We have it on the authority of the
Lord, as recorded in Genesis, that idolatry is a corruption far
more reprehensible than even the sins of the flesh. But, why?
Why is the inveterate habit of humans to worship idols put
so low in the scale of values? For answer, let's look to the
story of the golden calf.
It will be recalled that Moses had gone up to Sinai for
instructions on the management of his tribesmen, and because he had been gone so long about it they gave up on
him. So, they turned to Aaron, the second in command, and
demanded that he provide them with gods "which shall go
before us." That is, they wanted something tangible, sensual
and pragmatic to worship, the kind of gods they had seen in
A "Thick Cloud"
Moses had given them Jehovah, maintaining that He was
the one and only. But this Jehovah, despite the fact that He
had done quite well by them in their escape from bondage,
turned out to be only an idea. He was intangible, unapproachable, completely out of this world and therefore difficult to comprehend. Even Moses saw Him only as a "thick
cloud" When you get right down to it, Jehovah was an abstraction, and an abstraction is elusive; a graven image, like
the dome on the capitol in Washington, can be seen and
appreciated, and the worship of it is satisfying.
The most irritating thing about Jehovah was His insistence
on principles. He would have no truck with expediency, was
constantly bringing up long-run consequences, and scolded
unmercifully when a fellow gave way to some momentary
inclination of the flesh. He enjoined you to keep your eyes off
the neighbor's wife and property, gave you no peace when
you indulged your appetite for homicide, perjury or adultery.
This was most annoying. Other people had gods quite
amenable to amendment; one could not only see and talk
to them, one could do business with them. If only their palms
were properly greased with sacrifices, they could be depended upon to produce anything you wanted, even social
security, and no questions asked. Jehovah, on the other
hand, was uncompromising. He laid down His inflexible
principles, and you had to go it on your own from there.
The best He could offer you was an opportunity¿the Promised Land¿and if you didn't have sense enough to make
use of that opportunity you took the consequences. There
was no way of getting around this intractible Jehovah.
Like all the people who came before or after them, the
Jews found these undemonstrable absolutes rather confining. They resented having their aspirations restricted by the
natural order of things, their appetites delimited by industry and thrift. They wanted a handout, and on a golden
platter. That's what gods are for, and if Jehovah could not
or would not deliver on demand, they would set up reasonable gods. Hence, when Moses took an unconscionable time
in getting back from Sinai, and they thought they were
through with him and Jehovah for good and all, they went
pragmatic. They put in an order for gods capable of producing an inexhaustible supply of bread and circuses.
Aaron had no mind to argue with them. Though he is
listed in the Bible as a priest, the evidence shows him to have
been something of a politician. For one thing, the Lord assigned him to Moses as a spokesman, or rabble-rouser, when
the latter pleaded his lack of eloquence as a disqualification
for leadership. Aaron was selected because he was not "of a
slow tongue" Better proof of his political gift is the way he
handled the clamor for the golden calf: he heeded the will
of the mob, as a good leader should, and then he taxed them
so that he could give them what they wanted. And it was a
stiff tax, in those days: "Break off the golden earrings which
are in the ears of your wives, and of your sons and daughters,
and bring them to me."
Political Expediency for Natural Law
Having produced, out of their substance, the idol of their
hearts, Aaron followed the political pattern by declaring a
day of thanksgiving: "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord."
(Notice, he wasn't breaking with tradition by denying the
Lord, but was insinuating divine sanction for the molten image; just as latter day Aarons are wont to equate democracy
with planning.) And the people had bread and circuses,
even as in the days of the Caesars and the New Deal. Everything was on a practical and immediate basis, with no
thought of consequences. Principles were abolished.
But, were they? Moses had insisted that principles were
oblivious of human dicta, that they scoffed at abolitionists
and went on operating in their accustomed way. If people
presumed to conduct their affairs without regard to principles, they would suffer the consequences. And so, the principles that Aaron arrogantly disregarded continued to
plague the Jews. According to the record, Jehovah waxed
wroth with these backsliders and determined to wipe out the
lot of them. Though we are told that Moses, with a marvelous
piece of special pleading, dissuaded the Lord from His fell
purpose, the fact is that civil war broke out among the Jews:
"and there fell of the people that day about three thousand
In modern terminology, we would say that when you substitute political expediency for natural law (which is what
idolatry amounts to), you are in for trouble: civilization becomes decadent and declines. The Bible puts it more dramatically: Moses got real sore, broke up the tablets on which
the principles were inscribed, and all hell broke loose.
How long this condition continued is not clear, for the
Bible is a bit careless about chronology. Judging by what
we know about the decline of civilizations, it is a reasonable
inference that a number of generations must have come and
gone before the Jews recovered from their defiance of fundamental principle; in the Biblical story the whole transition
seems to have happened within a few days. At any rate, after
the Lord had decimated the tribes, and Moses had put the
remnants back on the right track, there was what we call a
rebirth of civilization. Or, Moses went up to Sinai, got a new
set of tablets, and led his people to the Promised Land.
Like the Jews in the Wilderness
No one, and least of all those who are concerned with reform, will maintain that the human race has as yet reached
the Promised Land. The evidence is all against it. Man has
done a lot in accumulating a knowledge of things in general,
but he seems incapable of ridding himself of the need of a
golden calf. He still yearns for "gods which will go before
us," gods that are uninhibited by the laws of nature, gods
that are accountable only to our appetites, gods that speak
not of consequences or the long run. In that respect we are
like the Jews in the wilderness. Witness the pervasive religion
of our times, the worship of the State.
Is not the State an idol? Is it not like any graven image
into which men have read supernatural powers and superhuman capacities? The State can feed us when we are hungry, heal us when we are ill; it can raise wages and lower
prices, even at the same time; it can educate our children
without cost; it can provide us against the contingencies of
old age and amuse us when we are bored; it can give us electricity by passing laws and improve the game of baseball by
regulation. What cannot the State do for us if only we have
faith in it?
And we have faith. No creed in the history of the world
ever captured the hearts and minds of men as has the modern creed of Statism. Men may differ in their rituals, they
may call themselves Americans, Englishmen or Russians
(New Dealers, Socialists or Communists), but in their adherence to the doctrine of the omnipotence of the State they
are as one. It is the universal religion. There may be some
who maintain the State is a false god, that it is powerless in
the face of natural law, incapable of doing anything the individual cannot do for himself, and is in fact a hindrance to
man in his effort toward self-improvement; but such dissidents from the norm are few indeed. From New York to
Moscow to Peiping, and all way stations between, men pay
homage to the State. It is a universal passion equal in intensity, but much larger in scope, to the spirit of the Crusades.
In the Moslem world, men turn toward Mecca at certain
times of the day and pray to Allah according to prescribed
rules. In America, all hands are constantly outstretched toward Washington, shamelessly demanding alms, subventions and whatever else their hearts desire, accompanying
their prayers with threats of retribution if their supplications
be denied. The din of the litany of "gimme" is heard all over
the land. School teacher and banker, war veteran and labor
union aristocrat, business man and college president, cry
out in unison: "Thou who canst do all, do unto me more than
thou dost unto others."
The Religion of Statism
And what is Washington but the shrine of the largest
golden calf in the world? Here men of all degree come to
press their claims on the provider of all things good. Here
dwell in splendor the high priests of the church, and those
upon whom the graven image grins favorably, while those
who have not yet attracted its attention fan their hopes.
There is no other occupation in Washington than to propitiate the god of gods. Throughout the day, in its many-tiered
houses of worship, splendid in construction and air-conditioned for comfort, high-heeled cattlemen from Texas and
high-hatted tycoons from Wall Street vie with one another
in obeisances and genuflections; and in the evening, worn
out by their devotions, the worshippers foregather at cocktail
parties to repair their energies for tomorrow's prayers.
As for the substance of this religion of Statism, the absolute upon which its theology is based, it is that political
power can do anything. There is no limitation upon its scope,
except a contrary and more potent political power. Of a certainty, say its theologians, there are no "natural laws" to
hamstring the State; that is a well-exploded myth of the dark
ages. We have seen, they declare, how through the use of
force every so-called immutable consequential relationship
has been made mutable and inconsequential. All things are
relative. There are no certainties, either in the nature of man
or the nature of the world. In fact, there is no nature. Whatever men set their hearts on doing that will be done, provided only that they put their collective powers to the job.
And whatever the collective powers of men accomplish, that
is "good," simply because it "works." The religion of Statism
is thoroughly pragmatic; sufficient unto the day is the accomplishment thereof.
The State is the true god, its votaries maintain, because
it is immortal. Men come and go, the State lives on. The
priesthood who tend it may be Republicans or Democrats or
what-not; the State outlasts them all. It is self-sufficient because it is sovereign, omniscient because it has an intelligence superior to the combined intelligence of all men, beyond censure because its morality transcends that by which
mere man lives. It is not a social contract, not the product of
a body of laws which men make and unmake. It can say, as
the God of the Bible said of Himself: "I Am."
Yet, the State does not say that, or anything else, for it is
in fact only a golden calf. We who worship the fiction endow
it with superhuman gifts and capacities by merely demanding of it accomplishments that presuppose such gifts and
capacities. It is good because we want it to be. Out of the
fervency of our prayers comes the State.
Were we to take the trouble to examine the product of our
imagination, we would find the State to be only a body of
men who, taking advantage of our weakness, make the best
of it. They promise; because of our self-deception, we do not
question their ability to make good; nor do we take notice of
he contingent clause accompanying the promise, that we
give them power over our persons and our property. Because
they are human, because they, too, are incapable of defying
or circumventing the laws of nature, they cannot do for us
what we cannot do for ourselves, and their promise is never
fulfilled; but, the power they have acquired is not relinquished. Thus, the State consists of a body of men who, by
virtue of our need for a golden calf, acquire the power to
compel us to do what we do not want to do.
In the present circumstances, seeing how far we have gone
in the worship of the State, we are probably in for a
smash-up similar to that which befell the Jews when they
asked Aaron for "gods which shall go before us." We could
use a Moses to put us on the track of first principles.