Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke officially launched his candidacy for the Democratic nomination by declaring to Vanity Fair he is "just born to be in it." And his supporters seem to have picked up on the "chosen one" undertones already, with a sign at a Saturday night rally in Austin glorying, "BETO IS OUR CHRIST."
This is, of course, just one sign. Maybe it was a joke. Maybe a single, still image misrepresents the grimace of devotion on the sign-holder's face. Maybe he's not there to support O'Rourke but to embarrass him — the Trump 2020 flag in the background shows counter-demonstrators were on hand.
But maybe not, and maybe the fact that a "BETO IS OUR CHRIST" sign is plausible as a sincere statement of political enthusiasm should give us serious pause as we plunge into the 2020 race. Ours is a culture friendly to idolizing public figures, politicians very much included, and this campaign season will offer plenty of opportunity for such misguided worship. Next year will be a high holy year of American civil religion, one marked by the (political) death of many gods. We place our faith in them at our peril.
There is a sense, yes, in which this is nothing new: That sign-holding man in Austin did not invent political adoration. Former President Barack Obama's campaigns, for example, were known for their messianic themes, especially in 2008. Oprah Winfrey described him in the run-up to that year's primaries as a rare politician "who know[s] how to be the truth," which is difficult not to read as a reference to one of Jesus' most explicit claims of divinity.
But there are also at least three ways in which 2020 promises to take Americans' idolization of political leaders to fresh heights.
The first is structural. As the office of the presidency becomes ever more powerful and unbound by constitutional and social constraints, it is unsurprising to find Americans investing the role with salvific significance. When it seems the president can do anything he wants, it is natural to want him to do the anything you want. The modern Oval Office is the seat of unparalleled power, so it is foolish but not obviously irrational to believe that installing the right person is the solution to all our national woes. And absent dramatic reforms — which both parties extoll in the minority and abandon in the majority — the public conception of the president-as-savior, chosen to enact the hope of America, will continue to escalate alongside executive authority.
President Trump (and at least some of those jockeying to be his opposition) will further this dynamic by encouraging political idolatry from his fans. Trump's not the originator of our civil religion, but he has availed himself of it in unique ways. Think of how he demands intense personal loyalty; how he takes credit for the whole health of the economy ("the greatest jobs president God ever created"); how he dominates the news cycle and with it our mental real estate; how he declares himself the proper repository of our political faith ("I alone can fix it"); how he fixates on greatness.
All of this pushes us, regardless of political affiliation, to think of the presidency as a near-omnipotent determinant of our national fate. When you're electing a god, the stakes are high!
The second factor at play in 2020 (and beyond) is the decline of other outlets for our religiosity. Now you may believe, as I do, that those without substantive faith commitments are inclined to bring religious fervor to their politics because we are made to find meaning in community life and transcendent ritual, and the emptiness we feel without them is a "pointer to something other and outer." Or you may simply think our brains evolved for religiosity.
Whatever the cause, the effect is the same: As religious participation declines, political participation appears as the only large-scale alternative. It can offer religion-like feelings of belonging, service, and commitment to truth — or at least a temporarily functional facsimile. So we substitute state for church, voting for prayer, celebrity endorsers for clergy, and human props for saints as we pick our preferred deity on the ballot.
And this is not a phenomenon exclusive to the explicitly religiously unaffiliated. As Timothy P. Carney argues in a compelling county-level statistical analysis of 2016 primary results at The American Conservative, "Many of Trump's earliest and most dedicated supporters were seeking a deeper fulfillment" than surface-level pledges of factory jobs and restricted immigration: "[W]hen Middle America turned away from church, they were missing something. And they sought it in Trump," while staying nominally Christian.
The third reason 2020 will see Americans particularly prone to political idolatry is how the race has been widely cast as a "good vs. evil" fight where we decide "what kind of country we are." This too is not new, though the rhetoric does feel more dramatic than in most elections of recent history. The other two factors are feeders here: Growth of executive power means the president has real capacity to do evil, and religiosity in political zeal pushes us to seek alliance with an ultimate good. We are awarding a very large prize, and we want our decision to be judged on the right side of history.
The trouble with all this is that the imperial presidency is a hazard to be dismantled, not grasped; that flawed and finite politicians are always doomed to insufficiency as recipients of our hope and trust; and that settling into a stark, "good vs. evil" mindset with our political opponents — the family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors who vote differently than we do — makes it all but impossible to do anything but deepen that division, perhaps pushing them to reactively embrace the bad ideas we want them to abandon.
Beto is not your Christ. Neither is Trump, nor anyone else who runs for president. And that's true no matter how willing they may be to play that role or how good it may feel to let them play it. Political idolatry is a sure route to disappointment; your idol may look golden, but his feet are made of clay.