Project Canterbury

The New Idol
by Frank Gavin

New Tracts for the Times, Number 12.
Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1934.


THE IDOL BEFORE WHICH a goodly section of humanity is being exhorted to bow and worship is the Totalitarian State. Strictly speaking it is emphatically not a New Idol. It is really a kind of constantly rejuvenated, perennially erectile idol, that is as old as human society and as young as the latest idol maker's conceptions. Centuries ago the Church knew the power of its adherents' venom. Today groups of Christian and different churches are feeling the weight of their displeasure. The last book of the New Testament is a charter of Christian independence written as a Tract for Very Bad Times to encourage the Church to stay free.

Whenever men have organized themselves and found their association of value, they have implicitly come to ascribe something almost divine to the sanctions of society and the State. It is firmly implanted in us all to invoke religion in order firmly to sanction what has been found to be of great value. Emperor-worship in ancient Rome, Lenin-worship in contemporary Russia, and Hitler-worship in present-day Germany are all of a piece. All three have a common purpose: to declare the high value and preeminent importance of the State's embodiment in the person of a man. The more precious the Roman State was to its new subjects in the days of the Empire, the more ardently the people of Asia Minor propagated the doctrine of the Divine State and Emperor. Politics can easily become religion, or at least an effective substitute for it.

When politics go religious, then there must of necessity be a-n age of faith. To hear a convinced Communist talk brings home to the listener a goodly number of genuinely religious notes. Communism is actually a religion, a compensation for religion, and an effective preclusive of any other religious loyalty. As a religion it evokes self-dedication, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice. As a compensation for religion it satisfies in some measure at least the radical impulse in man's heart for discovering an object of worship. As an intolerant loyalty it simplifies duties and obligations by eradicating the possibility of any rival claiming even a small measure of allegiance.

In all these cases two further factors are actively at work. One is the laziness of man. When the State will do something for me without my having to bestir myself, it is most natural to lie back and let it be done for, instead of by, me. We are so bent—possibly due to the Fall—that we can easily become quite willing to surrender either a duty or a privilege, if we can avoid them and still obtain what we desire. A second modern factor is undoubtedly the perplexity of man and the complexity of life. Once upon a time, in simpler days, the household could provide most of its necessities. While the individual had a vast variety of duties, life itself was less complex. When life became complex, the individual's activities became specialized—and therefore simplified. It would almost appear to be true that with reference to the individual, the more complex is social and economic life, the simpler becomes his own. The commuter goes into town by the same train, does the same job daily, sees much the same people, eats the same type of food, reads the same paper on his way home on the same train, and does the same sort of things in his free time. What becomes so habitual becomes, sooner or later, both hated and loved. It is hated—this routine of life and occupation—because it runs him and bends him constantly to its inexorable demands; it is loved because it supplies a framework for the course of life, a secure and solid thing whereby in the bewilderment of existence, man is given assurance, confidence, and a solid clue by way of a means to cope with life.

But—what of its effect on man? He becomes a creature of the things and doings of life, tie is all too easily cramped and warped by it. Faculties and capacities of adventure and pioneering become atrophied. The very same process may be seen in the matter of education. The paradox is true that: the more schooling a person has, the less likely he is to think independently. Routine—habits of mind and experience often make older scientists the chief opponents of a man who comes along with a novel theory and a fresh outlook on the old facts. For as a matter of fact, none of us likes to be disturbed, to have orderly ways of doing, thinking, and feeling upset. Academic or scientific "heresy" of yesterday, once accepted and invested with dignity, becomes scientific or academic "orthodoxy"'—and is intolerant, often vindictive, and sometimes persecutory.

The routined type of human activities, whether with reference to things, people, ideas, or behavior, sustains an appalling jar when the economic, or the social, or the religious, or the political status quo is overturned. Then comes a shock the gravity of which cannot be overestimated. In their panic the formerly secure seek feverishly for new securities, those of late controlled by habits within and without devote themselves hectically to a search for a new, ready-made set of habits which they can take on, and thus reestablish security—even if it be only a false sense of permanence, it may serve the immediate purpose. So every revolutionary movement, the more it is successful, the sooner it congeals into the rigidity of tradition. The meticulousness of the use of Comrade in Russia and the Heil Hitler salute in Germany are quaint symbols of the fact.

A New State, in other words, tries as soon as possible to "dig in" and look and make itself be felt as old. Traditions may grow overnight, and are shortly appealed to with deference as to authorities of indisputable authenticity. In Soviet Russia one generation is now alive to whom the Bolshevist State is old, taken-for-granted, assumed as normal. Any revolution can thus become old overnight, just in proportions as it can satisfy the need men feel for something familiar to tie to, or if not familiar, then capable of being made familiar in a short time.

When it comes to the matter of religion and the Church in a revolutionary State, we must inevitably touch on theology, and answer the question by reference to the law of habit. For example, if one holds lightly to religion, or believes in a form of church which does not articulate with every habit of life, religion can be easily torn out of the context of habitual living. Or—if the kind of church the believer has been brought up in be one which does not teach the doctrine of the Church as an organism but of it as an organization. For example, there are many forms of Christianity in which the Church is thought to be essentially invisible—and the earthly institution is deemed at the most to be a kind of scaffolding. When a social revolution comes, the adherents of a church with such beliefs can easily be turned into a new form of ecclesiastical organization. The less essential the framework of the external institution—whether in the matter of its claims in theory or its interrelation with life in practice—the more painless the transition.

But—if the Church be thought of as an Omnicompetent Society, with its organic life God-derived and not man-made; if it have practised its adherents in habitual devotion to interlock and link all concerns of life with God and His will; if its belief and code of behavior shall have claimed all the span of man's activities—then the Revolutionary State as Totalitarian will inevitably regard the Church as an enemy. There can be no compromise between such claims to men's allegiance—between, one might almost say, politics-become-religion and religion-directing-politics. One of the two will have to succumb. For example, Cardinal Faulhaber in Germany has courageously withstood the claims of the New Government to the youth of the land. On the face of it, some of his contentions appear absurd: why should athletic clubs, Young People's Societies, social clubs be religious? He fears that once they have become Hitlerized they will not only be un-Catholic but anti-Catholic. Again, the Russian Church had to be crushed, at least as having any right of guidance in matters political and economic, before the supremacy of the Soviet State could be assured. To secure that supremacy was absolutely vital for the Communist State, for if it could not have all, it would be nothing.

Here then is the secret of The New Idol—its exclusive claim to men's allegiance. Its claims are not without foundation, for it promises much. The Communist or the Fascist State pledges itself to organize and control the whole of man's life, from the cradle to the grave, and to articulate part with part, and the individual into the whole. Life—whether political, social, nationalistic, or economic—having become too complex, must now be simplified, whether artificially, or by the use of coercion, matters not.

Simplification by unification under one person is the prime essential requisite. As we have seen, the modern man's predisposition of habit, temper, and emotion has prepared the way better for the Totalitarian State than for any other, when some cataclysm threatens. Religion gone stale is quickened into new life when the personal embodiment of the New State invokes the loyalty of mankind. New hope, power, faith, energy, and joy are once more evoked—and vitality takes the place of lethargy, interest of apathy, passionate devotion to sceptical detachment.

What of the Church? Has she anything to say with reference to the tendencies of our time toward Totalitarianism? There is no doubt, whatever, that once a Totalitarian State is in the saddle, the Church must lose her liberty and be incorporated as institution and as religion into the New Order or else be destroyed. Totalitarianism means just what it says: every aspect of man's activities, longings, needs, and ideas must be incorporated into the State. It will be efficient, clearly so, with reference to those aspects of life where the discarded regime was so glaringly inefficient. It promises security and confidence, especially in those respects where other democratic forms left so much to the will of the ordinary mortal—and while he was flattered, he was also uncomfortable under responsibility and agonized into panic in times of unforeseen disturbance.

It is high time for the Church to think hard on matters political, social, and economic. Everywhere in the world there are stirrings and ground-swells of favorable approach to the ideal of the Totalitarian State. The deification of Secularism it is in fact. The creation of public power by the surrender of personal freedom. The enslavement of the individual to the dictates of the State in one man. Has Christianity no guidance to give? Are the eternal truths of the priceless value of every human being, of the obligation toward respect of personality, of the will of God for the life of man, and, above all, of the untouchable supremacy of His Rule over men's hearts—are these to go into the discard before The New Idol's claim as of right to man's allegiance, obedience, nay—worship?

Signs are not lacking of the presence in America of Fascist propaganda. Our bewilderment and our laziness, our willingness to pin hope on novel matters in time of confusion and discrediting of the old—all promote its campaign. Has the Church nothing to say? Is she to abrogate her divinely-given claim to the whole spiritual life of man, to the direction of his every activity which has moral or religious bearings? The proclamation of a Christian Revolution is the only answer to the New Idolatry. To worship and give full allegiance to aught save God, is the act of an idolater. Stand fast therefore in the freedom wherewith Christ hath made us free!

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