In America’s early colonial days, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, observed that “If we will not be governed by God then we must be governed by tyrants.” This view of the relationship of politics to human nature led to and informed the American war of independence, our founding documents, and the steadfast principle of limited government.
In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced a competing view: his Social Contract advocated absolute rule by a sovereign whose advisor, that “mortal god” the legislateur, would interpret the “General Will,” a mythical entity known only to him, and a proposition decidedly opposed to the natural law. Rousseau’s principles of absolute power were indispensable preambles to both the Terror of the French Revolution and to the “vanguard of the proletariat” of Karl Marx.
While Rousseau rejected the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” he saw the value to the tyrant of a religious belief among the masses. After all (reflecting the lesson of Mr. Penn), it kept them well-behaved as subjects. While Saint Paul said, “slaves, obey your masters,” Rousseau would lament that “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” For Rousseau, rebelling against religion and tradition were part and parcel of the preambles to the true social contract — so that man could be totally subjected to the “General Will,” which was whatever the government said it was.
While freedom in the American republic depended on a virtuous citizenry motivated by the principles of religion, Rousseau’s totalitarian democracy required a “civil religion” that would replace traditional Christianity. Those who objected “must be forced to be free,” the earmark of every ideological tyranny since. Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, adopted a most extreme version of this totalitarian symbolism, reorganizing the entire calendar and issuing a new roster of secular saints more conducive to modernity.
For our own times, no political personality surpasses John F. Kennedy as the epitome of the modern secular saint (the adjective “beloved” has been duly appended, so as to facilitate his becoming an object of national veneration). For this federal martyr the government has erected a modern secular shrine, and, in the manner of conquerors of earlier times, it has chosen ground sacred to the traditional religion it seeks to replace — Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of our nation’s truly beloved dead. To decorate Kennedy’s grave, the government has stolen a Christian symbol, the flickering flame that burns in every Catholic Church to represent the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
This expropriation, by the way, is a common totalitarian practice; learning from Rousseau, governments regularly empty timeless religious symbols of all traditional meaning, then fill them back up with doublethink platitudes that suit the government’s agenda. Thus Kennedy’s “eternal flame” — where every day thousands of government school children — from throughout the land are disgorged from yellow government conveyances on government-sponsored pilgrimages to honor secular America’s “mortal god.” No violation of the “separation of church and state” here! Rousseau is no doubt smiling — and so too Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, Rousseau’s heirs who mastered this basic agitprop technique.
These political battles over religious symbols have been going on for more than two centuries. They mystified Pierre Proudhon, a nineteenth-century French socialist, who once observed that “it is surprising to observe how constantly we find all our political questions complicated with theological questions.”
In recent days, we have seen these pesky theological questions erupt in remarkable fashion. Senate Democrat leader Tom Daschle appears to be in an ongoing battle with his bishop as to whether he can call himself a Catholic because of his “pro-choice” views. The New York Times labels Republican senator Rick Santorum a “theocrat” because he defends a state’s right to criminalize bestiality, bigamy, and homosexual acts. And Virginia congressman Jim Moran, a generally boorish fellow, heatedly denounces his pastor after Mass for discussing abortion, because it is a “political issue.”
No doubt the most salient example emerged, also in the last fortnight, with the news that JFK had used his presidential swagger to seduce a 19-year-old intern forty years ago, and had carried on with her well after she had announced her engagement to be married to another man. The recent revelation might have raised an eyebrow or two, but the eternal flame, which is undoubtedly the only one Kennedy ever had, was not extinguished at the news.
Here we see most clearly the celebrated quality for which JFK has been canonized by the secular totalitarian state. He is its model Catholic because he embraced that wonderful principle of the “separation of church and state” when he promised, in his famous September 1960 speech to protestant ministers in Houston, that the pope would not be running the White House if he was elected.
It reminds me of the Saturday after election day 1928, when my father, a Notre Dame law prof, a Democrat, and a devoted supporter of Al Smith, was invited to speak to a gathering of fine Irishmen in Cincinnati. The priest giving the invocation began, “Last Tuesday night, the shortest telegram in history was sent. It went from Al Smith to the Vatican, and contained only one word:
JFK embraced the civil religion of unlimited government when he promised the Houston preachers that they need not fear, for he had unpacked all of his Catholic religious convictions and left them at home, never more to interfere with his public life. He would embrace instead the civil religion, with all the zeal of a convert, and eventually qualified as one of the greatest saints in its pantheon.
His secret attraction to the left, underscored by the recent revelations, lies in this: Quite simply, while Kennedy promised not to allow his religion to interfere with his public life, it is quite clear that he never allowed it to interfere with his private life, either. He was a purely secular man, public and private, and thus suitable for government canonization and worship. The government church’s version of the Devil’s Advocate would search in vain for any damning remnants of an attachment to the theological virtues.
I was thinking of William Penn’s observation when I recently heard Donald Rumsfeld announce that the new, free, democratic Iraqis could have whatever government they want, as long as it’s secular. Eighty percent of Iraqis, whose tradition, culture, and religion is Islam, will just have to be rehabilitated, like those Nazis after World War II — in the classic totalitarian tradition of Rousseau, they will be “forced to be free.” In the meantime, that “six-month transition” Rumsfeld promised just seems to get longer and longer, like Pinocchio’s nose.
Clearly, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was merely a bogus secular slogan, generously borrowing traditional symbols, amputating them from their roots, and manipulating them for public consumption. But I must admit, I was fascinated — no, floored — when I checked the exact wording of Penn’s observation. To my astonishment, it served as the centerpiece of a recent speech to a POW/MIA breakfast in Washington, DC. The speaker? Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of State.
Imagine. Iraq might be saved from another generation of tyranny, the Middle East might be spared from a century of conflagration, and America might well escape the fate of a withering world empire, if only Mr. Wolfowitz would walk down the hall, speech in hand, and knock on Mr. Rumsfeld’s door.
Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.