American Democracy as a Fundamentalist Religion

As America remains girded against religious fundamentalism in Iran and elsewhere around the world, consider that American democracy itself constitutes a fundamentalist religion.

The distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter noted, in 1942, the similarity between theocentric and secular religions:

Marxism is a religion. To the believer, it presents, first, a system of ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are absolute standards by which to judge events and actions; and secondly, a guide to those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the indication of the evil from which mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved. ... [It] belongs to that subgroup [of ‘isms’] which promotes paradise this side of the grave. (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, p. 5)

The historian Michael Burleigh included fascism and national socialism among secular religions. American Democratic Fundamentalism also belongs on this list.

The theologian Paul Tillich followed Schumpeter, in 1951, with a related point:

We have seen that everything secular can enter the realm of the holy and that the holy can be secularized. On one hand, this means that secular things, events, and realms can become matters of ultimate concern, [i.e., they can] become divine powers; and, on the other hand, this means that divine powers can be reduced to secular objects, [and so can] lose their religious character. Both types of movement can be observed throughout the entire history of religion and culture, which indicates that there is an essential unity of the holy and the secular, in spite of their existential separation. (Systematic Theology: Reason and Revelation, Being and God, vol. 1, p. 221)

Accordingly, theocentric and civil religions often are studied as substitutable pubic institutions, whose ebbs and flows reflect relative costs, benefits, and economic payoffs. In this light, the economist Ludwig von Mises characterized secular officials and bureaucrats—political progressives in particular—as acting out of a desire to emulate, if not to be gods:

The terms ‘society’ and ‘state’ as they are used by the contemporary advocates of socialism, planning, and social control of all the activities of individuals signify a deity. The priests of this new creed ascribe to their idol all those attributes which the theologians ascribe to God—omnipotence, omniscience, infinite goodness, and so on. (Human Action, scholar’s ed. p. 151)

Burleigh candidly notes historians’ concern regarding whether deified civil power constitutes a “substitute religion” or a “substitute for religion;” the philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, having argued that “true” religion’s defining characteristic entails belief in an afterlife.

Yet, lest “secular religion” be mistaken for solecism, consider the economist (and Independent Institute senior fellow) Robert Nelson’s insight:

In the twentieth century it showed greater energy, won more converts, and had more impact on the Western world than the traditional institutional forms of Christianity. (The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, p. 349)

Covenants that once were symbolized by the rainbow, cross, and crescent nowadays are symbolized instead by flags, slogans, all-too-human deities, and re-imagined enemies.

The psychologist and self-styled “informed amateur in the field of religion” Mortimer Ostrow offers a comprehensive definition of religious fundamentalism:

We consider a religious community fundamentalist if it displays several of the following qualities: unusual zeal, separatism, authoritarianism, religious stringency, intolerance of the deviations of others, aggressiveness or defensiveness or both, an apocalyptic frame of mind, a belief in the inerrancy of the scripture that they value, intolerance of alternative translations and of modern commentaries, intolerance of all sexual language and activity except for marital sex. (Spirit, Mind, and Brain: A Psychoanalytic Examination of Spirituality and Religion, p. 174)

Ostrow’s characterization of fundamentalism is sufficiently broad to encompass both theocentric and secular religions.

America’s conception of its own democratic experiment has fit the pattern of religious fundamentalism ever since President Woodrow Wilson entered America into World War I on the premise of making the world safe for progressive democracy. President John Kennedy later affirmed America’s prevailing commitment to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Recent presidents have furthered America’s commitment by seeking to restructure foreign governments worldwide through coercive political and military means. The present commitment to “make America great again” follows in this vein, albeit perhaps less enthusiastically, and along more gossamer and arguably less coherent lines.

Fundamentalism of all sorts is objectionable when it diminishes the ability of individuals to prosper and flourish in privately beneficial and meaningful ways. It typically is the consequence of powerful elites—often, but not necessarily, the intellectual sort—imposing their peculiar passions, ideals, and interests through twisted logic and rhetoric, backed by coercion and the power to tax. History teaches that fundamentalism must be opposed under these circumstances.

James A. Montanye is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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