When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh. Luke 21:28
The Root of all good works is hope of the Resurrection. St. Cyril of Jerusalem
God will never appear on the ballot, but he is nevertheless the candidate in every election, and whether after the tally is made men and women who believe, or at least suspect, that they will finally answer to one mightier than the electorate or even conscience are elected is the fundamental, unspoken issue in government. Chesterton said that men who do not believe in God will believe anything. He might have added that they will also do anything.
And why should they not? Acting quite rationally, they will begin to exercise their wills toward pleasure and power. St. Cyril of Jerusalem rightly echoed the horror felt by St. Paul when he discovered in Corinth Christians who did not believe in the resurrection, whose behavior (Paul insisted) would degenerate into “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” Faith is a theological virtue, but its presence or absence can be roughly gauged by the actions and aspirations that make up our lives. Do we live so as to please God? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Godlessness in the human heart leads from pride to contempt for God and willingness to sin boldly. But Paul did not comment on the results of this godlessness for the political order; his eyes were too much fixed on the immediate future. But in fact when the reality of that future Christ will bring, his return and his judging of all hearts, ceases to dominate thought and imagination, the political results are more devastating than those Paul identified as the result of godlessness in each human heart. When there is no resurrection, when there is no judgment, when men and women do not walk in the light of these realities, the certain political result is tyranny. For in the contest for the realization of the will, power is more seductive than pleasure, and when the righteousness rooted in a transcendent order is driven out of life, power alone remains. In George Orwell’s famous 1984, when Winston, finally broken, pled to know why Big Brother broke the heart of everyman, crushed the human spirit and demanded loyalty to his keeper, the reply was, “Power.”
The origin of government blind to justice, unafraid of judgment, and committed to the drive for power is Satan, who rejected God’s order in favor of his own will. Satan has inspired all the great twentieth-century tyrannies. On this point the National Socialist regime was not timid. The purpose of life was the exercise of power by the strong over the weak. Marxism never changed its spots. When, in 1989, Gorbachev was told that in fact three thousand had died in Tiananmen Square, his response was, “Three thousand, so what? They, like us, have to defend themselves.” And as the congresswoman said in 2010, “We don’t need any rules; we’re trying to do something.” And then: “If my daughter makes a mistake I don’t want her punished with a baby.”
With predictability such regimes represented by such reflections, knowing that man is made for something that lies beyond himself, will not simply marginalize religion but will erect a religion that subserves its own purposes. It was true in Rome. It was obvious in Germany in the 1930s and 1940. Russian Marxism, with symbolic appropriateness, turned churches into museums that housed the regalia of the regime, made the remains of Lenin and Stalin, given a faux incorruptibility, objects of veneration, and demanded faith, absent which one’s fate was Darkness at Noon.
Christ has kept us from tyranny for two thousand years because his Holy Spirit has fixed our hearts in an order not of this world, the reality of which casts this present world into the shadows. At this season of Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, it is good to consider again the hope that made and makes a Christian world and in the process sets us free. The point of the Resurrection was not just that the dead would live again; the pagans knew that the spirit of man is undying, although the best the Greeks could envision was Hades and the best the Hebrews could conceive until late in time was Sheol. The lines of the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end,” summarize the Gospel promise that, in the metaphor of C. S. Lewis, this is the gray shadowland; the world that Christ brings is the world of color and life and glory.
The book that engaged the Church of the third, fourth and fifth centuries with special intensity was the Apocalypse of St. John, which was depicted almost uniformly in the apse of every Roman church of the fourth through the eleventh centuries. The central image was Christ returning, welcomed by Peter and Paul, to an Edenic creation. But the point was always that we would be with the Lord in a renewed creation for which we were made and with respect to which this world, flawed as it is by original sin, is an indication and a sketch full of promise, but no more. The suffering that belongs to this present world, the pain, the frustration, the disappointment that come to the best of hearts, is not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed. In the Apocalypse we are told:
Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.
He will dwell with them.
And they shall be his people.
The world that is coming is the realm of glory that far exceeds in beauty what now is. Then “God himself will be with them.” He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; Death shall be no more. “Behold I make all things new.”
And so the desire of God’s heart, expressed at the dawn of creation when he came down to call Adam’s name, will be consummated; the divine desire to be with men, to know and love the free, rational creatures he has made will be realized. And God does not expect that we will enter this new creation unscarred. “In this world you will have trouble; be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” It is anticipated that we will bring with us our tears, and that God himself will wipe them away.
But for the first time this hope, not always expressed clearly but always recognized as something that lay beyond politics, is fading from the American cultural scene. Over its two-hundred-year history the United States has been governed by those who, if they did not believe the words of the prophet John of Patmos, were yet unwilling to hold its vision of a transcendent order in contempt. We have been governed by the pious—one thinks of Washington—, by Masons, by non-Christians who nonetheless thought God directed the affairs of men (Lincoln), by those for whom the existence of God was a mere suspicion, and by sinners, indeed by forty-three sinners, some of whose sins were obvious, some of whose sins were not.
But our country has never before been governed by a temper that can only be described as godless. And this fact, the fact that the government has moved from neutrality plus nods to God to aggressive godlessness, brings home to those who will see the whole tenor of history since 1300. For if we look at the grand sweep of the last five centuries, we can see that a movement that began in the Garden by proclaiming the freedom and omni-competence of the human race, reigning unchecked since the Renaissance, has ended in slavery. The proclamation that one will buy insurance, refrain from sugar, use only curly light bulbs, cease making too much money, and use language in ways approved by Alice’s Red Queen, all this for the creation of fairness in society, is of the same genre as the command that thou shalt go to Siberia for the good of the state.
How this movement toward slavery occurred is in fact not puzzling. For when God is not worshipped, tyranny is inevitable. There are many varieties of atheism. The most insidious is religious atheism, which substitutes the effects of religion for its purpose by substituting for love for Christ and a desire for heaven the illusory duty of building a better world.