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