The Masses

Max Eastman

The Religion of Patriotism

Published: The Masses, July 1917
Transcribed:Sally Ryan for in 2000

Nothing could be more calamitous than for patriotism to become the established religion of this country. I do not know exactly what religion is. Every psychologist has a different theory of its origin and nature. Some say it originates in fear, others in wonder, others in the filial affection, others in gregarious instinct—a desire for infinite companionship. But I doubt if the religious emotion is any of these single things, the same in different cases. I think that any object or any idea which appeals to a considerable number of our instincts, and offers them a combined satisfaction, may become the focus of an attachment so controlling, and so fixé, as to gain that uncanny and unreasonable priority among our feelings which we call religious. The religious object binds us (as the Latin original of the word implies), not by a single tie, but by gathering into itself so many threads of our impulsive nature that no one motive whatever can break its hold. God is indeed a refuge to our fear, a temple to our wonder, a parent for the little child that lives in our heart. He is an infinite companion. He satisfies so many of those native cravings which the terms of life leave thwarted, that His hold upon us becomes supernormal and sovereign, and our whole being is transfixed by His name as though we were maniacs and He our obsession.

In order for this to happen, however, it is necessary that we have the gift of making God seem real. In past ages, with a Christ or a Virgin Mary giving the warmth of flesh to the picture, and a general consensus of mankind supporting the opinion that God is real, it was not difficult to acquire this gift. Perhaps almost a majority of mankind possessed it, and the religion of God was one of the determining forces in history. In this day, however, for many reasons, it is growing difficult to make God seem real. The money and machine character of our civilization leaves little room for miracles. A belief in supernatural causes is dangerous in a factory and impractical in a bank. And, moreover, Jesus Christ expressed so many principles of conduct wholly out of accord with our industrial life, that the ministers of his gospel are forced to deny him and betray his ideals continually while asserting his godhead, and this makes them seem weak and queer, and his godhead dubious. Deity is identified with the church, and the church is hypocritical and alien to everyday life, and so deity grows slippery and unpleasant to our minds. God is a long way off. There is no sovereign motive in our lives.

That is good—It allows us to be intelligent and agile in various kinds of enjoyment and enterprise. It lets us love truth more whole-heartedly, and become acquainted with liberty. It is so lofty a state, in fact, that most people have not the strength of stem to endure it; they think they must find something to lean on and bind themselves around. And so our godless age has been characterized by a wistful hunger and search after religions. It is the age of “isms.” And some of these isms have been able to bind together a number of native impulses, and hold men almost as strongly as God did. Socialism with its doctrine of Universal Brotherhood to be attained by the method of Class War, offers almost infinite indulgence of two otherwise unreconciled impulses—pugnacity and social love. With its system of revealed economics, it offers, too, an Absolute in which mental curiosity ran rest. It has its gospel according to Marx. Socialism is no mean religion. But it is not a religion that binds or blesses the rich and powerful, and so it could hardly become established in a country like ours. For an established religion we needed something a little more like God—a little vaguer and more elegant and better adapted to bind in among other motives the economic self-interest of those who rule. We needed something that would give us the same emotional crystallization without greatly disturbing the profits on capital.

Quite consciously a great many good people were searching for a thing of this kind, for a new and vigorous religion. And now, through the lucky accidents of history, they have found it. For there is nothing more copiously able to bind into its bosom the multiple threads of human impulse, and establish that fixed and absolute glorious tyranny among our purposes, than military patriotism. You will see how everything that was erect in this country bows down to that sentiment. The love of liberty, the assertion of the rights of man, what little of the ethics of Jesus we had—these things must obviously yield. And not only these, either, but the common principles of morality and truth. We shall see men devoting their utmost energy to an endeavor which they declare to be evil.

“Gladly would I have given my life to save my country from war," says William J. Bryan, “but now that my country has gone to war, gladly will I give my life to aid it.” This Christian gentleman, whose morality was perhaps the most rigid thing we had in the country, thus boasts that he will devote his declining years to a cause which he considers wicked. Like Abraham who would slaughter his son at the bidding of God, Bryan is ready to do murder—he has called it murder—for the sake of his country. And this seems entirely right and noble to his countrymen. To me it seems utterly ignoble.

Not only morality, either, but the ideal of intelligence itself, of truthful seeing, will be abandoned. Men will glory in the ignorance and celebrate the stupidity of what they are doing. “I shall vote,” said Senator Stone, against “the greatest national blunder of history,” but after that “my eyes will be blind to everything but the flag of my country.”

When ordinary alert perception has been renounced, it is needless to say that the extreme ethical visions of Jesus must go, and that God—long suffering God—will be denounced from the pulpits that were his last refuge. I suppose the pew-holders of Henry Ward Beecher’s church are satisfied with Newell Dwight Hillis, for they have stood a good deal from him besides his preaching, and here is his creed of patriotism:

"All God’s teachings about forgiveness should be rescinded for Germany. I am willing to forgive the Germans for their atrocities just as soon as they are all shot. If you would give me happiness, just give me the sight of the Kaiser, von Hindenburg and von Tirpitz hanging by the rope. If we forgive Germany after the war, I shall think the whole universe has gone wrong.”

When God is thus enthusiastically ejected from the rostrum of the most famous church in the country, to make way for the patriotic emotion, I think we are justified in the fear that patriotism may become our religion.

Patriotism indulges that craving for a sense of union with a solitary herd, which is an inheritance of all gregarious animals. It is a craving which our modern sophisticated, citified, and diverse civilization leaves unfed in normal times. There is a great swing towards war on this account even among the most pacific people. They are flocking for a drink of this emotion. Men are willing to be dead, if they can only be dead in a pile.

This quite organic and almost animal craving is what makes us talk so much about the “great spiritual blessing” that war will bring to our unregenerate characters. When a desire springs so deeply from our ancient inheritance as this gregarious hunger does, we always feel it as mystic and inscrutable, we attribute a divine beneficence to the satisfaction of it. As a matter of fact, it would be better for the progress of society, in science and art and morality and happiness, if this terrible solidarity could be mitigated instead of enlarged. For it inhibits individual experiment, and it falsifies the facts of life, always pretending the nation is more socially and brotherly organized than it is. The “great spiritual blessing” is in fact a distraction of men’s minds from the pursuit of truth and from realistic progress. It is the temporary indulgence of a facile emotion.

“I pray God,” said President Wilson at the dedication of a Red Cross Memorial, “that the outcome of this struggle may be that every element of difference amongst us will be obliterated....The spirit of this people is already united and when effort and suffering and sacrifice have completed this union, men will no longer speak of any lines either of race or association cutting athwart the great body of this nation.”

To the instinctive man, the altogether righteousness of this aspiration, and the entire beneficence of the condition outlined, is as much taken for granted as the goodness of virtue. And yet, if seriously considered, such a state of affairs would be aesthetically monotonous and morally stagnant. Aside from the mere satisfaction of the old instinct for herd-union itself, there would be no health, no beauty, no life in it.

“Liberty and Union, One and Inseparable, Now and Forever,” is the watchword that adorns the statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park. And that too seems obvious—it has become a proverb. And yet if it has any meaning whatever, the meaning is false. It has become proverbial merely because it celebrates, with some show of regard for individual freedom, this gregarious instinct of mankind which is the central armature of the religion of patriotism.

According to my idea, however, the satisfaction of a single instinct, even though so arbitrary and ancient-rooted as this, cannot acquire that peculiar hypnotizing force upon us which makes us name it religious. We might love union and the monotony of the herd very much, and still continue to act morally, and exercise intelligent judgment, and perhaps love God and walk humbly with our neighbor. But it happens that the moment we declare for the herd, and let loose our enthusiasm into that vent, especially at war time, a half dozen other starved monsters of passionate desire that our lawful and cultivated life has caged and thwarted rush to this outlet and find satisfaction.

One of them is angry hate. Men are full of it, and they get small chance to exercise it in these days of legality and respectable convention. The war liberates them. They can rage and revile and spit upon the enemy with the sanction of all contiguous society, and without immediate personal danger. I think this is what makes a declaration of war especially palatable to ministers of Christ. They have repressed so much more personal spleen, as a matter of professional necessity, than the rest of us, that they let go all the more violently into the national spout. Nobody will demand that they apply the ethics of Jesus to the relations between nations; they can go on preaching forgiveness as a personal matter, while enjoying in this national festival the emotions of implacable hate.

Here is a conversation overheard in a restaurant conducted by two innocent and colorless Germans, man and wife. The talkers are American patriots.

“Did you read what Ambassador Gerard said about the German boys torturing foreigners in Germany?”

“Yes, and it’s true too. They’re cruel. They’re savages, the Germans. They wouldn’t stop at anything.”

“You bet, look at these people. I bet they’re spies. We’ll be over there and string them up one of these days.”

The sudden and copious flow of malice which follows a declaration of war suggests that a really dire condition of the natural organs has been relieved just in the nick of time. Another and even more bursting reservoir that ordinary moral conduct never half relieves is rivalrous egotism. Society suppresses the braggart, for the reason that if bragging is to be done, each member of society feels fully entitled to do it, and there is no other solution short of bedlam. In consequence every individual is full as a bladder with inexpressible self-esteem. And by a quickly articulated emotional device, this passion too is sluiced into the channel of patriotism. A man identifies himself with his country, and then he brags about his country to his heart’s desire, and nobody observes that he is bragging about himself. Only sensitive people know that patriotic loyalty is so much less flame-like and beautiful than loyalty to a friend or an idea—they feel this cold vein of complacence in it.

The patriotic religion has a hold here that God never had. God wanted people to be humble. A religion that lets us brag without knowing that is what we are doing is far more gratefully adjusted to our constitutions. We can love our country and make sacrifices for it, we can have all those altruistic satisfactions, and yet not suffer the self-abasement that is inevitable in loving a Supreme Being. It is our country; it is not simply Country, abstract and awful.

Our country comforts us too, even as God’s fatherhood did. Our filial affection is gathered up into the bosom of the fatherland. We were conceived and born in its bosom; it is our native place, the place that sheltered us long ago when we were happy; it will still care for us (especially while we are fighting for it), and give us that sense of the Everlasting Arms without which perhaps no religion would retain its extreme dominion among our feelings.

Yes, patriotism binds us by as many ties as God. We need not be surprised at those Methodist conventioners, who denounced for treason the lowly delegate who wished to put God before his country. In the very nature of the case, if our theory of religion is true, there can be no two religions. If God will not fall in step with the United States army, God must go. That has been made plain in every pulpit in this vicinity, with the noble exception of the Church of the Messiah, where John Haynes Holmes spoke not only for the sovereignty of God, but even for the ethics of Jesus, on the eve of War.

Patriotism has, like other religions whose object of worship is a little open to question, its extreme sensitiveness, its fanatical intolerance. The ceremonial observances are enforced with zealotry, and those who blaspheme with unassenting presence are likely to be thrown out bodily or confined in jail. At one of the meeting-places of patriots on Broadway, known as Rector’s, one night at two A. M. the ceremonial of the national anthem was being enacted, and while all the devotees were rising or being assisted to their feet, Mr. Fred Boyd and two companions—heretics of this religion—endeavored quietly to remain in their seats. Chairs, tables and salad bowls were employed by the orthodox to enforce the tenets of their creed, and these failing, a policeman was summoned in the name of the fatherland, and Mr. Boyd and his companions arrived at the night court. Here they were severely reprimanded by a judge, who acknowledged, however, that they had disobeyed no law, not even the law of God, which is usually invoked upon such unfortunates as wish to act upon their own judgment in public.

To me patriotism, in practically all of its forms, is distasteful. And I confess to a feeling of strange solitude in these days of its divinity that no other revolutionary opinions have brought me. Much of the time I wonder what it is that separates a handful of us from the concourse of mankind. We are so motley a handful: Christians, Atheists, Quakers, Anarchists, Artists, Socialists, and a few who just have a fervent pleasure in using their brains about truth. You could bring us together, and we would not agree upon anything else under the sun—but we agree in disliking the religion of patriotism. We can not stand up when the national anthem is played, not because we have any theory about it, but because the quality of the emotion expressed is alien and false to us. We cannot partake of the communion and be true to ourselves. And so many of us do not go to these meeting-places at all, or we come in late, or otherwise we try to avoid the acute discomfort of sitting quiescent under the scowling malice and ignorant suspicion of a mob indulging its fixed and habitual emotion.

As I count over the little group that I know who feel this way about committing themselves to the new religion, I find two or three traits that seem somewhat to explain it. Some of the group are platonic in their temperament—given, that is, to falling in love with ideas. And so many beautiful ideas, like justice and proportion and mercy and truth, have to be renounced and reviled in abandoning oneself to this religion, that they find it absolutely impossible. They can not tear themselves away from their loves.

Others are temperamentally solitary. They are actually lacking in gregarious impulse, or have an opposite impulse to kick out and desert whenever the herd agrees upon something. They cannot even understand patriotism, and these modern days make them not only sad, but bitter and contemptuous of men.

Others are rationalistic, and have a theory about patriotism, and their emotions are controlled by a theory. But there are not many whose emotions are controlled by a theory.

The character that is most common to those who cannot commit themselves to this religion, is the character of having already really committed themselves to something else. And this too is rare enough. Most of the people in our days of nervous modernity—busy with labor, or busy with entertainment-never heartily abandon themselves to anything. Such people welcome the orgy of nation-worship merely as a chance to feel.

I think of Mayor Mitchel, for example, as a little fox-like political man, who has stepped very carefully here and there, taking a bit, giving a bit, to this and to that—church, politics, business, society, dress. He shows very plainly that he never abandoned his soul to any purpose or any experience. But now he has—and it is doing him good. One cannot but smile in sympathy with the Mayor’s boyish extravagance in this the first experience of his life. One cannot but wish him the good luck of other experiences before he dies. And he is typical of the average man and man-of-affairs. They go in for this facile religion of the fatherland, or at least they show no resistance against it, because they not only are not committed to anything else, but they never have been committed to anything. Other religions always seemed to require courage, or faith, or loneliness, or energy-of-intent; this requires only the most social and joyful abandonment of intelligent judgment and moral restraint. It is the easiest religion under the sun to feel and feel deeply, for it gives the highest quantity of satisfactions, requires no imaginative faith, and demands only at the most that physical crowd-courage which is our common heritage.

I do not believe many people will ever be led to feel unpatriotic. To argue against these tribal and egoistic instincts is like arguing against gravitation. But I do hope that a fair proportion of the intelligent may be persuaded to resist the establishment, in their own minds or in American society, of patriotism as a religion. Let them understand that to indulge and satisfy some one or two of the emotions that enter into this compound, is a very different thing from binding all these satisfactions into a fixed and rigid and monumental sentiment which will exercise absolute dictatorship in their minds. Strong minds do not need any religion. They are able to bear the responsibility and the labor of thinking and choosing among the values of life anew every morning. But even for those who must have a religion, an exposure of the extreme easiness of patriotic enthusiasm, its quality of general indulgence, might make them wish to bind themselves, if they must be bound, to some god that is more arduous and demanding of personal character.