The Gods That Will Fail

If voters are freighting politics with religious significance, we need to drain it of the expectation of transcendence.

Trump supporters participate at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 26, 2018.
Trump supporters participate at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 26, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

TOKYO—Five years ago in a hipster coffee shop in Oakland, I met with a representative of Master Ryuho Okawa, a Japanese spiritualist who claims about 11 million followers. The representative—he said he was the “foreign minister” for Okawa’s church—asked if I believed in extraterrestrial life. I said yes. “Good,” he said. He then asked if I believed that aliens had visited Earth. “Maybe,” I said. “Maybe they’re here right now!”

Maybe,” he replied, in a meaningful tone, “they have come here, and some of them or their descendants are still here.”

“Maybe you’re one of them!” I replied.

This time he paused, gravidly, not breaking eye contact or changing his expression. “Yes. Maybe.”

I was reminded of this close encounter of the third kind last week when reading Andrew Sullivan’s column on “America’s New Religions.” Sullivan blames Trumpism and the death of American liberalism on a spiritual crisis. “Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center,” he writes. Religion once provided the feeling of spiritual satiety that allowed us to be content with the hollowness of liberal politics, which are fundamentally procedural rather than meaningful. The meaning came from Christianity. Having scorned religion, though, we now seek a religious mode of politics, and some of us have transformed Trump, like Augustus Caesar before him, into a god.

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.

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.”

This question is an empirical one: Does tribalism feed a deep human hunger that liberalism does not? Liberals, I think, give up too easily on this point. Defenders of the old liberal order are tired and jaded, it’s true—who can observe the iniquities and false promises of modernity without a loss of faith? But the contention that Enlightenment liberalism’s mojo has natural limits, and that illiberalism’s mojo is inexhaustible, seems to me at best debatable, with the evidence pointing away from Sullivan’s conclusion. He is older than I am, and no doubt remembers the thrill of the collapse of Communism, of the rapid metastasis of democracy across Europe and the rest of the world. These were thrills of liberalism, and I dare say they matched any ecstasies witnessed at a Trump rally.

No thrill lasts forever. The thrill of Nazism lasted perhaps ten years for a significant portion of the German public. What Sullivan calls “the banality of the god of progress” is the state of liberalism after decades of astonishing success—long enough for any system to get creaky, and for its formerly excited beneficiaries to forget their gratitude. If you want to see the victims of real banality, look in the punished faces of those who have been subjected to illiberalism for a generation.

The religiosity of the Trump phenomenon is harder to dismiss. The faith of Trump’s supporters is the truest in American politics, and the resemblance to a cult disturbs me. Nothing dampens their loyalty, even when Trump changes the very positions that they adore; as Shakespeare says, “love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.” Sullivan is surely right that their affection is something pre-political, better understood by students of religion than by Nate Silver. But I am simultaneously stunned by a parallel impulse, darker than anything Sullivan describes. Last year, a friend told me about a conversation with a Romanian refugee to the United States, a man who had fled the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Ceaușescu was a Saddam-like figure, brutal even by the standards of other dictators. “American [intellectuals] think they are atheists,” this grim man said, “but they are not atheists. In Romania—there you found men who believed in nothing.”

Compared with these nihilists, American liberals look vapidly chipper. When they peer into the existential abyss, they assure themselves that it has a bottom, just out of sight, and when they toss a penny into it they think their wishes will be granted. The real nihilism is daily in evidence by the Trump administration, which will tell not only noble lies—the alleged sin of the George W. Bush administration—but indefensibly ignoble ones, and which swaggers past all moral lines, both in policy and in electoral politics.

Trump officials call this attitude realism. It surely is not “religious,” even in Sullivan’s expansive use of the term. What makes the MAGA movement alarming is that it has rejected liberalism, even in the glorious forms that freed half the world during the past half century, and that it combines the worst of religion in its followers with the worst of irreligion in its politicians. The language of the acolyte (“There is no limit to what I will do for you”) pairs tragically with the language of the tyrant (“There is no limit to what I will do to you”).

This unholy mix brings me back to Japan, our imperfect template for the religious perestroika that Sullivan is correct to try to describe. Although liberalism has had heady moments in the West, where it was born, the Allies’ forcible imposition of procedural politics meant that Japanese never expected transcendence from their politics. Competence was enough. GDP growth may have stagnated, and the population is old and lonely, but Japan remains a nice place to live, with problems that are the envy of most of the rest of the world.

Sullivan seems to think that liberalism required the forbearance of Christians, or at least “cultural” Christians who accept that politics and meaning are separable, in a “render unto Caesar” sense. Japan’s chaotic religious marketplace includes players like Master Okawa with fascistic tendencies. But since the Japanese don’t expect their politics to be inspiring, the most pernicious aspects of religious extremism are muted in their political effect. Right-wing parties have reached high office, and one right-wing Buddhist group is part of the ruling coalition, but true-believer fascist movements seem to have a natural upper bound to their appeal. The old religious fervor has been channeled not into politics but into new religions or (better still) into interests and hobbies in private life.

Sullivan worries that Christianity’s absence will be fatal to liberalism. “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,” he writes, before answering his own question. “I’m beginning to suspect it can’t. And won’t.” The most hopeful aspect of the Japanese example is that it shows there are alternative ways to drain politics of the expectation of transcendence. The most worrisome aspect is that those revised expectations were, in the Japanese case, possible only after catastrophic military defeat and the placement of Japanese civilization into decades of receivership. There may yet be a post-Christian way to make American politics boring again. Let us hope that road to boredom is less painful than the one traveled by Japan.