I think there has been a sort of cultural and intellectual arms race. The burgeoning prestige and power of science, technology, the globalized economy, and highly meritocratic professional institutions would mow down anything on the other side—the side that considers itself the defender of everything human, traditional, and authentic—but the most fanatical conviction. The more absurd the beliefs on that side are, the more empowering they are. Repeating what is plainly not so becomes a trial by fire to select and strengthen the most loyal and determined minds. And the most richly exploitable symbols for this test of fortitude are the texts that most Americans already have a long habit of revering, the Constitution and the Bible.
This story has old roots indeed. Consider one particularly telling example of its earliest manifestations. As described in Joseph Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Founding Brothers, in February 1790, Quakers brought anti-slavery petitions to the U.S. Congress. Politicians from the South responded, first, that the pacifist Quakers had no right to speak to such an important issue in a body politic for which they hadn’t sacrificed blood and property, and, second, that the Constitution and the Bible both guaranteed the right to slaveholding.
In the case of the Constitution, this was obviously wrong: the document only forbade any restriction on the international slave trade until 1808 (when it was banned), and left open the possibility of banning slavery altogether. The now-notorious three-fifths compromise dealt only with the counting of the enslaved in the census, and many considered the clause, like slavery itself, to be merely provisional. Certainly nothing in the text justified demanding that the galleries of the Capitol now be cleared of all spectators and journalists during the debate, or threatening a civil war, or foretelling doom for any judge in Georgia who considered the rights of slaveholders an open question. But then as now, political fury overcame all sense of reality, and a document that had been carefully designed to balance conflicting interests served as an exhortation to extremism. This mood—it does not deserve the word “argument”—about white supremacy and the Constitution would go on and on, clear through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, until today.
And again and again, the Bible would be invoked as a parallel authority, reinforcing the Constitution, though on a basis not much more solid. The Bible does matter-of-factly depict slavery and other bound servitude as normative, but the historical context is a world in which no one could conceive how society could be arranged otherwise. Yet at the same time the Bible contains much reassurance that there is no such limit to God’s mind: “redemption” is literally “buying out” from slavery or captivity, and the Bible’s God tends to do this with sublime love and patience, and finally does it at an unimaginable personal cost.
Most troubling to me as a Quaker pacifist is the idolatrous do ut des (“I give that so that you give,” the transactional relationship set up with a supernatural being) of violence. Jesus makes the all-nourishing blood sacrifice himself and of himself. There is nothing to negotiate. The pagan idol haggles with his human partner from hour to hour and is regularly hungry; there is no license he won’t grant in return for a brief bellyful. This ethic can easily verge into rampages when the sacrifices and the rewards are of the same bloody kind. For example, in the Middle Ages: I go crusading, endure innumerable hardships, bleed, lose my comrades, and in return I get to slaughter Muslims and take what is theirs.
Bizarrely, the physical symbol of the Crusades was the cross. The idol, again, is divorced from the commonsense meaning of the object and made to mean whatever is convenient, sometimes the opposite of the original meaning. In the case of the cross, the instrument on which an innocent man was tortured to death by a cynical occupying power to avert a riot by perennially oppressed people cannot logically sanctify military aggression. Likewise, mouthing the word “Constitution” can’t logically justify shattering the rule of fundamental law—quite the contrary. But the godlike dimension of the symbol, along with the symbol’s preferred residence in the expansive ego, invites such heinous reversals of meaning.
It seems ordinary because we are so close to it, but a similar reversal of meaning animates the mainstream American imagination, and explains the participation in the insurrection of veterans and even current members of the military and police: we bought the favor of the Constitution with our costly service, they assert, and now we cash in. Back outside the Capitol, recounting his valiant deeds, a rioter shows off a document stolen from Nancy Pelosi’s office. It has his blood on it, he brags. We have seen this before. A hunk of stone or metal becomes a living bull, and at the same time the bull becomes a god and a carnivore; an important document, inherently the means to help inform, organize, benefit, and protect human beings, becomes the means to empty their minds, and to strew chaos, crime, and destruction.