A talk on the "political religion of modernity" given by Lawrence Auster of View from the Right (VFR):
THE POLITICAL RELIGION OF MODERNITY
Or, from Corpus Christi to the Macarena
New York City
The other day I saw Governor Roy Romer of Colorado give a speech on tv in which he argued that, because of computers, we now have the ability to change the environment so that we can raise children's IQ scores by 25 points. Listening to Romer I was struck, not by his vapid utopian ideas, but by the excessive, evangelical fervor with which he expressed them. It was as though he actually felt that computers were going to save the world. As I observed his intonations and facial expressions, the thought came to me more vividly than ever before that there is an emptiness in the soul of modern man, namely the absence of any experience of the divine order of reality, and that modern man attempts to fill that void, not by turning back to God and his divine order, but by worshipping with ever more desperate insistence man's own ability to transform the world.
The political religion of modernity, which is the topic of our discussion this evening, is not just an abstract intellectual concept, but a concrete experience that takes place in the psyches of its adherents. It is this psychological dimension of the political religion of modernity, or rather one thread of it, that I would like to speak about.
A few weeks ago I was sitting at my desk and noticed two pieces of paper which happened to be lying next to each other. On one paper was a crude sketch I had made of a wall detail in the Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England, where I travelled last summer. To stand in the Lady Chapel of the Ely Cathedral, the largest Lady Chapel in England, even with almost all of the original stained glass gone and the heads of the wall carvings knocked off by the Reformation, is like an experience of heaven. There was one minor architectural feature of the Lady Chapel that especially caught my attention, the wall decorations framing the carvings, a familiar element in Gothic architecture, with two moldings in a sort of zigzag pattern forming a boundary around the space for the wall carvings. But it was done in such a way, the way the two lines interacted, that it had this deep effect on me as a communication of divine truth. So I had made a crude sketch of it to remember it by.
On the other piece of paper was a remark by Jack Kemp which I had written down from an interview Kemp had given on C-SPAN. Speaking with great fervor about the idea of freedom as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Kemp had said: "Jefferson did not write that just for white people but for all people, not just for America but for all countries, not just for one time but for all times." As I looked at these two pieces of paper, one with the sketch of the architectural detail of the Ely Cathedral and one with the quote of Jack Kemp, I thought, here are two completely different types of truth. How Western man went from the truth as expressed in the Ely Cathedral to the truth as expressed by Jack Kemp is the story of the political religion of modernity.
For the men and women of the late Middle Ages, the truths of Christianity were not communicated primarily through Bible reading and sermons, as it was for the Protestants who followed them and who created the United States, but through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, through liturgy and music, through sacred art and architecture, and through the pilgrimages, plays, and processions that made up much of the multilayered fabric of medieval life. Touching all sides of human sensibility, these ritual acts and aesthetic forms were designed to awaken in men's souls an experience of the reality of God and the kingdom of heaven. They outwardly expressed the inward core of Christian experience, the transformation of our sinful nature through participation in the life of God and the conforming of our will to his: "God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him." "Abide in me, and I in you." "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
For the medieval Christian, truth could never be merely a matter of abstractions, because divine truth was experienced through the concrete acts of the sacraments and through the concrete images of art and architecture. God's truth was infinite, but man, experiencing that truth through particular forms, and as a member of a particular community, knew himself to be limited.
The Protestant Reformation changed the Christian experience on a profound level. For Protestants, salvation comes less through communion with God than through faith in a proposition about God, namely the proposition that Christ by dying for us has saved us from our sins. According to Luther, the mass is not an act of communion with Christ, but the sign of our faith in Christ's promise of salvation. Even though Luther affirmed the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine, he radically reduced the meaning of the Real Presence, insisting that it was nothing more than a "memorial sign" of the validity of the divine promise: "You have seen that the mass is nothing else than the divine promise or testament of Christ, sealed with the sacrament of his body and blood." [Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.]
The Calvinists of course abstracted the Faith even further. By stripping Christianity of its outward form and beauty, and reducing the Eucharist from an act of participation in God's being to a sign of faith in God's promises, the Reformation made words the central focus of salvational experience. For the great eighteenth century preacher Jonathan Edwards, the proof of grace was an individual's experience of "the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God." [Jonathan Edwards, "A Divine And Supernatural Light"]. The divine word, and the assurance of salvation as experienced by the individual in his own conscience, rather than sacred acts and liturgy and images experienced through participation in the collective body of the Church, had become the primary vehicle of truth.
Protestantism did not constitute the political religion of modernity, but it prepared the way to it, by taking the multileveled, embodied spirituality of medieval Christianity and concentrating it, as it were, on the divine word alone. It was the Enlightenment which completed the process by secularizing the promise of salvation. French writers in the eighteenth century propounded laws based on rational, universal principles by means of which a perfect society could be created. As de Toqueville writes in The Old Regime and the French Revolution:
[T]here was gradually built up in men's minds an imaginary ideal society in which all was simple, uniform, coherent, equitable, and rational in the full sense of the term. It was this vision of the perfect State that fired the imagination of the masses and little by little estranged them from the here-and-now. Turning away from the real world around them, they indulged in dreams of a far better one and ended up by living, spiritually, in the ideal world thought up by the writers.
In the more conservative American experience, the fountainhead of this secularized word-magic was the Declaration of Independence--or rather it was Abraham Lincoln's cult of the Declaration of Independence, in which he re-interpreted that political document as a mandate for world redemption. In the Declaration (at least as those who came after Lincoln saw it), a nation dedicated to human equality had brought itself into being by words alone, words that two centuries later still have the power to thrill the soul of any sensitive person, even one who is alert to their harmful implications. The Declaration has thus exercised a quasi-religious power over the American mind. In America, all of Western man's capacity for religious experience, all his capacity for piety and honor and loyalty, have become centered in the words of the Declaration, engendering a restless desire to keep repeating the thrill by repeatedly invoking those words and ideals. For the believers in modernity, phrases such as "All men are created equal" (or its mandatory contemporary equivalent, "I have a dream") create such a deep impression of excitement (the modernists' verbal, abstract substitute for religious experience) that the only way they can express those feelings is to seek to impose those ideas, at least rhetorically, on the entire world. But it is an experience increasingly abstracted from real life and ordinary rationality, not to mention from the divine order of existence. It is a purely mental, verbal experience, yet so powerful to its adherents that it becomes the motivation for tireless efforts to transform the world.
The fervor set in motion by "All men are created equal" never burned in any soul so brightly as in Abraham Lincoln's, nor did anyone else communicate it so articulately. Lincoln was St. Paul to Jefferson's Jesus, he was the man who turned Jefferson's phrases into a political religion that is still with us today. That religion consists in the belief that America is not a nation and a people but an ideological project designed to achieve liberation and fulfilment for all persons everywhere. In February 1861, while on route to the nation's capital to assume the presidency, Lincoln stopped over at Philadelphia to give a short speech at Independence Hall. Declaring that he had never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln then wondered what great principle or idea it was that carried the men of the American Revolution through the dangers and hardships they faced:
It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. [Great applause.] It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. [Cheers.] That is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.
Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can't be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle--I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.
Lincoln thus redefined the American Revolution as the beginning of a utopian global crusade, to which Americans must devote themselves. And what is the goal of that crusade? It is that all persons should have all arbitrary obstacles to freedom and self-realization removed from their path and thus be given an "equal chance"--every person in the whole world.
There are several problems with this noble sentiment. Most importantly, Lincoln did not say anything about the social and moral order within which this individual fulfillment is to take place--and without which true fulfillment for human beings is impossible. To make a religion of individual opportunity, while remaining silent as to the moral limits and cultural distinctions that are the bedrock of social order, was to set in motion a dynamic that must ultimately result in the destruction of all social order. Lincoln could not imagine that as a result of his words the day would arrive when the whole substantive content of American and Western civilization, which he himself took for granted, would come to be seen as among the "weights" that must be removed in order for men to become truly equal and free.
Lincoln also could not have imagined a problem that is all too familiar to us today: that claims made in the name of "equal opportunity" have no inherent limit. To take a concrete example, "equal opportunity" now means the inclusion of women with men in the military forces, so as to allow women the chance to have a military career, which in the past has been denied them by irrational and invidious discrimination. "Equality of opportunity" has also come to mean that the illegitimate children of these female soldiers, conceived in liaisons with male soldiers and born while their mothers were in military service, are to be cared for by the military establishment at taxpayer expense. While Lincoln would have been shocked at this radical interpretation of "equal opportunity," it has been effected in the name of a principle that he would have difficulty opposing, since it was his own: that "the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all [wo]men, and that all should have an equal chance."
Nor does the potential meaning of equal opportunity stop with the absurdities just described, because according to Lincoln all people in the world, not just Americans, must have this equal chance. Indeed, so urgent is Lincoln's call for universal equal opportunity, that if we were to apply his rhetoric to our own situation, we should be "willing to be assassinated on the spot" rather than give up the hope that women in every country on earth should one day have the equal opportunity to serve with men in their nation's armed forces and have their illegitimate children taken care of by the military services. As silly as that may sound, it is but the logical extension of the Lincolnian idea (as stated by Republican Newt Gingrich, echoing Lincoln's 1861 Philadelphia speech) that it is America's mission to lead a global order dedicated to "freedom and opportunity for all humans." This mission to impart America's extreme ideology of individual rights and entitlements to all of humanity can only be accomplished by displacing every existing moral code and culture on earth, as well as every natural and common sense understanding of sex differences.
Similarly, when Jack Kemp says that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence "not just for one country in one time, but for all countries in all times," the suggestion is that America is not to be understood as a finite human society under God, but as the incarnation of ideals to be imposed on all time and space. Christ said: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." The worshippers of Americanism have appropriated the divine authority of Christ's words for their own secular project of global democracy.
The religion of good intentions
But we haven't reached the end of this strange process. As the secular democratic word, divorced from its divine origins, becomes increasingly inflated, abstract, and hysterical in the mouths of people like Kemp and Gingrich, and as the actual society we're living in becomes ever more incoherent and alienating, the word begins to lose its power to move people, and a new and very different cult starts to take its place.
In this case, the ideological focus shifts from the universal "word" of democracy to the self who believes in that word. Love of ideas, the form of classical liberalism or neoconservatism, devolves into love of oneself for believing in those ideas. The emphasis of liberalism shifts more and more away from the external good the liberal is trying to achieve to the internal feeling of goodness of the liberal himself. Everything liberals do is done to confirm this feeling in themselves. And the main thing modern liberals love about themselves is their politically correct, liberal intentions. This smug narcisism--seen in many prominent contemporary personalities as well as in every fashionable magazine and advertisement--is the proof of liberal virtue. If you love yourself, you're a success. And, once again, this self-love justifies and confirms itself through embrace of the "correct" liberal views. That is why the glaring failures and contradictions of liberalism never weaken the liberals' faith in it. The disasters resulting from their policies never discredit the policies because the liberals' demonstration of their good intentions is their policy. And that policy always succeeds. Just as Luther's writings moved the center of Christian experience from the objective reality of Christ and the truth of the Church's teachings to the individual's subjective feeling of being saved, so modern liberalism moved the center of political experience from the universal ideas of classical liberalism to the individual's experience of being a good person.
The above considerations may help us answer a troubling question. How is it that the modern liberals, who don't believe in God or moral truth, have inexhaustible energy and certainty, while people that do believe in God and moral truth have less energy? And the answer is: the liberals have so much energy because they don't believe in God. Liberalism is a religion of immanence. Christianity or conservatism places the truth above the individual and his desires; transcendent truth is hard to attain and live by. To seek to order one's life according to the will of God or some other objective standard higher than oneself is difficult and filled with uncertainties. Constant failure makes the self seem inadequate. By contrast, the psychic charge one gets from believing in one's own goodness is immediate and satisfying. The religion of good intentions works. Mrs. Clinton, for example, as dull and boring as she is, glows with a self-regard that is almost erotic. Many other leading liberal figures and celebrities have a similar quality, if not at quite so high a wattage as Mrs. Clinton. So modern liberals have an energy that Christians and conservatives don't have--it is the energy of immanence--a love of the self, the self that is sanctified by its own good intentions.
This is why liberals always aim at abstract utopian ideals that can't be pinned down or even realized in this world. "Diversity," "equality," "peace process," are objects of one's good intentions. No failure can ever be attributed to such an ideal. Both the ideal, and the self that derives its self-esteem from it, are immune to any objective test. It is a self-enclosed, self-feeding system.
To summarize the three stages of liberal decadence:
1. Instead of believing in God, the classical liberal believes in a secular "idea" like democracy.
2. The focus then shifts from the objective idea to the goodness of the person who believes in that idea.
3. Finally, the focus becomes simply the person himself, his own sense of immanent grace and chosenness. Politics becomes the politics of self-love, expressed through ritualized celebrations of one's own compassion.
The 1996 Democratic National Convention was a striking illustration of this emerging cult and culture. The Convention offered, in place of political ideology, a bath of feminized sentiments; in place of words, a choreographed dance of images. Instead of a group of like-minded individuals responding to the quasi-divine word of democratic truth, there were sentimentalized rituals and endless processions of crippled movie stars, AIDS sufferers, and other assorted victims, climaxing with the Vice President of the United States describing in a hushed pious voice how his sister had died from lung cancer. This whole spectacle was projected onto giant screens by the most advanced techniques of electronic imagery, and accompanied by the sound of soft rock, while the people in the hall kept dancing to a sleazy Latin American song called the Macarena.
In short, we seem to be undergoing a reversion from the secular culture of the democratic word to an image-based, sentiment-based, and sensation-based culture which in some curious respects resembles the culture of the late Middle Ages. Far from expressing Christian truth, however, the images and sounds of this new culture communicate the New Age cult of human self-worship and victimhood, the cult of Pop-Cultural, Multicultural Man, the religion of Sexually Liberated, Totally Compassionate Humanity. President Clinton, with his shameless yet empathetic persona, is the perfect representative of this new culture.