This essay was originally commissioned for a private convening of British and American Christian leaders organized by The Center for Christianity and Public Life and the UK-based Faith in Public.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 2022, many commentators insisted that the time for monarchy has passed. The crown is a gaudy bauble unsuited to the modern, utilitarian state, so arguments generally went, not to mention a medieval anachronism that makes a messy mix of religion and politics.
I’m sensitive to the appeal of both arguments, especially the latter. But with a view from the States after eight years of acrid and tumultuous politics—and with another presidential campaign on the verge of further embittering our national life—the monarchy has begun to look pretty handy.
Its use is not, as critics tend to assume, in creating a grandiosity of state. It is rather in containing it, attaching it to a figure whose relative permanence, undemocratic selection, and minimal real power allow him to absorb outbursts of national feeling instead of such outbursts loosing their chaos into workaday politics and governance. Give us a king like the other nations have, I am increasingly inclined to plead, so that he might provide a stabler outlet for our anger, fear, and aspirations.
That’s not to say, of course, that the United Kingdom’s politics are never vitriolic or overwrought. But the contrast in how the US and UK handle our respective heads of government is telling.
There, an unpopular prime minister may be ignominiously tossed out in a matter of weeks. Here, presidential elections have stretched into two-year sagas, each dubbed the most important of our lifetimes and treated as an existential battle for democracy and/or freedom as we know it.
There, as Boris Johnson demonstrated last year, a prime minister can at least get a wrist slap for lawbreaking with comparatively little fuss. Here, in everything from petty deception to war crimes, the president’s license to disregard the rule of law as he pleases remains in practice, inviolate, and any investigation is dismissed by his supporters as nothing but politics.
For all possible qualifications and counterexamples, America seems to be more susceptible to—or, to choose a darker phrase, farther gone in—a popular political grandiosity and the ills it tends to promote.
We could simply call the phenomenon I’ll sketch a political type of pride. It’s the pride in which “a man despises others and wishes to be singularly conspicuous,” to borrow from Thomas Aquinas, who relied in turn on Gregory the Great to list characteristics including “‘frivolity of mind,’ by which a man is proud of speech”; boasting, which refuses to “maintain silence until one is asked”; “‘arrogance,’ whereby a man sets himself above others”; “‘presumption,’ whereby a man thinks himself capable of things that are above him”; “defense of one’s sins”; and “‘license,’ whereby a man delights in doing freely whatever he will.”
Scale these tendencies to party and polis and you’ll have a workable model of American politics today.
But grandiosity is a more specific label because it emphasizes several aspects of the phenomenon well, such as how self-glorifying this mode of politics tends to be. Our rivals are not merely imprudent or ignorant but evil; we and our allies are not just practical or principled but contending for the very soul of the nation. This is a Manichaean model of the public square and, in a democratic system like ours, lets each voter tell herself she’s aligned with the forces of good, living on the right side of history, aware of “what time it is,” to take a phrase from the new right.
Indeed, political grandiosity runs on fear and anger toward the outgroup and often baseless boasts about the ingroup. Grandiosity teaches us not just to tolerate exciting times but to relish them. It precludes contentment with playing the loyal opposition and demands total triumph or, at least, endless carping about any loss. From a Christian perspective, it actively encourages misplaced and even idolatrous hope in political figures and movements as a source of meaning, security, and power.
As has become uncomfortably clear in America in recent years, this grandiosity doesn’t stay confined to politics proper. How we think about and behave in public life has relational, epistemic, and spiritual ramifications, and those effects make the shape of our political grandiosity worth closer scrutiny. I’ll consider four pieces here: hobbyism and LARPing, tribalism, conspiracist mindsets and movements, and conversation-ending norms of cancel culture.
Hobbyism and LARPing. “Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics,” began a widely shared Atlantic article published shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic. “They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. … Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs.”
This is political hobbyism, contended the article’s author, Eitan Hersh, and it is less real politics (the pursuit and use of power) than a form of entertainment and self-flattery. In this it has much in common with the political LARPing the political hobbyist would disdain.
In Hersh’s characterization, hobbyists often lean left, pride themselves on being well informed, and have, if not quite high-brow, certainly an upper-middle-class tone. LARPing—or “live-action role-playing,” which in its earliest form involved wielding foam swords to play at knighthood—is low-brow and cross-partisan.
Hobbyism and LARPing alike depend on a gross mismeasure of one’s own political significance and influence. Perhaps more destructive for day-to-day life, however, is the excess of attention to politics and political media they entail (and, less visible, the loss of that attention to other, better things).
Perhaps this aspect of grandiosity is inevitable when everyone has a public platform. At the very least, the constant invitation to air our views can deceive us about their quality and importance. It can lead us to prioritize playing politics over more loving speech and more beneficial uses of our time.
Internet tribalism. Americans’ descent into tribalism and negative partisanship—“in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose,” write Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster in Politico Magazine—is a feature of our politics broadly recognized in poll and anecdote alike.
We’ve long since acquired the “spirit of party” George Washington famously warned against, which “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
It shapes our media consumption too, leading in the worst case to reflexive dismissal of unwanted reports and outlets (“Fake news!”) and reflexive acceptance of ones we find gratifying and convenient. This too is made newly possible by recent technological changes and the fragmentation of media they have produced. Now, instead of arguing about what political ends are good and how to best achieve them, we often end up talking past one another, arguing for how to fix a world our neighbors can’t see.
The flaws in this tribal partisanship are easy to see from the outside, whether we’re looking from one party at the other or at both from outside party lines. But from within, grandiosity makes it difficult to notice the spirit of party’s malevolence and distortion, especially when tailored information intake seems to confirm its worst suspicions at every turn.
“As I’ve told a lot of people, if you had the information inflow that a lot of my neighbors have, you’d be MAGA also,” conservative commentator David French, who lives in Tennessee, has explained. “A lot of it is just a product of information that makes it not that hard to support Trump.” Once the spirit of party takes hold, it will not easily loosen its grip.
Conspiracist mindsets and movements. Durability is part of this next ill as well. The issue at hand is not discrete conspiracy theories, which come and go and will always be part of American politics. It’s rather conspiracism as a mindset and the grandiose movements it can generate.
Any given conspiracy theory may be right or wrong. Sometimes conspiracies do happen, so sometimes the theory is correct. But conspiracism as a mindset—at once cynical and credulous, often fearful and seeking reassurance, content to treat rumor as research and accusation as proof—is always epistemically and politically poisonous.
And with social media, conspiracism can move from mindset to group activity. It can become the basis of an enjoyable community, even supplanting or rending real-life communities like family and church. Conspiracist communities are a digital update to C. S. Lewis’s “inner ring”: “the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.”
The ring is not just a friendly spot but a flattering one, an assurance that in sharing and growing their “knowledge” together, the conspiracists are actively working for good and against evil. Their cause, often explicitly identified with God’s will (as in the QAnon movement), is not simply winning elections and setting good policy. It’s saving the country, if not the whole human race.
Conversation enders. “Cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying,” TheNew York Times’ Ross Douthat argued in a 2020 column parsing what cancel culture is and is not.
Among the key distinctions: Cancellation doesn’t involve criminal behavior or legal consequences. Its punishments are typically disproportionate and long-lasting. And it isn’t simple insult, heckling, or critique.
In fact, as Graeme Wood would later write at The Atlantic, “Cancellation is not criticism; cancellation is the absence of criticism.” It’s not about accountability, which would require engaging with the opinion or action in question and with the person responsible to assess what he did and why. Cancel culture skips straight ahead to judgment.
It is a conversation ender, a means of simply declaring victory rather than persuading someone she was wrong or muddling through to some workable compromise or new understanding.
Cancel culture is in many cases well intended. The goal is to punish wrongdoing, expose injustice, and reject systems of oppression. But in practice, these conversation enders rely on a graceless assumption of moral superiority and the right to silence or punish.
American Christians—as individuals, families, and congregations—can refuse this politics of grandiosity. We can cultivate faith, community life, and epistemic virtues that encourage us to love our enemies, to practice forbearance and intellectual honesty, and to be humble in our treatment of others as well as in our assessment of our own importance.
With T. S. Eliot, we can ask, “What life have [we] if [we] have not life together?” And we can answer, “There is no life that is not in community, and no community not lived in praise of God.”
Still, it’s natural to look at problems on this societal scale and want solutions to match: If we could better moderate social media … If we could tamp down misinformation … If we could get Democrats and Republicans working together … If we could reform how our elections work …
But I suspect no big fix is forthcoming. No new law or corporate policy will save us from our own grandiosity, and while the culture may in some ways shift (already it seems the appetite for cancellation is waning), the trend line for much of what I’ve described here is clear: As a society, we are becoming more disproportionately attentive to politics, more negatively tribal, more conspiracist in our thinking, more inclined to shut down conversation than work through it.
For Christians on the other side of the Atlantic, then, the prideful politics in which US Christians find ourselves should serve as a warning. Let our grandiosity be a reminder that structural and cultural safeguards against following in our footsteps are worth preserving.
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