Whenever my Anthropology of Religion class coincided with an election cycle, I would task students to bring to class examples in which a campaign showed characteristics of a religious revitalization movement. Campaigns always do. It’s how one motivates voters to vote: You either promise something totally new or you slap a “new and improved” label on the campaign, depending on whether you are from the party in or out of power.
So, what’s a revitalization movement and why should anyone care…especially now?
In stripped down terms, a revitalization movement is one that combines religious elements and political elements. These movements appear at moments of extreme social stress, and their members seek a variety of goals-political, economic and/or military- that allow them a to survive in a way that feels connected to core values and historical roots.
To achieve that sense of historic and cultural continuity, there are often calls to purify society in terms of its founding principles. These movements reinterpret this distant, often mythical, past to address the novel challenges of the present.
Revitalization movements take many forms, both nonviolent and violent. They may be nativistic in that they affirm the rights of the “native” against the outsider. They are sometimes millenarial movements that claim that they are to create a radical transformation that ends the world as it is currently known.
A quick historical background helps to make the connection.
It was only in relatively recent European history that political power began to be disconnected from religious power. The Thirty Years War of the early 1600’s was a brutal, religiously motivated war that raged in Europe and devastated the states involved. Thereafter, states separated from the Roman Catholic Church and adopted various Protestant sects. Religion and politics remained deeply enmeshed in these states. The British monarchs, who separated from the Roman Catholic Church under King Henry VIII, were relieved to grant land in the colonies for Catholics and troublesome sects of Protestants who were both a nuisance to the Crown and a threat to its hegemony.
In looking back at this bloody history and at the struggles faced by various religious groups in the American colonies, our founders enshrined freedom of religion in the first amendment of the Constitution.
Nonetheless, the language and motivating forces for political action continue to bear a strong resemblance to those of religious movements. Indeed, it was religious progressivism in the nineteenth century that was a strong political force for abolition, women’s suffrage, and the creation of institutions to serve the vulnerable. Quakers and Methodists especially led the movement for a nation that reflected their religious principles of social equality, economic security, and social responsibility. Schools, orphanages, and hospitals were built to provide for the welfare of the young and the vulnerable.
So, what about today?
“Make America Great Again” is a revitalization slogan. As in all good slogans, it’s vague enough that everyone can define it in his or her own way. My “great” may not be your “great.” But how can one not agree that greatness is a good?
With “again,” the slogan looks to an unspecified purer past…vague and undefined. As such, it can evoke both the nation’s founders and the mid-twentieth century, when the United States dominated the world economy in the aftermath of WWII. To those who remember history, the slogan revives one that was nativistic. The slogan takes on multiple meanings, some of which conflict.
The slogan could have referred to the great progressivism of the nineteenth century. However, when deployed at rallies and in advertisements, it did the opposite. Those vulnerable groups championed by religious progressives in the nineteenth century were not just left out of the campaign and its slogan, they were scapegoated.
The scapegoating of women and minorities gave this campaign and its heated rhetoric a particular nativistic character– valorizing white men. The bruising campaign rhetoric deployed at highly emotional rallies had the feel of a nineteenth century religious revival. Heady in its effect, profound in its ability to generate identity and action. The rallies produced a sense of nationhood exclusive in its definition of benefits and one that challenges the first, thirteenth, and nineteenth amendments. Nativism limits who is a “real” member of the group.
What is the difference between a religious revitalization movement and an election in the United States?
Religious revitalization movements may succeed or fail in the end. They either remake or reform society in ways that address the distress which gave them impetus or the movements peter out.
In the United States, winners of an election don’t sweep the boards clean on behalf of their “devotees.” The constitution was created with reliance upon the Enlightenment principle that reasonable people can and will work to compromise in finding common ground–in other words, to “make sausage.”
Therefore, under our constitution, a political revitalization movement has limits: all stakeholders have a place in decision making. Checks and balances also limit power.
The problem for a democracy is demagogues.
Put a demagogue together with a close circle of loyalists who wield power and a base of “believers” with the intensity of a revitalization movement in times of social stress, and democracy too easily comes unhinged. This was 1930’s Germany.
This set of factors is a threat to democratic societies. A threat that outside powers may seek to manipulate for their own benefit.
Political movements share elements of religious movements..and therein lies the danger.