When Left-wing Politics Becomes a Substitute for Religion

Spring has barely sprung, but this much can already be said for 2017: it’s a bumper year for activism. On April 29, in honor of Donald Trump’s one hundredth day as president, 300,000 Americans marched in support of “jobs, justice, and climate action.” (That’s a quote from the website of the “People’s Climate Movement.” Do not ask me to connect these dots.)

The Climate March is just the latest installment in a seemingly endless string of marches that have been going on from January through the present. With the warm weather upon us, it seems unlikely that they’ll taper off now.

Liberals have always had a taste for political activism. In general, religious conservatives are less keen. We have our annual March for Life, and it’s true that the Tea Party was fairly friendly to the public demonstration. That was a bit different from the protests we’re currently seeing, however. The Tea Party had a central theme. Seeing massive growth of government and irresponsible spending in the early Obama years, conservatives made a sustained, grassroots effort to voice their opposition. Here we see no such cohesion. Clearly liberals are upset about Trump, but their protests are all over the map: women, taxes, the environment, you name it. Oddly, the randomness doesn’t seem to dissuade people from coming.

Or perhaps it isn’t random, after all. Have demonstrations simply become the liberal substitute for church? There must be some connection between the emptying of Protestant pews, and the filling of Washingtonian streets. As God is exchanged for mammon, the rally seems to have become the new devotional. As we might expect, then, it has many elements of a devotional. There may be ceremonial clothing (pink hats, for instance). Creeds are printed on placards, and carried in processions. There is preaching, and usually music.

The rally is meant to give like-minded people a sense of solidarity. In the political demonstration, we see people of faith gathered together for mutual support. These are trying times for liberals, so it’s not greatly surprising that we would see a resurgence of political devotion.

What, on the other side, should we make of these demonstrations? On the one hand, we are grateful that the protests have been, in general, peaceful. The antifa movement has stirred up some ugliness these past few months, mostly on college campuses. This is worrisome. Happily though, these incidents have been fairly small in scale, and not (to this point) of a sort to provoke widespread civil unrest. The monster demonstrations involving thousands have shown no real proclivity towards violence.

This is of course a blessing. Violent protests create fear and enmity, and we should give (the majority of) our liberal compatriots credit for respecting civic order and the rule of law—at least in this limited instance. Truthfully though, peaceful protests are susceptible to a different weakness: they make us want to laugh. This is especially true of this recent spate of exercises, which show strong marks of hysteria and general loopiness. How does an obscene-headwear parade help women? Was it necessary to pick Holy Saturday to protest corruption? Doesn’t this all feel a bit like an ongoing tantrum?

It’s also possible that protests may inspire a more benevolent kind of condescension. In our bleak modern age, it can just be heartwarming to see people caring about something, even a rather foolish thing. The march on Washington, in particular, is something of an American tradition. Thus, there can be something perversely cheering about witnessing a demonstration even for a cause one very definitely does not support. That such things can still happen here seems like an indicator of (at least modest) well-being for society as a whole.

In light of these reflections, we should note this. Non-believers have many of the same reactions to the churchgoing. Some see religion as insidious, and a possible precursor to unhinged zealotry. Others are benevolently tolerant, but make no secret of their mirth when we Christians insist that there is something salutary about assembling in dusty pews to watch men in funny clothes perform strange rituals. At the same time, there are also non-believers who find churchgoing heartwarming. It is traditional, and the continued vitality of churches may appear to be a sign of cultural health, even in the eyes of one who does not believe.

Contemplating these parallels, we may get a better sense for how to view liberal activism. It is an expression of liberal piety, and a major organ of liberal civic life. That means, on the one hand, that we should remain in every way supportive of the of liberals’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Of course it is a Constitutional right in any case, but it is an especially dear freedom for liberals, just as freedom of worship is for Christians. We should expect liberals to fight tooth and nail if their freedom to demonstrate is ever threatened.

It also means that the liberal demonstration, even when snicker-worthy, is important as an indicator of what’s happening on the left. Because they don’t respect religion, liberals often make the mistake of just assuming that the views of religious people are basically incoherent. They rarely bother to investigate. It’s not to their benefit or the nation’s; even if you think people are very wrong, it’s often worthwhile to take the trouble to understand them. Admittedly, there are strong non-parallels here. Christians worship a real God, in fidelity to a tradition honed across millennia. Liberal politics, by contrast, is a murky mess of different influences, easily moved by momentary fads and emotional currents. Even so, protests can be good indicators of where cultural currents are flowing, and it may be worth taking a little trouble to understand the interior logic such as it is.

Finally, looking out over the sad scene of signs and strange garments, we should allow ourselves to feel pity. We might properly feel moved to pray for those unfortunates who have no king but Caesar. If this is how people feed their souls, how desolate must those souls be?

For the godless man, political horizons may represent the only higher cause worth pursuing. It’s unsurprising that liberals quickly grow shrill when their political vision seems to be faltering. Christians have the benefit of a long tradition and, even more importantly, the reassurance that all things are ultimately held in God’s providential care. Unbelievers have no such reassurance, so we can understand why their rhetoric and activism may take on despairing notes. They are hungry for the spiritual food that we ourselves have.

Christ told his Apostles that the harvest was plentiful. Looking out across the throngs of protestors, we see that it is plentiful still.

(Photo credit: Megan Cloherty / WTOP)

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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