Trumping Nature’s God

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
United States Declaration of Independence

“Is it still a durable union? There has never been a Trump so close to such power.”
Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump


We have been examining atoms and void as the representative knowledge of modernity. The world over this view has come to be associated with the farthest reaches of our science and our science has come to be seen as the most reliable way we have discovered of separating what is real from what is not.

Philosophers, theologians, and psychologists, no less than mothers, fathers, students and teachers, all take for granted that at the scale of the very, very tiny this universe is all about atomic elements. At the other end of the scale, regardless of whether we are a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, we also share the view that we inhabit an enormous universe filled with countless galaxies. Though only a few of us will become specialists in sub-atomic physics, molecular biology, or cosmology, we all participate in our zeitgeist to one degree or another.

This is a remarkable thing, an outcome of the globalization of science. It is all the more remarkable when we recognize this shared knowledge as the success of radical philosophy after its long and tortuous battle through the history of ideas.

Radical philosophy?

This is the term Matthew Stewart uses in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, a work highly recommended, particularly for the citizens of North America just now. In it he examines the intellectual debt of the founding fathers and explains just what they were trying to do by forming our constitutional republicanism. That many of the founding fathers were Masons and held to the religious philosophy of deism is fairly well known but other treatments I have read failed to grasp how deism exceeded the “watery expression of the Christian religion” found in the idea of a watchmaker God. Instead of seeing deism as a movement that “arose in Britain around the turn of the eighteenth century” he identifies it with an intellectual tradition spanning centuries and incorporating “ethics, political theory, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind and epistemology.”

The crux of the sociological question the eco-crisis confronts us with concerns how we are to understand “nature and Nature’s God.”

A cottage industry has churned out title after title explaining for conservative Christians how North America was founded as a religious nation. Mormonism, the quintessential American religion, even teaches it is to be the new Zion and that the history of America is inseparable from the Biblical history of salvation. These conservatives share “deep and persistent assumptions about the nature of human experience: that we govern ourselves through acts of faith; that all authority must rest on the assertion of belief in some higher authority; and that all would be well if we could return to the simple faith of our fathers.”

The alternative view is succinctly captured in a single paragraph in Nature’s God I would like to quote in full:

“Yet ‘Nature’s God’ properly belongs to the radical philosophical religion of deism. It refers to nothing that we commonly mean by the term ‘God,’ but rather to something closer to ‘Nature.’ It tells us that we are and always have been the source of our own authority; that we govern ourselves not through acts of faith but through acts of understanding; and that if we should find ourselves beholden to some other imagined authority, this can only mean that we have constructed the conditions of our own servitude. The Declaration of Independence – precisely where it superficially seems to invoke the blessing of the established religion – really stands for an emancipation of the political order from God.” (Italics added)

In this year’s presidential election contest the GOP seemed to offer the conservative Christian voting block Ted Cruz and the secular voting block Donald Trump. The fundamentalist religious position of Ted Cruz had been incomparably isolationist and dogmatic. He was best known for refusing compromise with fellow senators in a willingness to cause a global financial crisis on a matter of principal. Though he seems to have been universally disliked by members of his own party (not unlike Donald Trump) he did provide a clear cut example of what the refusal to compromise looks like. He became a poster child for purity of principles (or is that bodily fluids?) that has no need to even listen to the other side of a debate, something that has characterized our deadlocked political process for quite some time now. For fundamentalists like Ted Cruz, compromise is not a sign of psychological maturity in recognition that the common good has value. Instead compromise is seen as a sign of weak faith.

ISIS is behaving in the same way. It is a characteristic of dogmatism.

Turning our attention to Donald Trump it might seem we are now in the other camp, he is certainly not an orthodox religious fundamentalist. There is no talk here of any higher authority than his “great brain.” What he represents is the culmination of a culture of entitlement. He has no need to listen to his critics, engage in rational debate or even present detailed plans. All that messy work of a constitutional republic is part of what has made America a country of losers, according to his narrative. The strongman formula he is offering the electorate is so much more direct. His campaign is not offering secular, rational debate but religion in its purest form; sacred violence and the sacrifice of the scapegoat.

Violence attends his rallies. Violence attends the protests of his rallies. Violence decorates his speech and is a constant undertone of his personal character. Is it so hard to say out loud what is so obvious psychologically, that he is offering to take this country to war? “I’ve said all along we should have kept the oil…” How much clearer can all this get? Though he may not be seeking a theocracy like Cruz and the Mormons, he is offering no less of a faith-based vision. He believes in the greed-is-good, might-makes-right school of what I like to call Babylonian Capitalism. We are in some kind of weird apotheosis in our ritual worship of the lady and the beast with the election of Donald Trump as the GOP candidate for president who has only one qualification for the highest office in the land – he is rich.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. Maybe. Still, we should be quick to recognize religion masquerading as politics. We should know to be wary of anyone who offers nothing but contempt for cooperation and compassion. They lack the wisdom to appreciate the nature of duality as complimentary and so seek to cut the world right in two.

In the previous century the clash of nations was driven by ideology. The long intellectual fight against communism was exactly that, an intellectual fight. Wherever it became a hot war, such as in Korea and Vietnam, it arguably became an unmitigated disaster. Communist propaganda revolved around the possibility of improving the lot of mankind through the use of reason alone in a country of atheists, but really amounted to little more than a secularization of Christianity; the proletariat, the working man, takes the place of the saved elite remnant, and the future coming of communist society after the collapse of capitalism is its version of the coming of the kingdom of god. While Marx may have valuable corrective critiques for capitalists, it was Lenin and Stalin that made communism a household word. Millions and millions of lives were sacrificed on the altars of these true believers.

Nazism dispensed with the veneer of rational analysis. More specifically, it nurtured an anti-intellectual milieu in which the reasoning of the philosopher was suspect but the rationalization of the bureaucrat was sacrosanct; the death camps were efficient, the indoctrination of the youth pervasive. Though they were bitter ideological enemies with the communists, millennial dreams also fueled the Nazi religion of blood and soil, promising the coming of the thousand year rule of the world by the Third Reich. Hitler promised one thing, to make Germany great again. When we view the film clips from Nazi Germany and look back on the mass gatherings surrounded by fire and enormous banners, when we see the faces of those people so enraptured, listening to their charismatic leader, it looks to us like nothing so much as the reanimation of some ancient paganism.

Most people are not familiar with the history of ideas. When education became job training we lost sight of the value of the humanities. In the process we were miserably impoverished and left stripped of our defenses against the darker turns of history. The generals and the strongmen of history have always insisted that their chosen path of violence is the only real lever by which history is made. I suggest, however, a more careful analysis of the evidence speaks to the power of ideas as having a far more enduring legacy among human societies. Ignorance of these ideas and the roles they have played in the clash of nations is, sadly, no protection from their fallout.

As a country we do not like to think of ourselves as a people that go about picking fights. Though the factual history of both Vietnam and the Gulf Wars involves just that, we needed the pretense of Tonkin Gulf and 9-11 respectively to sell the idea to the country. How these things do come home to roost. In Donald Trump we see a blatant bully, ourselves with our mask of pretense removed. Who knows, this just might be a sign of political maturation on our part; we are certainly having our noses rubbed into the more shadowy parts of our republic just with what has happened in the United States so far under his influence.

A fairly recent global poll, one not discussed in North America, found that the majority of the people throughout the world, when asked what they believe the largest threat to world peace to be, responded it was the United States. I am not sure they were wrong. I guess that is up to us to decide.

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