The National War God and the Episcopal God

by Joseph W.H. Lough

There is a passage in Susan Collins’ Hunger Games where the lead character decides that she will no longer feed the National War God. In her act of defiance she places herself in grave personal danger. But it is the act of defiance itself that is significant. The National War God would have her mourn the loss only of her own people’s war dead, comfort the bereaved of them alone, and pray only for the souls of those lost in battle for their homeland. Katniss, the hero, turns all this on its head. Not only does Katniss mourn the death of an enemy combatant. She places flowers on her enemy’s body, thus consecrating the death of her enemy. Her act of defiance is the turning point in the novel and the movie.

I was reminded of this passage from Hunger Games this morning when three parishioners in rapid succession invoked the blessing and care of our own National War God exclusively upon our American war dead and upon their families.

In his “Zwischenbetrachtung” (Occasional Report), the German sociologist Max Weber describes the mass social-psychological experience we find in Collins’ Hunger Games, and then explicitly invites us to reflect upon this experience in light of our experience of God.

The mutual strangeness of religion and politics, when they are both completely rationalized, is all the more the case because, in contrast to economics, politics may come into direct competition with religious ethics at decisive points. As the consummated threat of violence among modern polities, war creates a pathos and a sentiment of community. War thereby makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need (M Weber, “Religious rejections of the world and their directions” in From Max Weber 1958:335).

Weber’s text, written in 1915, composed smack in the middle (zwischen) of some of the bloodiest fighting during World War I, is astonishing because in it the sociologist Weber bears witness to the very same two gods—the National War God and Katniss’s God—that we find in Collins’ best-seller. Like Katniss, Weber recognizes the qualitative difference between the National War God and the God of ethical religions. But he also recognizes how and why these two Gods can be brought into direct competition since both, it so happens, require our complete devotion.

So, what is it in our experience of war and our experience of the war dead that brings us to so easily switch our allegiance from the true God to our National War God?

War does something to the warrior which, in its concrete meaning, is unique: it makes him experience a consecrated meaning of death which is characteristic only of death in war. The community of the army standing in the field today feels itself—as in the times of the war lords “following”—to be a community unto death [eine Gemeinshaft bis zum Tode], and the greatest of its kind. . . . The very extraordinary quality of brotherliness of war, and of death in war, is shared with sacred charisma and the experience of the communion with God, and this fact raises the competition between the brotherliness of religion and of the warrior community to its extreme height (336).

Whenever we invoke this National War God in religious service—and almost all of our religious communities do so at one time or another—we pass decisively from the “brotherliness of religion” into the “warrior community” and so just as decisively we abandon divine liturgy and exchange it for the liturgy of the National War God. And at such moments, I find myself stuck in the middle of a pagan temple, invoking a foreign god, and I stop worshipping.

Now, to be sure, if Paul invites us to bear with those among us who are not yet Trinitarian—which he does in First Corinthians 8 when he admits that not all the brothers and sisters in Corinth have this knowledge (v. 7)—then an argument can be made that, when this foreign god of war is invoked, we who have knowledge must bear patiently with those who do not.

And, yet, whereas  non-Trinitarian Christianity was tolerated well into the fourth century and even survived in pockets of western Europe up until the fifteenth century, we must remember that it was in part owing to their refusal to worship Rome’s war god that Christians were condemned to martyrdom, suggesting that worshipping the Roman war god was viewed far less liberally than was the emerging doctrine of the Trinity. When we worship the war god, we actually switch our allegiance. When we question the Trinity, we merely display our lack of theological sophistication.

So, what are we to do?

Might I suggest that we follow the example of Katniss who, rather than restricting her mourning and her prayers to dead combatants within her own community, instead broadened her mourning and her prayers to include all of the war dead and their families. This proved the turning point for all of the Districts in Hunger Games. Perhaps it can prove the turning point in our communities as well.

Christianity after Religion: Introduction

Small town churches, earnest preaching about how Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus, not about an institution, alter calls, bible study, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Bible verse memorization, ostracism, separation, the final days, the rapture—Diana Butler Bass’s Introduction to her Christianity after Religion sounded familiar to me because I lived it, much as she had, in the 1970s. Only, where Professor Bass hailed from a nominally Methodist family, mine was nominally Unitarian. Even “Jesus”—the name—came to me like a bolt out of the blue. So profoundly did this experience transform me that, following seminary in the 1980s, twenty years later I found myself writing my dissertation (arguably) about this very experience.

In her Introduction, Professor Bass documents the enduring character of the shift in spiritual temperament that she and I and millions of others participated in in the 1970s. Along with Harvey Cox and many others, Professor Bass finds evidence for this shift in the previous century, i.e., the nineteenth.

This awakening has been under way for some time now and has reached a crucial stage, as a new “Age of the Spirit” has dawned. Theologian Harvey Cox points out that this turn toward spirituality as the new form of faith started in the previous century. The 1970s were a significant period in a long process of moving away from old-style religion toward new patterns of faith. In the last decade, this shift has accelerated exponentially, sweeping millions more into both discontent and the longing for change.

Bass, Diana Butler (2012-03-13). Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (p. 6). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And where many scholars have overlooked the trans- and extra-religious character of this transformation, Professor Bass notes that the shedding of institutional, dogmatic, and historical forms has scarcely been limited to the Christian religion. Describing the spiritual trajectories of childhood friends, Professor Bass sees in many of them clear evidence that the 48% of Americans who in 2009 admitted to enjoying some kind of mystical encounter:

The 48 percent is, if nothing else, a theological motley crew, diverse and pluralistic in their spirituality, as ineffable as the divine itself. But whatever the differences between these people, it appears that a good many of them are traveling new paths of meaning, exploring new ways to live their lives, experiencing a new sense of authenticity and wonder, and practicing new forms of community that address global concerns of human flourishing.

Bass, Diana Butler (2012-03-13). Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (p. 4). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Like Professor Bass, my research in 1999 showed a revival that spilled over narrowly parochial boundaries.

Taking this long view, the ‘spiritual situation’ of the age is not only what most clearly distinguishes contemporary social actors from social actors in other social formations or at other times, but also what most clearly shows our kinship with one another – irrespective of our religious (or non-religious) upbringing or our current beliefs and practices. . . . [I]t matters very little whether this preference is announced by a conservative evangelical Christian, a secular Jew, a liberal Catholic, a Unitarian, an agnostic, a western Buddhist, or a new age follower of Baba Ram Dass. What matters for our purposes is that our reservations over institutional or historical religions – religions embodied in documents and institutions, with established rites and rituals, religions that possess a history with which practitioners are expected to identify – are entertained by religious practitioners or adherents all across the religious spectrum. These reservations identify us as shareholders in the present age.

Joseph W.H. Lough (2009-03-21). Weber and the Persistence of Religion: Social Theory, Capitalism and the Sublime (Routledge Advances in Sociology) (p. 8). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.

Yet, unlike Professor Bass, I was inclined to lodge this gradual (in my view centuries long) migration not in changes that emerged in the nineteenth century, but rather in changes that first began to take shape in the fourteenth. And, rather than seeing in the shedding of institutional, theological, and historical boundaries evidence of a new “Age of the Spirit,” I was inclined to see in this transformation evidence of a much broader tendency to shed the body, not only of religion, but of the world as such.

As evidence for the latter, I at the time pointed and would still point to our suicidal pursuit of fossil fuels, a pursuit that quite literally entails a kind of self-immolation, the willing destruction of our own body writ large.

Not, to be sure, that all bodies are uniformly emancipatory. And, yet, as Hannah Arendt pointed out over a half century ago, there may be something inherently redemptive about limited, bounded, invented, built, constructed and therefore structured forms—institutions, written works, even recorded utterances—our compulsion to transcend the limitations of which may actually reveal a secret (or not so secret) death wish. We want to shed our bodies.

But, rather than locate this compulsion to shed our bodies (institutional or otherwise) in an inherent revulsion of tradition or order, I would instead locate this compulsion in the emergence of a new social form in fourteenth century western Europe—capitalism—that reproduces itself by turning upon and destroying its material form of appearance, its body. This shift in social reproduction—which has its own occasions—made possible that shift in religious subjectivity and practice that would eventually be known as the Protestant Reformation.

On a purely descriptive level Professor Bass’s account is intriguing, enticing. The spiritual transformation she describes and that I described is both global and durable. Her Introduction leaves me with two questions, which I am hoping she will answer:

1) what is the mechanism that has generated this global transformation?

2) is this transformation potentially emancipatory?

A Brief Response to “Why Do Working-Class People Vote Conservative? | | AlterNet”


Why Do Working-Class People Vote Conservative? | | AlterNet

Joseph W.H. Lough

Jonathan Haidt is right to question what he calls the “dupe thesis,” according to which “the Republican party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues.” Perhaps the best example of the “dupe thesis” is Tom Franks’ entertaining (and disturbing) What’s the Matter with Kansas? (NY: Holt, 2004). Haidt’s problem with the “dupe thesis” is that “it absolves them from blame and protects them from the need to look in the mirror or figure out what they stand for in the 21st century.” Yes and no. Yes, when we focus on the psychology of conservative voters by definition we focus less on how we might court swing voters to our side or on why we have had so little success courting swing voters. (Although, recall, we did a damn good job in 2008!) But, no, this does not so much disprove the “dupe thesis”—in fact, it doesn’t touch the thesis at all—as much as recommend that we also include “moral psychology” among our points for critical reflection.

Point well taken so long as we recognize that Haidt really did not show us why conservative voters were not or are not being duped. As my friend and Berkeley colleague George Lakoff has pointed out, there is some value in exploring the purely formal, cognitive side of rhetoric and to ask “Why has their rhetoric proven so successful?” And, yet, there is still something missing from Haidt’s analysis.

Several respondents (on FB and elsewhere) have rightly pointed to Haidt’s no doubt unintentional side-stepping of the implicit and explicit racism upon which conservative candidates can rely in their bids for public office. We are still a deeply racist nation and republican strategists would not draw upon race did it not promise them electoral victories, which, in many regions of the country, north and south, it does.

Yet, race is only one of the more prominent among a range of social, political, cultural, and economic realities that republicans have learned how to leverage in their favor, while leftists scramble to cobble together any number of rhetorically and logically coherent accounts for why voters should opt instead for their explanations of the facts. In addition to race there is, for example, gender, language, wages, benefits; and, yes, there is tradition, culture, religion, and history. To be sure, the republicans are having to scramble and cobble on some of these issues too; think of gender, for example. But the sheer fact that republican senators can vote en masse against a bill promising wage-equality without much fear of a voter-backlash suggests that, even here they have developed a fairly coherent and compelling counter-narrative that they believe will carry them through election day. (You know: trust the market to assign wages and prices, not the state, blah, blah, blah . . . which, however wrong-headed, appeals to a certain kind of voter, with or without the “dupe thesis.”)

Allow me, therefore, to offer a counter-counter thesis, or at least the beginning of a thesis. In a blog written just prior to the Wisconsin recall election, I called attention to the dramatic political shift that took place in the Republican Party from the late 1960s through the 1980s. There I showed how the republicans, who had stood their ground on fiscal and monetary responsibility, hastily abandoned the former (for the sake of the Viet Nam War) and the latter (for the sake of a more thoroughly global investment strategy). I also showed why the party that had until that point had been loathe to practice “Gorgias’ ‘fine art’,” southern Jacksonian-style politics, suddenly found in the Democratic Party’s abandonment of its southern (and northern) white, racist, male base, an unprecedented opportunity.

What we need to note is that, although both of these shifts have a psychological and moral component, they are not for this reason solely psychological or moral. The republican rhetoric is founded on an extraordinarily coherent and compelling narrative—part Edmund Burke, part Ayn Rand, part Friedrich von Hayek—that holds together at several levels. But, the level at which it holds most traction is, we actually do live in a world composed by capital. And that means that republicans have reality on their side.

Now, capital is not the only thing that holds the world together. So, too, do families, communities, traditions, and, yes, even caring for and about one another. And, no one ought to know this better than republicans, since it is precisely what res publica, the things or wealth we hold in common, is all about. But, guess what? Republicans no longer believe in the Common Wealth. Hell, they no longer believe in the Republic!

And, this, I believe, points to our opening. Capitalism is the antithesis of public or common wealth. It is the antithesis of republican ideals and institutions, of res publica. But, in order to seize upon this opening, we need to militantly challenge their cynical quasi-populist, southern Jacksonian-style strategy, a strategy that is actually at odds with their Burke-Rand-von Hayek philosophy. And, however odd it may sound, we need to embrace the radical republicanism which they have abandoned.

This counter-counter thesis does not require that we ignore Tom Franks’ intriguing thesis; nor does it require that we overlook Haidt’s interesting insights. But, it does require that we acknowledge a world beyond rhetoric and psychology; a world in which outspending your opponent 7-1 on messaging makes a difference not only because of the message, but also, more importantly, because of the 7-1 fund-raising advantage that Capital showers upon its political friends.

Since we will never enjoy this kind of fund-raising advantage—we should not even try to—this needs that we need to redouble our efforts where we do enjoy an advantage: numbers and message.

Will Wisconsin Yield to Gorgias’ “Fine Art”?

By Joseph W.H. Lough

By all estimates, Scott Walker’s campaign to defeat efforts by voters to recall him will cost over $50M, much of which came from anti-labor groups and individuals outside Wisconsin. So, why did Walker’s campaign need to spend so much money?

Surely not in order to counter the sums spent by Scott Walker’s opponent: Tom Barrett, the candidate favored by organized labor, raised only $3.9M. Even after including independent expenditures from Barrett-supporters such as the National Education Association and Service Employees International, that only brings Barrett’s total up to $10M, barely a fifth of Walker’s total war chest.

Walker needed that edge to practice what I call Gorgias’ “fine art.” For those of you not familiar with Gorgias, Gorgias was the fictional speech-writer and public orator featured in Plato’s early dialogue by the same name. Plato based his characterization of Gorgias on the Greek leader Pericles. In Plato’s tragicomic dialogue, Gorgias boasts to Socrates that his art is the most desirable of all arts because he can teach any individual how to convince others to agree with that individual.

SOCRATES: You said just now that even on matters of health the orator will be more
convincing than the doctor.
GORGIAS: Before a mass audience—yes, I did.
SOCRATES: A mass audience means an ignorant audience, doesn’t it? He won’t be
more convincing than the doctor before experts, I presume.

SOCRATES: And the non-doctor, presumably, is ignorant of what the doctor knows?
GORGIAS: Obviously.
SOCRATES: So when the orator is more convincing than the doctor, what happens is that an ignorant person is more convincing than the expert before an equally ignorant audience. Is this what happens?
GORGIAS: This is what happens in that case, no doubt.

Every independent assessment of Walker’s claims during the campaign has concluded that he is . . . well . . . lying. Rather than producing jobs and enhancing economic growth, Walker’s policies have killed jobs and killed growth. But, this is the brilliance of Gorgias’ “fine art.” So long as Walker can plaster with air waves and television signal with lies to the contrary, Gorgias suggests that the “ignorant person”—that would be Walker—“is more convincing than the expert”—that would be the non-partisan, independent, research groups—“before an equally ignorant audience”—that would be the individuals who believe his campaign ads.

Here is the good news: Wisconsin voters are so smart that, without a five-to-one campaign spending margin, there is absolutely no way in hell that Walker would win the recall. How smart are Wisconsin voters? Well, in order to make Gorgias’ fine art work in Wisconsin, Governor Walker needs to spend $5M for every $1M spent by his opponents. That’s how smart.

But, here’s the bad news: it may well be that that’s how much it costs for smart people to believe a lie. As I write, all of the polls suggest that Walker will just eek out a victory. Which would be a tragedy.

And here’s the silver lining: absent the economic advantage Walker and his deep-pocket 1% backers, such as the Koch brothers, Wisconsin and (in fact) the rest of the United States might be quite solidly on the far left of the political spectrum.

Now that’s something to think about.