For most of human history, politics and religion have not been separated. But in the West, under Christianity and classical liberalism, a kind of civil society developed in which politics was not connected to ultimate things like God and salvation. In modern America, that civil society appears to be eroding.
The shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.), a congressional staffer, a lobbyist, and two members of the Capitol Police on Wednesday underscored a terrifying warning from National Review‘s David French that the cultural fabric of civil society is indeed unraveling.
“I’m beginning to get a sense of what it was like to be alive in ancient times when a marauding warlord melted down your village’s golden calf,” French wrote. “Weeping. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments. Wearing of vagina hats. Their god failed to protect the village, and now he’s a bracelet on the warlord’s wrist.”
For thousands of years, tribes, cities, and nations looked to their local god to protect them not just in terms of religion, but politically as well. Indeed, the Romans did this as late as the 300s A.D., prompting Saint Augustine to write The City of God to argue that the pagan gods were not destroying the Roman Empire in revenge for the people turning to Christianity.
Augustine’s book did not just counter the pagan attacks, however. It also presented the model of civility which inspired a separation between politics and religion — and allowed people to accept political defeats without considering it the end of the world.
Augustine wrote that Christians live in two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. These two realms will always be in conflict, and a Christian’s primary loyalty is to the City of God. If a Christian elevates earthly politics to the level of spiritual salvation, he or she commits a form of idolatry.
But this does not mean Christians are to withdraw from the earthly city. Augustine emphasized that believers should act like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, to whom Jeremiah wrote “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Augustine’s idea of a politics focused on the limited earthly goal of peace, rather than the cultural supremacy of a religion enforced by the state, has not necessarily dominated Western history. But it has inspired the growth of a civil society where politics is merely one facet of life, rather than a totalizing — and indeed totalitarian — pursuit.
That seems to be rapidly changing, and much for the worse. The Left’s unrestrained anger at Donald Trump has all the echoes of a totalizing politics, not unlike the ideologies of communism or even the Islamic State. All things must be subjected to their will, and the state exists to enforce their worldview.
After Trump was elected, the Left broke out in crying, canceling classes, and handing out coloring books and play-dough to college students. After he was inaugurated, they protest nearly every week: the Women’s March, he March for Science, the People’s Climate March, and too many others to recall. Women have even started dressing up like handmaids from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” suggesting that opponents of abortion are really trying to create a society in which women have no rights and get systematically raped.
Then there’s the rhetoric. “Fascists!” “Nazis!” Comedians hold severed heads of the president. Commentators think they can get away with calling the president a “piece of sh*t.” The media pushes a narrative of Trump using Russia to get elected, in the absence of evidence.
David French called this “post-Christian politics to its core,” explaining, “This is the politics one gets when this world is our only home, and no one is in charge but us. There is no sense of proportion.”
This explains how liberals view Donald Trump: “A populist who lacks the power or constituency to do even a fraction of what his worst critics fear is now some sort of Darkworker — a malevolent force touching off an existential crisis across the land.”
French further noted that this anger is particularly troublesome since, in many ways, Trump agrees with the progressive base. He opposed NAFTA and TPP, he cares less about the culture wars than most Republicans, and he even brought back the substance behind the old chant “Bush lied, people died.” He also bucked the Tea Party in calling for spending on infrastructure and the preservation of entitlements.
But the hatred directed toward Trump has little to do with policy and everything to do with symbolism. For the Left, the Trump menace is a cultural one: they cannot accept that Americans would prefer a populist to The First Female President. It’s 2017 — the time for anything even remotely conservative is long gone.
This anger and hatred has real consequences, as shown by the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday morning. The shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, was a Bernie Sanders supporter who posted on Facebook in March, “Trump is a traitor. Trump has destroyed our democracy. It’s time to destroy Trump & Co.”
A warning about the concrete results of such rhetoric came in 2012, when the Family Research Council (FRC) was attacked by a convicted terrorist who admitted he used the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) “hate group” list to target the Christian organization. Fortunately, a brave security guard named Leo Johnson subdued the attacker, sustaining a bullet wound himself but preventing casualties.
Despite this attack, the SPLC has not removed FRC from the “hate group” list, and the charity website GuideStar has gone so far as to mark organizations like FRC that appear on that website as “hate groups.”
Does the Left realize that branding people with the words “hate,” “fascist,” and “Nazi” might inspire violence against them? What kind of person would continue with such incendiary remarks after they were shown to result in bloodshed?
Only someone who cannot separate politics from ultimate things, who insists that the state should enshrine his culture as the ruling paradigm and any other culture must be snuffed out by force.
If Americans do not worship the Left’s gods of abortion, LGBT rights, and big government, they are “haters,” “bigots,” “Nazis,” “fascists” — anything but other people with whom peace, not domination, is the ultimate goal of politics.
The Left has rejected the wise division of Augustine, and in its place brought back the religious and totalizing politics America worked so hard to remove. When incendiary rhetoric leads to bloodshed, seeking the peace of the city becomes harder than ever before.