America's New Religions by Andrew Sullivan

(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

Andrew Sullivan is an interesting commentator and journalist in American society. He’s written for many of the most respected and well-known media in the country. And, for instance, he’s married another man, and was a leading voice for the legalization of same-sex marriage, yet he considers himself a faithful Catholic. While I understand the clear tensions here, I don’t mention his biography to set him up for any personal attacks. Rather, I think it clarifies how interesting it is that he published, in New York Magazine, an article headlined “America’s New Religions” this weekend.

First, Sullivan acknowledges that we are homo religiosus - the religious human:

Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).

This is, I think, an opening point for dialogue with many people. We can identify our common ground. Then we can ask: what is the most legitimate and rational grounding for the transcendent value we both experience and share together?

Second, because we are all religiously oriented, he points out that the modern atheistic movement has religious features. In this, he is drawing from John Gray’s arguments in his latest book Seven Types of Atheism:

Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.

I think there are a lot of opportunities for good spiritual conversations if we can humbly, and gently, name and discuss the modern faith in progress and reason. Yes, we aspire to rationally chart a better future. But why do we trust our brains to guide us? And on what basis do we believe the future will be better? And why do we think that the concept of ‘humanity’ is anything substantive (rather than warring individuals or tribes)? Sullivan and Gray are raising some very critical questions for the secularist way of life.

As Sullivan opens it up,

I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It said “Loving kindness is my religion.” But the salient question is: why?

Who will argue against ‘loving kindness’? But still - how does this fit into the picture of a world without God? What is the apologetic argument, if you will, for loving kindness being our true purpose in life?

Sullivan also candidly acknowledges what a distracted age we live in:

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.

This is another opportunity for conversation. Why do you spend so much time on Netflix? What draws you to Twitter? Have you taken any time to reflect upon the meaning and significance of your life? Why not? And so on…

He also challenges both the right and the left of American politics, describing in a clear outline, the “total and immediate commitment to save the world” that both parties require of their adherents. Utilizing religious language and categories, he re-imagines political activism as a new kind of religious devotion.

Which leads to his concluding point:

And so we’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion. It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults. Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion. And both cults really do minimize the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to all Democrats or all Republicans. But, we can see examples of this kind of intense political partisanship across the political spectrum.

This leads to the question: how successful is politics as religion? How can our political projects justify themselves? Do we have to ‘take it on faith’ or is there evidence that one - or the other - party has an accurate grasp of the truth on a particular issue? Also, when politics becomes the narrative of our lives, how does this work out in terms of finding a way to meet the American slogan of ‘e pluribus unum’ - out of many, one?

Finally, he argues that Christianity has played - and needs to continue to play - a central role in providing stability and direction in our national life.

It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power. It was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project, thus renewing it. It was on these foundations that liberalism was built, and it is by these foundations it has endured. The question we face in contemporary times is whether a political system built upon such a religion can endure when belief in that religion has become a shadow of its future self.

Will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away? I’m beginning to suspect it can’t. And won’t.

Whether you would agree with all of his argument or not, I commend it to you as a fascinating reflection on American society and our religious impulses. I also think it could lead to many good, trust-building spiritual conversations with friends.

I’m eager to hear from you about this! As it is a related issue, I’ll especially invite the @Interested_in_Government group to join in!

(Anthony Costello ) #2


I read this article as well and posted it on my FB page, and in some other forums. I’ve cited Andrew Sullivan in some of my talks on Social Justice. Here is someone with whom, on theological issues for certain, I have deep disagreements, yet who I can only commend for not only his penetrating intellect, but also his openness to stand up for what are evident truths. I really appreciate his work, and I think he is quite courageous in pointing out many of the problems with today’s social justice movement, which, in its least honorable form, is taking on very religious features. Sullivan is someone who often gets attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, and that because he is pointing out some deep truths about our culture, and human nature. Again, disagreements on theology and biblical interpretation aside, Sullivan is right on track in this article.

I also agree with Sullivan that this kind of immanentizing act of what are ultimately transcendent realities (see Romans 1) has began to permeate through more conservative evangelical communities as well. While I voted for Trump with great reluctance, I am concerned, along with Sullivan, that this tendency to seek out messianism in the world is not confined to a liberal/leftist or marxist worldview (although historically I would say that since these ideologies are often grounded in atheistic or agnostic belief, they tend towards messianism, or, minimally, a greater dependence on government or “strong men” to right the wrongs of society).

I’ve thought that Christians who have traditionally been conservative politically, have had the better chance at remaining at arms-length from the promises of politicians and politics. But, that may be changing now as well. I don’t know, and as you say, Sullivan is not calling out “all Democrats and all Republicans”, just those who are becoming more yoked to politics as THE answer.

As bible-minded, historical, apostolic, and metaphysical believers in the truths of Christianity, I think we must be aware of our own tendency to place too much hope in the dreams and ambitions of human persons, especially apart from the activity of the Spirit of God moving in the individual and the community. We strive for this in our own personal lives when we think of our marriages, our families, and our own personal callings, but this reliance on God’s wisdom, and God’s providence and provision must also apply to the culture and history as a whole. When we try and wrest providence from God’s hands, it usually winds up in gross human tragedy.

Let’s pray that doesn’t happen again, but, if it does, let us be the ones to bear the burden of going to the cross for the sake of Truth.

Grace and Peace,

(Tabitha Gallman) #3

This is a good article by Mr. Sullivan. He makes a lot of sense to me. I agree with most of what he talks about.

I think that our fears often surface within our own groups when we feel our “way of life” is being threatened. Mr. Sullivan’s article reminded me of a book I came across in Sam’s Club titled “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”. I was intrigued by the title, but didn’t buy it because I remember thinking (even though I, myself, come from a similar culture) this sounds like a racist book. I just now found a good review of the book in an article from the New York Times:

I can see where new religions can develop from tribalism that occurs when fear overtakes our minds. Here is a really good article about tribalism and faith:

I agree with Mr. Sullivan below when he talks about what I consider to be idolatry:

“Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism.”

Although I believe many Christians are turning a blind eye to certain scriptural beliefs when they put all their faith in a leader that has yet to bear the fruits of the holy spirit, I am encouraged that there are still Christian leaders that are working in support of those core values that demonstrate the love of Christ. The article below does give me some hope that Christians are still practicing religion with faith by supporting the families of immigration.

(Andrea Sutton) #4

i love the way you’ve made points here, Anthony. I’m much more of a clod, lacking your ambassador-like answers. In Christ, and the spectacular story of how this was all engineered intelligently, with both meaning and purpose, I see the “why we exist”… and our opportunity to respond it.

(Joel Vaughn) #5

I think you would like this, especially the part that starts about 50 minutes in.

(Joel Vaughn) #6

@Interested_in_Government Very interesting. My wife was recently talking about a warning by Solzhenitsyn against hedonism and greed. His concern seemed to be that it causes people to make rash decisions, such as the Russian mobs looking to the Bolsheviks for liberation. One might characterize many of the political and economic questions of the day in terms of how involved one believes government should be in these affairs–and there is enormous overlap between political and economic affairs–there is a wide gap of opinion in Christendom about where there is danger of using the law to hide from social responsibility and where there is danger of giving the State the messianic status accorded the Beast in Revelation. I wonder what compromises some of the more immigration-friendly evangelicals might reach with the concerns of Samuel Rodriguez and James Robison. I like to think that real solutions could come from the Body of Christ–if we truly embodied both the gentleness and truthfulness of Jesus.

I don’t know what Andrew Sullivan considers to be “liberalism” or “the liberal project”–there are popular versions of these in which an oligarchic State has an exalted messianic role. Based on past readings I’m not sure where Sullivan’s sympathies lie, but I’d agree that Christianity has laid the foundation for most of the real advances in civil liberties. I’d also agree generally with the idea that political ideologies, especially those that have a utopian flavor, are filling a religious vacuum. Regarding Stephen Pinker–he seems at times to be making a strong case for an upward trend in standard of living over the last 2 centuries.

There is plenty of ideological controversy over what is responsible for such a trend. My understanding of conservatism is that it is neither utopian nor individualistic (nor messianic in humanistic terms). That isn’t necessarily meant to be an argument for or against it; however, even political terms nowadays are becoming more and more ambiguous, views and arguments are becoming less consistent, and people don’t know what they are arguing for or against.

There are some prominent non-Christians that I think are shedding some light on the cultural tensions of the age. One of them is Jonathan Haidt. While I disagree with his characterization of the moral values of Authority and Purity, his assessment of morality is refreshingly nuanced, and it is exciting that he attributes his change of thinking to experiencing the humble attitudes of Christians.

(Anthony Costello ) #7

Hi Joel,

Funny you mention this. I was actually at this event live in 2016 at Biola!

Thanks for posting, I can highly recommend it.