The forced resignation of Van Jones for his former questions about 9/11 displays another frightening feature of the American political landscape—the new religious tests applied to office-holders. The eradication of religious tests for public office during the 18th and 19th centuries in America, and shortly afterward in Europe, was hailed as a great victory for liberty—now at last we had true freedom of speech and freedom of religion. These tests, you see, meant that, while you could believe whatever you wanted as a private citizen, you were required to adhere to a certain creed (whether it be Lutheran, Anglican, generically Protestant, whatever) if you wanted to hold public office. This was eventually regarded as an intolerable infringement of liberty and done away with.
However, today, we have by no means escaped from such infringement. There are still rather strict limits on what you are allowed to believe if you want to hold public office; only now, they pertain not to any traditional religion, but to the American civic religion; now, they cannot be found in any written creed, but in an invisible, unspoken creed which is policed by fellow politicians and by their lapdogs at the media. Despite the supposed diversity of opinion and freedom of speech in our government, the truth is quite simply that the state religion is Americanism, and if you question or doubt the tenets of this state religion, you have committed blasphemy, and are unfit for public office. Witness, for example, the violent backlash Ron Paul encountered when he suggested merely that US foreign policy might have had some influence on provoking terrorists to attack us.
And here, we see it again—a government official is complete unfit to hold office because he had doubts that the Bush administration was telling the truth about 9/11, which is now the #1 Saints’ Day for the American civic religion. This is not because such doubts are irrational…on the contrary, any objective reflection on American policy over the last century and the policies of other imperial powers throughout history would strongly suggest cause to doubt the official story. On the contrary, the only objection to these doubts is that they are blasphemy against the saints of the state religion, that they are heresy outside the carefully policed bounds of Americanist orthodoxy.
Witness the comments of Sen. Kit Bond, calling for a Congressional hearing into Van Jones’s fitness for office last week: “Van Jones signed a petition from the so-called “Truther” movement which suggests that the Bush administration ‘may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext to war.’ I can imagine few sentiments more repulsive to our brave fighting soldiers and the victims of the 9/11 terror tragedy than to think the U.S. government deliberately allowed the events of 9/11 to occur.” Notice again—the only charge leveled against these sentiments is that they are “repulsive”—dishonoring to the saints and martyrs of Americanism. The problem is not that they are untrue, irrational, or morally reprehensible—only that they are repulsive to the ears of orthodox Americanists.
Of course, this is not the first time we have witnessed this sort of behavior in America—McCarthyism was a notorious witch-hunt against any who transgressed Americanist orthodoxy (and perhaps the spirit of McCarthyism has never quite died since). But this new development is frightening, because McCarthy was one man—a Robespierre that could be brought down by more sensible colleagues. The new advocates of McCarthyism are Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest, and are insinuating themselves into the minds of millions of Americans through the all-pervasive media of radio, TV, and internet.
This replacement of creedal religious tests with state-religion tests is a return, it seems, to the days of the Roman empire. Oh, what a time of liberty and freedom! You could believe whatever you wanted in the Roman Empire, right? Well, in terms of traditional religions, yes. But no heresy was allowed on the state religion—the one absolute requirement in the Roman Empire was that you accepted the sanctity of the state and the righteousness of its cause, and honored its saints and martyrs, whatever else you wanted to believe on the side. If this is really what we are returning to, then I am sick of hearing about what a wonderfully free country we live in.
Of course, it is worth observing that “religious tests” for public office have perhaps always been more about state religion than about real religion. Louis XIV’s enforcement of strict Catholicism on his subjects was much more about preventing blasphemy against Louis than against the Virgin Mary; and the same pattern of course manifests itself in Anglican England and Lutheran Prussia, etc. Constraints on liberty have always come not so much from religious intolerance as from statist absolutism. But you’ll want to buy Cavanaugh’s latest book for all that.