Praying to No One at the American Altar
Around dinnertime on January 6, while emotions were still running high from the day’s failed coup but it had become clear that the coup had indeed failed and the gears of government would grind forward, delayed but not deterred, my wife told me she planned to discuss what had happened with our sons over dinner, before they had a chance to hear about it at school the next day. We agreed on our approach and then, with sitcom timing, our twelve-year-old bounded down the stairs shouting “You guys ready for another civil war?”
It was a welcome moment of levity on a dark day, and a fitting capstone to four years of struggling to talk to our kids about government and current events, a challenge that most American parents have likely shared. On my end, and I don’t speak for my wife, my messaging has been aggressively realistic, veering toward cynical. The presidency is a job. It’s an important job, but it’s a job. Some people are good at it, some aren’t. Sometimes bad people get it. Getting the job doesn’t make a bad person good. And the same is true for any position in government. It’s up to Americans to prevent bad people from gaining positions of power and hold them accountable when they do, and we can’t just rely on some vague concept of “institutions” do to it for us. I didn’t, and still don’t, see any value in fooling my kids into thinking that the American project was eternal and self-sustaining.
This messaging is somewhat heterodox given the reverence with which public schools have educated children about the American system of government, and that disconnect struck me as I read the reactions from politicians and other opinion-havers during and after the invasion of the Capitol building. Make no mistake — I was horrified by what I witnessed, as were many people. But my horror was tied directly to real-world consequences. I was worried that the invasion would stop the certification of the Electoral College vote not because there was anything special about the certification itself, but because stopping it may prevent the transfer of power that would keep government functioning. And I wanted government to keep functioning not because government is special, but because government provides useful services and protections to Americans, and I wanted those services and protections to continue.
But many others expressed their horror in more, frankly, religious ways. The Capitol building was described as a “temple of democracy” that had been “desecrated.” Joe Biden — a Catholic! — described the certification process as a “sacred ritual.” Similar theological wailing and gnashing of teeth was littered throughout social media and cable news. Curiously, many who fiercely believe in the separation of church and state seem all to eager to treat the state itself as a church.
I don’t find this reverence to compelling or particularly useful. Very discretely, if the certification of the Electoral College votes is a “ritual,” it is a profane one, not a sacred one. The only reason it exists is because the U.S., unlike every other self-styled democracy in the world, refuses to simply award the election to the candidate who gets the most votes. Instead, we have a nonsensical electoral system that installed the loser of the popular vote in the White House twice in the last twenty years, and handed a madman the nation’s nuclear codes four years ago. The Electoral College certification is not a democratic sacrament, but an antidemocratic Black Mass.
More fundamentally, there is simply nothing about a secular system of government, let alone a piece of real estate where government functionaries go about their business, that justifies religious devotion. Rather than get into the metaphysics of it I’ll try to illustrate this point with concrete examples. At present, the U.S. government faces a crisis of legitimacy because numerous antidemocratic features of the Constitution are increasingly being exploited to entrench minority rule by conservatives. There are myriad solutions to this crisis, all of which are met with fierce resistance not only by the conservatives who would lose power, but by moderates and even liberals suffering from a kind of status-quo-bias-on-steroids driven by reverence for some nebulous vision of the American System.
We can’t make the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico states because the number 50 became talismanic at some point in the 61 years since Alaska and Hawaii became states, and adding two stars to the flag would be as grotesque as adding a fourth person to the Trinity. Add seats to the Supreme Court to create better judicial outcomes? No no no, there are exactly Nine Justices just as there were exactly Twelve Apostles, and thus shall it ever be, and Republican judicial shenanigans don’t count because the proper incantations were pronounced along the way. The Electoral College may have its problems, but a constitutional amendment?! The very thought!
There are other reforms that are quite reasonable but would seem unthinkable even among people who are open to these ideas. I believe that the country would be a lot better off if we simply abolished the Senate altogether. And I’m not so sure that vesting the judiciary with the sole authority to determine whether government actions violate the Constitution is all that great either (and by the way, I think if the folks who wrote the Constitution meant for it to be that way, they may have spelled it out somewhere, like in the Constitution). But these ideas get very little attention because implementing them would be akin to taking a red pen to the Ten Commandments.
If we viewed the government as a system intended to maximize the general welfare of the populace, and approached proposed tinkerings, adjustments, and corrections with instinctive approval as opposed to instinctive resistance, then the general welfare would be promoted more effectively. But treating the Capitol as the Temple Mount does the opposite, envisioning certain strictures of government as eternally fixed, and promoting a theodicy-oriented approach in whereby we attempt to conform political miseries to the wisdom of the Founders instead of alleviating miseries by fixing the Founders’ mistakes. Thus is it written, ours is not to question why.
While there has always bene undue reverence for the trappings of American democracy, the ease with which Wednesday’s onlookers embraced theological language is part of what I view as a little-noticed byproduct of America’s much-ballyhooed descent into secularism — people haven’t lost the yearning for the transcendent, they’re just looking for it in places where it doesn’t exist. Books such as Sandcastle Kings by Rich Wilkerson, Jr. and Seculosity by David Zahl explore this topic in far greater detail than I can do here, but two points are worth mentioning.
First, directing religious devotion toward something ephemeral— whether it’s a clunky 200-year-old system of government, a children’s book about wizards, or comic book movies — will always end in disappointment. In the transcendent we seek perfection, and the more trust we place in something the more devastating it is when the inevitable flaws and failures appear.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, governmental reverence is subject to its own erosion of faith, and the results are similarly catastrophic. Today’s patterns of young people being more disillusioned with democracy than their elders parallel the previous generation’s flight from organized religion at a faster pace than those that came before. If democracy doesn’t deliver material advantages to its constituents it simply won’t be sustained. And if religious devotion to ossified civic ideals prevents democracy from functioning properly, our reverence for our institutions will be what destroys them.