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Sunday, October 24, 2021

American liberalism and the cult of personality

For many Americans, political figures have replaced the traditional vanguards of morality

137 years ago, Nietzsche famously quipped: “God is dead.”

In spite of its now-cliché position in philosophical rhetoric, Nietzsche’s fundamental proposition — that western society’s embrace of Enlightenment thinking had brought about the decline of belief in objective Christian morality — remains true to this day. The decline of organized religion has in turn been matched by an increase in instances of self-focused spirituality. This has become especially true among Americans, who have increasingly relegated religious practice to a passive status.

German sociologist Georg Simmel similarly noted the decline of religious practice and belief in objective morality in the post-WWI era. Simmel wrote that organized religion and monotheism had been replaced with “religiosity as an all-embracing, spontaneous process of life.” In a contemporary context, this phenomenon is best understood by the popular moniker “spiritual but not religious.” Traditionally, such a belief was largely synonymous with personal, singular religious practices or New Age spirituality.

In recent decades, however, this practice of personal spirituality has grown increasingly connected to the indirect worship of finite beings in the physical world. Absent of the belief in a transcendent God historically present in Judeo-Christian tradition, many people have increasingly applied a religious-like degree of reverence to physical beings. This has often emerged through the establishment of cults of personality centered around public figures. Frequently, these figures have been ascribed characteristics such as heroism, infallibility and benevolence — all of which have been traditionally bestowed upon religious luminaries.

In the era of the Trump presidency, this practice has become particularly apparent among certain strains of American liberalism. This degree of immanent spirituality has manifested itself through the application of traditional religious values to left-wing political figures. Examples include Robert Mueller prayer candles, the sanctification of Nancy Pelosi or the increasingly cult-like worship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

At first glance, it is easy to simply brush off such practices as petty humor or cultural expression, but further introspection leads one to wonder if there is a more metaphysical explanation for these practices.

Naturally, American liberals — significantly more irreligious and nontheistic than both their conservative and moderate counterparts — have grown increasingly pessimistic about the future of the country under President Donald Trump. It should come as no surprise that many of these individuals have indirectly turned to celebrity worship as a means of providing stability to their worldviews. Without belief in the objectivity of the moral dichotomy of good and evil found in fundamentalist Christian tradition, many liberals have instead applied a dualistic worldview to the contemporary political spectrum. With this understanding, each side of the partisan divide takes on a position of either innate goodness or total immorality. Consequently, this provides an existential motivation behind political resistance and reassures the participant of the dualistic nature of morality.

This practice bestows the individual in question with a belief in the intrinsic value of the world, providing a remedy to the rampant nihilism of postmodern American society. This becomes particularly important among irreligious American liberals, who are likely to have recently adopted increasingly pessimistic perspectives on the human existence.

The world can be a scary place. As western tradition turns away from a universal belief in a divinely-ordained moral order, it is natural to search for meaning and understanding in other places. With our reality progressively feeling more and more surreal, expect personal spirituality to take increasingly odd forms.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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