Too often people talk of keeping politics out of church, or out of schools, or out of sports. This is understandable but ultimately short-sighted. We can’t reasonably expect to avoid politics in these areas because we can’t expect to avoid politics in the polis.
The desire to keep political concerns out of seemingly apolitical, common spheres of experience is usually motivated by a healthy aversion to conflict: “Can’t I just watch a baseball game without being accosted with the rainbow flag after every inning?” “That was a nice service, but why does the pastor always have to bring politics into the sermon?”
The problem with this kind of complaint is that it conceives of politics as fundamentally practical when it is fundamentally tactical. If we use “politics” only to mean practical strategies for road maintenance, or effective procedure for filing birth and marriage certificates, then by all means, keep politics out of churches, schools, and sports. It would be tiresomely inappropriate to barrage sports fans with signs that call for a vote to annex the warehouse next to city hall or to require more than one witness to sign a marriage certificate. But these are not the kinds of concerns most people have in mind when arguing about politics.
When most Westerners hear the word, they don’t think about the most efficient way to file a marriage certificate but whether two men or two women should be able to acquire one. Whether it’s a good thing for men to have sex with men, or for a girl to become a man—whether a baby should be terminated in the womb, or a murderer forced into the tomb—these are the kinds of things that fuel political debate, but they are not fundamentally political. Rather, they are moral, which explains why debates between the two political parties in the US are not usually debates but indictments. Like economics, politics is an expression of human passions.
Moral and metaphysical principles do not originate with government; government is a program for the implementation of the principles to which government leaders are already committed. Moral principles are the paint; government is the paint brush. Or, in light of far too many historical precedents, immoral principles are the bullets, and government is the gun.
Politics is to metaphysics what the army is to the constitution. The role of political action is to safeguard the sacred ideal and to enact swift correction when it is threatened. The greater the perceived threat to the ideal—the ideal of unrestrained carnal desires on one side and that of self-restraint in pursuit of The Good, The Beautiful, and The True on the other—the more militant and pervasive political action will be.
Failing to see this makes one vulnerable to the illusion of the secular. If by “secular government” we mean a government which operates with no a priori commitment to a religious creed or metaphysical framework, then secular government works out to be something like a foundationless building or a trackless train.
In the US, separation of church and state is a central idea because this is thought to be the best arrangement to allow each citizen life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many take this to mean that government should be a morally neutral machine that works independently from any religious belief or metaphysical vision. But the idea that a government “should” be oriented toward the life, liberty, and happiness of its citizens is a religious belief that stems directly from a particular metaphysical vision. There is always an ideal behind political action which political action seeks to restore or achieve.
A subtle double standard often results when we fail to see the real nature of the political: A group of people are committed to certain first principles and then use political action to implement and normalize these principles in the public sphere. Then when another group who holds an opposing set of principles uses political action to counter the first group’s agenda, the first group complains, “Why does everything have to be politicized!?”
A clear example of this kind of sanctimonious subterfuge is a recent GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) public service ad which shows a well-dressed family in a tidy, middleclass home with a daughter who has transitioned to be a boy (presumably with much encouragement from her parents). The main message is that they are not different from any other healthy family. The mom says, “Trans kids don’t have a political agenda. They are just kids. They just want to be left alone.”
It may be true that kids don’t have a political agenda, but the belief that a female can become a male by simple choice and inclination is based on very particular metaphysical assumptions—that there is no intended order in the human body, for example, or that the factual nature of the body has no bearing on personal identity—and these metaphysical assumptions manifest in political agendas, like the one touted in the advertisement.
The problem that comes from failing to realize the constellation of competing principles that drives American political discourse is an unrealistic expectation of tranquility. Most of us can relate to the person who just wants to go to a PTA meeting to discuss the best fundraiser for the new playground equipment without having to descend into the dark depths of gender theory, or the question of whether fourth graders should be informed about atypical sex acts. But like it or not, the political is tactical. As Sohrab Ahmari says in a recent First Things article, “To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.”
This being the case, the phrase “culture wars” is more apt than we often realize. There is no safe, neutral Hobbit hole to which we can retreat and enjoy a pint and a second breakfast while the rest of the world troubles itself with politics. There is a line from The Return of The King which puts in clear light the current situation of those in the West who hold to a traditional, Judeo-Christian worldview. King Theoden, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are discussing how to respond to the approaching armies of Mordor. The King says, “I will not risk open war.” Aragorn replies, “Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not.”
Warfare language applied to politics is understandably off-putting in the context of a liberal democracy, but the concept of liberal democracy has been oversimplified to mean something like a level civic platform where those from all backgrounds are invited to stand to express their political opinions and live their lives according to the dictates of their own conscience.
This a good metaphor, but there is more to consider. As much diversity of thought as there is across the surface of the American platform, there must be some basic agreement on the pillars underneath without which the platform will collapse. Three of those crucial pillars are humility, tolerance, and transcendence, all of which appear to have a rapidly diminishing presence on the left side of the political spectrum.
I sympathize with those who are exasperated with ubiquitous politicizing. Many of us would much rather be able to do a little research a few times a year to know which candidates will best manage our tax money and then get back to our work and our families without engaging in constant political debate. This is understandable, but the fact remains that, from the local library to the primary school to the sports arena, armies are advancing. “Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not.”