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The lie at the heart of America’s civic religion
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The lie at the heart of America’s civic religion

Without honesty, the natural optimism of Americans slumps into despair.

Americans are, by and large, optimistic people. You’d have to view the world positively to set out on a hostile and unmapped continent. This optimism stuck with our people well past the frontier and can be seen in American music, literature, and theater. Foreigners, both friend and foe, have long remarked on this trait. “If there is a sort of national American emotion,” the English comedian Stephen Fry once said, “I would call it optimism.”

Since the 1960s, however, and even more acutely in the last 15 years, a creeping dread has entered the national psyche. This trend is observable in media, the arts, and political thought. Neither side of the aisle is optimistic: ABC News reported that nearly three-quarters of citizens believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The emperor has no clothes, but he still has the power to punish naysayers.

Some of this pessimism has to do with the normal decline of empire. No one nation can stay on top forever. Eventually, it reverts to the mean. But I see another factor to the despair choking our nation: Our civic religion is built on a lie, and our elite cannot solve the problems it promised to.

Every nation has a civic religion. In some states, it is explicit, such as the deification of Roman emperors. Others, like our American empire, have civic religions that are more subtle. Our previous civic religion was that of 1776. That religion has saints like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This faith holds the Constitution sacred as scripture. It also has a statement of faith.

This is the core belief that justifies the existence and rule of the elite. One way of summarizing the old civic religion might be, “The elite rules because we have created the best, freest, and most powerful state the world has ever known." The virtues of this civic religion are self-reliance, competence, and a broadly Christian ethic.

But this old faith has been supplanted by another one.

The 1960s acted as America’s cultural revolution. Facets of life that had once been fixed and non-political came up for debate. The more than half-century since has given rise to a new civic religion, the religion of the woke left. The modern civic faith is based on this political formula: “We, the elite, saved you from the racist, sexist, and homophobic past. We gave you social status and will lead you toward a future based on equity and inclusion.”

While this formula has been successful in at the ballot box, it has a major flaw: It isn’t true.

In the roughly 60 years since the promise was made, almost every aspect of American civic life has gotten worse. Women are miserable, and race relations are abysmal. Just 20 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Thomas Sowell drew attention to this fact. In "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?" the black intellectual pointed out that equality was at best a “quixotic goal.”

When other conservative figures pointed this out, however, they were met with fierce resistance. John Derbyshire, who wrote for National Review until 2012, was fired for exactly these opinions. The idea that equality is impossible strikes at the core of the liberal project.

John Derbyshire, in an interview with Gawker, spoke to how this lie has affected the national psyche:

One [factor], which I’ve written about more than once, I think, in the United States, is just despair. I am of a certain age, and I was around 50 years ago. I was reading the newspapers and following world events and I remember the civil rights movement. I was in England, but we followed it. I remember it, I remember what we felt about it, and what people were writing about it. It was full of hope. The idea in everyone’s mind was that if we strike down these unjust laws and we outlaw all this discrimination, then we’ll be whole. Then America will be made whole. After an intermediate period of a few years, who knows, maybe 20 years, with a hand up from things like affirmative action, black America will just merge into the general population and the whole thing will just go away. That’s what everybody believed. Everybody thought that. And it didn’t happen.

Here we are, we’re 50 years later, and we’ve still got these tremendous disparities in crime rates, educational attainment, and so on. And I think, although they’re still mouthing the platitudes, Americans in their hearts feel a kind of cold despair about it. They feel that Thomas Jefferson was probably right, and we can’t live together in harmony. I think that’s why you see this slow ethnic disaggregation. We have a very segregated school system now. There are schools within 10 miles of where I’m sitting that are 98 percent minority. In residential housing too, it’s the same thing. So I think there is a cold, dark despair lurking in America’s collective heart about the whole thing.

What the paleoconservative writer was trying to describe is the failure of woke civic religion. The elites who came into power in the 1960s made the nation a promise: that they would heal the long-running divisions in American culture. For many citizens, this was seen as a hopeful time full of opportunity. If we just allowed the new elite to change things, to change how society is organized, we can heal as a nation.

But this was an impossible promise. Equality is a false god. And any promise based on that falsehood was doomed to fail.

While this has always been the case, as time goes on and our elites spend more time in power, their initial promise rings more and more hollow. Sure, maybe in 1972 you could blame Klansmen and redlining for group differences. But in 1992? 2002? 2022? The claim that our elites, who have been in power for generations, are still the underdogs fighting against an oppressive system is clearly laughable. The attempt to shift blame to the racist “other” is less and less plausible.

This is where the despair comes from. Our nation for 60 years has been on a crusade against difference. Not only has that crusade failed, but its consequences have been both obvious and dangerous. The emperor has no clothes, but he still has the power to punish naysayers.

Derbyshire continued:

Yet for a moralistic, optimistic people like Americans, this despair is unbearable. It’s pushed away somewhere we don’t have to think about it. When someone forces us to think about it, we react with fury. That little boy in the [Hans Christian] Andersen story about the emperor’s new clothes? The ending would be more true to life if he had been lynched by a howling mob of outraged citizens.

I am not naïve. I believe that our ruling class knew their promises were false. In his heart of hearts, even the most committed progressive knows the lie is a lie. But what is easier, to admit that the civic religion is a lie or to punish those who point it out?

Without honesty, the natural optimism of the American people is turning to despair.

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J. Burden

J. Burden

J. Burden is a podcaster and essayist. He hails from the American South and writes from an explicitly Christian perspective. His political opinions have been formed by the reactionary, realist, and paleoconservative traditions.