Whether or not America is or ever was a Christian nation is hotly debated. It is fashionable today on the left to ascribe whatever currently is deemed by it to be unacceptable—“trans phobia,” say—to the legacy of privileged patriarchal white men whose Christianity gave them an excuse to own slaves and otherwise oppress minorities. The “right’s” reaction to this line of thinking (or emoting) has been to find the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence in the Bible and/or natural law—universal truths which, when more fully applied by Christians over time, have made our union more “perfect,” and if applied more fully still today would make America great again. Yet there is a much deeper darkness that envelopes the United States, a cloud that hangs over our churches, penetrates our cultural institutions, and poisons our politics. So much so that we might say that, regardless of our status at the Founding, America has become a cult. And contrary to our Bill of Rights, we have an established religion.
Religion, properly speaking, has to do with the outward expressions of a particular faith. “Pure religion [θρησκε?α, Lat. religio] and undefiled before God and the Father is this,” wrote St. James, “To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Still, every Christian denomination has its cultus, reflecting its peculiar set of beliefs: liturgies or services, holidays, private devotions, even unique language. In Latin, cultus—the working of the soil—came to signify the cultivation of something higher than crops, namely, the gods. For the Romans, the Cult of Jupiter was dominant, with its temple on the Capitoline Hill, its regular animal sacrifices, its votive offerings. By these means, handed down from generation to generation, the favor of the god was sought, and shape and meaning were given to everyday life. Do ut des; I give, that you might give.
Religions evolve over slow time; their exact antecedents are often murky. Christians believe (as Martin Luther put it) that pagan religions naturally arose because the First Commandment was built into the hearts of men by God in the form of natural law, and fallen man breaks that law through inventing idols, manufacturing gods that suit and reflect himself, and worshiping them accordingly. St. Paul told the men of Athens they were blindly “grasping” after God, groping their way through the darkness.
History teaches us that what binds a people together is some combination of blood and belief—not raw, abstract belief, but religious belief. (Faith without works is dead, after all.) Blood is important, because family loyalty is baked into the human cake, a truth we acknowledge as natural, whether we believe it came about through mindless evolutionary magic as a means of establishing advantage against other knuckle-dragging primates, or we confess that, as a divine gift, Eve (the mother of all living) belonged to Adam, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. Men fight and kill to protect their families. But thanks to the reality of sex (both senses of the word), blood is regularly mixed and diluted, and blood loyalty thins out through generational separation, time, distance, and conflict.
Belief is often stronger than blood. Men kill members of their own tribes and even families over their beliefs, in matters petty and grand. This is why religion is essential to a people, if by “a people” we mean an extensive yet cohesive group of families, a nation. Indeed, there can be no nation apart from it.
That sounds oddly controversial, but only to our modern ears. For only since the Enlightenment has it been deemed possible to have a nation that transcends religion. And the Enlightenment, like the Devil himself, was a liar from the beginning. The revolutionaries of France, where Enlightenment ideas were first translated into action, simply created a new religion—the libertine Cult of Reason, followed quickly by Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being. He understood and repeated Voltaire’s dictum: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” There must be some transcendent purpose, a motive for pursuing or compelling virtue. (And who defines virtue?) Robespierre’s cult died when he was shot in the face by a fellow Frenchman. Then, with Napoleon’s Concordat of 1801, the Catholic Church returned as the “majority” religion of France, free as other religions were free, and all of them subservient in their public activities to state power.
In other words, Christianity in its Catholic form was no longer the religion of the French nation—the inherited, prescriptive truth to be embraced (or rebelled against) privately and celebrated publicly through binding societal institutions. Something else had replaced it. And that something else was the “immortal principles of ’89”: “liberty” and “equality,” as defined by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
In such a society, Christian truths are no longer foundational: They are merely tolerated, so long as they are not perceived to be in conflict with the higher, “immortal principles” that both define virtue and shape its cultivation among the people.
To be continued . . .