Politics as a Strange Rite

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Even Jesus was tempted with political power.

The rapid evolution of religiosity in the United States is by now a familiar story. The decline of American Christianity “continues at a rapid pace,” Pew Research reports, while the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” grew from 16 to 26 percent of the country from 2007 to 2019 alone. Evangelical churches are retaining more members than their mainline counterparts, but evangelicalism too is losing cultural cachet and overall population share.

Yet we would be mistaken to conclude Americans are becoming less religious. We live in a secular age, as philosopher Charles Taylor famously argued, not because we have lost our human instinct to worship but because the object of our worship is no longer assumed. We have options. We can seek meaning, purpose, and community outside the church and institutional religion altogether, and increasingly so, as Tara Isabella Burton details in her forthcoming Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World(Hachette, June 16, 2020).

“We do not live in a godless world,” Burton argues in subversion of her own subtitle. “Rather, we live in a profoundly anti-institutional one, where the proliferation of internet creative culture and consumer capitalism have rendered us all simultaneously parishioner, high priest, and deity.” Armed with a doctorate in theology from Oxford and a journalist’s eye for anthropological curiosities, Burton delves into self-focused “new religions” as disparate as SoulCycle and Harry Potter.

What odd creatures people are, I kept thinking while reading, confident in my own strength to resist such alien liturgies. Yet there’s a more insidious temptation in what Burton dubs “remixed” religion, …

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