A strange thing has happened in this country: somehow, the United States of America has become a biblical entity. I know, the country didn’t even exist for over a thousand years after the Bible was composed and assembled, and there isn’t one word about the USA in the text, but you couldn’t tell from the way some people have confused patriotism and piety.
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel called “It Can’t Happen Here,” about an America taken over by a populist dictator. His hero explained how that could happen:
Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical—yes, or more obsequious!—than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns HIS State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio—divine oracles, to millions. Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding’s appointees? Could Hitler’s bunch, or Windrip’s, be worse? Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the—well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? … Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? … Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they MIGHT be transporting liquor—no, that couldn’t happen in AMERICA! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade—only of adults—right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!
Change a few names, and that could have been written today: all it needs is Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, ‘freedom fries’, the Texas Board of Education, Rush Limbaugh, and Guantanomo Bay tossed in to be brought up to date. Nothing has changed; we’ve gotten worse, if anything, over the years.
The book can be summarized in this misattributed quote (Lewis didn’t actually say it, but it is a perfect description of our situation):
When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.
Look at America today, and we’re seeing this phenomenon in progress: think tanks, ideologues, and religious fanatics are insistent that we are a Christian nation — when we are most afraid of external threats, what do they do? Entangle the country deeper in the web of the sacred. We saw it at the height of the Cold War, when the Communist threat was used to excuse violations of the separation of church and state. A National Day of Prayer was declared in 1952; the president was roped into a yearly National Prayer Breakfast in 1953; the phrase “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954; “In God We Trust” was decreed the national motto in 1956. Coincidence? Of course not. Patriots saw an opportunity to make nationalism sacred, and religious fanatics saw a chance to tie support for their dogma to the state.
It’s happening now, too.
All you have to do is look to the Texas Board of Education and their recent overt embrace of Holy America.
Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England or the Charter of Massachusetts Bay, or the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles. I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it. … I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion.
Perfect. Do not question God. Do not question America. Mix those two ideas together, and you’ve got a lovely recipe for blind obedience.
I usually complain about religion here, but today I have to add another target: patriotism. It’s the same thing, opening a door to unthinking authoritarianism, and it always leads to oppression. Quite contrary to the claims of fanatical Christians, the heart of a thriving democracy has to be constant questioning of the operation of the government — to marry religion to our government is antithetical to its founding principles, and even to regard those founding principles as inviolate and somehow imbued with godly authority is a betrayal.
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, there was a common slogan thrown around by defenders of the status quo: “My country, right or wrong.” Even at my young age, that always seemed insane: if my country is wrong, shouldn’t I want to change it?
Question religion. But also question your government. It wasn’t founded by gods.