Noted English novelist C.S. Lewis and his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, are responsible for several of the books which have spurred on the world’s individual and collective imaginations for decades. One of those fictional august accounts is Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a novel first published in 1942, in a satirical style in which the characters address far deeper issues.
In one exchange between Screwtape, a senior demon, and Wormwood, his nephew and a less-experienced demon, Screwtape counsels his protégé in how to turn “the patient” away from God…
“Let [your patient] begin by treating … Patriotism or Pacifism as part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism.”
Pause for a moment, comprehending the significant sequence laid out by Uncle Screwtape. A political passion begins as a singular aspect of our faith. It then, “under the influence of a partisan spirit,” becomes the “most important part.” And lastly — and this extends to more than Christianity — politics becomes the actual religion. As one columnist described the sequence, “It’s genius.”
It’s made me ponder how such rings true in our country today — wondering if part of the reason America’s religious landscape continues to change is because we have allowed politics to become an accepted religion. Knowing how deep this issue potentially penetrates, allow us to utilize singular, first-person pronouns for the rest of today’s conversation. What happens when politics becomes my religion?
I justify widespread binary thinking… If you’re not for me, you’re against me; there is no gray… If you can’t see that Trump is evil, you, too, are degenerate… If you can’t see that Joe’s a joke, you aren’t very intelligent nor bright… While there are many clear principles and encouragements in Judeo-Christian teaching, there also remains a healthy existence of gray, where the answer isn’t so black-and-white. The person who does not share my political viewpoint is not my enemy. Such dichotomous thinking may happen when politics becomes my religion.
So I ask again: what happens when politics becomes my religion?
I forgo fundamental tenets… Be kind. Be generous. Clothe yourself with compassion. Do what is merciful and just. Be honest. Be thoughtful in how you both speak of and treat other people — even behind their back… Those are a mere bit of the basics. But when I routinely fail to be kind, when I give grounds for my lack of compassion, or when I even go so far as to make excuses for the dishonesty of one with whom I sense political alignment, politics might be becoming my religion.
And one more time: what happens when politics becomes my religion?
I become increasingly, only selectively aware of others… Love your neighbor as yourself… All persons are created equal… All persons were created in the image of God… Those are embedded, core religious teachings. But when loving my neighbor depends on who my neighbor is, I’m not fulfilling that directive. When I attempt to root out injustice by applying more injustice, I’m forgetting how equal we all are. And when I treat absolutely anybody like only I am created in God’s image, no doubt I have fallen prey to this idea that politics is somehow a worthy religion.
When politics becomes my religion, I have begun to embrace something lesser… something lesser than consistent kindness, charity, and justice.
When politics becomes my religion, I have missed the value and beauty of true equality.
And when politics becomes my religion, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain humble, recognizing I will always have so much more to learn — so much to learn about me, God, and other people. Let me be a student of other people.
I admit: politics can be an “attractive pull” in our culture. And let me be clear that it’s totally understandable and ok to be politically passionate. But simply put, I don’t want to drift into accepting a religious creed which nurses me away from the totality of what’s truly most important.