Or when you could buy a few things from Walmart, stop in at Whole Foods, and check out the sales at Target without wondering how either your support or boycott would affect public policy?
Or when you could watch an award show on TV or a sports event without hearing political speeches or seeing protests?
A couple weeks ago, I nearly tore my hair out when the news broke that Chili’s had an affiliate who wanted to help diners donate a portion of their meal’s proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Chili’s is where my family eats most often. (Yes, Chili’s—to the jeering of my foodie friends who like to mock!) Thankfully, within just a day or two, Chili’s issued a statement to assure their patrons that the restaurant was not supporting Planned Parenthood and that donations to the abortion giant would not be taking place.
But the news made me tired. For a moment, I thought, Will I no longer be able to enjoy a meal on Sunday afternoon with my family at Chili’s without thinking of the politics of abortion?
These days, the political realm has begun to infringe upon every other aspect of our common life together: sports, religion, retail, and art. We should resist this development, because this infringement flattens our ability to love our neighbors.
What’s going on? We’re witnessing a convergence of two developments.
Development #1: Consumerism as a Religion
The first development is the lifting up of our consumer choices to the level of religion.
In American society, we are more and more inclined to define ourselves by what and how we consume. We no longer buy things to meet our needs, but to become something, or to express who we are.
“Brands are the new religion,” says Douglas Atkin, writing about customer loyalty. People express their own identities through what they buy.
With an endless sea of choices, Skye Jethani says, “individuality is the new conformity.” Choice is a powerful factor in a consumer society, because more choices provide more ways for consumers to demonstrate their uniqueness.
Development #2: Politics as Religion
The second development is the lifting up of our political views to the level of religion.
In American society, we are more likely to see political views as non-negotiable aspects of our true selves. This is why recent research shows families having a harder time with a son or daughter who wants to marry someone from an opposing political party than from a different religion!
In a secular age, people expect faith to stay at the margins of public life. It’s something private, something you can turn to for therapy but not for policy.
But something will take the place of religion as the ultimate loyalty. If not God, then government. If not religion, then politics. If not evangelism, then political activism.
For more and more Americans, politics has become a religion. People find their meaning in it. They define themselves by their stands. . . . When politics becomes a religion, then simple disagreements become apostasies, heresies. And you know what we do with heretics.
Put those two developments together: (1) the idea that your consumer choices express your identity and (2) the idea that your political views are the essence of who you are. What happens next?
Everything gets politicized.
More and more people invest their shopping or entertainment with political significance. Political evangelists believe they are helping their cause by sticking with this brand instead of that one, by boycotting this designer or that retailer because they associate with heretics (like Ivanka Trump, for example).
People then look for ways to assert their political righteousness or press for their cause everywhere they can. You signal your virtue by your stances on social media. You show that you belong to the right church (ahem, party) by how you align with the celebrity, or the athlete, or the retailer who affirms your position. You signal your outrage by your boycott of the heretic.
The gospel challenges this convergence. The announcement that a crucified Messiah is the king of the world must lift our eyes and our allegiance to something more ultimate than a policy proposal or a political party. The gospel, of course, has political implications, but it demotes “the political realm” to a lower place.
The gospel also demands that we see in others—even our political opponents—the image of God that dignifies all humanity. Understanding the sacrifice of Jesus for our sin and selfishness should engender a sense of humility in how we engage the world around us.
There’s no question that Christians have often been involved in helping create the two developments we now see converging. We recognize that our choices always have a moral dimension to them. Retail support or boycotts, protests and shows of support are appropriate from time to time.
But surely we must resist the tendency to flatten out the various spheres of life (retail, art, sports, and so on) by subjecting them all to political urgency. Politics is one sphere of life, not the ultimate.
“Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church,” says British scholar Oliver O’Donovan:
The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times . . . when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.
In a world that is increasingly polarized and politicized, we have an opportunity to show by our attitudes and actions a different way. If we, as Christians, don’t show the world that there is something bigger and more important than politics, who will?