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The Pope of the American Civil Religion

Why we take the presidency so seriously.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 22, 2004

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The Pope of the American Civil Religion_James Leroy Wilson-Why We Take the Presidency So Seriously The Presidential primary season, which comes once every four years in winter, made worse in that it’s always on a leap year, is upon us again. These things seem to start earlier and earlier. Funny, but as recently as four years ago I had some interest in the affair. The prospect of a new President being elected in November was exciting; the “long national nightmare” of the Clinton Presidency was coming to an end.

But today, the prospect of a new president, or of re-electing the current one, is hardly of any interest to me. I’ve changed, and the world has changed. President Bush, who I didn’t vote for but had some hopes for fiscal responsibility, responsible foreign policy, and limited government, betrayed my hopes nearly two years ago when he imposed steel tariffs and signed the McCain-Feingold Bi-Partisan Censorship of Dissent Act. I realized that he was willing to play fast and loose with the livelihoods of working Americans, and with their freedoms, in order to solidify some political support and cowardly avoid fights over principle. I never had much "faith" in Bush, but from then on I couldn't even trust that he had good intentions, only re-election.

I hated President Clinton. Not only his policy rhetoric, which, thankfully, he didn’t try hard to bring into reality, but his very persona. And his murderous, censorious Attorney General. And his saber-rattling Secretary of State. I don’t think Clinton had any good intentions, but just wanted to be President for the sake of being President, famous for the sake of being famous.

What a waste that was, hating Clinton. Why should I let this man - any person - upset me so much? What is it about the Presidency of the United States that could arouse so much emotion?

Richard John Neuhaus once called the Presidency and the Super Bowl as our two last “national things.” About half the people vote in Presidential elections, and subsequently pay some attention to what the President does. And about half watch the Super Bowl, even those who don‘t normally follow football. Nothing grabs much of the nation’s attention anymore.

But the Super Bowl is just another excuse to party with friends, like Oscar parties and New Years Eve. The President is on another level entirely.

The President functions as the Pope of American Civil Religion. He’s is the head of the massive and wide-ranging American Civil Church, and “spiritual” leader of America, whose job it is to increase the pride and patriotism - that is, unquestioning obedience - of the American people.

Is any of this in the Constitution? No. Does that matter? No.

So when President Bush, in his State of the Union address, condemns steroid use of athletes, one impulse is to ask, “what does that have anything to do with the affairs of government?” But, of course, the reason he mentioned it was that the President is supposed to be the moral leader of the nation, and so he had to say something about it.

And it is no wonder that what the President does is of so much concern to people. Whereas a church may impose rules for discipline and can shun or even excommunicate members for bad conduct, the government has prisons, execution chambers, and a monopoly of lethal force to threaten the people. Whereas a church depends on voluntary contributions and asks for, ideally, a ten percent tithe, the government taxes, when all levels of government are considered, often more than half of our income. Whereas a church directs one’s love and loyalty not to the institution and hierarchy of the church, but rather to an invisible God, the State directs one’s loyalty to the State itself, and imposes far more rules than even God does.

Because there are ongoing “doctrinal disputes” in the American Civil Religion, about what is the meaning and purpose of “America,” it is no wonder that no President can possibly please all of the people all of the time. That’s why every President we’ve ever had was hated by a substantial number of the people.

It makes those of us who do not believe in the American Civil Religion skeptical about this quadrennial charade of Presidential elections. Why would anyone possibly want the job? Who do they think they are?

Well, who they are, are people who actually believe in the American Civil Religion. They have to believe it, otherwise they expose themselves as narcissists and/or thugs - which perhaps explains the bitter hatred against Clinton. For the entire apparatus of government makes no sense if there wasn’t a quasi-religious basis for it, and the United States of America is “special,” that it is an “exception” among nations.

Why would anyone tolerate the high rate of taxation and the number of laws that prohibit behaviors that harm no one? That’s like asking, why does the child love the father that beats him? Because that’s the only father he knows. So we look elsewhere, in which the people are looted and enslaved to even greater degrees than we are, and conclude that we have a good Daddy, that Divine Providence has blessed our system of government that serves the “public interest” and that we must honor the hundreds of thousands who have died “protecting our freedom” through the generations. That democratic government can and should lead to a socially just society.

You have to have faith in the system, faith in societies organized into Nation-States, and faith that this is the only and best means to bring about the greater good in order to have faith in the President.

I don’t have that faith. Not anymore. The entire system is rigged to protect the privileges of the already-wealthy, who can best afford higher tax rates and the burdens of excessive regulations, which the "little guy" can’t afford and therefore can‘t compete against. It is rigged for Presidents and Congressmen to sacrifice long-term interests for short-term political gain, leaving future generations of politicians to look bad when they try to clean up the mess and instead see society itself crumble before their eyes. It is rigged to keep the children of the people in daily indoctrination camps called public schools, whereas the children of elites go to schools where they learn the value of personal entitlement to wealth and power.

While the nature of this column focuses on political issues, and must necessarily watch the Presidential race, and while the ancient Athenian statesman Pericles was correct that “Just because you don’t take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in you,” watching this race from the perspective of a non-believer in the American religion may be more amusing than anything else. That two of the leading candidates opposing our plutocratic Commander-in-chief are a long-time Senator and husband of the Heinz fortune heiress, and a wealthy trial lawyer, pretty much says it all.

The Presidency is out of the hands of the people. Perhaps it once was in the hand of the people, but even democracy favors the oligarchs, and will so no matter how many “reforms” in the “democratic process” we try to make, because they enter into the contest with better resources, greater information and education, and better connections and networks.

A nation’s political order is the means by which the wealthy and other elites gain and hang on to power at the expense of everyone else. That’s all it is, and that’s all it ever will be. If there is to be a “democratic revolution” it will not make government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” but would rather reduce the size, scope and powers of government, so that that elites would be forced to compete in an open market with the rest of us.

In the meantime, the most important reform in our politics and national life is to deny the legitimacy of the President’s ideology and moral compass as representative of the nation. It is not, it’s just a bunch of disjointed cliches, and always will be.

The more we view the President less as our “leader” and more as the primary violator - instead of defender - of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the better off we’ll be and the sooner government will get off our backs.

Comments (1)

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James Leroy Wilson writes:
January 29, 2004
Dear Editor,

Today, January 29, I read that a little while ago National Review magazine had referred to the President as the pontifex maximus of the American civil religion.

I don't know the publication of National Review's article, and I don't care to look it up. I just thought it would be appropriate to mention that I was unaware of this until today, and did not borrow the idea from that journal. If I did, I would have mentioned it, and in any case I differ with its editors in that I thnk such a role for the President is actually a bad thing.


James Leroy Wilson

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