There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals,” said Chesterton. “The real American is all right: it is the ideal American who is all wrong.”
Was that just another of his famous paradoxes? After all, ideals are usually held in high esteem, even while we regret people’s failure to live up to them in any perfect way: how can a converse judgment make sense?
And yet, I see exactly what G.K.C. meant. “So were I equall’d with him in renown,” I might be considered rather like him: that is to say, I see America very much as he saw it in his earlier day, through the eyes of a Catholic writer from England who comes across and travels around and gives lectures. Many things are entirely obvious to the outsider, although practically invisible to those within.
Both sides of Chesterton’s paradox need emphasis. “The real American is all right”: I call that the understatement of the century. In the course of my forty-three visits so far, I have met him uncountable times, and nearly always with delight. For one thing, he’s usually a far more interesting conversationalist than the real Englishman, “more intelligent” as Chesterton put it. Among the treats that await me whenever I check in at LHR for JFK, I attach prime value to intellectual stimulus and exhilaration; and the hospitality of the country is of course proverbial. For me, incurably English though I am, this is a kind of, love affair. I can’t wait for my next visit.
Then in what sense can the ideal American be “all wrong”? For me, it has to be a religious sense. When I’m bothered by something encountered in the United States, it’s very seldom the Englishman in me who feels troubled: it’s nearly always the Catholic in me, even — or especially — when I’m among American Catholics. It seems to have been rather like that for Chesterton. He saw America as “a country which behaves as though it were a religion,” “a nation with the soul of a church,” and “the only nation in the world which is founded on a creed.” By his own Catholic standards — that was in 1931 — he found the ideals propounded by this American religion and church and creed to be very decidedly “all wrong.”
But isn’t such talk somewhat whimsical? We all know that the “creed” in question is strictly political, that there is no national religion or established church in the United States, and that the country tolerates a thousand assorted faiths while separating them all most rigidly from the business of government. Wasn’t Chesterton carried away by his metaphor, to the point of suggesting — absurdly — that a man might be theologically anti-American?
Perhaps he was. But I’m not so sure about the absurdity.
“Religion” is a somewhat tricky word: even its etymology is disputed among the scholars. In common usage, it indicates something distinct from ethics — though with ethical consequences — and not necessarily theistic in any full sense: its central concept is that of the Sacred as against the Profane.
Beyond that, a man’s real “religion” — which may differ from his professed religion, and may not be immediately recognizable as such — is whatever he treats as central to life. When St. Paul spoke of those whose god was their belly, he didn’t mean that they knelt down with lights and incense to worship their own digestive organs. He only meant that they were gluttons: They placed food and drink at the center of their life.
A good Catholic attaches that central importance to the Lord and the Church and the Faith. Others will often complain in some exasperation: “You Catholics! Why do you always have to drag religion into everything?” Given Catholic premises, of course, that’s an idiotic complaint: “religion” — more precisely, God — is already in everything and doesn’t need to be dragged.
Now here comes the point. Not long ago, I heard an exactly parallel complaint against the Americans. The speaker was an Anglican cleric, and he had just come back to London from a lecture tour in the United States — where, of course, he had enjoyed himself enormously. But he did feel a certain exasperation. “The trouble with the Americans is that it’s practically impossible to get them to think or talk about anything in other than political terms!” I winced in reminiscent pain. Yes, they do indeed drag politics into everything: that is to say, they treat it as Catholics treat religion and indeed God.
Now I must here distinguish between quantity and quality. Go into a bar in any part of the world, and you will soon find people engaged in a heated political argument that will sometimes end up as a fight: that’s a popular sport and a good way of releasing one’s pent-up aggressions. In my experience, that tendency is a good deal more powerful in the United States; as that poor cleric discovered, no kind of discussion remains un-political for very long. But that may be just a fact about his experience and mine. It would certainly be rash to assert, without extensive research, that all Americans display that tendency at all times.
But they certainly display it in a distinctive version; they talk about politics in a distinctive tone of voice, as one might say. For them, it’s a religious subject.
It’s seldom that for others. Here in England, we retain a version of that ancient and hallowed and necessary thing, Sacred Kingship. But in these latter days, it has become almost completely separated out from politics, which — like technology — lies within the realm of the Profane, as defined by Eliade among others. At the best, our politics is in fact a kind of technology, a way of achieving desired results, though remarkably inefficient as such; it has no importance of the specifically religious kind.
But for most Americans, politics lies within the realm of the Sacred; and so it is that when in the United States, I have frequently asked a religious question and received a political reply, from one who didn’t even notice that he’d changed the subject. In his own book, he hadn’t.
It’s a curious paradox. Americans make a big thing of the constitutional separation of Church and State, of religion and politics. But in practice, they have an extremely strong tendency to see politics in religious terms and religion in political terms.
When I consider this tendency, I keep returning to the fact that “being an American” is a political concept, whereas “being a Frenchman” (say) is not. The French have undergone many political upheavals of the most radical sort and may not yet be finished with them. What are they living through now? The Seventh Republic? The Twelfth Empire? I don’t know, I’ve lost count. But la France carries on, arguing and squabbling as men always do, but otherwise taking little notice.
But if the United States went through any such radical upheaval — becoming a Catholic monarchy, perhaps, as some of my friends there have seriously proposed, or the United People’s Republics of America — I suspect that its citizens would almost feel that they had ceased to exist. Their identity, if not quite their existence, is defined by a specific political arrangement, worked out by a small number of slave-owning English gentlemen of the eighteenth century.
A specific political arrangement? It would shock them to hear it mentioned in such casual or profane language: it’s sacred and eternal; it’s the ground of their being, and (in that sense) their god.
For that reason among others, the initially political concept of “being an American” becomes a religious concept as well, frequently acted out as such. Imagine a Being from Outer Space, well versed in psychology and social anthropology and comparative religion and related subjects, who visits the United States for the first time and with no notion of what to expect. By chance, the first thing he sees is a group of Americans who rise to their feet, face the Flag, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Never for one moment would it enter his head that he was witnessing anything short of a religious ritual: “These people are worshipping the icon of their tribal god.”
Such an accusation would perplex them and probably annoy them as well. “But it’s got nothing to do with religion! We were just expressing our Patriotism, our shared allegiance to This Great Nation, which is quite distinct from God and in fact under him, as you’d have heard if you’d been listening more carefully!”
But this sagacious Being would not be impressed. He’d have noticed the highly sacral tones in which the words “Patriotism” and “Nation” were uttered: his sensitive ear would have detected the capital letters. “Not unqualified latria, perhaps,” he’d say to himself, “but dulia beyond all doubt, probably hyperdulia.”
So Chesterton’s cautious hints can be developed, on some such lines as the following.
As seen from the outside — and, by some, from the inside as well — there exists a perfectly genuine religion, which has sometimes been called “cultic Americanism.” This is quite distinct from the ordinary national chauvinism which can be found anywhere, not least among the British; it goes far beyond that, being unmistakably a real cultus of the Sacred, as transcendental a cultus as any, even though commonly verbalized in a richly mythological version of political language. Its power over the faithful is tremendous; it requires and receives blind “faith” in the early Protestant sense, an unqualified dedication of the heart and the pure will, with no possibility of an objective basis or a reasoned apologia. It is not accepted and embraced uncritically, of course, by the entire population of the United States, and scattered fragments of it can be found all over the world. Nonetheless, it is the dominant, established, and constitutive faith of the American people; and it is in manifest tension with the very different faith of the Catholics.
For the purposes of comparative religion, the American religion is best classified as a derivative or variant of Old Testament Judaism: it reached the American mind through the Protestant experience, and it was helped along and partly shaped by that old and influential vision of the North American continent — long before 1776 — as a rediscovered Eden. Its central concepts are the Chosen People, the Promised Land, and the Messianic Destiny. “This Great Nation” is the name of its god, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are its Holy Scriptures, the Flag is its primary icon or idol, the Pledge of Allegiance is its daily liturgy, and its Satan or Ahriman is a mythical hobgoblin called “communism.” (This needs to be distinguished most sharply from the assorted and mostly bad things in the real world, which are commonly grouped together under that name by non-Americans.)
This faith or religion has a number of secondary elements. One of these is a certain Platonism. The faithful have a marked tendency to regard the pure concept or ideal or idea as far more real than the concrete particular before their eyes, and they often prove strongly resistant to any suggestion that this world is inhabited by human beings and not by personified abstractions. Then there’s a national Pelagianism: Original Sin may prevail elsewhere, but Uncle Sam possesses built-in righteousness and can pull himself up into a man-made Heaven by his own bootstraps. Alongside that and because of it, there’s a compulsive Temporal Optimism, unrelated to what Christians call “Hope” and generating much anxiety at the numerous points of its inevitable disappointment. Then there’s an impassioned Dualism, an alarmingly crude reduction of this world’s immense complexity into a fictitious simplicity of Good Us vs. Bad Them. Then there’s a quasi-Marxist preoccupation with economics and with one economic system in particular, almost as though “private enterprise” were among the names of God. (It certainly is among the names of This Great Nation: “the business of America is business.”) Finally and perhaps most crucially, there’s a powerful tendency to give “Freedom” the absolute primacy, which Christians accord to agape or charity.
That’s where the American faith is at its most dogmatic, with two key propositions held as though de fide. (1) Among the different versions of good and evil, political good and political evil are of effectively supreme importance. (2) Among the various possible versions of political good, “Freedom” or “Liberty” is of supreme, absolute, and sacred importance. Neither proposition gets the faintest support from the Gospel or from the developed teaching of the Church. But each has to be embraced without reserve by the faithful of this other persuasion, contrariis quibuscunque nihil obstantibus.
The ethical consequences of this religion are mixed. Some of them are such as a Catholic can endorse without hesitation. But he can hardly be happy about the quasi-moral importance attached to “success,” as though “upward mobility” were a Christian ideal and poverty a kind of sin or a mark of God’s displeasure. He will recognize such an ethic as coming from the Old Testament and indeed from its pre-Exilic pages, most definitely not from the Gospel or the Church. Most of all, perhaps, he should deplore the sacralization of self-assertiveness and contention and machismo and violence and war — failings to which the entire human race is altogether too prone, but which are seldom reverenced elsewhere in anything like the American style.
Such, in outline, is the American religion. Does it bother me? Not very much, or not in itself. As a Catholic, I should presumably desire the entire world to abandon its various other religions and conform itself to the Faith of Christ in his One True Church; and in my better moments, I do indeed desire that distant-seeming outcome and even pray for it. But if I’m to be honest, I have to confess that I don’t lose any sleep over the continuing existence of so many Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and Muslims and so forth; nor do I lose any sleep over the continuing existence of so many cultic Americanists, except in one particular respect. Where Messianic delusions and near-paranoid Dualism are associated with immense destructive power, we are all entitled to lose a little sleep.
But it would disconcert me to meet some fervently orthodox Muslim who claimed to be a fervently orthodox Catholic as well; and that’s exactly the pattern of my frequent botheration when in the United States. Nobody actually equates the Cross with the Flag, though something close to such an equation can be found in the nuttier reaches of American Protestantism. But even among good Catholics, I find a widespread assumption that the Cross and the Flag — although distinct — are natural friends and allies and can always be trusted to pull in the same direction.
To speak mildly, that’s a rash assumption. There are many points at which the Cross pulls in one direction and the Flag in another. The most obvious and topical of these is the moral question raised by instruments of indiscriminate mass destruction. That’s a very simple question in fact: it concerns the direct taking of innocent human life — in fact, or by “conditional intention,” or by “formal or material cooperation” in any such fact or any such conditional intention. But in my wide experience, those who seek to follow both religions at once cannot endure that simplicity: it threatens to pull them in half. If you mention it, some of them become extremely angry: “I’m not listening to that sort of talk!” Others respond with seemingly courteous obfuscation: they generate vast foggy clouds of political mythology and prophecy, realistic enough at certain points, but so thick and confusing overall as to cause the morally central question — that of killing people — to be effectively bundled out of sight.
But that isn’t the only area of such tension between Cross and Flag. The case can be stated in very general terms: in so far as anything whatever can be called a “religion” — a cultus of the Sacred, a consequent morality — it automatically constitutes some kind and degree of challenge to Christ. This instance clearly does. Re-read my brief outline of the American religion. You’ll find that at almost every point, it says something radically unlike what we find said by Gospel and Church. It’s quite as un-Catholic as Islam; more so in some respects.
No, I’m not rebuking you from on high, as though from some position of supposed British superiority. I believe in no such thing, and like Chesterton once again, I find much to suggest the converse. But we English Catholics are luckier than you in two respects. For one thing, we don’t have a national religion: there is no such thing as cultic Briticism, such as might compete for our devotion with the Faith of Christ. Then, we remember centuries of persecution. When your immediate folk-heroes are men and women who died as traitors to the country — More, Fisher, Campion, Margaret Clitheroe, and the rest — your sense of identification with that country is somewhat qualified. You certainly aren’t tempted to erect it into an idol. And apart from that, many of the English Catholics — so called — are more or less Irish in fact and possibly less than total in their devotion to Britannia.
And no, I’m not suggesting that American Catholics should go into political opposition, or renounce their citizenship, or plan a Holy Revolution, or anything remotely like that. But I do recommend that they recognize the problem, examine their conscience, go into training, and learn the psychological habit of recusancy. You’re a separate people: you can’t just go along with the crowd, or with the Flag. It’s only with serious mental reservations that a Christian can pledge his allegiance to anything short of God. No man can serve two masters.
Please accept this as the deeply considered advice of a devoted friend. People sometimes ask me whether I’m anti-American, and they always get the same reply: “I adore the country and the people, but I don’t believe the religion — not a word of it! I’m a Roman Catholic.”
There’s sometimes a comeback: “But if it’s like that, if being an American is a kind of religion, what happens to those Americans who are Roman Catholics?” “A very good question,” I reply. “It has seldom been squarely faced, and it has never been resolved. It will make big bad trouble one of these days.”
In principle, it already does. When it does so in immediate fact — unmistakably, inescapably — be ready.