A God Before Thee, by Walter Berns
A God Before Thee
Mises Review 7, Vol. 3 (Fall 2001)
University of Chicago Press, 2001; xiv + 150 pgs.
Professor Berns has written a book capable of great harm. Not content with the world's major faiths, he proposes to establish a "civil religion" in the guise of patriotism. Those inclined to continue the old ways, he hastens to assure us, need not fear persecution. They must, of course, stay out of the path of the state, guided exclusively by the New Revelation; if they do not, they will be swept away.
What glorious promise can justify so drastic a policy? If faith must bow before the new power, must not Berns bedeck his new state in shining raiment? Otherwise, why would those already committed to a faith of their own be so much as tempted by what Berns has to offer? Here our author manifests genuine originality.
The main benefit that accrues to citizens of his state is that the civil religion gives them a cause to which they can sacrifice their lives. Lacking the new truth, people might-what a thought!-pursue their own interests. Though commerce has its place in the Bernsian state, it must be firmly subordinated to sacrifice. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
I have so far omitted the most surprising part of Berns's construction: As he sees it, he has not devised a dystopia out of an overactive imagination; rather, he has accurately described the United States as her Founding Fathers intended her to be. Abraham Lincoln, the great poet of our national glory, brought to perfection the vision that has captured Berns. Since that time, Americans have lapsed; we stand in danger of neglect of our duty to sacrifice for the state.
And the entire world beckons us Bernsians. "Ours is not a parochial patriotism; precisely because it comprises an attachment to principles that are universal, we cannot be indifferent to the welfare of others. To be indifferent, especially to the rights of others, would be un-American" (p. 8). The prospect of many future patriotic deaths will inspire us as nothing else can.
You will, I fear, suspect me of caricature. Surely, Professor Berns, a distinguished constitutional scholar, cannot be quite the worshipper of Moloch that I have made him out to be. But, as always, I state the simple truth. Our author locates a problem with overemphasis on Lockean rights to life, liberty, and property. No doubt, these have their proper place, and it is not a small one. But "patriotism means love of country and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it, perhaps even to give one's life for it. But, aside from the legendary Spartans, why should anyone be willing to do this? . . . why should self-interested men believe it in their interest to give their lives for the idea or promise of their country (pp. 131-32)?
The question that interests me differs from the one Professor Berns has just posed. I wish to ask, how can an apparently intelligent and learned man be induced to worship war and death? The first step on Berns's via dolorosa is his yearning for classical Athens, where no conflicting loyalties stood between the citizen and his city: "Athenians were enjoined to be lovers of Athens because they were Athens-in a way, by loving their city, they loved themselves-and because, by gaining an empire, Athens provided them with the means by which they gained fame and glory" (p. 16).
By no means does Berns seek to restore the ancient city. Quite the contrary, he recognizes that the "institutions of both Athens and Sparta were ordered with a view to war, and, precisely for this reason, neither Athens nor Sparta could, or can, provide a model for America" (p. 17). Since the rise of Christianity, allegiance no longer can be undivided. The soul of the religious believer does not belong exclusively to the political community, and the great mistake of the French Revolution was its futile attempt to uproot the church and restore the ancient ways. The founders of the American Republic avoided this trap. So far, so good.
But Berns now proceeds to precisely the wrong question. Given that Christianity cannot be eliminated, how can as much as possible of the unity of the ancient city be restored? His answer-and it is not a bad one, given his premise-is that religion must be rigidly confined to the private sphere. In that way, the state may proceed toward its great tasks, unhindered by the scruples of believers. Though believers may practice their faith unmolested, they must realize that private conscience must always bow before the law.
Our author makes entirely clear that, on this matter, he is thoroughgoing Hobbesian: "with the free exercise of one's religion comes the requirement to obey the law regardless of one's religious beliefs. . . . Whether a law is just or unjust is a judgment that belongs to no `private man,' however pious or learned, or, as we say today, sincere he may be. This means that we are first of all citizens, and only secondarily Christians, Jews, Muslims, or any other religious persuasion" (p. 31). Thus, if your religion forbids you to fight, Berns would grant you no right to avoid military service. It may be a prudent policy for the government to make room for conscientious objectors, so long as they number but few. But their status is a privilege, and Berns does not hide his dismay with the Supreme Court for making "the exception the rule for anyone willing to invoke it" (p. 38).
So much for religion-or, rather, so much for religion that extends beyond devotion to the state. What is to replace it, as an object of popular devotion? We cannot, of course, rely on so egotistic a notion as natural rights; instead, we need a national poet around whose work the emotions of the people can concentrate.
Fortunately, one is at hand: Abraham Lincoln. "As . . . Shakespeare was, or is, to the English (and Robert Burns to the Scots, Gabriele D'Annunzio to the Italians, and Homer to the Greeks) so Lincoln is to us; he is our spokesman, our poet" (pp. 99-100). I am not sure why Berns includes D'Annunzio; though he was a fervent nationalist, his poetry and novels deal principally with love and nature, not political themes.
Lincoln gives Berns exactly what he wants. His winged words, especially the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural address, remind all Americans "that freedom is more than being left alone, that there is a price to be paid for it" (p. 98). The great bloodletting that took place during Lincoln's Crusade was an essential means to bond all Americans together in love.
Our author makes parody impossible. He solemnly informs us that Lincoln bore no hatred or even anger for the people of the South. Though Lincoln was determined to fight the war to the end, "he never looked upon the Confederates as enemies" (p. 96). In support of his surprising claim, Berns seems, incredibly, to contend that Lincoln intended in the Gettysburg Address-"the most beautiful speech in the English language" (p. 94)-to include Confederates among the patriots to whom the cemetery was dedicated. I say "seems," because our author merely asks, rhetorically, whether Southerners were included; he does not say positively that it was "Lincoln's larger purpose to include Confederate soldiers" (p. 94). But this is clearly what he intends.
To give Professor Berns credit, he does come to his senses at one point. He remarks: "Now, obviously, when he [Lincoln] referred to those who had given their lives at Gettysburg `that that nation might live,' he could not have meant to include the Confederates who had given their lives that that nation might die" (p. 118). Exactly so. But does this outbreak of sanity lead Berns to revise his claim that Lincoln was suffused with love for the South? Of course not; though the words quoted are not addressed to Southerners, they are the audience of the rest of the speech. Their "freely given consent" (p. 118, emphasis in original) was needed to continue cementing the Union together.
One cannot help but ask: If Lincoln loved his Southern countrymen so much, why did he follow a policy that killed so many of them? The hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed casualties of Lincoln's War are hardly, to the untutored eye, much evidence of love. As Berns makes clear, though, when we deal with Lincoln, we enter the realm of faith in which we can only see through a glass darkly. No ordinary mortal, Lincoln was, "as one historian of the presidency has said, (not irreverently[!]), `the martyred Christ of democracy's passion play'" (p. 100). The pseudo-religious cult of the dead that Berns invokes throughout this misbegotten book is not genuine American patriotism; rather, it recalls the cult of the dead characteristic of European fascism.
Berns's book is no laughing matter, but at one point one cannot suppress a smile. Our author is greatly exercised by a line on the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington. A list of the wars that have involved the Marine Corps includes "The War Between the States." An "unreconstructed southerner," Berns tells us, must be responsible (p. 95).
Cite This Article
Gordon, David. "A God Before Thee." Review of Making Patriots by Walter Berns. The Mises Review 7, No. 3 (Fall 2001).