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All Politics is Religion

Any president who attempts to wage diplomacy on North Korea will inevitably face the ire of the warnicks—men who hear the words “mutually-assured destruction,” shove their hands in their pockets, and mutter: “I’ll take that bet.”

I suspect one of the reasons interventionists are so cavalier over Pyongyang is because the Kim dynasty is so completely lacking in personal charisma. Dictators ought to be handsome like Mussolini or fatherly like Stalin. They should be great orators like Hitler or great warriors like Napoleon. We can understand why personality cults grow up around such great men—“great,” of course, in Carlyle’s meaning of the word.

And while Kim Il-sung may have fit that bill, his son and grandson are not “great men” in any sense of the word. North Korea’s public probably didn’t know that Kim Jong-il was a porn addict, but if they were anything less than completely brainwashed, they could have deduced as much just from looking at him. And Kim Jong-un is just the sort of manbaby-king who incited rebellions in empires greater than North Korea.

We rightly (though excessively) complain about President Trump’s compulsive, illiterate tweets. But imagine if we were led by a man who, were he born in any other country in the world, would have been bullied by the chess club in junior high. Yet the people of North Korea adore him more than most American Christians adore Jesus Christ.

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We can’t imagine any such scenario, of course, which is a grim testament to Pyongyang’s propaganda machine. But I think we can imagine what would happen if NATO committed to surgical strikes against North Korea’s elite, as some interventionists have suggested [1] we do. Even if the entire civilian populace was spared, what then? We couldn’t silence the jingoistic anthems that have been seared into their minds over generations. We couldn’t prevent the ritual mourning, the well-rehearsed despair, that would shatter the nation. They could never un-see the Tower of Juche’s electric torch burning over the cityscape at night.

Interventionists seem uninterested in the near-impossibility of rebuilding North Korea after the regime’s fall. It wouldn’t be like purging Iraq of Ba’athism: it would be like purging Iraq of Islam. It would take generations of re-education and the suppression of bands of armed zealots.

Again, it speaks well of the West that we can’t fully imagine such gross fanaticism being directed at such petty individuals. But we should have some sense of that unconditional devotion and ingrained loyalty—at least enough to consider the extraordinary difficulties that would attend reconstruction.

We know the cliché that totalitarianism is a kind of secular religion. The Nazi poet Hanns Johst made it perfectly clear that Hitler intended to swap the Germans’ faith in Christianity for a new faith in National Socialism:

The Reich our life (instead of “Christ our life” – Col. 3:4) and our blood and soil (instead of “creation itself”) will be delivered from bondage of corruption, that is, from its impurity, its Jewishness, into the glorious liberty of the children of our Führer (instead of the “children of God” as Rom. 8:12). We are the redemption of the world, sent forth into the world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Mt. 5:13-16).

Hardened rationalists like the late Christopher Hitchens used this as evidence that religious thinking—both supernatural and secular—were inherently dangerous. That’s not a novel idea, of course. “Doth some one say that there be gods above?/ There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool,/ Led by the old false fable, thus deceive you,” as Euripides famously quipped.

But is it ever possible to entirely supplant religious thinking in any country, or in any age? If so, we should think the French Revolution would have made some headway. Unlike so many communists and fascists, who cultivate a kind of secular fideism, the Jacobins truly hated the concept of organized faith. “Priests are to morality,” said Robespierre, “what quacks are to medicine.” Yet even he couldn’t resist “baptizing” his secularism. Robespierre and the deists had their Culte de l’Être suprême; their atheist rivals had the Culte de la Raison.

This came as no surprise to the Catholic counter-revolutionaries. “All true philosophy must opt between these two hypotheses: either a new religion is going to come into existence or Christianity will be rejuvenated in some extraordinary way,” wrote Joseph de Maistre. But this speaks less to individuals (who may be theists or atheists) than it does to society, which is theistic by nature. “If the religious spirit is not reinforced in this part of the world, the social bond will dissolve,” Maistre warned.

Maybe that’s why both North Korea and the Soviet Union became more cultish as their regimes wore on. Maybe at the start they earnestly thought they could erase religious patterns of thought, only to realize later on that this need to believe in—and to belong to—something greater than oneself must find its expression. Religion, for all purposes, is the social bond. It’s the one thing we cannot do without. (That’s why Edmund Burke called society a spiritual unity, not an organic one.) If we can’t have the real thing, we’ll find a substitute.

Because roughly 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, conservatives like to think we’re still basically a Christian nation. But that’s only our privately held faith. Christian conservatives no less than liberal atheists balk at any whiff of theocracy. (Consider Rusty Reno’s [2] and Rod Dreher [3]’s responses to the Mortara debate.) But that doesn’t mean America has evolved beyond the need for a corporate religious identity.

Indeed, American politics makes more sense if we look at the issue through a sectarian lens. There are fundamental, almost metaphysical, differences between the various factions vying for control of the republic.

On the one hand, we have Trumpism, which bears a close resemblance to the Roman imperial cultus. Peter Navarro appropriately describes his role in the administration as an oracle [4], interpreting and expounding on the president’s infallible judgements. “This is the president’s vision,” he said. “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”

Movement conservatism, meanwhile, is a kind of Protestantism. The Constitution fills the role of the Bible. It is immutable, if not infallible, and we must hold it, as Hamilton said, in “sacred reverence.” Like Protestantism, this conservatism defines itself by what it isn’t—monarchism, socialism, etc.—just as Protestantism is a blanket term for those Christian sects that arose in opposition to the Catholic Church. Jefferson and Adams are like Calvin and Luther: united by a common enemy more than a common creed.

And the left? I defer to Adrian Vermeule’s brilliant essay “The Liturgy of Liberalism.” [5]

I would argue that movement conservatism comes nearest to the truth, as I’m sure many readers of this magazine would. But it is incomplete. For one, Adams himself did not share Hamilton’s belief in the Constitution qua divine revelation. Massachusetts’s own constitution [6], which Adams himself largely wrote, holds that “the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.”

The most Burkean of our Founding Fathers understood that our Anglo-American political tradition is native to orthodox Christianity. Planted firmly in that soil, it evolves slowly, adapting to changes in the environment. Uproot it and it begins to wither, or else mutate beyond recognition.

So we may confidently repeat Maistre’s warning. All true philosophies must opt between these two hypotheses: either we find our politics in authentic religion, or some weird new sect will arise from its choked and twisted roots.

Michael Davis is U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald. He tweets @MichaelDavisCH [7].

40 Comments (Open | Close)

40 Comments To "All Politics is Religion"

#1 Comment By john On March 14, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

I find Mormonism fascinating, close enough to Christianity to demand “respect” but honestly the founding story looks like utter BS. Still Utah seems to be running pretty well, folks seem happy and productive.

#2 Comment By Begemot On March 15, 2018 @ 12:33 am

Says the author: “…the Soviet Union became more cultish as [the regime] wore on.” How so? There was a cultish fervor during the Brezhnev years? Tired, yes. Cynical, yes. But “cultish”? Illustrations, please!

#3 Comment By Ray Woodcock On March 15, 2018 @ 2:24 am

This appears to be theology in search of facts. The people of North Korea adore Kim? I would have liked to see support for that claim. Everything I’ve seen says the opposite. A few quick examples: The Telegraph ( [8]), New York Times ( [9]), Business Insider ( [10]).

#4 Comment By grumpy realist On March 15, 2018 @ 7:33 am

Actually, Trump as Nero is a pretty good fit. We’re just lucky we have checks and balances keeping Trump-Nero from doing what he REALLY wants.

#5 Comment By connecticut farmer On March 15, 2018 @ 8:04 am

“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
-G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton provided the framework, Mr. Perry the brick and mortar. Good article.

#6 Comment By Thomas L. Knapp On March 15, 2018 @ 9:06 am

“Movement conservatism, meanwhile, is a kind of Protestantism. The Constitution fills the role of the Bible. It is immutable, if not infallible, and we must hold it, as Hamilton said, in ‘sacred reverence.'”

When I was young and a smart-ass, my dad simultaneously insisted that the Bible means what it says/says what it means, and that Christians shouldn’t drink alcohol.

When I asked him why Jesus turned water into wine, why Proverbs gives instructions on behavior when drunk, and why James advises us “when a man is low in spirits, give him wine; when he is near unto death, give him strong drink” he told me to shut up.

Strikes me as very much like the “conservative” approach to the Constitution as regards, say, immigration and drugs.

#7 Comment By Dan On March 15, 2018 @ 9:32 am

LOL who is this crank?

#8 Comment By Countme-a-Demon On March 15, 2018 @ 10:52 am

All religion is politics.

#9 Comment By Argon On March 15, 2018 @ 11:07 am

“So we may confidently repeat Maistre’s warning. All true philosophies must opt between these two hypotheses: either we find our politics in authentic religion, or some weird new sect will arise from its choked and twisted roots”

Which is the authentic religion? This presumes a lot.

#10 Comment By HL On March 15, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

Good article, but the section comparing branches of conservatism to personality cults and Protestantism is lacking. It’s the mistaken understanding of American conservatism common to Catholics — you see the country through the eyes of traditionalism, and struggle to grasp the soul of a nation your religion will always be foreign to. Luther and Calvin were united by common enemies? That’s true enough – but have you read the “Institutes” or “Freedom of a Christian?” What united them was a belief in sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia; it’s in their writings and preaching, clear as day. Calvin held Luther in high esteem, not simply as a fair-weather ally against the Roman Catholics. But then again, if you really hold the Pope to be Christ vicarious, I suppose you’ll never really understand the country that is the culmination of Protestant thought and biblical virtue. What a tragedy.

#11 Comment By connecticut farmer On March 15, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

@grumpy realist

“…keeping Trump-Nero from doing what he REALLY wants”

Which is…?

#12 Comment By Captain P On March 15, 2018 @ 2:59 pm

“Jefferson and Adams are like Calvin and Luther: united by a common enemy more than a common creed.”

That’s some truly terrible historiography. Calvin held Luther in great esteem and was strongly influenced by him. He also was a full generation younger than him. Their relationship is nothing like Jefferson and Adams, who were peers and rivals.

#13 Comment By Ken T On March 15, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

Argon:
Which is the authentic religion?

“Why, mine, of course” answers every member of every religion.

#14 Comment By Chris Ray On March 15, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

“I suspect one of the reasons interventionists are so cavalier over Pyongyang is because the Kim dynasty is so completely lacking in personal charisma. Dictators ought to be handsome like Mussolini or fatherly like Stalin. They should be great orators like Hitler or great warriors like Napoleon. We can understand why personality cults grow up around such great men—“great,” of course, in Carlyle’s meaning of the word.”

Seriously?

#15 Comment By Alex Ingrum On March 15, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

“Authentic religion”?
You’d get a 100 different answers by asking a 100 different people.
It’s like asking, “What is authentic taste?”
It’s a question with no answer, let alone any meaning.

#16 Comment By Countme-a-Demon On March 15, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

“Dictators ought to be handsome like Mussolini or fatherly like Stalin.”

Trump tells us nearly daily how good looking he is, so i guess we’re in like flint.

#17 Comment By JonF On March 15, 2018 @ 4:20 pm

Re: Their relationship is nothing like Jefferson and Adams, who were peers and rivals.

Calvin was younger than Luther, but also broke with him over theological disagreements which is why there was Lutheranism and Calvinism as separate Protestant movements.

#18 Comment By Barry On March 15, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

“But imagine if we were led by a man who, were he born in any other country in the world, would have been bullied by the chess club in junior high.”

If Trump were born to an ordinary family, rather than to millions, he’d be a used car salesman.

One who had lived in many different cities, under many different names.

#19 Comment By Barry On March 15, 2018 @ 6:31 pm

BTW, in terms of false creeds, one needs look no farther than Trump worship here.

#20 Comment By David Samson On March 15, 2018 @ 10:17 pm

All Politics is religion:

I find this article very humorous in a sad sort of way. Think Matthew 7:3-5.
Your observations have validity but you miss the forest. Please excuse me if I conflate what you wrote with the article by Professor Vermeule but you cite it as an accurate reflection of your opinion so I will treat it as the same.
You initiate your essay with a consideration of the North Korean personality cult as religion. I agree it is a religion of a sort. There is a well-established dogma surrounding a “messianic” individual. You don’t really need much more. The prospect of “reform” in N. Korea would be so difficult because its citizens (would inmates or internees be more appropriate?) have been so restricted from outside information that it is unlikely that they would accept facts that do not conform to their preconceived beliefs.

One could argue that we see some of the same phenomena in our own culture where information is plentiful & yet persons who hold extreme beliefs still have no difficulty denying incontrovertible facts (have any of you visited [11]. Imagine how people who were raised in a culture that censored any information regarding an oblate earth might think when confronted by outsiders (aliens as far as they were concerned) who are contradicting everything they have ever known.

But, rather than confront the challenges of assimilating N. Koreans in to “Earth culture” perhaps we should each consider our own limitations?

You simplistically divide American political society in to three simplistic camps, Trumpites, Liberals & Conservatives. While I understand that it is difficult to write these sorts of essays without resorting to the reductionism of your fellow citizens, can you really cite any purpose for your divisions other than to try & support the case that your tribe is the superior tribe? Isn’t that the exact critique Vermeule directs at Liberalism? Perhaps consider [12] in the form of a cartoon that in truth lambasts every one of us who engages in these discussions.

The fact is, all 3 of the political divisions you offer contain members who would gladly send members of the other two groups off to the gulags. It is sad but true that too much of our modern political discourse can be summed up in the phrase: “(You may not be certain about me, but) my opponent is truly evil.” I have no objection of the tendency of many of us (myself, certainly) to argue forcefully in support of our ideals but in truth, the political process is the process of presenting competing ideas in order to direct our legal structures in to directions favored by the various advocates but one would hope with protection of the minority from the abuses of the majority.
While the comparisons of our political groups to religious groups can be considered with perhaps some utility, they very fact that one would choose such a comparison invites an accusation of hubris & puts one at risk of justifiably being accused of being an advocate of a theocratic state where a small cadre of the select establish the right to decide the fates of the rest of humanity. Conservatives are every bit as susceptible to believing themselves to be chosen by God to impose their interpretation of God’s will on the rest of humanity. The very intolerance with which you accuse the left is equally applicable on the right. We all have a little Torquemada hiding within our psyche. It is those who would deny their own potential to do evil who are the truly dangerous to society. It is only through personal vigilance that we can ensure our own freedom from acting out evil.

#21 Comment By Isaiah On March 15, 2018 @ 10:34 pm

The professoriat sure acts like an ecclesiastical monopolist.

#22 Comment By grin without a cat On March 15, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

@connecticut farmer:

It’s not clear that Chesterton ever said or wrote that. From the website of the American Chesterton Society:

[13]

This maxim may be the single most quoted line from Chesterton’s prolific pen. It has also been the source of a protracted search by curious fans of Chesterton all over the world. . .Attempts to track the epigram in Chesterton’s own writings can only be described as incomplete at best.

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 15, 2018 @ 11:25 pm

I have thought about it long and hard and it’s a very tough square religion is politics. Religion can be political, as may be explicated when examining the system of North Korea where the leader is seen, understood and treated in the context of a supernatural being — representative of the people and the nation itself.

True of monarchies by divine right, but this could not be said of democracies or socialists systems, not even Marxian communism. Suffice it say, that a a war in North Korea is going to a reckoning because — they exist as a culture in high context modality — in which what’s best for the whole supersedes any one individual, and as long the prime leader is alive her represents the whole, but but without, that whole would still proceed as to the whole.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 16, 2018 @ 7:47 am

“If Trump were born to an ordinary family, rather than to millions, he’d be a used car salesman.”

One of the reasons I like Pres trump has as much to so with what life means as a white person.

Because without the privileged status of his parents, given the accounts of his formative years — he would have been in a reform school.

And his tenure has been marred by a level of such derision, i used to remark, that one might as well acknowledge, he is getting,

:the black treatment” everything about him has been treated as suspect.

#25 Comment By grumpy realist On March 16, 2018 @ 8:27 am

Connecticut Farmer–I have no doubt but that if we were living in a country that didn’t have the First Amendment and an independent judiciary, Trump would be locking up his critics, if not worse.

Heck, he’s right now trying to pull a Duarte by trying to pass a law with the death penalty for drug dealers. And to pack the courts with “his” people.

Do you have any evidence that President Trump looks at the law as anything but something to try to get around or manipulate into his favor?

#26 Comment By JdL On March 16, 2018 @ 10:10 am

I favor reason over faith, whether it it the cheap faith of politics or the cheap faith of Christianity.

#27 Comment By David Samson On March 16, 2018 @ 10:25 am

@ EliteCommInc.

Based on his behavior, if Trump had been born in to a black family he would have been locked up many years ago

#28 Comment By David Samson On March 16, 2018 @ 10:30 am

@ grumpy realist:

I am more concerned about the implications of this case before the SCOTUS. Please note at the end of the article where the Trump administration supports the right to jail anyone who is critical of those in power.

#29 Comment By Saldin On March 17, 2018 @ 4:14 am

Which is the authentic religion?

Perhaps inquisitive people would do well to ponder which of the various religions depend mostly on hearsay, and which, less so.

That could be a starting point.

#30 Comment By grin without a cat On March 17, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

either a new religion is going to come into existence or Christianity will be rejuvenated in some extraordinary way

If Christianity rejuvenates itself, then whatever form it takes will be such that it could be considered a new and different religion.

#31 Comment By Bartolomé de las Casas On March 17, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

I would agree with the title that “All Politics is Religion.”

But the reverse of that, “All Religion is Politics,” I would disagree with.

As the Bible makes totally clear, Jesus Christ was not a politician, or even a worldly King.

Jesus did not found a political movement, a worldly kingdom, a nation-state, or an Empire.

This is what makes Jesus Christ so completely different from Joseph Smith (founding Mormon “prophet” and president) and Muhammed (the founder of Islam).

The political Conservative Movement in the U.S. tried to co-opt Jesus as its founder and chaplain, but this will never work.

As the Bible teaches, Jesus is and will always be the founder and head of the Church.

#32 Comment By sparklite On March 17, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

“warnicks”

When an article starts out with obscure hyperbole, you know to put on a gas mask before venturing further.
And this author. seeking a US Constitution (King James Version) while trying not to be overtly in favor of theocracy, is like the cowboy who runs out of the cabin, jumps on his horse, and rides off in all directions at once. With no central, much less compelling, theme, he fails to herd his cats home.

The only amusement I took from this premise-smuggling piece of manipulation, is that you can tell a porn addict just by looking at them. I feel much safer, now.

#33 Comment By Ken T On March 18, 2018 @ 7:45 pm

Bartolome:
Jesus did not found a political movement, a worldly kingdom, a nation-state, or an Empire.

He didn’t found a religion, either. He considered himself a good practicing Jew right up to the moment of his death. It was his followers who came along a couple of generations later who decided to start a new religion. And they were VERY political.

#34 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 19, 2018 @ 4:39 am

“He didn’t found a religion, either. He considered himself a good practicing Jew right up to the moment of his death. It was his followers who came along a couple of generations later who decided to start a new religion. And they were VERY political.”

Hmmmmmm,

You might want to read what Jesus said about himself in full and what this disciples taught after his asencion. While plenty of what Christ taught can be applied in practice to one’s politics. His primary press as the Yahweh before was to the the supernatural.

“Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

“Before Abraham was, I am”

He neither rejected the Roman soldier not the Jew/ And his words were intended for both gentile and Jew. He made that abundantly clear. And his Apostles shattered any suggestion that either Christ or what he brought to the for, what a life in him meant was a Jewish only club.

“No man comes to the father, but by me.”

That’s pretty intense.

#35 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 19, 2018 @ 4:45 am

“Based on his behavior, if Trump had been born in to a black family he would have been locked up many years ago.’

Laugh . . . well, that is accurate for lots of white people.

#36 Comment By John On March 19, 2018 @ 10:39 am

But the Germans seemed to get over their “worship” of Hitler as soon as he was defeated? Why wouldn’t the North Koreans get over their “worship” of the Kims? Because they have been doing it longer? It’s an honest question — I really wonder what would happen in North Korea if the regime’s leaders were decapitated. I pray for peaceful reunification, for the North Koreans to have freedom.

#37 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 19, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

“Why wouldn’t the North Koreans get over their “worship” of the Kims?”

Well the west has fueled that fire under the high context nature of asia in general and by our own words have reinforced and sealed ourselves as enemy.

#38 Comment By David Samson On March 19, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

@ EliteCommInc

“No man comes to the father, but by me.”

is very intense, but what exactly does it mean?

“Before Abraham was, I am”

Jesus was not the first person to make such statements nor the last. If you study Eastern religions you see it come up with some frequency. People often conflate (for lack of better term) ego with such statements when nothing can be further from the truth. When he said; none come to the father… did Jesus mean through Jesus or through something much more profound? Do you think he meant Christ perhaps? There is a distinct difference between Jesus the man & Christ who transcends. I believe that Jesus, the man, meant: “No man comes to the father, but by Christ.”

Christ has no ego & we all have the potential to express Christ consciousness. But hey, we are wandering off the topic of the article.

#39 Comment By David Samson On March 20, 2018 @ 10:12 am

@ John

not only have the N. Koreans been worshiping at that altar for much longer (the majority grew up knowing nothing else) but they have no outside references for any other way of seeing the world. The Germans in the middle of the last century were highly educated. The North Koreans know nothing besides the propaganda they’ve been fed all their lives. I also pray for a peaceful re-unification but I have no reason to believe that re-education will be easy. Perhaps you might consider the famous leftist [14] about N. Korea.

#40 Comment By David W On March 19, 2019 @ 12:45 pm

When you have “faith”, in the sense it is used in this piece, all you are saying is that you believe something without having evidence. And that, my friends, is simply stupid and opens the door to any and all horrors. You can claim ANYTHING is true without reference to reality and no one can gainsay you. You believe it, therefore it’s “true”. Idiocy.