A Discourse on Civil Irreligion
Kirk W. Tofte
by Kirk W. Tofte
Libertarianism in general and LewRockwell.com in particular can
be frustrating things with which one’s time can be spent. But for
serious seekers of truth, justice and peace, their studies and writings
offer enough gems of wisdom over time to make efforts to continue
to read them well worthwhile. One such gem was offered to us by
Lew Rockwell himself in his article of December 31, 2004.
My understanding of what Lew was trying to say with his piece is
that liberty in America today is equally or even more threatened
by Big Government Conservatism than it is by Big Government Liberalism.
One of the main reasons why this is true is that the former is much
more nationalistic and militaristic than the latter. This is important
because nationalism is often used to mask militarism, although the
reverse has not and cannot ever be the case.
To a very large extent, nationalism is a corruption of patriotism.
It substitutes love of country with the worship of the nation-state
as a civil religion.
Last year William Inboden published an important article, "One
Cheer for Civil Religion?" in Modern Reformation Magazine.
He pointed out in this piece that civil religion is as old as both
the church and the state themselves. Inboden quotes the eighteen-century
historian, Edward Gibbon, regarding his thoughts on civil religion
in ancient Rome: "The various modes of worship which prevailed
in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally
true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate
as equally useful." If we substitute the word "politician"
for the word "magistrate" Gibbon’s observations become
equally true in America today.
How religious or irreligious were America’s founders?
Inboden sketches a history that runs from the Pilgrims, to the Civil
War, through the Cold War and into the present age. The "city
upon the hill" that John Winthrop saw the Pilgrims creating
in America was not a Christian nation-state, or even a nation-state
at all. The Pilgrims sought to form a new Christian community that
would be a beacon upon which the eyes of the English Church would
be transfixed. Winthrop and the Pilgrims retained and were proud
of their English citizenship for all the time their community existed
Unfortunately, the Pilgrim’s original mission to form a distinctive
new religious community in America failed miserably. It was their
descendents that decided to make America a new nation. In Inboden’s
words, "rather than being founded as a distinctively Christian
nation-state, the birth of the United States came as almost an accidental
by-product of a failed Christian community."
This did not keep our founding fathers (or should we say, "founding
magistrates") from giving birth to American civil religion
at the same time that they gave us the Declaration of Independence.
When the first Congress solicited ideas for a national seal, both
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin suggested a depiction of
God drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea to convey the theme of
God granting liberty to his chosen people in this case, Americans
rather than the Old Testament Israelites.
But even Jefferson and Franklin cannot blur the distinction between
American civil religion and biblical Judeo-Christianity. The latter
acknowledges God’s revelation as its true authority and pledges
its ultimate loyalty to God’s name. Nor should any of the national
flags placed in sanctuaries found throughout America confuse these
priorities and loyalties.
In the modern era, the Cold War did much to restore the notion that
Americans were a people chosen by God to lead the fight against
Godless communism. The presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower is instructive
in this light. Over the eight years of his administration, Eisenhower
did the following:
- Just after
having been inaugurated as president, Eisenhower was baptized
for the first time in a public ceremony at the National Presbyterian
Church in Washington, D.C.
one of his inaugurations, Eisenhower made an unprecedented offering
of his own prayer at this ceremony.
- He had
his cabinet meetings open with prayer and instituted the National
- It was
during the Eisenhower administration that "In God We Trust"
was adopted as the United States’ motto and began to be printed
on the nation’s currency.
- It was
also during this time that the words "one nation under God"
were added to America’s pledge of allegiance.
The American experiment with limited government was and is unique
in the world’s history. But the bible unequivocally places God in
authority over all nations and governments. More importantly, it
is by virtue of a person’s allegiance to this God rather than the
country that he or she resides in that makes all the difference
in a truly religious sense.
Considering how civil religion in America grew during the Civil
War, it is ironic that Abraham Lincoln got this last point right
when he said that "Americans are an almost chosen people."
But the word "almost" makes all the difference in the
Nationalism as the worship of a nation-state as a civil religion
is a false faith. It represents chasing after idols. When nationalism
is used to mask militarism and imperialism it is worse than a false
faith. It is the gravest of sins that can only be forgiven by a
truly loving God.
I wish everyone a Happy Lew Year and Godspeed in your efforts on
behalf of truth, justice and peace. In 2005.
W. Tofte [send him mail] is
the manager of the BWIA Private Investment Fund and the author of
Principled and Grow Rich: Your Guide to Investing Successfully in
Both Bull and Bear Markets. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
© 2005 LewRockwell.com