Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning — until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives. And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in — and you have to look at what they do most fervently — you discover, in John Gray’s mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have “an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”
But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper. Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.
So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.
Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.
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