Reducing Religion to Politics

What do political expressions like Right and Left have to do with religion?

Nothing, some people say. The terms are misleading enough in politics, and carrying them over to religion stretches them beyond reason. Politics and religion are complex, and each has its own concerns, methods, and issues. So why use expressions like “right-wing” and “left-wing” to talk about things that differ as much as tariffs and transubstantiation?

The argument sounds good but few buy it. Pretty much everyone who takes an interest in religion and public affairs distinguishes Right and Left, applies the distinction to both fields, and sorts issues, politicians, and churchmen accordingly. When they’re talking about opponents, they’re even more likely to speak as if everything were partisan politics. The Catholic Left says the Catholic Right is all about a right-wing political agenda, and the Right returns the compliment.

Political interpretations of others’ views are often political in a bad way. It’s a big world, people’s thinking is complicated, and simplifying opposing views so they can be dismissed on general grounds is an obvious way to make the situation more manageable.

My views combine subtlety, balance, and profundity, yours are crude ideology. Such attitudes make it easy to dismiss others no matter what they actually say. If you’re a rightist who accepts tariffs and transubstantiation, leftists say it’s because you want to exclude people. If you like transubstantiation but not tariffs, you have a blind attachment to rules, as long as the rules don’t require you to pay anything. And if you’re a leftist who accepts the latter views, you’ll be called a left-wing globalist who’s fond of virtue-signaling Catholic orthodoxy on issues he doesn’t care about.

Even so, political interpretations of religious views can be entirely valid. Religion and politics aren’t trivial self-contained activities like stamp collecting or Chinese checkers. They’re inevitably connected to each other. Our view of politics depends on our attitude toward human society, and religion establishes our basic attitude to the world and everything in it. So tariffs are indeed connected to religion, and transubstantiation to politics. That’s why the Church has a social teaching, and government has laws regarding religion.

The relation is complicated, and people sometimes deal with it in ways that don’t make sense. The chief problem is subordination of religion to politics. When that happens a reductive view of an opponent’s religious views—that they’re all about politics—may actually be correct.

The opposite error is of course possible: religion might turn theocratic. That would be a problem, since religion shouldn’t determine everything about politics any more than about highway construction. But in the West the distinction between God and Caesar has always discouraged theocratic rule by religious authorities, and today it’s hard to see the threat.

Domination of religion by politics is a different matter, and current trends make it a serious threat indeed. That’s because of secular utopian ways of thought that now pervade public life and provide a substitute religion for many people.

Modern times are distinguished by an aspiration for a single universal system of thought, knowledge, and action that puts man in control. That goal is to be realized through system and rigor. Everything that can’t be made numerical and publicly verifiable, or reduced to the particular projects of particular people, must be downgraded. Tradition, common sense, and informal pattern recognition—not to mention revelation—have to go as sources of knowledge and guides to action.

The implicit ideal is to remodel all human life in accordance with modern natural science and technology in ways that enable people to get what they want, as much and equally as possible, within the limits set by the coherence, effectiveness, and durability of the system.

On such a view politics becomes the process of remodeling, and thus controls everything. It is therefore expected to control religion, which is viewed as part of the software of the social machine and something to be designed, revised, and refined to help the machine work as intended. Hence the conviction among many people today that religion is a branch of politics. It has no independent source of authority, or so it is thought, and politics creates the human world and thus defines what is most real and important. It’s therefore assumed you model your religion, consciously or unconsciously, on your political views.

Such a conviction can be found among conservatives, since their way of thinking can’t help but reflect the basic tendencies of the time. But it is most at home among progressives, since progressive thought is an attempt to push modern tendencies forward ever more completely and consistently. Otherwise, why would it be called progressive? Its ultimate goal is the construction of an ideal secular society. But if you aspire to an ideal this-worldly society, why have an independent religious ideal that points outside of it?

Subordination of religion to politics is of course irrational. Religion is about ultimate goods, commitments, and realities. The concrete means and ends with which politics concerns itself are rationally secondary to those things.

In practice, it’s common to invert the order. Someone tries to acquire wealth or power as a way of achieving a better life for his family or people, and ends up treating them as goals in themselves. But modern ways of thinking try to turn that error into a principle. The principle might be stated as the superiority of practice to theory—of what gets us what we want to what is good in itself. That attempt lies at the root of American pragmatism, which reduces truth to usefulness, and Marx’s comment that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

It has even infiltrated the Church, which should be its great opponent, as evidenced by the spread of slogans like “realities are more important than ideas” and the associated tendency to subordinate doctrine to pastoral practice that bases itself on an ideal of accompaniment.

But something that makes no sense can’t really be turned into a principle. In fact, someone who consistently puts practice ahead of principle is showing what his real principles are. If usefulness is put before truth, or changing the world before understanding it, the real principle is that power—the ability to get what’s wanted—is the highest good.

Similarly, to the extent a churchman puts pastoral practice and accompaniment before doctrine, on the grounds that realities matter more than ideas, then his real doctrine—the principle he takes most seriously—is that religion is basically a way of dealing with this-worldly concerns such as avoiding conflict and reducing anxiety. And that is indeed the progressive view of the matter: religion has no importance of its own, it’s more a poetic way of looking at secular concerns.

It is not surprising that the emphasis in the Church on openness to an ever more radically secular society has led to such tendencies. The problem, of course, is that these tendencies ultimately mean abandonment of the Faith as anything substantively different from secular thought and practice. If persisted in, they thus lead to creeping apostasy—disguised, often even from the victim, by religious forms and language.

We are all touched by our times, so with very few exceptions we are all at risk of abandoning the Faith by turning it into something less and more this-worldly than it is. And that, it seems to me, is the greatest threat to the Church today: not that she will be destroyed by her external enemies, but that her members will slowly come around to their way of thinking, so that what they call their religion will truly become a matter of politics and other this-worldly concerns.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).