Sunday, February 15, 2004

The "Great American Mush God" of Civil Religion & the Catholic "Third Way"

By Dave Armstrong (2-15-04)

American civil religion has always played a large role in American culture: "Manifest Destiny," Anglo-Israelism, the Puritan ideal, the extreme Calvinist deluded and self-important ethos (e.g., the outrageous myth that capitalism is primarily or exclusively a Calvinist invention). Sadly, too, it took the Unitarian Jefferson and liberal Presbyterian Madison to bring about institutionalized religious liberty: the old-guard Anglican establishment and the remnants of Puritanism would have none of that, any more than the Anglicans allowed religious freedom in merrie olde England and its brash, unruly and ungrateful underling, Ireland (Catholics were allowed religious freedom only after 1829, I believe). By contrast, Catholic Maryland was the first tolerant American colony. That quickly changed when the Puritans came to power there.

America is not unique in the sense of creating an idolatrous civil religion which runs counter to true Christianity. I think, e.g., of the Communist countries with their official atheism, of so-called "Enlightenment" France with its enthroning of the "goddess" reason, over against Christianity and the Catholic Church, of the longstanding acceptance of immorality, prostitution, and pornography in northern (ostensibly Lutheran) European countries, etc.; virtually universal institutionalized contraception and abortion in formerly proclaimed "Christian" countries, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox alike. I find those things far more an affront to God than a supposed identification of the Kingdom of God with America.

I think that the multi-national corporation capitalist ethos has been destructive to American culture and Christianity in many ways. I have thought a lot lately about what was lost when the North won the American Civil War, and that perhaps the "South was right" (considered entirely apart from slavery, which - it is argued by the South's current defenders -- was inevitably on the way out anyway). Along these lines, I tend to sympathize with the economic thought of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc (Distributism or Agrarianism, or small business, entrepreneurial capitalism). The multi-national corporations exploit cheap labor in other countries, and this is arguably wrong, on Christian ethical grounds. I believe that there is a balanced, non-socialist and Christian (particularly Catholic) critique of present-day capitalism.

I would argue that the Catholic social view is neither left nor right but "radically center." I would say the same about Catholic dogma, on the theological plane. America has been guilty of many extremely serious evils: e.g., the treatment of blacks and Indians. Slavery was America's "original sin." The genocide of the Indians is our most heinous and indefensible sin, apart from the slaughter of the innocents which has occurred legally these past 31 years. The latter butchery is, of course, far greater in number. One might also recall General Sherman's atrocities in the South during his "march to the sea" during our Civil War in the 1860s, or the abominable treatment of prisoners of war in both north and south at that time.

The centers of power and information in America have long since been secularized (Harvard went Unitarian in 1802, not 1902). The Constitution itself is a very secular document. Many of the great poets and literary figures, e.g., were already post-Christian (Ralph Waldo Emerson and his un-Christian Transcendentalism comes immediately to mind). Christian nation? Hardly! At best we could say that Christianity was a significant influence on America and American history, primarily through the two Great Awakenings and the original Puritan heritage. Most of the Founding Fathers were Unitarians or extremely liberal Protestants, by any criteria (as a side note, in my research back in the mid-80s, I didn't find that Franklin and Jefferson were deists, as is often incorrectly stated - but they were somewhat close to that position).

The more apt analogy of America today is not "God's country," but rather, a closer identification with Moloch -- the god of child sacrifice (see 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31; 19:5-6; 2 Ki 23:10; Jer 32:35), even consciously so. Abortion is the sacrament of radical feminism and the sexual revolution, and of our increasingly unisexual society. So we have come full circle to the ancient pagan deities and abominable practices. That's why I see America as a (consciously or semi-consciously) pagan nation, rather than as a pretender to any semblance of a Christian worldview or identification. A cursory look at the sitcoms, universities, or the media today (where God and religion are routinely belittled and mocked) leads one to believe that America is pagan, not Christian by any stretch of the imagination.

The Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel (echoing Paul on the subject -- 2 Cor. 3:17), wrote:

Is liberty alone, regardless of what we do it, regardless of good and evil, of kindness and cruelty, the highest good? Is liberty an empty concept -- the ability to do what we please? Is not the meaning of liberty contingent upon its compatibility with righteousness? There is no freedom except the freedom bestowed upon us by God; there is no freedom without sanctity.

(God in Search of Man, 170)

This complements well my own striving after a capitalism tempered by Christian values (e.g., Chesterton's and Belloc's Distributism). In effect our "liberty" has become (if it was ever otherwise) like that of "Enlightenment" France, rather than true Christian, Pauline "liberty."

Many Americans have felt alienated and used and abused by the rougher elements of capitalism and American culture: blacks, Indians, Hispanics, the poor, unorganized labor, women. I suppose some may think I sound like a political liberal now :-), but I would say that this is simply the Christian and biblical concern for the oppressed and downtrodden. America has tended to downgrade and despise such people (particularly the poor) by assuming that they brought their conditions upon themselves in every case, since the "righteous" person will always prosper, according to large strains of thought in traditional Calvinism and Puritanism, as echoed today by the anti-biblical nonsense of the hyper-faith preachers such as Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland.

Moral (Burkean, Johnsonian, Chestertonian) traditionalism or the moral law, or the natural law, of which the Founding Founders spoke is rapidly being annihilated by legal positivism and relativism. This natural law is more akin to C. S. Lewis's "Tao" (broad-based, common agreements on morality and ethics) than Catholic dogma, though I would say that Catholicism is the most consistent manifestation of it.

In my opinion, the Catholic Church and other traditional Christian allies are the "right side," not the Republicans. I would never confuse mere party ties with spiritual warfare; even "cultural struggle" at its deepest levels. Politics has little use for God's Providence or Christian ethics. Can a Christian "make peace" with a radical secularist - indeed anti-Christian - agenda? This is hardly possible for a Christian seeking to be consistent. So when a Christian speaks out against this agenda, exposes it, identifies it, he is accused of being "divisive" and utilizing "incendiary polemics." The prevailing secularist culture has elevated "Tolerance" to the level of idolatrous Deity.

It is not compassion per se that the Catholic conservative opposes in the political liberal today, but a fake, posing, hypocritical, sanctimonious and condescending (and too often, pro-abort) "compassion" which offers mere words, symbolic gestures, and feigned "concern," but little in the way of concrete solution or action. Conservatives tend to approach problems philosophically and intellectually (i.e., from the mind). For that reason (and others) they are accused of being "cold" and "heartless," etc. But this doesn't follow. Solutions to huge, multifaceted problems do require much reflection and thought.

On the other hand, liberal "good intentions" without common sense and sound economics and a
consciously moral (and/or traditional) framework have brought us the "Great Society," radically secular and feminist sex education, corrupt welfare practices, our marvelous public schools, and many other utterly-failed programs which have demonstrably exacerbated rather than solved problems. I say it isn't compassionate to not recognize that things are far worse than when such well-meaning programs were set up. To make this critique and to accept the reality as it is, one need not doubt the sincerity or good faith of liberals. Conservatives are habitually denied the same benefit of the doubt when they disagree as to methods for alleviating social problems. If they don't agree to the failed and futile liberal agendas we are immediately labelled as "heartless." Of course that is sheer nonsense.

The parties tend to stress polar aspects which ought (in the Christian and biblical outlook) to be integrated. Very broadly speaking, the Democrats seem to be about social issues while neglecting personal and familial morality, and the utter necessity of religion (e.g., their espousal of the radical feminist, abortionist, and homosexual agendas; condom distribution to high schoolers, alas, now even euthanasia is being bandied about).

The Republicans are the opposite: they stress the personal and family issues but neglect social issues such as corporate greed, racism, inner city decay, universal medical care, and those things which make for a better body politic and community besides the accumulation of personal wealth and free enterprise. Interestingly, this reflects the historic (and still applicable) dichotomy (in Protestant circles) between the "fundamentalists" and the "social gospel." Both parties, however, seem to be edging towards pure libertarianism. I see this as the trend in the next generation. They will fight over the peripherals (for the game of politics' sake), but unite in their opposition to the Christian societal ethos.


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