Only Tolerance Can Save Us From Political Fanatics
Religion, we’ve been warned, divides us and leads to conflict. It stands to reason, then, that as the country becomes less religious, conflict should fade away. Instead, it’s clear people are eager to fight one another at all costs, and they’ll find new reasons to do so if the old ones become irrelevant. Forget religious wars; Americans now wage their fanatical crusades over politics.
As in the past, to avoid endless strife we’re going to have to learn to peacefully coexist.
“Religion poisons everything,” warned the late Christopher Hitchens. He was perfectly willing to respect the right of the faithful to celebrate their traditions, he said, but he argued that believers were incapable of “the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone.”
So, life should be growing more peaceful as the years pass, right? After all, “Gallup finds the percentage of Americans who report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque at an all-time low” and “as older, more religiously observant generations die out, they are being replaced by far less religious young adults,” Pew Research tells us.
But anybody who has even accidentally glanced at recent headlines knows that life is not growing more peaceful. Americans are as divided as ever and engaged in increasingly violent conflict not just to win, but to destroy perceived enemies. Religion may be going away, but new causes have arisen to excite the passions of true believers.
“American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief,” Shadi Hamid argues in The Atlantic. “Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.”
Worse, of course, is that political true believers are, if anything, even less inclined than the theologically motivated to “leave me alone” as Hitchens justifiably wanted. Religious fanatics all too often harness state power to force their visions on the unwilling, but political fanatics don’t know any other way to express their beliefs. And they are fanatics.
“On the left, the ‘woke’ take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends,” adds Hamid. “On the right, adherents of a Trump-centric ethno-nationalism still drape themselves in some of the trappings of organized religion, but the result is a movement that often looks like a tent revival stripped of Christian witness.”
Hamid isn’t the first observer to conc
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