Andrew Sullivan’s Elephant: Mixing Religion and Politics

There is an overlooked elephant in the room that Andrew Sullivan’s May 15th Time Magazine essay unknowingly, yet brilliantly, illustrates. In his essay, titled “My Problem with Christianism,” Mr. Sullivan coins the term “Christianist” for those on the “religious right” who hold the belief that “religion dictates politics.” From that idea he strongly “dissents.”

But the elephant (the pachyderm variety, not the Republican kind) standing next to him is this: everyone’s religious beliefs, not just the “religious right,” inform their political views. Let me explain.

Mr. Sullivan writes that he is “opposed to any politicization of the Gospels,” then two sentences later quotes Jesus to prove his point. Now wait a minute: Sullivan is quoting Jesus to make a point about politics that claims nobody should quote Jesus to make a point about politics! I smell peanuts on his breath (the elephant’s, not Sullivan’s).

Sullivan pretends that his religiously held beliefs do not inform his political views, yet it cannot be denied, they do. In fact, everyone’s belief system operates on the same premise. That’s because ideas come in clusters. What a person believes about one area of life has implications for other areas. And ultimately, everyone’s beliefs can be traced back to what they believe about God: whether God exists and what God is like.

Sullivan’s view is that God is not interested in politics, and so he quotes Jesus, “My kingdom is not of this world.” On the other hand, another Christian may quote Jesus’ call for his followers to be “salt and light” and arrive at the opposite conclusion. Both hold equally religious beliefs in the authority of what Jesus taught. So why does Sullivan chastise those who stand on his political right for “imposing their beliefs” on others since he is in the same boat? (It’s a big boat, ’cause the elephant is there, too.) While we’re quoting Jesus, it seems he had something to say about those who pretend to be who they are not. Jesus used the term “actor,” as in a theatrical performance. Your translation may render it “hypocrite.”

Let’s hasten to point out that in the same boat with the Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews are the secularists, of whatever stripe — atheist, skeptic, agnostic, or “non-believer.” They, too, have a belief about God, or ultimate reality — God is a figment of the imagination, nature is all there is.

Secularism, too, is a religious belief according to Webster (peruse your favorite edition) and the Supreme Court (see Torcaso v. Watkins, 1961, p. 495). And this religious belief, if consistently played out, translates into their understanding of the nature of humans (we’re really smart monkeys), morals (make ’em up as you go), and, you guessed it, politics, with a penchant for one particular side of the political aisle.

I smell that pesky pachyderm again. If you turn around you’ll see him, too. But don’t rock the boat, it’s already listing dangerously to larboard. So if the consistent political persuasion of religious “unbelievers” is left, does that mean that religious “believers” who also lean left, like Sullivan, are inconsistent in their political views? Hmm… but I digress.

The question, then, is not whether someone’s political views originate from their religious beliefs. No matter how hard people like Mr. Sullivan try to make it not so, that fact, like the elephant, cannot be denied.

The only question is, whose religious beliefs will be the guiding light for our nation’s political discourse. Mr. Sullivan opts for his Christian beliefs. I guess, according to his definition, that makes him a “Christianist.” But, Sullivan insists, that amounts to “political pollution of sincere, personal faith” and a position of “intolerance” he “dissents from” and “abhor[s].” Does this mean he doesn’t like himself, or is it he just “dissents” from his own views. I’m confused.

But, you question, didn’t the founders of these United States separate the church from the state? Yes and no. We must be clear, the separation the founders set in place was between the organization of the church and the organization of the state. On the other hand, they understood what Sullivan does not, that political ideas cannot be divorced from their religious assumptions. The founders believed that ideas originating from Christianity-like morality, individual liberty, the dignity of mankind are the wellspring of popular government. George Washington, for example, insisted that religion and morality are the only true supports for our unique form of self-government.

I suggest that Mr. Sullivan and those who have come under the mirage of trying to separate the inseparable come clean with the fact that religious ideas and political ideas do mix, in fact they must mix.

And now that we have escorted that elephant out of the room, we can see more clearly to discuss the important political issues of our day. Maybe we should start with what Jesus actually meant by what he said, like his views on the nature of man and morals . . . and oh, yes, there was that bit about Caesar, and what he said about the little children, and then . . . would you care for some peanuts while we chat?