Our Heresies: Against State Idolatry and The Mystical View of The State

The State is not a mystical entity possessed of magical powers. At best, it's merely a service provider, like Walmart, Exxon, and Microsoft, and it should be evaluated in the same way.

But that's not how most of us think about The State. Instead, we think of it as being some mystical entity with magical powers. Our behavior makes this obvious . . .

  • We cry when we hear songs that praise The State.
  • We salute The States' symbols.
  • We pledge allegiance to The State.
  • We fill our hearts with a love of The State called patriotism.

We behave as if we think The State somehow embodies the people, the nation, and the culture of this place we call America. But . . .

Does it?

Should it?

Isn't there a contradiction in our thinking? Most Americans would agree that The State is supposed to serve the people, and not the other way around, and yet we treat The State as if it were somehow above us and superior to us.

We happily voice platitudes about our American version of The State being "of the people, by the people, and for the people," but our actions contradict our words. We do not treat The State as if it were only a servant. Instead, we treat it with devotion, and even worship.

We have rites, symbols, songs, honorific titles, processions, and holidays (holy days) -- all the trappings of religion, that we devote to our love of The State.

Even many religious people are seduced by this secular religion. Many of them seem to put more passion into their State-focused patriotism than they do their love of God, and sometimes they even seem to confuse the two, acting as if The State were God, and God The State.

There is more than a hint of idolatry in this, and danger too . . .

This Mystical View of the State places a coercive monopoly at the top of society, with all else below it. Is this wise?

It's true that Americans are not alone (and far from the worst) in elevating The State to mystical status. All societies have done it (so far). A strong case could even be made that State Idolatry is the largest religion in the world. But the fact that it's common doesn't make it right. After all . . .

The State has authored the greatest calamities in human history; wars and mass murders of staggering barbarity. But none of these disasters would have been possible without the magical thinking inherent to the Mystical View of the State, or the quasi-religious passion of patriotism that is the most glaring manifestation of State Idolatry.

Looked at this way, in terms of death and human misery, State Idolatry is the curse of the world. But alas, if it is also the largest religion in the world, to which even the supposedly non-religious pay devout tribute (I'm looking at you Christopher Hitchens), then we will need to promote heresies to combat it. Therefore, I submit the following heresy for your consideration . . .

  • We should demote The State from its privileged position in our minds and in our society.
  • We should reject State Idolatry and all of its trappings.

Instead, we should treat The State as a mere servant, and a low ranking one at that. The State is inherently a monopoly, and inherently violent, so it should have less standing in our hearts than any other human institution, lest it grow too powerful, arrogant, and dangerous, as it has so often in the past.

We should instead think of The State in the same way that we think of Walmart and Microsoft and Exxon -- as a mere service provider -- only with less esteem than we confer upon those institutions. They at least are voluntary and peaceful and not coercive, unlike The State. The State should have the lowest rank in our society, not the highest.

Those with formal religious commitments, and those without, should all adopt this position. We should all acknowledge that The State is merely a human institution, with no magical powers, or special moral exemptions or dispensations. Instead . . .

When we see others engaged in State Idolatry, or saying things that reflect the Mystical View of The State, we should avoid euphemism, and call what we see by descriptive names. We should say . . .

  • "You are engaged in State Idolatry."
  • "You are idolizing coercion."
  • "What you are saying reflects a Mystical View of The State."
  • "You are acting as if The State is a master instead of a servant."
  • "You are acting as if The State has magical powers."
  • "You are acting as if The State is exempted from the moral constraints you and I must obey."
  • "You are acting as if The State is greater than the society it is supposed to serve, when in reality it is the least among us."

To adopt this heresy, and to make it into a new social standard -- a non-heresy -- will be difficult. To do it honestly we must reject many much-loved emotional states and quasi-religious rites. We should no longer . . .

  • Sing the praises of The State
  • Salute The States' symbols.
  • Pledge allegiance to The State.
  • Esteem patriotism.

You see, the path of virtue is hard. But should you really want it to be otherwise?

  • If you are religious, do you expect virtue to be painless?
  • If you are not religious, do you really want people to point at you and call you a State Idolater? Do you want to be a hypocrite?

Envision the following scene in some better, future world that you could help to create . . .

The national anthem begins to play at a sporting event. Two people remain seated. A person standing and singing turns and sneers at them, saying "Why aren't you standing?" The first sitting person says, "I'm a Christian. I don't do State Idolatry." The second sitting person says, "I'm an atheist. I don't do State Idolatry either." The third person down the row is standing and singing but also listening to what is being said. She gains courage from what she hears . . . and she sits down.

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This essay is copyrighted by Perry Willis -- (c) 2011. It will be part of an upcoming book. Permission to re-distribute or re-print this message for non-profit educational purposes is granted and encouraged, as long as proper attribution is given, and you provide a link to the original source. Permission to use this message for commercial purposes is denied.