Read: Politics as the new religion for progressive Democrats
Sullivan’s phrase “New Religions” has a direct and commonly used Japanese translation: shinshūkyō. After the Meiji restoration and the defeat of imperial Japan, the shinshūkyō began sprouting to replace Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism, each of which had been discredited in its own way. Emperor Hirohito was not only a head of state but a god who renounced his divinity as a term of Japan’s surrender. Going to Japan often feels like a trip to the medium-term future; here, the catastrophic inadequacy of Japan’s civil religion preceded by about 75 years the inadequacy Sullivan is diagnosing in America.
Master Okawa’s group, which has kindly sent me its literature for the past five years, is one of the largest of the New Religions, and its political arm, the Happiness Realization Party, has run quixotic campaigns for seats in Japanese parliament. It has even won elections at a local level. Its candidates adhere to a “Make Japan Great Again” platform—chiefly through the rebuilding of the Japanese military and the unapologetic restoration of Japan’s regional supremacy, especially over Korea. In 2016, weeks before the U.S. presidential election, I saw Master Okawa in Manhattan. He said he viewed Trump as an American cousin, and he used his prophetic gifts to predict Trump’s victory. I scoffed at the prediction, quietly. But Master Okawa nailed it.
Okawa’s relative lack of success in domestic politics is a comfort to Japanese liberals who find Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s milder form of nationalism quite enough. But the very existence of the New Religions seems to corroborate Sullivan’s central claim that religion is an ineradicable impulse that, if suppressed or defeated in one form, will be reborn in other forms, many not preferable to their predecessors. Another new religion is Aum Shinrikyo, whose followers fumigated the Tokyo subway with sarin gas, killing 13 commuters, in 1995. (Then again, considering the destructiveness of the old civil religion—Shinto militarism killed literally tens of millions in just a few years— the shinshūkyō might deserve some slack.)
Less persuasive, though, are Sullivan’s two other claims about New Religions, in the American context. The first is that liberalism lacks meaning and various forms of illiberalism (nationalism, theocracy, authoritarianism, etc.) do not. Sullivan’s other claim is that MAGA is best understood as a morally bankrupt religious movement that replaces the old Christian deity with the plutocratic Messiah now in the Oval Office.
Read: Democrats have a religion problem
The first claim is an old calumny against liberalism, repeated by virtually every illiberal movement. It is the political heir to the 800-year-old voluntarist-intellectualist debate in theology, which asked whether God was fundamentally a force of will or of reason—in the modern political transposition, of meaning or of procedure. Nazi philosophers favored meaning (“the triumph of the will”) and said that procedural liberalism, divorced from nationhood, was a Jewish, internationalist poison that would weaken the only true source of German power. Perhaps more surprising is that liberals with no Nazi sympathies often agree that their program is missing something very much like this élan identified by their enemies. Take, for example, Amy Chua, who writes that “the great Enlightenment principles of modernity—liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets—do not provide the kind of tribal group identity that human beings crave.”