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The Religion of Political Outrage
Several days ago, I wrote briefly about the increasingly prevalent attitude that meaningful action is a synonym for political action. I was thinking that it would be worth reflecting on this subject further, and then conveniently Paul Krugman decided yesterday to illustrate my point for me:
A funny thing is happening on the American scene: a powerful upwelling of decency. Suddenly, it seems as if the worst lack all conviction, while the best are filled with a passionate intensity…. [I] find the surge of indignation now building in America hugely encouraging. And yes, I think it’s all one surge. The #MeToo movement, the refusal to shrug off the Parkland massacre, the new political activism of outraged citizens (many of them women) all stem from a common perception: namely, that it’s not just about ideology, but that far too much power rests in the hands of men who are simply bad people.
He describes an “upwelling of decency” constituted by a “surge of indignation” which — quite notably — transcends ideology in its goal of fighting against the power of evil men. And although “there’s no guarantee that the forces of decency will win,” nevertheless “there’s every reason to hope that change is coming.”
Does there seem anything perhaps a bit religious about this portrait of the political landscape? An epic struggle between good and evil. The righteous David finally rising up to challenge the might of the evil Goliath. The enslaved Israelites on the march to freedom, despoiling their Egyptian overlords. The hope for a coming kingdom in which sin will be vanquished. Because, by Krugman’s own admission, this is not about politics: it’s about moral righteousness.
And conveniently, those who are morally righteous can be quite easily identified: they are the ones who are outraged. It turns out that moral righteousness is inherently political. This is a crusade, and if you join the crusade then you get to go to heaven.
Why is it that nobody seems to praise the moral righteousness of those who don’t sexually exploit others, who treat other men and women with respect and kindness? Why is it that nobody speaks up to honor counselors, pastors and teachers who spend their lives reaching out to alienated and troubled youth — in other words, those who are actively sacrificing themselves to help prevent more children from following in the footsteps of Nikolas Cruz and committing these kinds of massacres? Because in today’s world, that’s not how you become morally righteous.
In today’s world, you don’t become righteous by making sacrifices. You become righteous by making accusations, or denunciations, or demands.
The basic worldview giving rise to this phenomenon is by no means exclusive either to the left or the right. Very probably, the vast majority of all politically aware Americans view the political arena as a battlefield on which the war between good and evil is being waged; the only question is which side is good, and which evil. That there might be another arena, a more important arena — one in which the battle will ultimately be decided — rarely occurs to anyone. Even to many Christians.
The philosopher Ivan Kireyevsky observed that since the early-to-mid nineteenth century, the main current of Western life and thought has resided in the political realm. It is clear that, publicly speaking, we are not at all concerned with religion, with spiritual life, with philosophy, or even with science (except insofar as it provides us with technological power and/or amusement). But there remains in the human heart the inextinguishable desire for goodness, for truth, for justice, for righteousness, and for love. And to put it frankly, to the extent that the churches empty, to the extent that families crumble, to the extent that sex becomes a commodity, to the extent that public institutions become distrusted and despised, to the extent that universities become little more than microcosms of the general political landscape as it will exist in ten to twenty years, to that same extent there is simply nowhere left to turn for the fulfillment of these innate human desires other than to politics.
And so turn to politics we do. To such an extent that, in the words of John Gray, “Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.”