I recently read an article by Ross Douthat that summarizes the thesis of his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and by the time I finished reading it I felt like the robot from the old TV show, Lost in Space, waving my arms wildly and shouting, “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” As much as I usually admire and agree with Mr. Douthat’s columns, in this case I think he has completely misunderstood the cause of our current political polarization and the cure he offers is not only guilty of romanticizing the past but of promoting a dangerous religious unity.
Mr. Douthat says that since the 1950s we have witnessed a weakening of mainline Protestant denominations and an explosion of “more start-up sects, more do-it-yourself forms of faith.” In his article he explains that our tolerance of religious diversity has led to a loss of a shared Christian center that we used to rely on to bridge political differences and “call people out of private loyalties to public purposes… inspire voters to put ideals above self-interest, [and] inspire politicians to defy partisan categories altogether.” Our failure to achieve political unity to address national issues, he claims, is a result of weakened religious institutions and a resulting combative religious environment.
He points to the civil rights era as a time when religion served as a unifying force. In the 1960s, our religious institutions were still strong enough to unite people across the political spectrum, so much so that leaders of black churches were able to “shame many Southerners into accepting desegregation.” Douthat longs for that time when “the institutional churches proved their worth as both sources of moral authority and hubs of activism, and where religious witness helped forge a genuine national consensus on an issue where even presidents feared to tread.”
I do agree that the civil rights movement offers a masterful example of using faith to inspire reform, but Martin Luther King, Jr. did not accomplish that by appealing to the existing shared religious center. That shared religious center was an obstacle he had to overcome. [Cue robot arms waving wildly.] Segregation was preached as God’s will from pulpits across religious denominations and political divides. King could not appeal to the shared belief at the core of those churches, because that belief was racist at its core. And more problematic still, the racist God was also a violent God in whose name one could fire bomb black churches, murder black civil rights workers, and lynch black men as the main event at a summer picnic. These atrocities were all committed by good Christian folk who believed God was on their side and that they were acting in God’s name. Douthat may try to argue that this does not represent the essential core of Christian faith, but back then he would have a fist fight on his hands.
Martin Luther King’s success came from challenging that racist and violent faith by calling on Americans to believe in a different kind of God, a God whose mercy and love could not abide violence of any kind. Not even violence in the name of good, which is actually the only kind of violence there is. To challenge our faith in good violence, King refused to use violence as a weapon. He refused to hate his enemies or exclude them from God’s kingdom, even as they were excluding him.
The reason we are so polarized today is not that we have lost a common religious understanding or access to a shared value system, but exactly the opposite. We are at loggerheads with each other because we all believe in the God Dr. King was trying to overcome: the violent deity who is on our side and against our enemies. Despite appearances, we do have a shared national religion, and it is one that cannot tolerate any disagreement. If I am on God’s side and you are against me, I have no choice but to defeat you in God’s name. In this religion, the world is black and white, good and evil, and all differences must be violently eliminated.
What Mr. Douthat fails to see is that in our current climate, we have only the appearance of religious diversity. What has proliferated is a profusion of religious groups who all believe in the same violent God and who are trying desperately to distinguish themselves from one another by dividing the world up into good and evil. Not surprisingly, they find themselves and only themselves among the good. They have created a world of false differences to avoid seeing that nothing real distinguishes them from their so-called enemies.
Dr. King recognized that dividing the world into good and evil would only generate more division and more violence. He offered us a new kind of unity that would allow differences to flourish. Racial, cultural and religious differences would not be erased in this unity, they would become more fully alive, making the world more diverse, complex, and interesting. This other faith is what Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement offered us – a faith in a God of love and mercy who is capable of loving even those we call our enemies. The end of political polarization will not come about by a reunification of our religious center if we are gathering around a God of violence. Such an occurrence would be disastrous for us and for the world. It is what totalitarianism looks like. For a different kind of unity, I offer Dr. King’s own description of the crowd that gathered for the historic 1963 march on Washington, D.C.:
The enormous multitude… was an army without guns, but not without strength… It was white, and Negro, and of all ages. It had adherents of every faith, members of every class, every profession, every political party, united by a single ideal. It was a fighting army, but no one could mistake that its most powerful weapon was love.
(The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, 222)
Christianity is the religion of a repentant lynch mob. To follow Jesus is to take our victim as our king and to never forget how dangerous the wrong kind of unity can be.