Last year, when a writer of the new installment of the Star Trek franchise, “Star Trek: Discovery,” claimed that Gene Roddenberry’s post religious future precluded characters from using the word “God,” Jesus nerds everywhere took notice. Various reasons why religion does belong in the 52-year-old series were laid out in extreme earnestness. A half-retraction was made by a “Discovery” producer and the combatant parties called a truce.
This truce will not last, but Christian nerds need not despair: There is in fact a team to root for in Star Trek. It’s just not the one you might think.
The future imagined by Star Trek, which starts the second half of its current “Discovery” season this Sunday, is post-religion at its core. It is rooted in a particular postwar American political vision in which the dark, regressive forces of nationalism and tribal identity have been replaced by a smiling, omnicompetent technocracy. The “Discovery” writer was just being honest about the fact that the Federation is a secular, disenchanted bureaucratic state in which most of the pre-liberal ways of thinking about the individual (race, religion, nationality, family) are rendered inconsequential. In that world, the eventual degradation of religion seems to be baked in the cake.
The eventual degradation of religion seems to be baked in the cake.
The social order of the Federation is treated as the natural result of a post-scarcity economy in which technology provides all of society’s material needs. The individual is free (adrift, from another perspective) to pursue what he wills. The Federation’s ethos is controlled economic abundance married to unbridled individualism—and, being Americans, we tend to thinkthat these are the good guys.
On the other hand, there is a large polity in the Star Trek” canon in which technological modernity is more integrated with religious and moral traditions, in which the individual is considered a valuable and meaningful component of a larger community from birth until death and in which there is a internal order and robust relations that bind individuals together. I refer of course to the Klingon Empire.The Klingons are governed by a council composed of hereditary community leaders and distinguished citizens, ruling under the auspices of an emperor who derives his power from religious mandate and is subject to the social obligations that mandate imposes. Klingon society fosters both individual brilliance and communal responsibility. The Empire’s community is not sacrificed to the economy; traditional social structures, especially family structures, are preserved, in contrast to the Federation’s legal dismissal of the traditional family.
This season of “Discovery” features the Klingons striving to revive this communal vision by uniting the 24 Klingon noble houses against the insidious, corrupting influence of the Federation, which they see (rightly) as a threat to the vitality of their culture and state. This desire to defend the particular virtue of the Klingon Empire is a far more stirring goal than whatever idealized lack of ideals the Federation stands for now.
If Star Trek wishes to cater to the religious viewer, the writers might dwell on Klingon integralism and its viability as an alternative to the atomism and oppressive freedom of the Federation.
If Star Trek wishes to cater to the religious viewer, the writers might dwell on Klingon integralism and its viability as an alternative to the atomism and oppressive freedom of the Federation. As we ourselves live out the noxious endgame of late capitalism, where individualism and economic utility threaten the very idea of human dignity, we must imagine other modes of living and the kind of future we want to build for our children.
Star Trek helped us to aspire to the future in which we are now beginning to live; perhaps it can help us look toward new horizons. Bickering over the status of religion in the Federation is fighting in a burning house, and meQtaHbogh qachDaq Suv qoH neH—only a fool fights in a burning house. Christian nerds (and, if they are smart and clear-eyed, Star Trek writers) should look to the Klingons as an opportunity to explore what should come next in the saga of religion in the public square. We could all benefit from boldly going where the franchise has not gone before.