Elections as Religious Rituals: When Political Conflicts Are Also Conflicts of Faith

EDITORIAL, 29 Mar 2021

#686 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

Some of the most intense political disputes taking place in the United States today involve deep differences of opinion about elections.  Many supporters of former President Donald Trump charge that the presidential election of 2021 was marred by fraud or “stolen”; “Stop the Steal” was the chant of the crowd addressed by Trump on January 6, before some of them stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the official counting of electoral votes.  Following Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, Republicans in Georgia and a score of other states proposed new requirements that would restrict the numbers of people voting in state and federal elections, a move that Biden denounced as aimed at minority voters, flagrantly anti-democratic, and “sick.”  For their part, the Democrats proposed new federal legislation that would make voting easier and would very likely increase electoral turnouts – a series of reforms loudly denounced by Republicans as opening the floodgates to fraud and manipulation.

As this conflict continues to escalate, few participants appear to understand its gravity and its potential to spill over into violence.  Republicans have alleged for some time that national elections are fraud-ridden, while Democrats respond that these allegations are unsupported by convincing evidence, and are actually the products of Republican unwillingness to accept the consequences of inevitable demographic change.  Republicans fear that, because of the growing numbers and activism of Black and Latinx voters, the alliance of this “new majority” with white women and college-educated men will make their party a permanent minority.  Democrats answer by citing majority rule as a bedrock principle of democracy, but with little apparent understanding that a similar debate in the 1840’s and 1850’s was a prelude to civil war.[i]

It is one thing to disagree about policy issues, but quite another to disagree about the procedures considered foundational to the legitimacy of a political system.  Arguing about elections is not the same as arguing about taxes or foreign policy; disputes about election procedures are systemic in the sense that they involve possible fundamental changes in an established political system.  To put this differently, they raise issues of the legitimacy of an elected regime that are not raised in most “within system” policy disputes.  To understand the explosive potential of this sort of conflict more fully, it helps to recognize that elections are not only political procedures.  In a real, not just metaphorical, sense, they are also religious rituals.

Elections and Sacrilege

I am certainly not the first commentator to notice that elections in democratic states (and often in non-democracies) bear a strong resemblance to religious rituals.[ii]  They are meaningful collective events that take place at special times in an atmosphere both solemn and celebratory.  Like sacred rites, their validity depends upon strict adherence to formal behaviors, such as casting officially sanctioned ballots in officially sanctioned ways at officially sanctioned places.  Participation is technically optional but is considered a communal duty.  And elections have effects that may be considered “magical” or transcendent in some ways: for example, they are assumed to represent the will of the entire electorate, including those who failed to vote or who voted against the chosen candidate.  Most important, they are believed to confer legitimacy – a generally recognized right to govern – upon the Chosen One.

I want to push this analogy even further – in fact, push it to the point that it becomes more than an analogy – by suggesting that American elections are religious rituals of a certain sort. They are rites of what sociologists call “civil religion”: a fusion of traditional religious beliefs and practices with secular ideologies such as nationalism.[iii]  In republics like the U.S.A., elections are the climax of the political process and chief sacraments of the democratic faith. Not only do they confer prospective legitimacy on would-be rulers, they also reaffirm the social contract that created the community to begin with. When we vote, we reenact the consensual procedures that made us a nation. This reenactment, furthermore, is no mere pageant or historical memorial.  For believers in the nation, it actually reconstitutes the body politic, extending its existence from a hallowed past into an open-ended future.

According to the historian of religion, Mercea Eliade, this is precisely what rituals like the Jewish Passover meal and the Christian Eucharist are meant to do.  They reenact the origins of a community and, in the process, recreate it.  According to him, these celebratory rites take place in a “sacred time” that is simultaneously past and present.  Participating in them confirms one’s membership in the community and perpetuates the community as a spiritual entity.[iv]  The parallel with elections seems clear.  But since Eliade’s primary interest is in how such rituals generate consensus, he doesn’t say much about the sort of situation we face right now – a state of affairs in which the procedures meant to generate and celebrate unity become a source of intense division and conflict.

Consider the ongoing dispute between supporters and opponents of Donald Trump over the validity of the 2020 presidential election.  Almost as soon as he became President, Trump began predicting that the next election would be “rigged” against him – an echo of his charge that Hillary Clinton’s plurality of popular votes in 2016 was the result of illegal immigrants voting.  In response, Democrats accused Trump of undermining the democratic process by casting aspersions on the election – essentially, a charge of sacrilege (denigrating a sacred institution) as well as a sign of authoritarian contempt for democratic processes.

The charge was not pure hyperbole; Trump’s opponents had reason to fear that he was insufficiently devoted to democratic norms, and that his more zealous supporters might reject the election results violently, as some later attempted to do at the U.S. Capitol.  Interestingly, the Trump camp’s response to this accusation was tu quoque: we are only paying you back for your own violations of the sanctity of the process.  According to them, the original sacrilege occurred when Democratic leaders questioned the validity of the 2016 presidential vote on the ground that the Russians had interfered with the election, and that Trump had become, in essence, an agent of Vladimir Putin.  This assertion, with its corollary of Trumpian illegitimacy, became the basis for a two-year investigation by the Justice Department, culminating in a report filed by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller in 2019.

Democrats still have difficulty understanding the gravity of this charge of Russian manipulation of the electoral process.  While the Mueller Report concluded that the Russian regime had conspired to leak hacked Democratic Party emails and to use social media to foment discord among voters, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”[v]  Nor did it establish that any acts of the Russians had a significant effect on the election results, although it could be argued that in a contest this close, virtually any irregularity might have made a difference.  In any case, the Report allowed the President and his supporters to argue that the anti-Trumps had fought a long, expensive, ultimately fruitless battle to deny Trump’s legitimacy as an elected leader and were not the righteous defenders of the electoral sacrament that they claimed to be.

Here we see illustrated one of the painful ironies of religious history: the tendency of rituals designed to unite the community to become sources of acute division when the community is already in conflict. During more than a century of bloody religious warfare in Europe (roughly 1550-1690), Catholics and Protestants fought bitterly, and Protestant sects fought among themselves, over the proper conduct and interpretation of the Eucharist, infant baptism, and other communal rites, as well as sacred objects like the crucifix, church statuary, and stained-glass windows.  Witnessing some of the current disputes in America’s politicized “culture wars,” one feels a weird sort of historical déjà vu.  Use the wrong word, make the wrong gesture, venerate the wrong relic, and you will be branded some sort of heretic.  The point, I think, is that under such circumstances it is fruitless to rely on sacred rituals to resolve intra-communal conflicts. These conflicts must first be understood. Then, steps can be taken to eliminate or mitigate their causes.  Then, and only then, can rituals designed to reintegrate divided communities perhaps be revivified.

Accusations of Electoral Fraud: A New Big Lie?

It’s time that someone wrote an institutional history of American elections – not the usual narrative of winners and losers that resembles a history of heavyweight boxing, but the story of how a vital collective ritual has evolved over time.  I suspect that such a tale might reveal some of the same contradictions manifested by the history of sacred rites.  Rising conflict in the community makes reenacting the ritual – and “getting it right” – even more important than in times of social peace.  On the other, if intense differences have sufficiently undermined people’s sense of being part of a nationwide moral community, the ritual’s failure to resolve the conflict can lead in the direction of violence, even civil war.

The conflict-resolving potential of democratic elections is best illustrated by the elections that some analysts call “critical” — those that realign political forces and sometimes create new political party systems. [vi]  Mass participation in political campaigns and voting tends to peak during periods of escalated social conflict, when electoral campaigns present voters with significant choices between competing philosophies, political styles, and policies.  The 2020 presidential election drew the highest percentage of eligible voters to the polls since 1900, a year that involved another electoral battle often thought of as critical.[vii]  The stakes in such contests are unusually high, with violent storm clouds gathering, but the election itself is felt to be a way of defusing the threat and settling the conflict peacefully, at least for the time being.  During the momentous elections of 1876 (conflict over Southern Reconstruction), 1893 (conflict over Populism and “free silver”), and 1932 (conflict over the Great Depression and labor rights), it probably helped that one side won decisively and that the election results were not disputed.

If the electoral ritual works, this is a sign that, despite sharp divisions, the diverse groups making up the electorate still consider themselves a moral community – a “body politic” whose members are responsible for each other, even if they disagree.  If it doesn’t, as in the nightmarish election of 1860, which brought Abraham Lincoln to power with less than 40% of the popular vote, it dramatizes communal dissolution and can trigger the worst sort of divorce: a move toward civil violence.  In the United States, turnouts at the polls were generally much higher in the second half of the nineteenth century than in the twentieth, perhaps because the social issues in dispute were so momentous. The danger, however, was that the possible outcomes of social conflict would be considered too momentous to be decided by “mechanical” electoral processes.  If the conflict were long-lasting and intense enough, the ritual itself might then be seen as poisoned by the malice or bad will of one’s opponents: a process designed to suppress one of the hostile parties rather than to provide a basis for communal reunification.

I think that one must keep this background in mind to understand the current dispute over the presidential election of 2020, in which one side claims that there was large-scale fraud in the voting while the other asserts that its candidate won fairly, squarely, and decisively.  To the anti-Trump forces, charges of fraud unsupported by evidence and rejected by the courts testify to the right wing’s contempt for the electoral process, bad faith, and uncontrolled lust for power. To the pro-Trumps, however, the same lack of evidence implicates the failure of local authorities to investigate the balloting (in particular, the unprecedently large mail-in vote) thoroughly, to inspect voting machines, and to take seriously charges of an Establishment plot to oust the Trump regime.  Each side’s distrust of the other is heightened by the narrowness of the electoral victory; as in 2016, a relative handful of votes in 2020 made the difference between winning and losing states with a crucial number of electoral college votes.  Despite his popular vote advantage of approximately 7 million votes, Joe Biden’s margin of victory was less than one percent in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, and less than three percent in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Michigan.

In a series of powerfully written articles, Yale historian Timothy Snyder asserts that the Trumpian claim of massive vote fraud in 2020 is the equivalent of the “Big Lie” promulgated by totalitarian leaders like Hitler on their way to absolute power. Snyder points out that Trump never wavered in asserting that electoral fraud was the key to Democratic victories at the polls, and that, as a congenital liar, if not a mythomaniac, he never felt obliged to produce evidence to support the accusation.  Snyder calls this behavior “pre-fascist” and relates it to a disregard for truth.  “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” he says, “and Trump has been our post-truth president.”

When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.[viii]

So far as it goes, this reasoning seems unanswerable, but it leaves crucial issues unexplored.  What produces such a serious dissensus about “basic facts”?  Why do so many people disbelieve the “institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us”?  Why, in this case, does belief in a rigged election constitute such an “attractive abstraction and fiction”?  Snyder refers repeatedly to Trump’s non-stop lies and the gullibility of citizens who dream of “breaking the system.”  But this leaves us with a cliché image of the credulous masses manipulated by a clever demagogue, and poses another question: what are the social conditions that provoke such radical dreams?

Other analysts have compared the refusal of many voters to accept the legitimacy of the election results to the behavior of a sect under the influence of a cult leader.  The “Trump cult” is another way to suggest that people who believe his lies lack agency.  But I think that this scorn for Trump’s supporters is actually a way to avoid talking about the causes of their alienation.  The cult image, like most clichés, contains a modicum of truth.  But the effect of its focus on the personal (the Leader’s bad character and the intellectual laziness of his Followers) is to exempt systemic features of the situation from examination. If we want to understand the factors inclining tens of millions of Americans to believe that significant election fraud occurred whether or not evidence of it was produced in court, we need to ask what basic needs this belief was intended to satisfy.

Trust, Distrust, and Unsatisfied Needs: What to Do Next

Believers in election fraud evince radical distrust of forces they consider hostile: distrust of state and federal government officials, of the opposing political party, of economic interests that stand to benefit from their loss, of technical and scientific experts who claim to be objective, and of social groups that they consider corruptible.  Some of their opponents brand this distrust a symptom of mental unbalance or prejudice, or of commitment to unprovable “conspiracy theories.”  But even if the charge of electoral fraud be unwarranted, as I believe it is, the distrust that motivates it is based not simply on fantasy but on experience.

Shall we trust the government? Political officials are notorious liars. Leftists as well as conservatives will remember the “Tonkin Gulf incident” in Vietnam that never occurred, the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that never materialized, and the promises of honest government and equal opportunity that were never kept.  Clearly, members of the opposing political party are as partisan, as obsessed by winning, and as inclined to tailor the truth to suit their interests as are their adversaries.  What then of major companies, like the corporate giants who rejected Trump’s claims of election fraud? [ix]  Are they to be trusted?  Please!  Big business executives lie for a living and call it advertising – or testimony.  As for the educated elites, scientific and technical experts generally try not to lie, but they are remarkably unaware of the extent to which their findings are colored by partisan assumptions, fears, and hopes.

The causes of distrust, it seems to me, are related to the fact that a great many Trump partisans represent sectors of society that have been traduced and misled by America’s ruling elites, in particular, the business elite that controls the largest share of wealth and income in America’s history.[x]  A key factor that inclines them to blame people below them in social status for their troubles rather than indict their social “superiors” is the prevalence and strength of taboos in American society (and many other societies).  Large numbers of people, especially in deindustrializing or rural regions, are seriously at risk economically, but are barred by political and cultural taboos from naming or criticizing the capitalist system. The same sufferers face deteriorating community services but are strongly discouraged from criticizing local elites or questioning how schools, police, or medical institutions (all operating in the red) function.  Their social status relative to other groups is slipping, but other taboos (some associated with “political correctness”) prevent them from expressing themselves freely about this insecurity.  And while their personal and family lives may be increasingly chaotic, custom prevents them from blaming traditional family structures, venal churches, or predatory companies for their misfortunes.

In all these cases, with some help from demagogic leaders, frustrated and angry people soon find substitute targets for their animosity.  The “problem” – the enemy – becomes globalizing business interests, Chinese traders, immigrant workers, “so-called scientific

experts,” and Black Lives Matter organizers . . .  or (to return to our electoral theme) the hordes of unscrupulous dark-skinned people, bribed and exploited by Democrats, who are prepared to use any methods, including electoral fraud, to win elections.

The point I want to insist on here is that right-wing conservatism, with all its delusions and reaction-formations, is the result of unsatisfied basic needs for security, identity, dignity, and autonomy, and that the steadily intensifying conflict over election procedures cannot be resolved sustainably without finding ways to satisfy those legitimate needs.  Of course, Republican politicians are afraid that increasing election turnouts will jeopardize their hold on political offices and the spoils of power.  But these narrow, often venal interests do not negate the human needs of the right-wing’s exploited, humiliated, anxiety-ridden constitutents. Moreover, to the extent that disputes over electoral procedures are civil-religious in nature, this reminds us how difficult it is to resolve such conflicts merely by insisting on principle, whether the principle be majority rule or the priesthood of all believers.  Democrats need to keep in mind that winning the electoral wars will be a pyrrhic victory if their adversaries’ human needs are not recognized and dealt with fairly.

Those conducting that battle on the Democratic side need to recognize that these needs have to be recognized even in the heat of a majority rule vs. minority rights debate.


[i] The classic statement of the anti-majoritarian viewpoint in pre-Civil War years was John C. Calhoun’s advocacy of the “concurrent majority” in his Disquisition on Government (1851) (St. Augustine’s Press, 2007).

[ii] See, for example, Ritual and Rhythm in Electoral Systems: A Comparative Legal Account by Graeme Orr, an Australian law professor (Routledge, 2015).

[iii] The classical statement of civil religion doctrine is Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1) pp. 1-21.  A good update is Martin Angrosino, “Civil Religion Redux,” Anthropological Quarterly (Spring 2002, Vol 75 No. 2), pp. 239-267.

[iv] See Mercia Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (U. of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 68 et seq.

[v] Robert S. Mueller, Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, March 2019, pp. 1-2

[vi] See Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections: And the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971).

[vii] See Kevin Schaul et al., “2020 turnout is the highest in more than a century,” Washington Post  https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/elections/voter-turnout. November 5, 2020, updated December 18, 2020.

[viii] Timothy Snyder, “The American Abyss,” New York Times Magazine, January 8, 2021

[ix] Dan Mangan, “Major business leaders tell Congress: Certify Biden won Electoral College, Trump lost.” WNBC, January 4, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/04/business-leaders-tell-congress-to-certify-biden-won-election-trump-lost.html

[x] See, e.g., Katherine Schaeffer, “6 facts about inequality in the United States.” Pew Research Center, Feb. 6, 2020.



Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).  His book in progress, to be published in fall 2020, is Post-Corona Conflicts: New Sources of Struggle and Opportunities for Peace.

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