American Messianism

In his book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer gives various reasons why people join mass movements. Most have to do with the believer’s desire that the movement absorb and absolve his unworthiness into a higher cause. As James said, “he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall . . . hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

Adherents to mass movements are often seeking conversion as a way of hiding their multitude of sins. I think this is a major factor in the paralysis of American politics and patriotism. And I think it’s why civil, reason-based political discourse cannot be had in many places and with many people—because too many people, even those who claim religiosity, look to either the government or the nation as their Messiah. Messianism is defined in Wikipedia as “any field of philosophy which concerns itself with the interpretations of stories about a world hero or the establishment of a utopia.”

The Government

Liberalism (according to “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties” although I would augment that definition for Americans as advocating “a wider social and economic role for the state” is the pursuit of a utopia through rules or legislation. The theory is that if the right combination of laws could be put in place, everyone would have the basics he needs, the opportunities he wants, and no unfair opposition to his achieving whatever he puts his mind to. This is where salvation lies for true liberal believers. They have the same plan that Satan had in the pre-mortal life: if you make it so people can’t sin, they won’t, and that way they’ll be perfect. The fallacies of this theory are, of course, that, despite its goal to provide a perfect opportunity for absolute personal freedom from impediments, 1) it’s impossible, and 2) it doesn’t really create freedom—it exterminates it.

This correlates to two trends in modern American religiosity. The first is that religions continue to try to make salvation easier and easier by changing the rules of the game. The second is the push toward humanism: “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason”—self-realization is psychobabble for man creating his own salvation. In both cases the object is salvation through the right rules.

The Country

Conservatism’s salvation is obtained simply by believing. Do you accept America as your Savior? There are many who regard it as such, because America is greater than anything else we’ve ever seen—and somehow God has chosen me to be a part of it. It was sent by God to save mankind from monarchies, communism, and $2-a-day living. And, as a savior, it is infallible. This is why conservatives have such a hard time looking history straight in the eye and saying, “Wow! America has really abused and exploited some people. Oh, and look! We’re still doing it!” If they admit the fallibility of America, their hopes of salvation fade. Any intimation that America is supposed to mind its business in the world or that America could one day pass from power, especially as a result of its own mistakes, is heresy.

This philosophy is especially attractive among evangelicals and others who adhere to “salvation through faith.” This school of thought doesn’t blink in the eye of environmental ruin, “mutually-assured destruction,” or sectarian strife because that’s what the apocalypse is all about. America will come out on top as sure as Jesus will, because America and Jesus are good, and any opposition is evil. Only in such an environment could a “leader” say “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” And only those who truly believe will not be “left behind.”

Another concept in this vein attractive to conservatives is that of heredity—this is the problem many have with illegal immigration. I agree that America is a holy inheritance, but being born here or having access to it is a “talent” the master has bestowed. We are not to bury it nor spend it for our own purposes—we are to use it as the master has instructed and for his purposes only.

We received forewarning of this twisted philosophy of heredity in the Book of Mormon in Alma 31 as an apostate people recited a prayer containing the following: “We believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children . . . thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, . . . which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God. And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.” An example of this is the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood, ubiquitous around Independence Day. “I’m proud to be an American,” it states. Being “proud” of a blessing is rather blasphemous I think, and the song grates on my senses because of this.

I realize this is a broad generalization of the population, and that there are few true believers. But I think that many of us adhere to one or both of these philosophies to some extent. I know I have fallen for both of these alluring ideas at one time or another. The kicker is that it’s putting other gods before Him. Can nationalism or progressivism be a way in which we, in the name of patriotism or equality, violate the second of the Ten Commandments?

1 Comment

Mike W. says:


You have hit it right on the head. You seem to be reading more Tolstoy and Nibley.

It’s fascinating to see the effect that a complete focus on “the here-after” or “end-times” has on our politics. As you pointed out we tend to allow destruction and death and suffering to occur without concern because “that’s the way it has to be before Christ comes.” But just as the Ninevahites repented and weren’t destroyed (although the prophet of the Lord so prophesied), perhaps the “end-of-time” will play out differently if we actually put our trust in the Lord and live His teachings.

Dostoyevsky writes that unless we love life, we can’t understand it. I hope to post on that in the next week and how it affects the way we see life and live it.

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