This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Idolatry of self in secular states

Westerners have been called infidels, and not always without good reason, since infidel refers to one who has abandoned God, and European nations since the Enlightenment have more or less explicitly excluded religion from public life. However, in the place of religion there has grown up a new kind of cult revolving around a variety of divinized nationalisms. These secularized nations attempted to set aside religious sentiments but since this is impossible, they simply replaced god with ‘country’ and piety with ‘patriotism’.

The original sin of the modern nation state is therefore the idolatry of itself in the form of its political ideals: it is not so much that we are infidels, at least not in sentiment, since we feel and act upon the same religious impulses as any other religious radical. It is rather that we have unconsciously chosen to redirect our religious fervor to political objects, namely the country, and usually it is the country as an idea and not so much as a reality.

The United States is perhaps the most extreme case of this self-idolatry. It has primacy of place as the first nation to found itself entirely without reference to a particular religious tradition—to envision and proclaim the political as truly autonomous. The result was that the political became an object of religious worship surrounded by religious language and ritual. This also tends toward an obnoxious exaggeration of the nobility of its institutions, hence the American insistence that their country is the ‘greatest country in the world’, in spite of the fact that those who claim this know no nothing whatsoever about any other country but their own. Who could not see in such a claim an identification of country with god, since it would make perfect sense to say such a thing about one’s god? God must always be the one and the true, and it is only logical to expect that everyone else in the world should also worship this god, and to be baffled when others do not see in this god the loftiness of his glory. This is precisely the nature of the confusion shown by patriotic Americans when someone else in the world does not admit the greatness and superior nobility of their country. They simply cannot understand it, because they cannot understand.

Again, we say that this impulse is in itself perfectly natural provided it is actually aimed at religious objects. But this kind of zeal, when transposed onto the political order, becomes an absurd and dangerous thing. If one accepts that America’s underlying problem is an idolatry of itself, then all of its other problems become easier to grasp, and their ‘pantheon’ comes into view as a theolog of political ideas like liberty, equality, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness. And since these are simply vague aspirations without content, and which are even, in some cases, mutually exclusive, their pursuit is impossible to realize, nor do they deserve the admiration that their patriotic adherents expect. The result is frustration, conflict, condescension, and an insufferable attitude of superiority.

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