American Idolatry

American Idolatry November 1, 2015

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It is an amazing thing that happened when the citizens of the 13 former colonies of Great Britain formed a new nation. And part of what was amazing was the way in which they limited their claims about it and their aspirations for it. They made a decisive break with any idea of semi-divine nations bestowed by God on kings. The United States of America was created by her people, to serve their purposes. The only promises in this new promised land were the promises the citizens made to each other. 

And that is the only possible basis for genuine inter-religious dialogue, a dialogue in which the fundamental structures of society belong to no religion, and thus to all.

But this has changed in the last half century, and Americans are giving their nation a semi-divine status while adhering to the religion of Americanism, a religion that (as Geertz defines religion) is “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long – lasting moods and motivations in human persons by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

Now we pledge allegiance to the flag instead of one another. Now “in God we Trust.” We’ve made our nation into an idol.

Merely regarding a nation-state as transcendent and absolute, so that its rituals and myths function to create a sense that it is the measure of what it means to be a real nation, a nation ordained by God, isn’t unique or particularly interesting. Americanism is only part of a long sorry history of deifying nation-states.

What is critical in our current situation is that Americanism has itself been deeply shaped by American Christianity and its acceptance, even insistence, that the apprehension of the deepest source of our values, our god, is known through the heart and not the mind. Nor is this merely what is commonly called evangelicalism – that form of American Christianity sometimes characterized as the “religion of the heart.” With the turn to the subjective, indeed the embrace of the subjective in liberal theology, reliance on feelings to apprehend the deepest sources and norms for engaging reality has swept American Christianity, and naturally affects our religious attitudes more generally.

This isn’t to say that Americans cannot participate in reasoned arguments about understanding how to live out their national identity. But if reason isn’t at the root of your religion there is really little reason that it should be found in the branches. And right now America (like Christianity) has become a demigod, the lifestyle concierge of God’s pearly-gated community, worshiped in a feeling saturated religion.

Not surprisingly political debate in the United States is almost entirely about making people feel good.

This is why political marketing is so effective. America the demigod isn’t constructed by the reasoned consideration of the facts her origins, or even by rational interpretation of her founding documents. Our god/nation is constructed by imagining it as the provider for our deepest emotional needs, by demanding that it affirm that our life as Americans, our moods and motivations, are “uniquely realistic.”

Indeed it is our belief that they are unique realistic that makes us such evangelists for Americanism world-wide. We imagine that every nation wants to be like us – or should.

Are we filled with anxiety? Then America must be the god that affirms whatever soothes us, whether it be weapons in hand or weapons banned. There is a balm in Washington. . . . Do our hearts yearn for material comfort? Then America must be the god that not only satisfies that want, but does it in the way we find most emotionally appealing, whether by fostering free enterprise or equitable income distribution. Do we long to be accepted just as we are? Then America must be the god that affirms whatever is central to our personal identity as good and valuable, whether it is our sexual orientation, our ethnic identity, our religious beliefs, our sense of race and class privilege, or even our favored entertainments.

But you can see the problem. America isn’t actually a god, and makes a miserable demigod. By building our relationship to our nation on emotional needs demanding to be fulfilled we have placed far too large a burden on the nation-state. Indeed we have made it an idol, not unlike those pillars to Moloch that King Solomon erected in a vain attempt to reassert his waning potency with stone phalli.

The nation-state is a long lived but still temporal structuring of society within a geographical boundary. And that is all. Nation-states, America among them, are social machines for accomplishing the purposes assigned to them by their citizens. America’s founding fathers may have wrapped their endeavor in transcendent values (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) for motivational purposes but in the long run we’ll have to grow out of that if we are to endure. The real genius of our founders wasn’t the values, it was the mechanics. The constitution is hard to change, but it can be changed – which is why it isn’t scripture and draws its authority entirely from the assent of the governed.

If we want America to manifest our values that is fine, assuming we can agree on them, but we must recognize that we are the source of those values and not visa-versa. Our nation cannot give our lives meaning, either through the service we render or the services it offers. It must take its meaning from us, which in many ways calls us to a higher duty than serving it as a god.

And because our nation-state isn’t god, our duty as citizens isn’t to worship. As citizens we should not serve a deified social machine. Our job is to bend that machine to our reasoned judgment of what “establishes justice, insures domestic tranquility, provides for the common defense, promotes the general welfare, and secures the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Only this will allow us to shed our anti-semitism, islamophobia, and all the other fears of supposedly “foreign” religions. Only then can we have real dialogue in a nation in which there are no “foreign” religions since religion isn’t an essential part of being a citizen.

And only this will allow us to give up on our emotional attachments and carry on a reasoned debate about the best ways to organize our society. Then we’ll be able to vote for the candidates best qualified to carry out the necessary policies rather than priests with their vain promises of emotional release. Otherwise we will find that America as an excellent nation-state but a terrible god, and that we will elect politician/priests ever willing to sacrifice us, and our children on their bloody altars.

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