Good ol’ time American politics?

The Immanent Frame

I had casually written, back in 1994, that the United States of America was the most religious country in the world, certainly more religious than the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was a passing remark in an argument about the role of religion in the national imaginary, and it was meant as hyperbolic provocation. Yet, it is hardly provocative and hardly hyperbolic; it’s just plain fact. I’m speaking of societies, not of states – in the end, states cannot be configured in religious terms at all; even an official theocracy is a worldly regime. It is how states act in the real world in the name of religion that concerns us. The fact of America’s religiosity is foundational to its history, and the religion of Americans has always been intricately entwined with their politics. Though this is indeed unique in the history of modern nations, just a few decades ago it would not have been worthy of sociological research and scholarly exchange.

Whatever might be our assessment of this long history of religion and politics in America, something has changed in this configuration – what exactly isn’t entirely clear or easy to agree upon, though there is wide-ranging agreement as to the change. I don’t know if religion has changed – this is something I’m utterly baffled about and, from a scholarly point of view, unqualified to disentangle. The connection between religion and the new technology surely is an obvious dimension of change, but, from my amateur standpoint, I don’t quite perceive a substantial difference – except the massive difference in scale – between the logic of televangelism and the logic of Martin Luther Thomas’s radio addresses in the 1930s, as analyzed by Theodor Adorno in his inimitable fashion. I am not certain if and how religion has changed in America, but I am convinced politics in America has changed and the relation between it and religion is one of the reasons.

We live in an era when political races in electoral politics, not just in the US but anywhere in the world where they are conducted under “free market logic,” have become marketing campaigns. The commodification of candidates for a consumerist electorate is such routine that were it suddenly to vanish tomorrow, by virtue of some extraterrestrial magic, whole societies would be utterly paralyzed before the fear of having to elect officials on the basis of forming an opinion solely on their own judgment. I consider this a worldwide phenomenon, and there’s much to say about it in terms of politics of late-capitalism, but this is not of the present order.

What is truly amazing is that, in this uniform climate of electoral marketing, only in American elections – principally in national races, but not entirely – is the commodity “religion” such an overwhelming factor. The idea that American candidates, of all stars and stripes, vehemently compete with each other on who is the most genuine and devout Christian – the most American Christian (accurate, though awkward, phrase) – is utterly baffling in any other electoral context in the world, which is otherwise, I repeat, just as commodified. Let us, by the way, not sidestep the fact that in this religious race for the most representative American-ness, there is only Christianity at play – Christianity is religion in this very precise sense, to give Gil Anidjar his due.

One of the most bizarre spectacles we may see come November, if things play out in this direction, is a charming and articulate black man with a Muslim name bending head over heels to prove to all that he is the epitome of a Christian. Barack Obama has already started this, of course, with his meticulous Dr. Martin Luther King impersonations.

This is why I fail to get anxious about the Christian-Right politics of certain candidates in the Republican Party. Surely, Mitt Romney’s blue-blood Mormonism – to the degree he is a viable national candidate at all – adds a new dimension to the well-trodden path. Or rather, to be more precise, the new dimension resides in his comment, uttered in the context of an otherwise impeccable and characteristic American spirit of religious tolerance, that there is just one religion – “the religion of secularism” he called it – which must be battled at all costs. This language, yes, is new, but even then it’s a mere logical extension of the Christian agonistics of post-Nixon American politics.

Thus, the Christian content of the Mike Huckabee candidacy is hardly worth batting an eyelid. It seems utterly conventional to me. I very much respect D. Michael Lindsay’s research in his recent book Faith in the Halls of Power, but I admit I cannot quite fathom the notion of “cosmopolitan evangelical.” Certainly, as applied to Huckabee, it becomes strained beyond recognition before the shadow of a vision that advocates a federal marriage amendment in order “to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards.” The first is outright reprehensible, but it pales before the second, which, to me, is positively horrifying. In any case, I can’t imagine what part or whole of such vision could be deemed cosmopolitan. We are likely to agree that the life of the polis – imagination and reality combined – never did manage to work at the level of the cosmos, but even then, “God’s standards” (of whatever God) are more alien to the life of the polis than anything at all – imaginable and real. The Augustinian city is simply not the polis.

This isn’t to deny that American evangelicals have entered the ranks of a social and economic elite whose way of life, faith notwithstanding, is inevitably globe-trotting. But this class ‘ascension’ does not justify the hard line drawn between old “populist evangelicals” and new “cosmopolitan evangelicals.” As my friend Virginia Jackson, who is an eminent Americanist, points out, the stratification of religion in America was always bound to the dynamics of class structure, and its contemporary permutations, whatever they might be, need to be traced to the reconfigurations of class in America in recent decades, a task that cannot be conducted purely internally – as American sociology proper – but in conjunction with globally shifting forms and contents of class in all societies drawn and quartered by late-capitalist realities.

Meanwhile, citizens responding to the current electoral climate of Christian agonistics – if they care at all about the significance and responsibility of citizenship – need to guard against certain crucial and pragmatic dangers. At the very least, they need to be concerned with any aspiring leader who happens to think heaven is a better place than earth, particularly at a time in human history when the planet is taking such a ruthless beating. For, if any future government chooses to take up the business of salvation, then, permit me to say, we’ve all gone to hell.