Religion And The Decline of Democracy

We may miss it when it's gone.


When I finally head back to church this weekend, after a year of Covid-avoidance, it is going to feel a little strange. These past 12 months constitute the longest stretch of time I’ve been away from Mass since I was a toddler. And, I’m not going to lie, part of me rather enjoyed the sudden plague-mandated dispensation. I became used to the lazy, empty, gently unfolding Sundays, that came with a bonus: no guilt for missing Mass! They’ve grown on me, I have to say. Getting my lazy ass out of my apartment and to the Cathedral each week was always an effort — and I had begun to skip it more often than I used to anyway. 

I’d had periods of withdrawal from church before. During the AIDS crisis, a homily so enraged me I couldn’t return for a few months. It happened at a Mass on the weekend that the quilt, commemorating so many victims of AIDS, was being displayed down on the Mall. I’d spent much of the day there — so my feelings were raw. The Gospel reading that day, amazingly, was on the ten lepers Jesus healed, of whom the only one who thanked him was a Samaritan. Its relevance to me at that moment was overwhelming: a person stigmatized by the culture and then stigmatized by disease was the one who morally stood out. 

And then the homily began: “Today, we have no real equivalence to leprosy and its stigmas, so perhaps we need to analogize to cancer.”

I barely heard the rest of it because my heart was beating so fast, my mind reeling, my heart re-broken. I went up to the priest afterwards, and said to him, with a snarl: “Have you heard of AIDS, father? It’s in the papers.” He looked at me blankly for a moment and then said: “Well, I didn’t think we’d have many people affected by that here.”

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Years later, when the sex abuse crisis hit, I also had to take a breather. My parish had once been led by Cardinal McCarrick, one of the worst abusers, and then by Cardinal Wuerl, who was, at best, an enabler. I took some months off to let my rage at the hypocrisy and pathology dissipate a bit. When I returned, I stayed in the side-chapel for Saint Francis for the Mass for a few months, and only emerged into the nave for communion. Weird, I know. But it helped me create a barrier between the rottenness of the institutional church and the sacraments I still needed.

I know many of you will be rolling your eyes at this point. Why on earth are you still grappling with this stuff? Why didn’t you leave years ago? Become an Episcopalian or something. And stop writing about mumbo-jumbo. I remember my first, temporary departure from Mass had Christopher Hitchens extremely excited.

So why go back?

When I ask myself what exactly I’ve missed, I realize it sure isn’t a weekly revelation. I don’t expect to feel something profound every time I go to Mass — because most of the time, I don’t, and rarely have. Every now and again, grace appears. But it’s rare. And it isn’t necessary. The one thing Catholicism teaches the bored and distracted church-goer is that your own mood doesn’t really matter. The consecration will happen regardless. Your inspiration is not the point. And what makes this all cohere somehow is physical, communal ritual — and that, I realize, is what I really miss. 

I miss the silent genuflection; the chanting in unison with others; the simple standing up and kneeling down and standing up again. I miss the messy democracy of the communion line, and the faces I recognize from decades in my parish, and the faces I don’t. I miss enacting something ineffable with my body, using words I never chose myself, and using them uniquely in this space. I miss the irrational, collective order of it all. I miss the liberation of submission to something far larger than myself. 

And, beneath all this, only poking above ground every now and again, I miss the weekly reminder of what I deeply believe within the folds of my consciousness: the command of universal love; the fact of life after death; the radical truth of experiential mystery; and the centrality of the Gospels to eternity. Many atheist or agnostic friends sometimes ask me how they too can have a leap of faith. And the truth is I have no idea. I have never leapt anywhere. I have trudged, stumbled, meandered, persisted, and resisted all my life. But to have one part of my existence directed to the timeless and the mysterious just once a week all my life has given me something priceless. 

I couldn’t say exactly how this counter-rational aspect of my life affects the rest of me, but it definitely stabilizes things. It gives perspective. It makes the awfulness of the world less intolerable, it momentarily breaks what Michael Oakeshott called “the deadliness of doing”. It makes politics less fraught, because the religious person knows that the ultimate questions can never be resolved on earth, and it is foolish to try too hard to achieve things that humans cannot achieve.

Jean Cocteau once described smoking opium as an interlude in the rush of existence. “Everything one achieves in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death,” he wrote. “To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.” I feel the same way about religion. It is about removing oneself from life while still living it: a pause, a grace-note, a moment when nothing is getting done.

It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. And I wish I were better able to convey how life-giving this is. Maybe it’s primarily a relief for those of us who live in our heads too much, who live very online lives, or who use words of our own all the time. But I see the calm it gives others too: the repetition of little acts, the recitation of the same words, the unity that such rituals can give a life over the decades. I saw it in my Irish grandmother — rattling through the Rosary like a freight train.

And when this space disappears in a society, you can see people find ways to replicate it elsewhere. Last week, Gallup put out a poll that shows for the first time that affiliation with a church, synagogue or mosque no longer defines a majority of Americans. In the two decades since the turn of the Millennium, religious affiliation has gone from around 70 percent, where it had stood, more or less, since the 1930s, to a mere 47 percent. Among Millennials, only 36 percent say they belong to an organized religion. 

But what we’re witnessing, it seems to me, is not a collapse in the religious impulse as such. The need to transcend, to find meaning, and purpose, is eternal for humans. The soaring popularity of meditation and yoga, and the greater acceptance and use of psychedelic drugs to replicate the effect of practiced spirituality helps reveal the need. And fake religions — like the Prosperity Gospel — spring up where tradition and theology have already surrendered to greed.

But the most dangerous manifestation of the collapse of the old religions, with their millennia of experience and honing, is the conflation of religious impulses and politics. The fusion of evangelical Christianity with the Republican party blasphemously climaxed in the Trump cult. I’ve written before about Christianism, precisely to distinguish it from Christianity. And it was hard not to notice classic wooden crosses raised aloft among the crowd that invaded the Capitol last January 6. They jostled next to Confederate flags and Trump merch. Some, like Eric Metaxas, have completely lost the plot. And if the contemporary GOP is, for many, the most visible symbol of organized Christianity in America, how can you blame them for despising it?

And in wokeness, you see a similar tragedy. The transcendent has been banished in favor of a profoundly atheist view of the world as merely the arrangement of power structures. But the zeal of religious faith propels the ideology. It is Manichean — seeing the world only as good or evil, antiracist or racist, with virtue attached, horrifyingly, to skin color or gender. It can brook no compromise. It denies the individual soul. It seeks to punish and banish sinners as zealously as it insists on a total psychological re-birth for everyone who joins up. It demands confessions of sin; it requires the renunciation of the self in favor of the identity group; it urges, as so many sermons do, that people “do the work” every day to bring about the Kingdom of Anti-Racism.

These pseudo-religions will fail. They are too worldly, too rooted in contemporary culture wars, too baldly tribal, and too shallow in their understanding of the world to have much staying power. But they can do immense damage to souls and our society in the meantime. They lack the one thing that endures in religious practice: something transcendent that makes the failure in our lives redemptive, and sees politics merely as the necessary art of attending to the imperfect.

It took centuries for Christianity to begin to model that kind of humility and conviction, and to reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. And it would be a terrible shame if America threw that glorious inheritance away.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue includes: a lengthy post about the bizarre and obnoxious use of “queer” by lefties; a bunch of sharp dissents over my critique of Biden on immigration; a few quotes for Holy Week; a preview of a great documentary about a great man; an important long conversation with Emily Yoffe about due process when it comes to sexual assault on campus; more recommended reading; more window views, and, of course, a Mental Health Break and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)


New On The Dishcast: Emily Yoffe

Emily has been the most fearless reporter on the fraught subject of sexual assault and due process on college campuses, first for Slate and then The Atlantic. She also wrote a hilarious book about a beagle, What the Dog Did.

To listen to three clips of my conversation with Emily — on the Democrats’ selective defense of due process; on a culture of fear on the left; and on the need for journalists to be misfits and malcontents — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to some great Dishness on recent episodes covering politics in the UK and welfare in the US, especially a lengthy dispatch from a Dish reader who works with welfare recipients in Cleveland.


Dissents Of The Week: Biden On Immigration

In my column on the border crisis, a reader claims that I have a double standard:

I will take you seriously when you begin talking about the undocumented Canadians living here. Why no push back against the European and Asian-Pacific individuals who fly into US airports and never return home? Why only rant about Latinos from failed states seeking a legal entry? It makes you appear racist.

According to a Pew study in 2019, about 73 percent of unauthorized immigrants come from Mexico, Central America, or South America. From Canada and Europe combined? Less than five percent. Asia? Less than 14 percent. But yes, you’re right. There’s nothing less illegal about over-staying your visa. Enforcement of the law should be color-blind.

Read several more dissents and my responses here. As always, keep the dissents coming — dish@andrewsullivan.com — but please try to be concise: the new format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart criticism when it stretches into many paragraphs.


The Use And Abuse Of “Queer”

I should say straight away that I have absolutely no objection to anyone using the word to describe themselves. There is a vibrant, ancient, and often thrilling “queer” subculture that is very much part of gay and lesbian history. The word in the past has been used proudly by gay men; and redeploying a slur word can be empowering. And I don’t believe in policing language. But my point is that critical theorists do. And the exception they make for deploying the word “queer” is revealing.

(Read the whole post here)


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s contest are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.

Give the gift of Dish

One big fan of the VFYW is a reader who sent the following email three years ago, when the Dish was still dark:

I have no reason to believe you will receive or read this. I had no idea your blogging had ended — I was busy with graduate school and didn’t have much time to keep up with blogs. But yesterday some colleagues (I work at a nonprofit for free speech) began talking about your writing and I remembered how important the Dish was to me when I was younger. I wanted to reach out and let you know.

I was an original reader of the Dish, starting in 2003-2004, when I was 13 years old and a freshman in high school. One of the last posts I remember was on Obama lifting the HIV travel ban. I had no idea the ban had existed before you blogged about it — this was just one way the Dish opened my eyes to the world. 

High school was a really difficult time for me. I am a highly intelligent woman, and I have always been misunderstood because I would rather talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict or civil liberties than about music and movies. Most high schoolers didn’t really know what to do with a peer who was interested in delving into theological discussions (I am Catholic), especially ones that were critical of the Church (I began a Gay Straight Alliance in high school). I protested the Iraq War when I was in middle school and wanted to talk to my peers about how President Bush’s foreign policy was not good for the future of our country. My peers wanted to talk about next week's dance. 

One consequence of this is that I felt very alone, and I began taking anti-depressants when I was in high school. Another result was that I began to find outlets for my interests. One of them was the Dish.

You were a Catholic man who stuck it the Man! Your posts gave me hope that there was a larger world outside my high school, and that someone out in the ethers would understand me, someday. “The View From Your Window” really helped. It made me feel connected to a larger community of readers, even if I didn’t know any of them personally. Every day at school I would go to the library during my free period to read the latest Dish and think about where a new reader was looking out their window. The world of social media can be so horrible, but your simple series of photos gave me hope of how beautiful and connected the internet can make us feel. When a person, not an algorithm, is deciding what view to bring to a wider audience ... there is beauty in that.

In that spirit, I have attached a view from my own window at work — it’s looking at Independence Hall in Philadelphia (I am so lucky):

The nerdy little girl who had trouble making friends in high school has finally found a really great place for herself in the world. She gets to crunch numbers all day, talk about politics with people who care, and shares a home with an equally nerdy and caring husband. She goes to a social-justice minded Catholic church and volunteers at Planned Parenthood — when she isn’t taking care of her dog and cat. She is living a better life than the nerdy little girl ever could have dreamed.

Thirteen years ago I never would have thought that you would read an email from me if I had reached out to you, and so the high school me could not bring herself to email you. That was back when your readership was so much smaller and I’m sure you would have had the time! I’m a bit more confident now, but realistic in understanding that you will likely never read this. But if someone does, know that the Dish made a difference in a nerdy little Catholic girl’s life. 

Happy Easter, and see you next Friday.

(Top photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Image)