The State Is a Golden Calf

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A God Which Shall Go Before Us

by Ryan McMaken

Is not the state an idol? Is it not like any graven image into which men have read supernatural powers and superhuman capacities? The State can feed us when we are hungry, heal us when we are ill; it can raise wages and lower prices, even at the same time; it can educate our children without cost…What cannot the state do for us if only we have faith in it?

~ Frank Chodorov

In his essay "The Need of a Golden Calf," Frank Chodorov went back to the Old Testament to examine how the State had been created out of human impatience, laziness, and resistance to the natural law. Chodorov points out that while Moses was up on Mount Sinai, the Hebrews gave up on him and demanded Aaron, the second in command, to create for them gods "which shall go before us." That is, something they could have in their midst and would do their bidding with no questions asked. The abstract and unchangeable Jehovah, Chodorov notes "was most annoying. Other people had gods quite amenable to amendment…Jehovah, on the other hand, was uncompromising. He laid down His inflexible principles, and you had to go it on your own from there…There was no way of getting around this intractable Jehovah." According to Chodorov, the human response to this god of the Hebrews, with his unwillingness to grant exceptions to the natural law and to sidestep his own principles, has led generation after generation not to a pursuit of understanding of these principles, but to idolatry, whether that idolatry be the worship of a golden calf, the State, or of utopian ideology.

And Chodorov was always one of the first to point out that Americans have never been ones to escape this common fate of men. In fact, as Joseph Stromberg recently pointed out, Americans excel at this game of deifying the state in the name of pragmatism: "Americans never brood. Americans seldom think deeply about the nature of things." And certainly, why should we ever do so? As this recent war has shown, even with all the leftist carping about how the United States is the source of all evil in the world, most Americans still somehow come to the conclusion that the United States is the blessed United States, with Americans everywhere happy to admit to weeping during the playing of the national anthem, yet who would never admit being brought to tears by the mere reading of sacred scripture. Now, no one is so foolish as to claim that the United States is God. We’re just always ready to claim that it is the only country sanctioned by God, yet here, we are faced with Chodorov’s golden calf yet again:

"Having produced out of their substance, the idol of their hearts, Aaron followed the political pattern by declaring a day of thanksgiving: "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord." (Notice, he wasn’t breaking with tradition by denying the Lord, but was insinuating divine sanction for the molten image.)"

And certainly this divine sanction is alive in the hearts of many Americans today just as it was with the Americans who arrived in New England centuries ago. This peculiar brand of religious fervor, that was eventually pinned on the United States as the new Jerusalem and the exceptional tool of God on earth, has never been extinguished, although it has, in many quarters been relegated to a secularized version of the original. Stromberg notes:

What would become a central theme of American history was found in the Puritan form of English Protestantism that prevailed in New England. From the Puritan "mission" stems the US World Mission. Much of the ideological fervor of the American Revolution resulted from a crossing of Puritan ideas with republican theory. Ever after, sundry changing forms of postmillennialist, premillennialist, and (very generally) "pietist" theology played a key role in American cultural and political history.

While matters were a bit complicated on the theological side, it is sufficient for present purposes to know that the post-Puritan ideas coming out of New England centered on such notions as the Kingdom of God on Earth, reforms to bring that about, and an American (i.e., New England) mission to spread the resulting system to the wider world. The late Murray Rothbard wrote as follows of the "new" pietism of the early 19th century: "In the North, especially in Yankee areas, the form of the new Protestantism was very different [from that found in the South]. It was aggressively evangelical and postmillennialist, that is, it became each believer’s sacred duty to devote his energies to trying to establish a Kingdom of God on Earth, to establishing the perfect society in America and eventually the world, to stamp out sin and u2018make America holy,’ as essential preparation for the eventual Second Advent of Jesus Christ."

I’ll let Stromberg and Rothbard do the talking here since a recent column of mine resulted in a serious upbraiding from a variety of postmillennial Christians who have no such illusions about the divinity of the American government. And indeed, this is justifiable to some extent, for whatever one’s theology might be, the "Puritan u2018mission’" in its religious or secular forms can only be justified if one accepts the fantasy of the golden calf and the delusion that the graven image in our midst can provide us with a means to ignore the general principles that God had established long before the invention of "American Exceptionalism."

And what is American Exceptionalism but a new golden calf? Impatient with being constrained by the moral universalism of Catholic Europe or the tiring realities of Old World geopolitics, and convinced that the presence of the Atlantic ocean and technologically backward natives somehow spelled divine sanction, Americans went on their merry way transforming humanity and fulfilling the Manifest Destiny. All of this, of course, was done at the expense of not only our own American principles and liberties, but at the expense of any filthy foreigners who happened to get in the way. Mexican California? The Kingdom of Hawaii? The Philippines? American Rule of Law? Mere obstacles to the fulfillment of God’s divine sanction.

Today, the new frontiers are in Korea, Iraq, and Iran, but the rhetoric of the Puritan mission is essentially unchanged. In the 19th century, it was Manifest Destiny and destroying the scourge of Iberian Catholicism. Today, it is the doctrine of Woodrow Wilson and the progressive and secular creed of global democracy. Then as now, however, we have built for ourselves a new golden calf. A new god that we think will free us from the laws of despotism, imperialism, and economic decay. The new puritans have grown tired of waiting for God to make the world perfect, so the divine nation must step in. Yet, where is it written by God "Follow all my commandments unless, of course, you are promoting the prerogatives of the American State?" The ancient Hebrews at Mount Sinai thought they were an exception also. We would be wise to remember their fate.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] writes from Colorado. His personal web site can be found here.

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