We've just come out of one of the most dispiriting political campaigns in recent memory. Whether or not your candidate of choice won, aren't you at least a little bit glad it's over?
In case you hadn't noticed, hyper-polarization is growing in the United States. It's become all about Team Red versus Team Blue. We now abhor the idea that our children could marry someone from across the aisle. And over the next four years, we will be at each other's throats even more. This is what threatens to destroy us. Not a nuclear holocaust provoked by Donald Trump's impulsiveness or Hillary Clinton's hawkishness, but our own tendency to tear one another apart over our political views.
What is this sickness that has taken us? The symptoms we see in society might baffle secular observers, but they are actually quite familiar to anyone who is a Christian or is Biblically formed. We have turned politics into an idol.
In the modern world, the question of religion is often framed in terms of "To worship, or not to worship?" But the Bible teaches that this question has already been answered: As humans, we were made for worship and we can't not worship. The question is not whether to worship, but what to worship. Everybody worships something: success, status, pride, money, sex, fame, self-realization, self-righteousness, self-image. Whatever it is, there's always something we're willing to sacrifice everything for. According to the Bible, an idol is something that is not meant to be God that we put in the place of God. And things — even good things — turned into idols will eventually eat and destroy us.
One of the prophets of the Bible, Elijah, challenged the priests of the false god Baal to a challenge. The priests of Baal were to pray to their god to light a fire and eat their sacrifice. But nothing happened. Elijah mocks the priests: Maybe your god is sleeping, he says. Maybe your god is too busy. The priests get restless. They start dancing, and eventually hopping up and down madly in frustration and eagerness, and eventually start cutting themselves. This is an excellent metaphor for what idolatry does to us: The awaited benefits don't come. We get restless and impatient, and eventually we harm ourselves. Think of a drunk, or a junkie going through withdrawal. This is what idolatry does to us.
Politics has become our idol. Politics has become our Baal. And like the priests of Baal, because politics does not do what we expect, which it cannot, we are going through this same insane dance. We are becoming shadows of ourselves.
The end result of Marxism shows the danger of using politics as an idol. Marxism got some teachings of Christianity right but missed the important teaching of original sin, which implies that because people are flawed, utopia in this life is impossible, and attempts to build utopia will breed dystopia.
If politics or politicians are your gods, then those who worship a different god aren't just misguided opponents. They're enemies in a holy war. Witness the past 10 years. We tear each other apart in symbolic and pointless battles over cakes and bathrooms. The more we fight, the more alien we become to each other, the more the rancor deepens.
So, what are we to do? As my colleague James Poulos points out in his book, this exact quandary was on Alexis de Tocqueville's mind 200 years ago when he visited America. Tocqueville's solution, Poulos says? Well, here's a three-point plan:
Remember that politics is not the most important thing in the world. We need to realize that we are all bigger than our politics. I love my daughter. And you love your son. And when you prick me I bleed. I have hobbies. I have hopes and dreams, and I know what it is to love so much and so hard that I'm afraid my chest will explode, and to cry so hard and so deep that I am crumbled in a heap on the floor and cannot get up. And so do you, probably. Politics is not the most important thing in the world.
Hang out. No, seriously, hang out. Get off the couch and hang out with other humans. Preferably from other classes and political parties but that's not even necessary. It's easier to demonize the others when you've never seen the whites of their eyes. The country of hyper-polarization is also the country of bowling alone. Become active in your PTA. Become active in your church or synagogue or mosque (and join one if you have to). Join a macrame club. Develop and treasure interpersonal interactions. It is because the bonds of community have become frayed that we look to the state to replace them and that we look upon our neighbors as enemies.
Find an artistic passion. Even better than joining a bowling league: Join a band. Or just become really passionate about music, or movies. Create if you want to, but you don't have to. The point is to find something transcendent to become passionate about that doesn't require you to rhetorically murder anyone and instead (hopefully) helps you connect with people across political and class divides. And make the world and the country more beautiful and give us something more attractive to pay attention than the perpetual war of all-against-all that is contemporary politics.