Much has been made of the decline of formal religious practice in the United States. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that by 2019, the percentage of American adults describe themselves as Christians was down 12 percentage points from ten years previously. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population was at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. According to other research, Americans claiming “no religion” — sometimes referred to as “nones” — now represent about 23 percent of the population.
This shift involves more than simply the way that questions are answered on a survey. The decline of organized religion has profound and far-reaching implications, many of which are yet unclear. One perhaps unexpected transformation, though, is hard to miss. As one commentator puts it:
“American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.”
A statement like that demands a definition. What is “religion,” anyway?
One possible answer is a simple one: Religion is that which organizes and gives ultimate meaning to our lives. It involves not simply a particular set of beliefs and practices, but it is that which undergirds all our beliefs and practices. For that reason, religion is of ultimate importance. But this is a role that political commitments and political action simply cannot fill.
“Religion involves that which undergirds all our beliefs and practices. This is a role that political commitments and political action simply cannot fill.”
Our political commitments are important, of course. The work of living together in ways that promote justice and peace and the flourishing of all is a central vocation for all human beings. Ultimately, and sometimes even immediately, political action can be a matter of life and death. The founding of my own political party – the American Solidarity Party – and the work that has gone into bringing it to life, is a testament to the fact that politics really do matter. But political action only makes sense in light of higher aims. Political strategies are never ends in themselves, but rather are prudential ways of achieving our highest aims.
When we forget this, we end up in the sort of myopic polarization that now characterizes American political life – and the resulting gridlock that prevents us from actually doing the work that will achieve these goals. When political commitments are treated as ultimate, it becomes impossible to function. Not only are political wins ultimate wins, but political losses are ultimate losses. We default to seeing political allies as friends and political opponents as enemies. Ironically, making politics our religion ultimately undermines both. Political action is most successful when it knows its place.
That means that small third parties like the ASP must not go down the path of the two major parties, demanding total allegiance to the cause. Instead, a politics of wisdom might look like gathering like-minded Americans to work shoulder-to-shoulder, pursuing whatever good they can in light of the respective religious commitments that precede – and supersede – those political efforts.
Holly Taylor Coolman teaches Theology at Providence College, where she also serves as Chair of the Theology Department. In 2018, she ran for a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.