The Church of State
As people leave organized religion and its attendant moral teachings, they are flocking to politics to fill the void. But this is proving socially destructive.
By Max Borders – January 5, 2024
The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.
—H. L. Mencken
Darkness descends over civilization and freedom. It flows not from any external threat but from within the human heart. We are beings capable of happiness and flourishing, but sometimes, we push our fears and anxieties into the shadows. There, they fester. From those deep psychological bowers, the fear and anxiety reemerge transformed.
It makes people do stupid things, like giving power to bad people.
To live right now, then, is to live in paradox. Despite conditions of relative peace and abundance, a psychosocial pathology has taken hold. It manifests itself as something like a replacement religion. Where people once turned to their temples and communities for reassurance, more turn now to political authorities.
Merchants of fear magnify frictions and tragedies for our entertainment. They obscure complicated truths and feed this new faith’s dogmas. Adherents believe they are on the side of the angels, but their faith threatens to bring about a new Dark Age. Why? Because more and more people in the grip of this religion are willing to use illiberal means in service of their ends.
Exitus acta probat.
The Rise of the Church of State
It’s no secret that Americans are losing their religion—particularly the young. And I can say that, despite my agnosticism, I’m not sure this has altogether been a good thing.
According to Gallup, only 47 percent of Americans attend a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 73 percent when the pollsters first asked the question in 1937.
Despite humanity’s dark history of religious wars and persecutions, most major religions offer some moral guidelines — virtues, values, and guidance on how to live a good life. Variations of the Golden Rule appear in almost every faith tradition. But as more Americans have left organized religion, they have also abandoned a source of moral teaching and moral community.
Nature abhors a vacuum, the saying goes. So, where are these lost souls turning for their morality in the absence of religion?
As people have become less religious, they have transferred their need for its trappings into the political realm. That religion, which I call the Church of State, offers people three Articles of Faith:
- Prosperity as Immorality is the notion that our abundance is the product of our sin;
- Society by Design is the idea that elites can administratively order the socio-economy; and
- The Authoritarian Urge is the will to control others, whether to quell our fears, overcome sin, or force one’s ideals into existence.
Now, cross these Articles of Faith with three big problems, and you can see how this new Church of State currently organizes itself:
- Wealth Inequality. One sect is obsessed with the idea that some people control considerable resources while others have too little. Such obsession causes the adherents to focus on what the rich have rather than what the poor lack. They seek equality of outcomes, which means using illiberal means to confiscate wealth.
“Inequality is the root of social evil,” said Pope Francis.
- Climate Emergency. Another sect is preoccupied with an impending apocalypse due to energy consumption, which leads to runaway warming. Positive climate feedback loops will eventually cause fragile ecosystems and societies to collapse. They seek climate stability, which requires the abrupt curtailment of production and consumption.
“This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced,” said Greta Thunberg.
- Social Injustice. The third sect fixates on the idea of justice as a cosmic scoreboard. They think neutral, liberal rules not only perpetuate racism but allow the privileged to preserve their power over oppressed minorities. They seek equity, which means using illiberal means to right historical wrongs or correct perceived power imbalances.
“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist,” said Ibram X. Kendi
The most powerful aspect of the Big Three problems is that each has a grain of truth: Some rich people have gotten richer through a rigged game, and poor people continue to struggle; Climate change is occurring to some degree, and we have all contributed to it; Certain people benefit from a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, while overt racists gather and march from time to time. These are all problems that people of conscience should come together to address.
But those dedicating their lives to the Big Three tend to exaggerate their severity. Indeed, the most zealous put these issues at the center of all moral, social, and economic life. Once there, no other concerns or values matter. And that monomania changes one’s ideological priors into religious dogma, particularly when people organize around that monomania.
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Consider how the Articles of Faith intersect with the Big Three Problems.
When we were in a global pandemic, it would have been tempting to add that dynamic into the mix. After all, the pandemic of 2020-2022 had stoked widespread fear and anxiety to the point that, for many, totalitarian measures have become palatable. But concerns about public health, like the pandemic itself, were transitory. People moved on. ‘Irish Democracy,’ that general unwillingness of the people to comply, eventually overwhelmed the political class.
In other words, concerns about viruses, though real, didn’t have the same durable features as the Big Three simply because inequality, climate change, and social injustice deal in abstractions. The claims are more difficult to falsify. That makes solving such problems much harder but converting people to the Church of State far easier.
There is no vaccine for racism. So, we place our faith in something else: We have to ‘do the work’ of antiracism, which means certain groups must first confess to the Original Sin of privilege. These sinners must then allow an enlightened ruling class to launch illiberal measures to dismantle ‘white supremacy,’ which is everywhere. Only then can they atone.
There is no drug for the climate emergency. So, we place our faith in global bodies and confess the sins of consumerism and corporate greed, which threaten to boil our fragile ecosystems. The sinners must then allow an enlightened ruling class to control the means of production and curb consumption. Only then might the climate crisis be averted.
There is no herd immunity for inequality. So, we place our faith in politicians promising to deal with the billionaires building space toys as the homeless wander the streets of San Francisco. The sinners must allow an enlightened ruling class to confiscate wealth so that the poor get housing, the hungry get fed, and sociology majors get student loan forgiveness.
The Common Denominator
Before we explore more detailed outlines of an evolving religion, have you noticed the common denominator in what we have set out so far? You. Your sins. And, of course, mine. Together, our sins—vaguely defined, collectively held, and impossible to shed—are systemic racism, energy consumption, and greed. Systemic racism means no one is allowed to take personal responsibility for the sins of the past, say, through the practices of color blindness or demands for equal treatment. Energy consumption means that creating a modestly comfortable life for you and your family is something shameful to be corrected. And if you decide to save and invest rather than spend and waste, you are responsible for contributing to a grotesque wealth gap.
Your only path to absolution is abject humility before the Church of State.
What does that look like in practice? It looks like you and I are on our knees before armed tax and regulatory authorities who were once activists-acolytes of a new triune God.
Outlines of a Religion
By now, hopefully, you’re starting to see the outlines of a religion coming into view. To make it starker, consider how the new religion maps onto features of older ones.
Omniscience. The entity is all-knowing. Install the most devout of the flock and trust in them. If you don’t, you have simply lost faith, which you must regain.
Omnipotence. The entity is all-powerful. Therefore, it can solve all social problems, as long as the benighted are out of the way and the enlightened are empowered.
Enlightened or Benighted. There is a special class of people who possess correct opinions. That class’s work is to shed light on those still in the dark.
Impending Apocalypse. If we do nothing—where “we” refers to authorities—x will happen, which will result in humanity creating hell on earth.
Heaven Awaits. There is a better society just waiting for the enlightened class to conceive, design, and build for everyone else. First, we must all give up our own plans. Then we must acquiesce to the planners’ designs.
Original Sin. A mysterious force keeps us from doing the right thing, and, in many ways, it always has. It is not really in our control to change, but we must confess our Sin anyway.
Good vs. Evil. Those who agree with us are good. Those who do not are evil.
Indulgences. You can atone for sin if you give financial support to the right authorities. This will eventually translate into social good, and you and subsequent generations will someday arrive at a better condition.
Faith vs. Reason. Eschew evidence, rationality, and neutral discourse. Instead, embrace talking points, narratives, and “lived experience.”
Asceticism and Self-Flagellation. You are born evil as a capitalist, a climate denier, or a colonizer. To cleanse, you must deny yourself middle-class conveniences and self-administer pain for the sake of the oppressed or the planet.
The Priesthood. You should follow and recite the proclamations of the most well-known and active among the enlightened class. Be among the herd.
Sacred and Profane. Some places symbolize what is pure, and others symbolize what is morally depraved. (Nature and DEI spaces are sacred. Gas pumps and fast food restaurants are profane.)
Embodied Evil. If an omniscient and omnipotent entity represents the good, then a powerful, countervailing entity must embody the evil.
Blame and Shame. Those unbelievers who cannot yet be coerced must be hectored. Eventually, they’ll identify with us to assuage their guilt or get on the ‘right side of history.’
Messianic Figure. Occasionally, someone appears who promises to save us. The priesthood must rally around this figure so that the laity will, too.
Scapegoat. Someone or something has to be destroyed who symbolizes Sin.
Victimhood as Virtue. Victims of oppression or ‘the systemic’ are incapable of responsibility or wrongdoing.
One could go on. There are chosen people, eschatologies, and methods of converting those who risk damnation. As with the above list, each sect might differ in terms of which of the Big Three she references. One wonders if such differences create the conditions for a schism.
Schism or Scapegoat?
This religious order is holding itself together, but that could change. After all, in most religious orders, there is One True Way. Whether that way lies in the pieties, rites, and liturgies a sect adopts — or in determining what particular sin is most egregious — the more differences each sect finds in the details, the more they will see the other sects as competitors.
To maintain unity, it might not be enough that all the sects worship in the Church of State. They might have to maintain unity through the sacrifice of a common scapegoat. And that scapegoat could well be you, Dear Reader.
I don’t suggest such things to strike fear in anyone. Instead, we should consider that it might be time to create another form of civil association into which a new generation can transmit, then transmute, their fears. If I’m correct that the Church of State is the apotheosis of people’s transferred anxieties, then they will always be looking for an outlet—whether in government power or something else. The State is a fundamentally violent institution, so we should fear it most of all, even if ‘our team’ happens to get in office for a term.
We must also be concerned about vengeful reactions within the Church of State because reactionaries seek to put down their enemies. Such risks threaten to turn the rest of us into collateral damage in a twenty-first-century civil war.
What must we do?
We must upgrade our liberal humanism. We must upgrade our social operating system. And we must upgrade ourselves. We do so by integrating both ancient wisdom and modern innovation. It must become a liberal humanism that unifies people in the secure bosom of community, keeps us rooted in our human natures, and expands our pluralism.
Finally, in viewing one another as sacred entities, even the godless might find something closer to divinity. If we don’t embrace a doctrine of sacred persons, we risk returning to the horrors that marked the twentieth century.
“Never again,” we promised. But only in freedom can we keep that promise.