Religion vs. America
Delivered at the Ford Hall Forum on April 20, 1986, and published in The Objectivist Forum, June 1986. It is reprinted in The Voice of Reason.
A specter is haunting America — the specter of religion. This, borrowing Karl Marx’s literary style, is my theme tonight.
Where do I see religion? The outstanding political fact of the 1980s is the rise of the New Right, and its penetration of the Republican party under President Reagan. The bulk of the New Right consists of Protestant Fundamentalists, typified by the Moral Majority. These men are frequently allied on basic issues with other religiously oriented groups, including conservative Catholics of the William F. Buckley ilk and neoconservative Jewish intellectuals of the Commentary magazine variety.
All these groups observed the behavior of the New Left awhile back and concluded, understandably enough, that the country was perishing. They saw the liberals’ idealization of drugged hippies and nihilistic yippies; they saw the proliferation of pornography, of sexual perversion, of noisy Lib and Power gangs running to the Democrats to demand ever more outrageous handouts and quotas; they heard the routine leftist deprecation of the United States and the routine counsel to appease Soviet Russia — and they concluded, with good reason, that what the country was perishing from was a lack of values, of ethical absolutes, of morality.
Values, the Left retorted, are subjective; no lifestyle (and no country) is better or worse than any other; there is no absolute wrong or right anymore — unless, the liberals added, you believe in some outmoded ideology like religion. Precisely, the New Rightists reply; that is our whole point. There are absolute truths and absolute values, they say, which are the key to salvation of our great country; but there is only one source of such values: not man or this earth or the human brain, but the Deity as revealed in scripture. The choice we face, they conclude, is the skepticism, decadence, and statism of the Democrats, or morality, absolutes, Americanism, and their only possible base: religion — old-time, Judeo-Christian religion.
“Religious America is awakening, perhaps just in time for our country’s sake,” said Mr. Reagan in 1980. “In a struggle against totalitarian tyranny, traditional values based on religious morality are among our greatest strengths.” 1
“Religious views,” says Congressman Jack Kemp, “lie at the heart of our political system. The ‘inalienable rights’ to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are based on the belief that each individual is created by God and has a special value in His eyes. . . . Without a common belief in the one God who created us, there could be no freedom and no recourse if a majority were to seek to abrogate the rights of the minority.” 2
Or, as the Education Secretary William Bennett sums up this viewpoint: “Our values as a free people and the central values of the Judeo-Christian tradition are flesh of the flesh and blood of the blood.” 3
Politicians of America have characteristically given lip service to the platitudes of piety. But the New Right is different. These men seem to mean their religiosity, and they are dedicated to implementing their religious creeds politically; they seem to make these creeds the governing factor in the realm of our personal relations, our art and literature, our clinics and hospitals, and the education of our youth. Whatever else you say about him, Mr. Reagan has delivered handsomely one of his campaign promises: he has given the adherents of religion a prominence in setting the national agenda that they have not had in this country for generations.
This defines our subject for tonight. It is the new Republican inspiration and the deeper questions it raises. Is the New Right the answer to the New Left? What is the relation between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the principles of Americanism? Are Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, as their admirers declare, leading us to a new era of freedom and capitalism — or to something else?
In discussing these issues, I am not going to say much about the New Right as such; its specific beliefs are widely known. Instead, I want to examine the movement within a broader, philosophical context. I want to ask: What is religion? and then: How does it function in the life of a nation, any nation, past or present? These, to be sure, are very abstract questions, but they are inescapable. Only when we have considered them can we go on to judge the relation between a particular religion, such as Christianity, and a particular nation, America.
Let us begin with a definition. What is religion as such? What is the essence common to all of its varieties, Western and Oriental, which distinguishes it from other cultural phenomena?
Religion involves a certain kind of outlook on the world and a consequent way of life. In other words, the term “religion” denotes a type (actually, a precursor) of philosophy. As such, a religion must include a view of knowledge (which is the subject matter of the branch of philosophy called epistemology) and a view of reality (metaphysics). Then, on this foundation, a religion builds a code of values (ethics). So the question becomes: What type of philosophy constitutes a religion?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “religion” as “a particular system of faith an worship,” and goes on, in part: “Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship.”
The fundamental concept here is “faith.” “Faith” in this context means belief in the absence of evidence. This is the essential that distinguishes religion from science. A scientist may believe in the entities which he cannot observe, such as atoms or electrons, but he can do so only if he can prove their existence logically, by inference from things he does observe. A religious man, however, believes in some “higher unseen power” which he cannot observe and cannot logically prove. As the whole story of philosophy demonstrates, no study of the natural universe can warrant jumping outside it to a supernatural entity. The five arguments for God offered by the greatest of all religious thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, are widely recognized by philosophers to be logically defective; they have each been refuted many times, and they are the best arguments that have ever been offered on this subject.
Many philosophers indeed now go further: they point out that God is not only an article of faith, but that this is essential to religion. A God susceptible of proof, they argue, would actually wreck religion. A God open to human logic, to scientific study, to rational understanding, would have to be definable, delimited, finite, amenable to human concepts, obedient to scientific law, and thus incapable of miracles. Such a thing would be merely one object among others within the natural world; it would be merely another datum for the scientist, like some new kind of galaxy or cosmic ray, not a transcendent power running the universe and demanding man’s worship. What religion rests on is a true God, i.e., a God not of reason, but of faith.
If you want to concretize the idea of faith, I suggest that you visit, of all places, the campuses of the Ivy League, where, according to The New York Times, a religious revival is now occurring. Will you find students eagerly discussing proofs or struggling to reinterpret the ancient myths of the Bible into some kind of consistency with the teachings of science? On the contrary. The students, like their parents, are insisting that the Bible be accepted as literal truth, whether it makes logical sense or not. “Students today are more reconciled to authority,” one campus religious official notes. “There is less need for students to sit on their own mountain top” — i.e., to exercise their own independent mind and judgment. Why not? They are content simply to believe. At Columbia University, for instance, a new student group gathers regularly not to analyze, but to “sing, worship and speak in tongues.” “People are coming back to a religion in a way that some of us once went to the counterculture,” says a chaplain at Columbia. 4 This is absolutely true. And note what they are coming back to: not reason or logic, but faith.
“Faith” names the method of religion, the essence of its epistemology; and, as the Oxford English Dictionary states, the belief in some “higher unseen power” is the basic content of religion, its distinctive view of reality, its metaphysics. This higher power is not always conceived as a personal God; some religions construe it as an impersonal dimension of some kind. The common denominator is the belief in the supernatural — in some entity, attribute, or force transcending and controlling this world in which we live.
According to religion, this supernatural power is the essence of the universe and the source of all value. It constitutes the realm of true reality and of absolute perfection. By contrast, the world around us is viewed as only semi-real and as inherently imperfect, even corrupt, in any event metaphysically unimportant. According to most religions, this life is a mere episode in the soul’s journey to its ultimate fulfillment, which involves leaving behind earthly things in order to unite with Deity. As a pamphlet issued by a Catholic study group expresses this point: Man “cannot achieve perfection or true happiness in this life here on earth. He can only achieve this in the eternity of the next life after death. . . . Therefore . . . what a person has or lacks in worldly possessions, privileges, or advantages is not important.” 5 In New Delhi a few months ago, expressing this viewpoint, Pope John Paul II urged on the Indians a life of “asceticism and renunciation.” In Quebec some time earlier, he decried “the fascination the modern world feels for productivity, profit, efficiency, speed, and records of physical strength.” Too many men, he explained in Luxembourg, “consciously organize their way of life merely on the basis of the realities of this world without any heed for God and His wishes.” 6
This brings us to religious ethics, the essence of which also involves faith, faith in God’s commandments. Virtue, in this view, consists of obedience. Virtue is not a matter of achieving your desires, whatever they may be, but of seeking to carry out God’s; it is not the pursuit of egoistic goals, whether rational or not, but the willingness to renounce your own goals in the service of the Lord. What religion counsels is the ethics of self-transcendence, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice.
What single attitude most stands in the way of this ethics, according to religious writers? The sin of pride. Why is pride a sin? Because man, in this view, is a metaphysically defective creature. His intellect is helpless in the crucial questions of life. His will has no power over existence, which is ultimately controlled by God. His body lusts after all the temptations of the flesh. In short, man is weak, ugly, and low, a typical product of the low, unreal world in which he lives. Your proper attitude towards yourself, therefore, as to this world, should be a negative one. For earthly creatures such as you and I, “Know thyself” means “Know thy worthlessness”; simple honesty entails humility, self-castigation, even self-disgust.
Religion means orienting one’s existence around faith, God, and a life of service — and correspondingly downgrading or condemning four key elements: reason, nature, the self, and man. Religion cannot be equated with values or morality or even philosophy as such; it represents a specific approach to philosophic issues, including a specific code of morality.
What effect does this approach have on human life? We do not have to answer by theoretical deduction, because Western history has been a succession of religious and unreligious periods. The modern world, including America, is a product of two of these periods: of Greco-Roman civilization and of medieval Christianity. So, to enable us to understand America, let us first look at the historical evidence from these two periods; let us look at their stand on religion and at the practical consequences of this stand. Then we will have no trouble grasping the base and essence of the United States.
Ancient Greece was not a religious civilization, not on any of the counts I mentioned. The Gods of Mount Olympus were like a race of elder brothers to man, mischievous brothers with rather limited powers; they were closer to Steven Spielberg’s extra-terrestrial visitor than to anything we would call “God.” They did not create the universe or shape its laws or leave any message of revelations or demand a life of sacrifice. Nor were they taken very seriously by the leading voices of culture, such as Plato and Aristotle. From start to finish, the Greek thinkers recognized no sacred texts, no infallible priesthood and no intellectual authority beyond the human mind; they allowed no room for faith. Epistemologically, most were staunch individualists who expected each man to grasp the truth by his own powers of sensory observation and logical thought. For detail, I refer you to Aristotle, the preeminent representative of the Greek spirit.
Metaphysically, as a result, Greece was a secular culture. Men generally dismissed or downplayed the supernatural; their energies were devoted to the joys and challenges of life. There was a shadowy belief in immortality, but the dominant attitude toward it was summed up by Homer, who has Achilles declare that he would rather be a slave on earth than “bear sway among all the dead that be departed.”
The Greek ethics followed from this base. All the Greek thinkers agreed that virtue is egoistic. The purpose of morality, in their view, is to enable a man to achieve his own fulfillment, his own happiness, by means of a proper development of his natural faculties — above all, of his cognitive faculty, his intellect. And as to the Greek estimate of man — look at the statues of the Greek gods, made in the image of human strength, human grace, human beauty; and read Aristotle’s account of the virtue — yes, the virtue — of pride.
I must note here that in many ways Plato was an exception to the general irreligion of the Greeks. But his ideas were not dominant until much later. When Plato’s spirit did take over, the Greek approach had already died out. What replaced it was the era of Christianity.
Intellectually speaking, the period of the Middle Ages was the exact opposite of classical Greece. Its leading philosophic spokesman, Augustine, held that faith was the basis of man’s entire mental life. “I do not know in order to believe,” he said, “I believe in order to know.” In other words, reason is nothing but a handmaiden of revelation; it is a mere adjunct of faith, whose task is to clarify, as far as possible, the dogmas of religion. What if a dogma cannot be clarified? So much the better, answered an earlier Church father, Tertullian. The truly religious man, he said, delights in thwarting his reason; that shows his commitment to faith. Thus, Tertullian’s famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God’s self-sacrifice on the cross: “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe it because it is absurd”).
As to the realm of physical nature, the medievals characteristically regarded it as a semi-real haze, a transitory stage in the divine plan, and a troublesome one at that, a delusion and a snare — a delusion because men mistake it for reality, a snare because they are tempted by its lures to jeopardize their immortal souls. What tempts them is the prospect of earthly pleasure.
What kind of life, then, does the immortal soul require on earth? Self-denial, asceticism, the resolute shunning of this temptation. But isn’t it unfair to ask men to throw away their whole enjoyment of life? Augustine’s answer is: what else befits creatures befouled by Original Sin, creatures who are, as he put it, “crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous”?
What were the practical results — in the ancient world, then in the medieval — of these two opposite approaches to life?
Greece created philosophy, logic, science, mathematics, and a magnificent, man-glorifying art; it gave us the base of modern civilization in every field; it taught the West how to think. In addition, through its admirers in ancient Rome, which built on the Greek intellectual base, Greece indirectly gave us the rule of law and the first idea of man’s rights (this idea was originated by the pagan Stoics). Politically, the ancients never conceived a society of full-fledged individual liberty; no nation achieved that before the United States. But the ancients did lay certain theoretical bases for the concept of liberty; and in practice, both in some of the Greek city-states and in republican Rome, large numbers of men at various times were at least relatively free. They were incomparably more free than their counterparts ever had been in the religious cultures of ancient Egypt and its equivalents.
What were the practical results of the medieval approach? The Dark Ages were dark on principle. Augustine fought against secular philosophy, science, art; he regarded all of it as an abomination to be swept aside; he cursed science in particular as “the lust of the eyes.” Unlike many Americans today, who drive to church in their Cadillac or tape their favorite reverend on the VCR so as not to interrupt their tennis practice, the medievals took religion seriously. They proceeded to create a society that was anti-materialistic and anti-intellectual. I do not have to remind you of the lives of the saints, who were the heroes of the period, including the men who ate only sheep’s gall and ashes, quenched their thirst with laundry water, and slept with a rock for their pillow. These were men resolutely defying nature, the body, sex, pleasure, all the snares of this life — and they were canonized for it, as, by the essence of religion, they should have been. The economic and social results of this kind of value code were inevitable; mass stagnation and abject poverty, ignorance and mass illiteracy, waves of insanity that swept whole towns, a life expectancy in the teens. “Woe unto ye who laugh now,” the Sermon on the Mount had said. Well, they were pretty safe on this count. They had precious little to laugh about.
What about freedom in this era? Study the existence of the feudal serf tied for life to his plot of ground, his noble overlord, and the all-encompassing decrees of the Church. Or, if you want an example closer to home, jump several centuries forward to the American Puritans, who were a medieval remnant transplanted to a virgin continent, and who proceeded to establish a theocratic dictatorship in colonial Massachusetts. Such a dictatorship, they declared, was necessitated by the very nature of their religion. You are owned by God, they explained to any potential dissenter; therefore, you are a servant who must act as your Creator, through his spokesmen, decrees. Besides, they said, you are innately depraved, so a dictatorship of the elect is necessary to ride herd on your vicious impulses. And, they said, you don’t really own your property either; wealth, like all values, is a gift from heaven temporarily held in trust, to be controlled like all else, by the elect. And if all this makes you unhappy, they ended up, so what? You’re not supposed to pursue happiness in this life anyway.
There can be no philosophic breach between thought and action. The consequence of the epistemology of religion is the politics of tyranny. If you cannot reach the truth by your own mental powers, but must offer an obedient faith to a cognitive authority, then you are not your own intellectual master; in such a case, you cannot guide your behavior by your own judgment either, but must be submissive in action as well. This is the reason why — as Ayn Rand has pointed out — faith and force are always corollaries; each requires the other.
The early Christians did contribute some good ideas to the world, ideas that proved important to the cause of future freedom. I must, so to speak, give the angels their due. In particular, the idea that man has a value as an individual — that the individual soul is precious — is essentially a Christian legacy to the West; its first appearance was in the form of the idea that every man, despite Original Sin, is made in the image of God (as against the pre-Christian notion that a certain group or nation has a monopoly on human value, while the rest of mankind are properly slaves or mere barbarians). But notice a crucial point: this Christian idea, by itself, was historically impotent. It did nothing to unshackle the serfs or stay the Inquisition or turn the Puritan elders into Thomas Jeffersons. Only when the religious approach lost its power — only when the idea of individual value was able to break free from its Christian context and become integrated into a rational, secular philosophy — only then did this kind of idea bear practical fruit.
What — or who — ended the Middle Ages? My answer is: Thomas Aquinas, who introduced Aristotle, and thereby reason, into medieval culture. In the thirteenth century, for the first time in a millennium, Aquinas reasserted in the West the basic pagan approach. Reason, he said in opposition to Augustine, does not rest on faith; it is a self-contained, natural faculty, which works on sense experience. Its essential task is not to clarify revelation, but rather, as Aristotle had said, to gain knowledge of this world. Men, Aquinas declared forthrightly, must use and obey reason; whatever one can prove by reason and logic, he said, is true. Aquinas himself thought he could prove the existence of God, and he thought that faith is valuable as a supplement to reason. But this did not alter the nature of his revolution. His was the charter of liberty, the moral and philosophical sanction, which the West had desperately needed. His message to mankind, after the long ordeal of faith, was in effect: “It’s all right. You don’t have to stifle your mind anymore. You can think.”
The result, in historical short order, was the revolt against the authority of the Church, the feudal breakup, the Renaissance. Renaissance means “rebirth,” rebirth of reason and man’s concern with this world. Once again, as in the pagan era, we see secular philosophy, natural science, man-glorifying art, and the pursuit of earthly happiness. It was a gradual, tortuous change, with each century becoming more worldly than the preceding, from Aquinas to the Renaissance to the Age of Reason to the climax and end of this development: the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. This was the age in which America’s founding fathers were educated and in which they created the United States.
The Enlightenment represented the triumph (for a short while anyway) of the pagan Greek, and specifically of the Aristotelian, spirit. Its basic principle was respect for man’s intellect and, correspondingly, the wholesale dismissal of faith and revelation. Reason the Only Oracle of Man, said Ethan Allen of Vermont, who spoke for his age in demanding unfettered free thought and in ridiculing the primitive contradictions of the Bible. “While we are under the tyranny of Priests,” he declared in 1784, “. . . it ever will be their interest, to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems incompatible therewith.” 7
Elihu Palmer, another American of the Enlightenment, was even more outspoken. According to Christianity, he writes, God “is supposed to be a fierce, revengeful tyrant, delighting in cruelty, punishing his creatures for the very sins which he causes them to commit; and creating numberless millions of immortal souls, that could never have offended him, for the express purpose of tormenting them to all eternity.” The purpose of this kind of notion, he says elsewhere, “the grand object of all civil and religious tyrants . . . has been to suppress all the elevated operations of the mind, to kill the energy of thought, and through this channel to subjugate the whole earth for their own special emolument.” “It has hitherto been deemed a crime to think,” he observes, but at last men have a chance — because they have finally escaped from the “long and doleful night” of Christian rule, and have grasped instead “the unlimited power of human reason” — “reason, which is the glory of our nature.” 8
Allen and Palmer are extreme representatives of the Enlightenment spirit, granted; but they are representatives. Theirs is the attitude which was new in the modern world, and which, in a less inflammatory form, was shared by all the Founding Fathers as their basic, revolutionary premise. Thomas Jefferson states the attitude more sedately, with less willful provocation to religion, but it is the same essential attitude. “Fix reason firmly in her seat,” he advises a nephew, “and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” 9 Observe the philosophic priorities in this advice: man’s mind comes first; God is a derivative, if you can prove him. The absolute, which must guide the human mind, is the principle of reason; every other idea must meet this test. It is in this approach — in this fundamental rejection of faith — that the irreligion of the Enlightenment lies.
The consequence of this approach was the age’s rejection of all the other religious priorities. In metaphysics: this world once again was regarded as real, as important, and as a realm not of miracles, but of impersonal natural law. In ethics: success in this life became the dominant motive; the veneration of asceticism was swept aside in favor of each man’s pursuit of happiness — his own happiness on earth, to be achieved by his own effort, by self-reliance and self-respect leading to self-made prosperity. But can man really achieve fulfillment on earth? Yes, the Enlightenment answered; man has the means, the potent faculty of intellect, necessary to achieve his goals and values. Man may not yet be perfect, people said, but he is perfectible; he must be so, because he is the rational animal.
Such were the watchwords of the period: not faith, God, service, but reason, nature, happiness, man.
Many of the Founding Fathers, of course, continued to believe in God and to do so sincerely, but it was a vestigial belief, a leftover from the past which no longer shaped the essence of their thinking. God, so to speak, had been kicked upstairs. He was regarded now as an aloof spectator who neither responds to prayer nor offers revelations nor demands immolation. This sort of viewpoint, known as deism, cannot, properly speaking, be classified as a religion. It is a stage in the atrophy of religion; it is the step between Christianity and outright atheism.
This is why the religious men of the Enlightenment were scandalized and even panicked by the deist atmosphere. Here is the Rev. Peter Clark of Salem, Mass., in 1739: “The former Strictness in Religion, that . . . Zeal for the Order and Ordinances of the Gospel, which was so much the Glory of our Fathers, is very much abated, yea disrelished by too many: and a Spirit of Licentiousness, and Neutrality in Religion . . . so opposite to the Ways of God’s People, do exceedingly prevail in the midst of us.” 10 And here, fifty years later, is the Rev. Charles Backus of Springfield, Mass. The threat to divine religion, he says, is the “indifference which prevails” and the “ridicule.” Mankind, he warns, is in “great danger of being laughed out of religion.” 11 This was true; these preachers were not alarmists; their description of the Enlightenment atmosphere is correct.
This was the intellectual context of the American Revolution. Point for point, the Founding Fathers’ argument for liberty was the exact counterpart of the Puritans’ argument for dictatorship — but in reverse, moving from the opposite starting point to the opposite conclusion. Man, the Founding Fathers said in essence (with a large assist from Locke and others), is the rational being; no authority, human or otherwise, can demand blind obedience from such a being — not in the realm of thought or, therefore, in the realm of action either. By his very nature, they said, man must be left free to exercise his reason and then to act accordingly, i.e., by the guidance of his best rational judgment. Because this world is of vital importance, they added, the motive of man’s action should be the pursuit of happiness. Because the individual, not a supernatural power, is the creator of wealth, a man should have the right to private property, the right to keep and use or trade his own product. And because man is basically good, they held, there is no need to leash him; there is nothing to fear in setting free a rational animal.
This, in substance, was the American argument for man’s inalienable rights. It was the argument that reason demands freedom. And this is why the nation of individual liberty, which is what the United States was, could not have been founded in any philosophically different century. It required what the Enlightenment offered: a rational, secular context.
When you look for the source of an historic idea, you must consider philosophic essentials, not the superficial statements or errors that people may offer you. Even the most well-meaning men can misidentify the intellectual roots of their own attitudes. Regrettably, this is what the Founding Fathers did in one crucial respect. All men, said Jefferson, are endowed “by their Creator” with certain unalienable rights, a statement that formally ties individual rights to the belief in God. Despite Jefferson’s eminence, however, his statement (along with its counterpart in Locke and others) is intellectually unwarranted. The principle of individual rights does not derive from or depend on the idea of God as man’s creator. It derives from the very nature of man, whatever his source or origin; it derives from the requirements of man’s mind and his survival. In fact, as I have argued, the concept of rights is ultimately incompatible with the idea of the supernatural. This is true not only logically, but also historically. Through all the centuries of the Dark and Middle Ages, there was plenty of belief in a Creator; but it was only when religion began to fade that the idea of God as the author of individual rights emerged as an historical, nation-shaping force. What then deserves the credit for the new development — the age-old belief or the new philosophy? What is the real intellectual root and protector of human liberty — God or reason?
My answer is now evident. America does rest on a code of values and morality — in this, the New Right is correct. But, by all the evidence of philosophy and history, it does not rest on the values or ideas of religion. It rests on their opposite.
You are probably wondering here: “What about Communism? Isn’t it a logical, scientific, atheistic philosophy, and yet doesn’t it lead straight to totalitarianism?” The short answer to this is: Communism is not an expression of logic or science, but the exact opposite. Despite all its anti-religious posturings, Communism is nothing but a modern derivative of religion: it agrees with the essence of religion on every key issue, then merely gives that essence a new outward veneer or cover-up.
The Communists reject Aristotelian logic and Western science in favor of a “dialectic” process; reality, they claim, is a stream of contradictions which is beyond the power of “bourgeois” reason to understand. They deny the very existence of man’s mind, claiming that human words and actions reflect nothing but the alogical predetermined churnings of blind matter. They do reject God, but they replace him with a secular stand-in, Society or the State, which they treat not as an aggregate of individuals, but as an unperceivable, omnipotent, supernatural organism, a “higher unseen power” transcending and dwarfing all individuals. Man, they say, is a mere social cog or atom, whose duty is to revere this power and to sacrifice every thing in its behalf. Above all, they say, no such cog has the right to think for himself; every man must accept the decrees of Society’s leaders, he must because this is the voice of Society, whether he understands it or not. Fully as much as Tertullian, Communism demands faith from its followers and subjects, “faith” in the literal, religious sense of the term. On every account, the conclusion is the same: Communism is not a new, rational philosophy; it is a tired, slavishly imitative heir of religion.
This is why, so far, Communism has been unable to win out in the West. Unlike the Russians, we have not been steeped enough in religion — in faith, sacrifice, humility, and, therefore, servility. We are still too rational, too this-worldly, and too individualistic to submit to naked tyranny. We are still being protected by the fading remnants of our Enlightenment heritage.
But we will not be so for long if the New Right has its way.
Philosophically, the New Right holds the same fundamental ideas as the New Left — its religious zeal is merely a variant of irrationalism and the demand for self-sacrifice — and therefore it has to lead to the same result in practice: dictatorship. Nor is this merely my theoretical deduction. The New Rightists themselves announce it openly. While claiming to be the defenders of Americanism, their distinctive political agenda is statism.
The outstanding example of this fact is their insistence that the state prohibit abortion even in the first trimester of pregnancy. A woman, in this view, has no right to her own body or even, the most consistent New Rightists add, to her own life; instead, she should be made to sacrifice at the behest of the state, to sacrifice her desires, her life goals, and even her existence in the name of a mass protoplasm, which is at most a potential human being, not an actual one. “Abortion,” says Paul Weyrich, executive director of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, “is wrong in all cases. I believe that if you have to choose between new life and existing life, you should choose new life. The person who has had an opportunity to live at least has been given that gift by God and should make way for a new life on earth.” 12
Another example: men and women, the New Right tells us, should not be free to conduct their sexual or romantic lives in private, in accordance with their own choice and values; the law should prohibit any sexual practices condemned by religion. And: children, we are told, should be indoctrinated with state-mandated religion at school. For instance, biology texts should be rewritten under government tutelage to present the Book of Genesis as a scientific theory on par with or even superior to the theory of evolution. And, of course, the ritual of prayer must be forced down the children’s throats. Is this not, contrary to the Constitution, a state establishment of religion, and of a controversial, intellectual viewpoint? Not at all, says Jack Kemp. “If prayer is said aloud,” he explains, “it need be no more than a general acknowledgment of the existence, power, authority, and love of God, the Creator.” 13 That’s all — nothing controversial or indoctrinating about that!
And: when the students finally do leave school, after all the indoctrination, can they be trusted to deal with intellectual matters responsibly? No, says the New Right. Adults should not be free to write, publish, or to read, according to their own judgment; literature should be censured by the state according to a religious standard of what is fitting as against what is obscene.
Is this a movement on behalf of Americanism and individual rights? Is it a movement consistent with the principles of the Constitution?
“The Constitution establishes freedom for religion,” says Mr. Kemp, “not from it” — a sentiment which is shared by President Reagan and by the whole New Right. 14 What then becomes of intellectual freedom? Are meetings such as this evening’s deprived of Constitutional protection, since the viewpoint I am propounding certainly does not come under “freedom for religion”? And what happens when one religious sect concludes that the statements of another are subversive to true religion? Who decides, which, if either, should be struck down by the standard of “freedom for religion, not from it”? Can you predict the fate of free thought, and of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” if Mr. Kemp and associates ever get their hands fully on the courts and the Congress?
What we are seeing is the medievalism of the Puritans all over again, but without their excuse of ignorance. We are seeing it on the part of modern Americans, who live not before the Founding Fathers’ heroic experiment in liberty, but after it.
The New Right is not the voice of Americanism. It is the voice of thought control attempting to take over in this country and pervert and undo the actual American revolution.
But, you may say, aren’t the New Rightists the champions of property rights and capitalism, as against the economic statism of the liberals? They are not. Capitalism is the separation of the state and economics, a condition that none of our current politicians or pressure groups even dreams of advocating. The New Right, like all the rest on the political scene today, accepts the welfare-state mixed economy created by the New Deal and its heirs; our conservatives now merely haggle on the system’s fringes about a particular regulation or handout they happen to dislike. In this matter, the New Right is moved solely by the power of tradition. These men do not want to achieve any change of basic course, but merely to slow down the march to socialism by freezing the economic status quo. And even in regard to this highly limited goal, they are disarmed and useless.
If you want to know why, I refer you to the published first drafts of the  pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, men who are much more consistent and philosophical than anyone in the New Right. The bishops recommended a giant step in the direction of socialism. They ask for a vast new government presence in our economic life, overseeing a vast new redistribution of wealth in order to aid the poor, at home and abroad. They ask for it on a single basic ground: consistency with the teachings of Christianity.
Some of you may wonder here: “But if the bishops are concerned with the poor, why don’t they praise and recommend capitalism, the great historical engine of productivity, which makes everyone richer?” If you think about it, however, you will see that, valid as this point may be, the bishops cannot accept it.
Can they praise the profit motive — while extolling selflessness? Can they commend the passion to own material property — while declaring that worldly possessions are not important? Can they urge men to practice the virtues of productiveness and long-range planning — while upholding as the human model the lilies of the field? Can they celebrate the self-assertive risk-taking of the entrepreneur — while teaching that the meek shall inherit the earth? Can they glorify and liberate the creative ingenuity of the human mind, which is the real source of material wealth — while elevating faith above reason? The answers are obvious. Regardless of the unthinking pretenses of the New Right, no religion, by its nature can appeal to or admire the capitalist system; not if the religion is true to itself. Nor can any religion liberate man’s power to create new wealth. If, therefore, the faithful are concerned about poverty — as the Bible demands they be — they have no alternative but to counsel redistribution of whatever wealth already happens to have been produced. The goods, they have to say, are here. How did they get here? God, they reply, has seen to that; now let men make sure that His largess is distributed fairly. Or, as the bishops put it: “The goods of this earth are common property and . . . men and women are summoned to faithful stewardship rather than to selfish appropriation or exploitation of what was destined for all.” 15
For further details on this point, I refer you to the bishops’ letter; given their premises, their argument is unanswerable. If, as the New Right claims, there is scriptural warrant for state control of men’s sexual activities, then there is surely much more warrant for state control of men’s economic activities. The idea of the Bible (or the “Protestant ethic”) as the base of capitalism is ludicrous, both logically and historically.
Economically, as in all other respects, the New Right is leading us, admittedly or not, to the same end as its liberal opponents. By virtue of the movement’s essential premises, it is supporting and abetting the triumph of statism in this country — and, therefore, of Communism in the world at large. When a free nation betrays its own heritage, it has no heart left, no conviction by means of which to stand up to foreign aggressors.
There was a flaw in the intellectual foundation of America from the start: the attempt to combine the Enlightenment approach in politics with the Judeo-Christian ethics. For a while, the latter element was on the defensive, muted by the eighteenth-century spirit, so that America could gain a foothold, grow to maturity, and become great. But only for a while. Thanks to Immanuel Kant, as I have discussed in my book The Ominous Parallels, the base of religion — faith and self-sacrifice — was re-established at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thereafter, all of modern philosophy embraced collectivism, in the form of socialism, Fascism, Communism, welfare statism. By now, the distinctive ideas at the base of America have been largely forgotten or swept aside. They will not be brought back by an appeal to religion.
What then is the solution? It is not atheism as such — and I say this even though as an Objectivist I am an atheist. “Atheism” is a negative; it means not believing in God — which leaves wide open what you do believe in. It is futile to crusade for a negative; the Communists, too, call themselves atheists. Nor is the answer “secular humanism,” about which we often hear today. This term is used so loosely that it is practically contentless; it is compatible with a wide range of conflicting viewpoints, including, again, Communism. To combat the doctrines that are destroying our country, out-of-context terms and ideas such as these are useless. What we need is an integrated, consistent philosophy in every branch, and especially in the two most important ones: epistemology and ethics. We need a philosophy of reason and of rational self-interest, a philosophy that would once again release the power of man’s mind and the energy inherent in his pursuit of happiness. Nothing less will save America or individual rights.
There are many good people in the world who accept religion, and many of them hold some good ideas on social questions. I do not dispute that. But their religion is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem. Do I say that therefore there should now only be “freedom for atheism”? No, I am not Mr. Kemp. Of course, religions must be left free; no philosophic viewpoint, right or wrong, should be interfered with by the state. I do say, however, that it is time for patriots to take a stand — to name publicly what America does depend on, and why that is not Judaism or Christianity.
There are men today who advocate freedom and who recognize what ideas lie at its base, but who then counsel “practicality.” It is too late, they say, to educate people philosophically; we must appeal to what they already believe; we must pretend to endorse religion on strategic grounds, even if privately we don’t.
This is a counsel of intellectual dishonesty and of utter impracticality. It is too late indeed, far too late for a strategy of deception which by its nature has to backfire and always has, because it consists of confirming and supporting the very ideas that have to be uprooted and replaced. It is time to tell people the unvarnished truth: to stand up for man’s mind and this earth, and against any version of mysticism or religion. It is time to tell people: “You must choose between unreason and America. You cannot have both. Take your pick.”
If there is to be any chance for the future, this is the only chance there is.
Reprinted from The Voice of Reason
1. Quoted in Conservative Digest, Sept. 1980.
2. From a symposium on "Sex and God in American Politics," Policy Review, Summer, 1984.
3. Quoted in The New York Times, Aug. 8, 1985.
4. The New York Times, Dec. 25, 1985 and Jan. 5, 1986.
5. "What the Catholic Church Teaches About Socialism, Communism, and Marxism," The Catholic Study Council, Washington, DC.
6. The New York Times, Feb. 2, 1986, Sept. 11, 1984, and May 17, 1985.
7. From Reason the Only Oracle of Man (Bennington: 1784), p. 457.
8. The Examiners Examined: Being a Defence of the Age of Reason (New York, 1794), pp. 910. An Inquiry Relative to the Moral and Political Improvement of the Human Species (London: 1826), p. 35. Principles of Nature (New York: 1801), from Ch. 1 and Ch. XXII.
9. Writings, Ed. by A. E. Bergh (Washington, DC: 1903), vol. 6, p. 258.
10. A Sermon Preach'd . . ., May 30th, 1739 (Boston: 1739), p. 40.
11. A Sermon Preached in Long-Meadow at the Public Fast (Springfield: 1788).
12. From "Sex and God in American Politics," op. cit.
14. "Jack Kemp at Liberty Baptist," Policy Review, Spring 1984.
15. Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (First Draft); in Origins,
NC documentary service, vol. 14, no. 22/23, Nov. 15, 1984, p. 344.
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