Saving Your Soul

Humans have a deep-seated need to belong to something bigger.

And I’m not just talking about the Minnesota Organization of Bloggers, here. Bear with me – Ed and I were talking about this on the show on Saturday, and I’ve got this urge to elaborate. And we know how ugly that can get…


For most of history, that “something bigger” has meant “higher powers” and “eternity” – the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, Valhalla, Nirvana, whatever. Organized religion, for much of human history, has focused (or, depending on the religion and your point of view, exploited) that human need, for good (hope, charity, Haendel and Bach) or ill. Religion is a hot topic, one way or another, for most of the organized world’s people.

And part of being “part of something bigger” also means “being against something bigger and badder and on the other side”; to Christians, it’s evil in its many forms, from Satan to temptation to what-have-you.

After the left claimed God was Dead in the late 19th century, that human impetus didn’t go away, of course. People have exploited that human desire even as they denied the Higher Power that had been its focus.

Marxism replaced God with ineluctible forces of history. Lenin turned that academic notion into a pseud-messianic crusade, an overarching “something bigger” that subsumed all of Russian (and, to his warped little mind, world) society. Stalin, a former Orthodox seminarian with a keen understanding of how people work, expanded his cult of personality to Messianic proportions – lessons the likes of Mao, Castro, Kim Jong-Il, Idi Amin and Pol Pot (himself a former Buddhist monk) exploited. And of course, they replaced Evil with a variety of enemies – class enemies, countries, anti-cults, whomever.
Hitler learned from Lenin’s mistakes, and did him one better; rather than banning God and the thousands of years of communal tradition His worship brings along, he co-opted it. An atheist, he wrapped himself and his party in the traditions of German Lutheranism and the mythology of German Catholicism, and – more importantly – the overarching German notion of Volk. This concept is a hard one to explain to Americans – I minored in German, and I’m only familiar with its outer edges – but it’s an idea at the nexus of the German land, language and history; Blut und Boden (“Blood and Territory”) is a phrase as familiar to students of Volk as “Domini et filii et spiritus sanctus is to Catholics, something with a meaning far beyond the literal to the adherent. Volk goes well beyond folklore and tradition, and was a sort of meta-religious link to Germany’s pagan past, underpinning German life and faith and culture the way paganism is just behind the surface of Latin, African and Caribbean Catholicism.

And so rather than having to spend time and energy vanquishing thousands of years of folk tradition and religious teaching, all Hitler had to do was take advantage of it.

Volk aided Hitler in putting a Big Evil – Judaism – in front of the people, as well; the Volk tradition viewed life on the land as inherently more noble and valuable than life in the towns; it viewed town and city life as corrupt and ignoble. And it associated Jews with city life, and at its extremes blamed them for its ills and corruption. The Lutheran Church in Germany drew heavily on Volk tradition and mythology, while the Catholic Church of the day added its own level of anti-Semitism which, again, was ripe for Hitler’s picking in Germany and especially Poland.

But in all cases, in the USSR and Red China and Nazi Germany and to similar extents in fascist countries everywhere, there were Big Enemies to replace the ones they’d abolished.


Ed and I talked about Michelle Obama’s “Save the Nation’s Soul” speech on the Northern Alliance show last weekend (the podcast should be up soon). We called out this statement of Mrs. Obama’s:

And things have gotten progressively worse throughout my lifetime, through Democratic and Republican administrations, it hasn’t gotten better for regular folks. ….

We have lost the understanding that in a democracy, we have a mutual obligation to one another — that we cannot measure the greatness of our society by the strongest and richest of us, but we have to measure our greatness by the least of these. That we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done. That is why I am here, because Barack Obama is the only person in this who understands that. That before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.

Ed’s response on the show was similar to what he wrote on his blog:

But it’s the notion that only Barack Obama can save our souls that is the most offensive part of the speech, by far. Government doesn’t exist to save souls; it exists to ensure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense. If I feel my soul needs saving, the very last place I’d look (in the US) for a savior would be Washington DC or Capitol Hill. I’ll trust God and Jesus Christ with my soul, and I’m not going to mistake Barack Obama for either one.

And my first reaction was similar; “Step off, ‘Chel.  My soul is between Christ and I”.

But it’s really a lot worse than rude presumption.  It’s not just that government is a lousy place to go for moral repair.  It’s that when govenrment tries to serve as a national soul, things break and people get hurt.
Fortunately, Jonah Goldberg just wrote an entire book on the subject, and the reaction to the book sparked a really great blog,  on which he writes;

Many of the tropes of a political religion/liberal fascism are evident. He exalts unity as it’s own reward. His talk of starting new and starting over often sounds like more than merely “turning the page” on the Bush-Clinton years. It sounds a bit like starting at Year Zero.

Which was the hallmark of Lenin and Mao; the past had to be wiped away (and its practitioners, real or imagined, sent to gulags) before the future could really get underway.

But what I find most intriguing is his rhetoric of destiny and “choseness.” He often makes it sound like he has been selected by forces of providence or God or simply history for this moment. He is, in Oprah’s words, “The One.” But even more interesting, he tells voters they are the ones. “This is it,” Obama proclaimed on Super Tuesday. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the change that we seek.” That’s pretty oracular stuff.


Such a vision is comforting because it plays upon man’s inherent desire to belong, to be protected by his fellow man and his community. “Strength in numbers” is the narcotic of all populists, the logic of all “people powered movements” as leftwing bloggers like to say (though for reasons that defy easy analysis, the left has mastered the art of casting itself as the voice of the dissidents against the oppressive, stultifying “herd mentality” even as it places the group at the top of its hierarchy of political aesthetics). This is the motivating passion behind the fascist quest for order.

Sometimes it sounds like Obama wants to talk about God’s plan when he’s talking about his own campaign for a New Order. But most times, you can see that he wants to stay on the secular side of the divide — where his white base resides — but without giving up the prophetic vision. He wants to persuade his followers, and perhaps himself, that he is elect, but he cannot do so without religious language.

There’s much more, and you should just go read it.

I get leery of the likes of Mike Huckabee (note: not “Huckajesus”.  Just…no.  Don’t) and his rhetoric – but invoking ones’ personal, transparently-visible, well-known faith (anyone who thinks Christianity has a secret agenda has been sleeping for the past 2000 years) into the White House is both limted by the Constitution and mediated by the fact that it is completely open and transparent.  Most importantly, it’s a very different thing than turning the state into its own pseudo-religion.

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