Reprinted with permission
Author: Anthony Esolen
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As the plague in Europe had its occasional years of acute virulence, so in the United States the election season is upon us again. And as the plague arrived in 1348 and would not be eliminated for five hundred years, and Europe was more or less always beset by plague, so the United States is now always in electoral dysfunction. And just as hanging posies around your neck did not help then, so the sweet platitudes of democratic procedure do not help now. For our problem is not procedural. Nor is it a matter of which public servants, charlatans, statesmen, racketeers, fools, or solons are in charge, though some are less miserable than others—and though one party (at present) hates in principle everything that a normal Catholic stands for, and the other party is none too pleased with this. Our problem is theological.
When the disciples began to quarrel about who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus rebuked them in a way that shouldered the state from its throne of godhood. He might have merely recommended humility. He might have reminded them that greater and lesser were up to the Father to determine. He might conceivably have given them a lesson on equality. But His words, which we should attend to more closely than we are wont to do, are the rumbles of a slow and continuing and irrevocable upheaval in the geography of human life.
“The kings of the Gentiles,” He says, “exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve” (Lk. 22:25-26). Notice that shrewd and subtle observation, so typical of the Lord when He considers the canyon separating what men say, what they compel others to assent to, and what lies in their hearts. I am sure that the disciples had had enough and to spare of the benefactions of the Romans. But the principle is of general application.
It is hard for us to keep in mind that religious worship and the prestige and power of the state were inextricably bound for the ancients. I am not here advocating what Thomas Jefferson called that “wall of separation” between Church and state. The problem that Jesus lays His hand upon is not what functional relation should obtain between the temporal and the spiritual. It is instead the old human penchant for foolish idolatry. In Babylonian mythology, the god Marduk, not of the first generation of gods, takes upon himself the task of defeating the malignant sea goddess Tiamat and her evil consort Kingu, fashioning the world out of her dismembered limbs and mankind from the blood of her bedmate. It is a national myth, meant to explain and justify ex post facto the dominance of the Babylonians over the peoples who preceded them in the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.
The Greek myth of Zeus, who plays the consummate politician, forging crucial alliances with certain of the older generation of gods in order to defeat the rest of that generation, is a cultural “memory” of a demographic and political event—the invasion of Greece by Indo-European peoples from the North and the East, and their supplanting the dark earth gods and fertility gods that the predecessors of the Greeks had worshiped with the passel of sky gods whom we see in other guises in India and Italy and the lands of the Celts and the Germans. Zeus presides over the assemblies of men. It is no coincidence that the Cyclops, in the Odyssey, cares nothing for Zeus, and that he and his fellows do not come together to serve the common good.
Who is Pharaoh, “Great House,” but the guarantor of the stability of the Egyptian empire and of the regular and benevolent flooding of the Nile? Augustus Caesar demurely refused the name of “king,” odious to the Romans, calling himself instead princeps (that is, Mr. First Citizen). But he did not protest overmuch when the provincials—surely moved by the most fervent passions of reverence and gratitude—erected temples to the honor of those twin deities Augustus and Roma. I am not saying that the state uses whatever religion is available to robe itself in dignity. I mean rather that the state is itself an object of worship.
Here as elsewhere the Gospel purifies, exalts, and fulfills the partial revelation that God made to the children of Israel. God makes no promises as to the permanence of any political establishment. Samuel advises against the institution of a king, which God says is a rejection of Him: “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day” (1 Sam. 8:18). The prophet Gad reproves David for numbering the people—in other words, for doing what any ruler would do for the sake of pride: for conscripting young men for war, and for gleaning taxes (2 Sam. 24:13). “I have set my face against this city for evil, and not for good,” says God to the prophet Jeremiah; “it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire” (Jer. 21:10). The city is no totem, no guarantee of lasting peace and power. “Seest thou these great buildings?” says Jesus to His disciple, who was gazing upon Jerusalem with wonder. “There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Mk. 13:2).
We will not be saved by the city, or by any man who plumps his posterior down upon a throne, or by any scheme of political organization. Scripture is the first and wisest demythologizer. Therefore, we should not be too surprised that insofar as a Christian people loses its faith, the atavistic gods of city and state return, in forms befitting that culture.
Albert Camus, in The Rebel, got things half right when he said that “the condemnation of the King [Louis XVI] is at the crux of our contemporary history. It symbolizes the secularization of our history and the disincarnation of the Christian God.” For God was not incarnate in the king, nor was the king thought to be God, except in the extreme divine right absolutism that had characterized France during the reigns of the hapless Louis’s predecessors. Medieval kings had nothing near the power that some lone bureaucrat in an American department of education possesses over hundreds of thousands of people’s daily lives.
The satanic character of the French Revolution does not lie in the deposing or even in the execution of a king but in the raising up of that ancient god, the State, in place not of the king but of God Himself. “The general will” is what the regicide Saint-Just called it, identifying it with morality and virtue that come to be by the inexorable march of historical development. “Our aim is to create an order of things,” he said, “which establishes a universal tendency toward good.” And the State is a pitiless god, mainly because the State is not personal at all. Saint-Just needed no pity for Louis Capet: he was not a man prosecuting a man, but historical inevitability prosecuting the very idea of kingship. “Either the virtues or the Terror,” said Saint-Just, and by “the virtues” he meant conformity with the general will. Be politically correct, or die.
Camus quotes Ludwig Feuerbach as saying with approval that politics has replaced religion. But that statement, too, obscures as much as it clarifies. We must get past the abstractions. The pseudo-politics of mass movements has replaced the Christian faith and has reestablished the State—the secular res, the Thing, as god. It is not progressive but regressive. It is to say—contrary to what Jesus says—that these stones will stand forever. Which stones? The political parties may differ about that. Progressives, more advanced in atavism—in the worship of State—do not seem to be satisfied with anything, and after a few years hate the very Babylons they have erected and want them torn down.
Conservatives, less advanced but still caught up in the hue and cry of State worship, prefer to remain in the current Babylon—or even one or two Babylons ago. It is hard for them to remember the words of Jesus and to love their country for homely and relatively innocent reasons—even permitting some pageantry, perhaps of large-bellied old men wearing their army uniforms and marching down Main Street on Memorial Day.
Satan wants to be taken with dread seriousness. We must not grant him that favor. Government is necessary, of course. So are walls, furnaces, pantries, roads, and toilets. Salvation is not to be found in a parliament or a toilet. Culture itself is not to be found in a parliament; rather, it is culture that helps to sustain whatever is sound in one. We should try to keep government out of the hands of people who worship Government. This falls under the virtue of prudence.
Remember this, Americans: not one stone will be left upon another.
Image: The Destruction of Empire by Thomas Cole, via crisismagazine.com