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Salvo 03.10.2022 3 minutes

Idol of the Week

Buildings In The Netherlands Have Been Illuminated With The Colors Of The Ukrainian Flag

A nation casts about in search of its God.

Shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, G.K. Chesterton predicted the fate of a godless empire: “Once abolish the God, and the government becomes God,” he wrote. Close off the avenues of public piety, and people will cast about for some all-consuming secular ritual to make them pure. Naturally, they will intuit that any plausible surrogate god must have money, power, and the allegiance of millions. So when the hungry sheep look up, they look to the state. 

America is in this exact position. “Americans have not lost their religion,” writes Georgetown University Professor Joshua Mitchell in American Awakening: “Americans have relocated their religion to the realm of politics.” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer faced some criticism when she lit a prayer candle in adoration of Stacey Abrams, who helped get out the Democratic vote in Georgia’s Senate race. But Whitmer was only expressing the spirit of the age. 

The summer before, private citizens and politicians alike “took the knee” in an act of ritual genuflection to George Floyd and the BLM protests inspired by his death. Golden busts of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Representative John Lewis were erected in New York’s Union Square that fall, after statues of traditional heroes had been desecrated and defaced for months. All over America and the West, new idols arose to demand fealty. 

None of this has changed. But it has accelerated. It is amazing how quickly the old gods are now forgotten and new ones erected in their place. As each liturgy in turn proves ineffectual, the congregation reaches for a new set of symbols and sacraments.  

Fanatics have only just begun discarding their cloth masks, though everyone has known for months that they are basically useless. But even before the mandates started relaxing, special dispensations had been made for certain communicants in other denominations: attendees at BLM’s high holy days were excused from following COVID precautions. San Francisco Mayor London Breed expressed the underlying logic of it all when she said she didn’t have to wear her mask at a concert because she “was feeling the spirit.” 

But the spirit goes where it pleases, and today it has moved on. Ukraine is our new crusade, our new first and final cause. COVID oblations have been put abruptly on hold: Joe Biden’s State of the Union, in which the war predominated, was mask-free. Everything is now bedecked in blue and yellow. Russia’s cultural treasures are being shunned as unclean. And last week in Reno, Nevada, observers gathered to decorate a monument with Ukraine’s national flower. The monument consisted of seven letters: BELIEVE

This has very little to do with ending the actual war, just as chanting “defund the police” has very little to do with helping black people, and wearing a cloth mask has very little to do with preventing COVID. The real events which serve as pretexts for our religious fervor are, in themselves, serious and complex sociopolitical matters. Were we thinking clearly, we could discuss them like adults. But we are not thinking clearly. We are reaching in pitiable blindness for our God. 

Ukraine’s defiance of Russian aggression is worthy of our admiration and, within limits, our support. But none of it will save us. None of it will make us clean. Like pagan celebrants whose chosen patron has failed to bring the rain, we are flailing to grasp at anything that can unify us and grant us virtue.  

“A clean conscience is worth a buck or two,” said CBS’s Stephen Colbert, who is willing to pay as much as $15 a gallon if it will only wash him white like snow. But these new indulgences will not work any better than the old ones. We can pile up new ceremonies and festivals, revise the old ways and carve out special protocols within them. We can impoverish ourselves and rend our garments in pursuit of environmental, racial, moral, or medical purity. But “the gifts and sacrifices being offered are not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper” (Hebrews 9). There is and has only ever been one God who can do that.

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