Thursday, June 30, 2016

Today's Post-Christian Political Religion Adopts Christian Forms

We live in a post-Christian society. As a result, our worship of Jupiter, god of politics, takes on previously Christian forms. Jacques Ellul tells us how in The New Demons (trans. C. Edward Hopkin, 1975).
1. God. In our contemporary worship of Jupiter, the part of the god, or of his incarnation, is established by an official “cult of personality” (170) or creation of the Great Personality. The establishment of such a cult is unavoidable. On one side, there’s the public’s desire for salvation with “all hopes concentrated on one, fervently adored man” (171). On the other, there’s the leader’s commitment to provide that salvation. The result: a cult of personality that deifies a dictator. Holding all power, he “is the supreme person, corresponding to the personal God of Christianity” (171).

If not God, the leader may nonetheless be understood to have been personally sent by God and to represent God. As such, he is the embodiment, personification, incarnation of all virtues including wisdom, strength, and gentleness. He is the source of all truth and goodness. If anything should go wrong in his world, it is the fault of wicked ministers.
2. Saints. Saints are the heroes of a religion. During life, they devoted themselves in an exemplary manner to Jupiter. No sacrifice was too great. They serve us even now as models of patriotism beyond all criticism. After death, they stand close to Jupiter on Olympus. We pray to them to intercede with him on our behalf. Today’s Great Personality leads us in worship of himself by honoring them.
One difference between yesterday’s saints and today’s: today’s need not be real. They may be fictional characters who are part of long-running TV series and, by that means, seem to become real and remain immortal.
But like Christian saints of old, we venerate the relics of today’s saints, make pilgrimages to their graves, leave votive candles, kiss their tombstones, and sometimes take some gravel from around it. We bid at auction for clothes they used to wear or possessions they use to own. We read books about them and hang posters of them in our homes.
Movie stars, singers, even Christians and churches can gain significance and move toward sainthood by committing themselves to political candidates, parties, and causes.
3. Faith. Based on different passages in the New Testament, we might speak of faith as knowledge of, trust in, and loyalty to Jesus Christ. In relation to Jupiter, however, we must really speak, not of knowledge gained through a relationship of love, but of a belief system or, better, an imposed worldview. Those most dedicated to Jupiter are those most rigid in their political worldview. No criticism is possible within it. No compromise is possible outside it.
Jacques makes an interesting comparison between political faith and biblical faith. “Nothing is more formidable than…political believers. Like all believers, they have a monopoly on truth, but with the difference that the truth can never be dissociated from the political power. Here is where political faith seems…more dangerous than any other” (177).
In bright contrast, “[i]f Christianity remains faithful to its inspiration and object, the God of Love, it is incompatible with the exercise of political power” (177). Sadly, we Christians and churches have confused our devotion to Jupiter, god of politics, with service to Jesus. We now speak of Jesus while serving Jupiter and confuse our political persuasions with his will. This is especially true of Christian Americans during years, like 2016, when a new president is selected.
We should realize, however, that “political faith can be incarnate only in the political power, the modern state. In that respect it is the most atrocious of all the religions humanity has ever known. It is the religion of abstract power incarnated in the police, the army, and the administration, that is, in the only powers that are concrete and tangible” (176). When we Christians confuse our devotion to Jupiter with faith in Jesus, we unwittingly identify Jesus with that atrocious of all religions.
I think, though, that Jacques didn’t get it quite right. Olympianity as the religion of power, and not just political faith or our devotion to Jupiter, is that most atrocious religion. Plus abstract power is no longer exercised by the modern state alone. The modern transnational corporation, which incarnates technological power, causes significant destruction and death as well. Our worship of Vulcan, god of technology, is no help. We Christians and churches make this mistake as well.
4. Scripture. Coming after centuries of Christianity and imitating its forms, political faith has its own scripture. Political books treated as scripture have included Marx’s Das Kapital (with Lenin’s comments included), Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Mao’s The Little Red Book. Because each was considered scripture, it was understood to reveal the truth of the god, served as the measure of all other words claiming to be the truth, and had to be studied, mastered, and lived. Nothing in it could be understood to be superficial, misguided, contradictory, or just plain foolish. “No book[s] since the Bible and the Koran ha[ve] been the object of such knowledge, respect, and submissive obedience on the part of the reader” (178).
5. The Messiah. The Messiah comes to fulfill all that the god has promised to humankind. He fulfills all that we are meant to be as individuals and inaugurates a new age in the history of our societies and cultures. To do this, he first takes all our suffering upon himself and then emerges fully victorious over all its causes.
Marx saw these tasks fulfilled by the workers; Hitler, by the Aryan race. By participating in the messianic group, or sympathizing with it, one stops being an evil person and becomes a good one. One is no longer plagued by misery, doubt, meaninglessness, and guilt. Instead, one knows the joy of certitude, significance, and justification. With the victory of the messianic group, through personal sacrifice as well as the massive sacrifice of others, the present evil age will end and a glorious new age will begin.
As Jacques rightly points out, however, “when one gets down to actualities one perceives that the new man doesn’t have much that is new. It is a question of industrious working habits, of devotion to the collectivity, of sacrifices for the [Leader], and of being hard on the enemy” (181).
6. Theology. “One cannot give any other name to the intellectual systematizing and the continued commentary on the sacred texts, for the purpose of answering objections, of enlightening the faithful in an absolute manner, and of establishing a body of untouchable verities, a [182] dogma” (182-3).
Commentary on the sacred text establishes the one right way to interpret it. Dogma establishes absolute truth. Those who disagree with it are heretics. Heretics aren’t simply mistaken; they are either evil or crazy.
Dogma also establishes an absolute morality. These are the actions we must do, or refuse to do, to be good people and to bring about the new millennium by doing all that is good and by eliminating all that is bad.
7. Priests. In any religion, the purpose of priests is to mediate our relationship with the god. The god acts through his priests who execute his commands, organize the multitudes, and maintain the religious organization as a whole. In reference to Jupiter, god of politics, Jacques believes “it is the party which is the actual clergy, fulfilling exactly, from every point of view, the role and function of the clergy of the traditional religions” (186).
Priests also conduct liturgies. Some of these are huge public ceremonies. These are long yet tightly structured events intended to increase the enthusiasm of attendants until the climactic moment when the god appears. Flags, songs, sacred texts, coordinated actions, and pledges of allegiance are all used to attain a strong shared commitment to the god.
Far more intimate liturgies also take place at home, school, and work. We have pledges of allegiance, patriotic songs, pictures of political leaders past and present, and salutes. Today we might add watching TV news to get today’s wisdom from our god through his acolytes. We might also learn of the machinations of our god’s enemies and enjoy howling with religious indignation at these opponents of all that is good.
Space. Space and time are two other characteristics of religion not discussed by Jacques. The gods which lie at the heart of any religion organize the space around them. Some spaces are so sacred that only the high priest can enter them. Other spaces, more numerous, are of secondary importance. Even our households, schoolrooms, and workplaces will have at least some corner dedicated to the gods.
Time. The gods organize time too. Sacred times, once called holy days, are now called holidays. The gods use them to strengthen our allegiance to them by requiring us to recall how, through their saints, they saved us from all that threatened us. But, as with space, there also exists a hierarchy of time. Some days have profound significance; other times, perhaps just moments in our daily lives, still carry a trace of our devotion to the gods.
Conclusion. We may safely conclude, then, that Olympianity, which includes our worship of Jupiter as individuals and societies, may legitimately be called a religion. “[W]hat we find in the end is that, on the one hand everything which goes to make up the outward appearance of Christianity, for example, is reproduced in [political religions], with nothing left out, and conversely, everything which goes to make up the outward appearance of [political religions] has existed already in Christianity. It is this perfect correspondence which obliges us to say we are dealing here with religions” (189).

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.