Opinion | Paul Olson: Are we worshipping at the political altar?

Paul Olson

Trevor Noah was interviewed in October on Alex Wagner Tonight and made the observation that “… politics is now becoming the new religion of America.” In terms of the average person’s daily devotional effort, Noah may be correct. Many church-goers set aside only Sunday morning for pious observance, but the politically faithful are often anxiously scrolling the news every day in hopes of uplifting reports about their party’s prospects. For many, politics defines their worldview, who they associate with, where they get their news and what they want the news to say. Noah’s intriguing metaphor is troubling because politics is supposed to help us choose the best public servants and not be focused on worshipping political leaders.

Religion depends on dogma, doctrines that are accepted as truth because they come from authority such as holy scripture or a priest. It is expected that a person have faith in their church’s doctrine but our democracy depends on people seeking objective evidence and not putting all their faith in the opinions of political leaders or evening news pundits. Speeches full of political dogma such as “big corporations are greedy” or “all tax raises are bad” impede constructive debate in legislatures and result in less effective government policies.

Our Constitution established a limited government as a means to an end, designed to protect our life, liberty and property. The conformity that might be important for a religion does not work within a system of government. Our nation is a republic with representatives elected to carry out the will of the people. This form of government is necessary when there is a diverse population as in the United States where flexibility is required to accommodate many opinions and circumstances. The founders recognized the fallibility of humans and the danger of giving too much power to one person or to the government itself. That is why our government has checks and balances and is subject to the Bill of Rights.

A 2022 CBS/YouGov poll found that nearly half of Democrats and Republicans viewed the opposing party not just as opponents but as the enemy and a threat to America. With this self-righteous attitude it is easy see why people are fine with campaign speeches and political ads full of lies and half-truths as long as they help their candidate defeat the evil enemy. This adversarial attitude allows our elected officials to never offer any constructive policies but instead to just be opposed to whatever the other party is in favor of. 

In religion, it is often the accepted practice to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” In politics this approach makes for corrupt representatives and bad government. Pew Research found that in the 2020 election only 4% of voters split their ballot with a vote for president in one party and a vote for a congress member of the other major party. It appears that voters put more faith in the “R” or “D” on the ballot than they do on the candidate’s character or qualifications. On Election Day, all sins are forgiven if the candidate is from your party.

If politics is your current religion remember that even religious beliefs change over time. Christians no longer believe that the sun revolves around the Earth or that men have one fewer rib than women. Science has been very helpful in updating religious beliefs so they conform to the facts of the observable world. Science can also be useful in bringing people together on political issues such as climate change, abortion and the efficacy of vaccinations.

There is far too much faithfulness to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Democrats also obey this rule for their party. The second anniversary of the Jan. 6 coup attempt is four weeks away and blind faith to their party keeps millions from admitting that this was a coordinated criminal act. Every member of Congress takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution. The mainstream Republican leaders in Congress should have acted as gatekeepers long ago and denounced the election deniers who put retaining power above upholding the law.

Your political party is supposed to be just a group of people with similar views about how government should be operated. It should never be a cult that believes it holds a monopoly on truth and morality and is above the Constitution. When your political doctrine allows you to feel justified in denying another person’s right to equal protection under the law or the right to vote then you might consider rethinking your political beliefs.

Consider the people we elect to town councils in Summit County. None of us want dogmatic, inflexible representatives to handle the complex issues and ever-changing circumstances that our community must face. We want them to make fact-based decisions and consider the spectrum of political views of citizens in order to enact the optimal policies. Respect for our neighbors and their views will help us avoid the polarization and politics-as-religion we see in much of the nation.

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