natures, incapable of long-term planning. Strategic thinking assumes that treaties will be honored by succeeding generations of leaders, and that institutions guided by credible and accountable managers can preserve justice and equality for all to sustain peaceful co-existence. Yet gurus and demagogues, by their very nature, fail to share power with successors. 

What happens to life in the “mineshaft” when the canary dies and the air becomes toxic? Polybius saw societies revolving through six stages. Democracy fails to regulate personal ambition and creed, causing anarchy. Mob rule fails to provide safety and sustain quality of life, leading to dictatorship. Dictatorship fails to guarantee freedom and encourage creative expression, leading to oligarchy. Oligarchy fails to enfranchise outsiders and defend the upward mobility of the middle class, leading to democracy … and repeat.  

The same pattern applies to religion, but each stage precedes the corresponding stage in society. The cycle in religion is the “canary” that predicts next stage in society. Denominations fail to regulate scandal and overhead costs, causing congregationalism and personalized religion. Small congregations and personalized religion fail to challenge religious bigotry and build community, encouraging sectarian or cultic behavior and mega-churches. Gurus fail to respect lifestyle diversity and theological reflection, leading to new religious movements, parachurches, and ideologically driven alliances. Power centers fail to assimilate immigrants and emerging generations, encouraging the institutionalization of traditions … and repeat. 

In Europe and Australia, it seems to me that the emerging religious cycle reflects the failure of power centers to assimilate refugees and relate to emerging generations … which anticipates a stage in society when religion and nationalism combine to create ideologically driven oligarchies. In North America, it seems to me that the emerging religious cycle reflects the failure of denominations to overcome greed and corruption … which anticipates a stage in society when small congregations and personal religion fail to preserve peace and build unity forcing the public to follow gurus and demagogues who guarantee uniformity and stability based on power rather than justice. 

The moral of the story is that we should do all we can to keep the canary healthy, for the sake of everyone living and working in the mineshaft.

Thomas BandyComment