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‘A Peculiarly Sanctimonious Nationalism’

Women dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate against cuts to Planned Parenthood on Capitol in Washington, D.C., June 27, 2017. (shua Roberts/Reuters)

I have been delighted by some of the responses to my inoffensive little discussion of the Faust legend last week. “Hey! He’s talkin’ about us! Harrumph! Harrumph!

Certain cordwainer-related proverbs suggest themselves.

Faust has been on my mind because of something that keeps presenting itself in unexpected (and not unexpected) ways, week after week: It is remarkable how powerful the compulsion to confess is.

Maybe we live in a Christian society, after all. One of my little projects over the past few years has been trying to revive a broader interest among conservatives in T. S. Eliot as a social critic. We speak of him, to the extent that we speak of him at all, mostly as a poet and literary critic, not as a political thinker. (Recall that Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind ran “From Burke to Eliot.”) But see how familiar this bit of “The Idea of a Christian Society” is:

This essay is not intended to be either an anti-communist or an anti-fascist manifesto; the reader may by this time have forgotten what I said at the beginning, to the effect that I was less concerned with the more superficial, though important differences between the regimens of different nations, than with the more profound differences between pagan and Christian society. Our preoccupation with foreign politics during the last few years has induced a surface complacency rather than a consistent attempt at self-examination of conscience. Sometimes we are almost persuaded that we are getting on very nicely, with a reform here and a reform there, and would have been getting on still better, if only foreign governments did not insist upon breaking all the rules and playing what is really a different game. What is more depressing still is the thought that only fear or jealousy of foreign success can alarm us about the health of our own nation; that only through this anxiety can we see such things as depopulation, malnutrition, moral deterioration, the decay of agriculture, as evils at all. And what is worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial. Towards the end of 1938 we experienced a wave of revivalism which should teach us that folly is not the prerogative of anyone political party or anyone religious communion, and that hysteria is not the privilege of the uneducated. The Christianity expressed has been vague, the religious fervour has been a fervour for democracy. It may engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress towards the paganism which we say we abhor. To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion; and we may reflect, that a good deal of the attention of totalitarian states has been devoted, with a steadiness of purpose not always found in democracies, to providing their national life with a foundation of morality—the wrong kind perhaps, but a good deal more of it. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

Our content, meaning our dogma, is pagan: Our so-called nationalism is lightly reworked idolatry wedded to a diluted version of the god-king cult, and much of our talk of recessions and GDP and such is only a technocratically anesthetized version of blaming the king’s failure to properly propitiate the cereal deities when the rains are insufficient and the crops fail. But our forms remain recognizably if perversely or unexpectedly Christian. A while back I wrote an essay on American Buddhism as a cultural eccentricity and the emergence of “mindfulness” as a corporate management fad. One of the things that struck me was how high-church one popular strain of American Buddhism has become, with a very strong emphasis on things like ecclesiastical titles, costumes, sacred aesthetics, and even a kind of apostolic succession — this teacher was the student of that teacher, who as the student of this teacher before him, etc. It is the very opposite of what you’d expect from a society’s with a counterculture that once dismissed “organized religion” more or less categorically. I do not doubt the sincerity of these believers, but neither do I doubt that post-Protestant America has more or less reinvented the Catholic mode of devotion and adapted it for a climate that is somewhat looser on questions of sexual mores (but nice American progressives should not inquire too closely about what the Dalai Lama and his people traditionally have taught about, say, homosexuality) and more comfortable with contemporary social practices, including what once was lamented as “consumerism.”

Part of this is only an ancient appetite for ritual and formality. Eliot has been at times characterized as a neo-medievalist; here is the top headline right now at Triangle, an American Buddhist magazine: “Thai King Bestows High Honor on Western Buddhists: One of the four Thai Forest monks granted a royal title explains the significance of this ceremony in Thailand and the West.” We reason-bound republicans love a good royal title, for some reason, and obsessing over the comings and goings and minor social gestures of royals is not limited to the pages of Town & Country. But even the controversies within American Buddhism have a kind of Christian shape to them, as I wrote in 2018: “The question of ‘guru devotion’ is very much on the mind of American Buddhist reformers such as Stephen Batchelor, a self-described Buddhist atheist and author of Buddhism without Beliefs. His worries about ‘elevating the guru to the same status as the teachings themselves’ are recognizably Lutheran: sola scriptura, in effect.”

From Game of Thrones to The Handmaid’s Tale, we cannot help but reimagine Christianity in a dystopian setting. (If King’s Landing is not a dystopia, I don’t know what is.) But the reality is that we live in Eliot’s pagan dystopia, and his “peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism” has in our own time grown even more peculiar and perversely sanctimonious. (It also is strangely vulnerable to criticism from supposedly irrelevant sources.) The Christian shape of things endures in unexpected ways, especially in our national rituals of excommunication, confession, and — if we are feeling charitable — reconciliation. Hence the need to study Doctor Faustus and The Canterbury Tales, along with the major works of Christian religious thinking and, of course, Scripture itself: not only to understand the civilization that has been lost but also to understand the world as it actually is, foundering and sputtering under the same judgment as it always has.

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