Ideas of God and America

Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion – for who can search the human heart? – but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book I, Ch. XVII
Americans like to pretend – those who think of it – that the national character is still fundamentally that described by de Tocqueville. It is a flattering portrait, on the whole; but it would not have endured, as a current observation rather than a historical curiosity, were it not a broadly accurate one. Still, we must admit that this accuracy is on the wane, partly through the ordinary passage of time – and partly through the left’s willful breaks with the past, in the arrogant assumption that history, tradition, and mores are inferior to the overriding power of human reason in all spheres. When Hayek named the “fatal conceit,” he had in mind the material market: but there is a market in culture and ideas too, and the smashing of its conventions by force and fiat is an endeavor as doomed as any command economy. Two outcomes are possible: either the effort fails, or the whole market crashes down by reason of its weakened structure.

Our French observer was struck by the strength and pervasiveness of faith in American life, and in the second century after his observation, the rule still holds. Europeans still see America as a uniquely religious society; and if they do it now from the point of view of a post-Christian, neo-pagan commonwealth rather than a fellow participant in a faded Christendom, it only heightens de Tocqueville’s contrast. That contrast is not limited to the practice of religion per se. The conservative trope is that ideas have consequences, and ideas about God are no different.

Warren Treadgold, in his epic history of the Eastern Empire, notes the changes in Mediterranean civilization during the Christianizing years between Diocletian and Theodosius. He specifically notes that while the world at large became massively more violent in that era of invasion and decay, domestic and communal life became rather more sane as the new Christian faith brought with it a humane ethic that was both sui generis and a product of its Jewish heritage. Classical paganism condoned within it not merely a pantheon of lying, cheating, and murderous gods, but all the human mimicry of the worst practices of those deities: infanticide, abortion, ritual prostitution, and human sacrifice. A faith that condemned these things inherently suppressed them, and brought an element of humanity to an otherwise precarious and short life. (Tellingly and predictably, many of these horrors have re-emerged in the post-Christian Europe of today, where we see all the casual murderousness of antiquity, without the good art.)

A millennium and a half later, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the humanizing restraint of Christianity and faith in the Americans of his day. As in the Mediterranean of the early Dark Ages, the ideas of God shaped and constrained the actions of 19th-century Americans:

[T]he revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not permit them to violate wantonly the laws that oppose their designs; nor would they find it easy to surmount the scruples of their partisans even if they were able to get over their own. Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants. Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.

But, as we noted, the accuracy of de Tocqueville’s pronouncements are waning – and nowhere so precipitously as on the left. Now, the left in America is not especially representative of the nation it seeks to reclaim. This does not mean it will stay out of power forever, nor does it mean it will not at points command the sympathy or trust of a majority, nor does it mean its fortunes are doomed to ceaseless wane. But it does mean it is something else: something besides the norm of history and heritage; something that seeks to change America rather than fulfill it.
We have already noted that the modern left – and specifically its fanatical core in the “netroots” – bears a striking resemblance to a cult at worst, and a band of inept fanatics at best. This, at the least, would be alien and alarming to our French delimiter of the American archetype. And we have already noted that according to the first data from its own self-commissioned demographic surveys, it is profoundly different from most Americans. The typical member of the “netroots” is, it seems, enclaved, wealthy, angry and old. (Contrast them, if you will, with the Americans of Sandburg’s epic, “The People, Yes”: The people know the salt of the sea / and the strength of the winds / lashing the corners of the earth [...] They are in tune and step / with constellations of universal law. The “netroots,” for their part, are in tune and in step with upscale Marin county.) We knew this much. But we did not know, with any accuracy, their ideas of God (as opposed to their practices of faith, which we knew rather well). We did not know their inward faith. They did not gather together by the hundreds in a public forum and register for the world their own beliefs, to be tallied and scored by outside eyes. Until now.

A key feature of the “netroots” is that for all its pretense, it is an essentially centralized movement that revolves about a few key fora and persons. We’ve seen as much in the past few weeks; and with that in mind, we can take those key fora as telling of the broader movement. So when they get together and take a poll on religion, one does well to notice. Is the “netroots” mostly Christian? Mostly left-wing Protestant? Mostly Jewish? No, no, and no. They cannot even muster a majority for simple monotheism. And the preponderance of them – roughly 40% - simply have no faith at all, identifying as either atheist or agnostic. How does this look like America? It doesn’t: this proportion in the nation at large is between 1% and 14%, depending on the survey. The “netroots” is barely one-quarter Christian; America is roughly three-quarters Christian. Within the “netroots,” the proportion of self-identified practitioners of “Wicca, Shinto,” “animist/shamanist” faiths, and adherents of “one of the ancient Greek, Nordic, Egyptian or Meso-American religions” outstrips that in America at large by nearly thirtyfold.

Have we mentioned that they are mostly enclaved, wealthy, angry and old? Add to that descriptor: “and probably not even monotheist.” A more complete alienation from the average American could hardly be conceived.

Here the leftist may argue that this is all irrelevant – that the public square admits all, and faith is meaningless within it. He would be right on the first count, and wrong on the second. (And certainly he was not pressing that point when last he fretted about George W. Bush’s Christianity!) We have already seen enough to know that ideas have consequences, and that ideas of God are not exempt from this truth. Sandburg pronounced Americans “in tune and step / with constellations of universal law,” and de Tocqueville asserted that “no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society.” But that maxim is the very core of the leftist project, and we see its adherents suffused with those who reject the guidance and existence of the constellations of universal law. They may not be Americans in the most profound sense, but they are among us as our equals, and we must pay them heed.

Their abandonment of the permanent things must and will have its inevitable effect: in the absence of faith, the old horrors rush to fill the void. The glorification of the self and the fetishism of the will resurrect the things that died with the old paganism: the killing of the young, the useless, and the suffering. There is a spurious G.K. Chesterton quote, much-praised by many Christians despite its spuriousness, that declares, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing – he believes anything.” But that’s not true. We have seen the triumph of unbelief in men and nations. In that void – in the emptiness at the core of what passes for “netroots” spirituality – there is the inexorable slide toward the gaping maw of death. “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?” asked de Tocqueville. Having brought itself to this dissipated state, should the left gain a lasting ascendancy, we will assuredly find out.