Memorial Day celebrates power, virtue of state with religious fervor

For several days prior to Memorial Day, federal flags flutter in front of city hall in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. (Photo David Tulis)

For several days prior to Memorial Day, federal flags flutter in front of city hall in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. (Photo David Tulis)

By David Tulis

I am working on Memorial Day, giving a radio interview to a Christian street preacher who quotes Jesus and the Apostle Paul one moment and the Federalist Papers and Montesquieu the next. ‡

Other people are taking the day off. Among these are families connected to military service who take part in demonstrations of thanks for soldiers killed in wartime. Rites include events at military burial grounds such as the national cemetery in Chattanooga, and in flying federal flags over lawns and from front porches. Hamilton County government is closed, as are banks and other government services. Lometa’s Flowers in Soddy-Daisy is taking the day off. With the post office closed, no letter will come today from a son, 18, inducted into the Marines, who in an earlier missive says, “PS: let me know when you sell the truck.”

The deaths marked by the day are those of men who often had no wish to be part of military service but were conscripted into servitude by the U.S. government and its draft board. Still, their deaths we consider hallowed, a sacrifice of their lives for that of the nation. We agree that the soldiers, sailors pilots and Marines who did not come back from American foreign wars “gave the ultimate sacrifice.” We hold that they “died for our freedoms.” We are led to think that their deaths are noble, and the cause in which they lost their lives also is noble, perhaps made so by their virtuous connection with it.

Religious emotion in nationalist fervor

A fallen soldier can be tearfully recalled on the grass slopes of the whited cemetery along Bailey Avenue, but at the same moment we are reminded that the war in which he was killed served a cause antithetical to Christianity — namely nationalism, federal hegemony, the glory of the welfare-warfare state — a religion of its very own, though with many unwitting adherents.

The conflict between the state and Christianity is an ancient one between empire and God’s people. Our modern nation-state is a 250-year-old phenomenon whose war against self-government, liberty and Christianity is much like that of Rome against the early church. “Born in sin, the bastard offspring of declining autocracy and bureaucracy run amok, the state is a giant wielded by pygmies,” says Martin van Creveld in The Rise and Decline of the State (1999, p. 258). As traced by R.J. Rushdoony and others, the modern state is at war with capital, family, independence, self-government because it posits itself as god walking upon the earth, bringing salvation to all.

Van Creveld says the modern state’s decline began in 1945 with the Americans’ twin nuclear blasts over Japan. He traces its long-term decline, its growing incapacity and loss of purpose in several of his works.

Memorial Day is special because it partakes of religious emotion. In reading history, says American scholar and diplomat Carlton J.H. Hayes, “one is struck by the frequency and force of human movements which have had their mainspring in religious emotion. Herein is a valuable clue for us. May it not be that we shall here find the most convincing explanation of the strength of modern nationalism, the zeal of its apostles, and the devotion of its disciples? Is it not a demonstrable fact that nationalism has become to a vast number of persons a veritable religion, capable of arousing that deep and compelling emotion which is essentially religious?”

Dr. Hayes says Christianity in the 1920s had become “an adjunct” to nationalism and that by syncretism Christians combine a love for God with a love for nation.

Disintegrating vs. unifying forces

“I would not have anyone gather from what I have said that I condemn nationalism because it is an expression of man’s ‘religious sense. I am too convinced a believer in the inherently religious character of man to make light of religion; and to condemn nationalism because it depends on religious emotion would seem to me as futile as to condemn vegetation because it thrives on sunlight. I would suggest, however, that there are many, many ways in which man may express his religious sense, and that religious emotion, like any other instinctive emotion, is always susceptible and often needful of conscious direction and control. Some forms of religion are superior to others, and when we recognise the religious nature of modern nationalism we have still to ask ourselves whether it is the form or religion most conducive to human betterment.

“Most great religious systems of the past have been unifying, rather than disintegrating, forces in the history of the human race. Buddhism gave rise to a common type of constructive civilisation among the teeming millions of Burma, Siam, China, and Japan. Mohammedanism drew together in a common bond and inspired with a common zeal the most diverse tribesmen of Arabia, India, Persia, Turkey, the Malay archipelago, and Africa. Christianity bound together in a cultural community all kinds of European peoples, regardless of their habitat, breed, and native language. And especially in the case of Christianity, the forms and ceremonies which attended the expression of man’s religious sense were constant symbols of a universal striving for a kingdom that was not of this world, for the sacrifice of self, and the assurance of peace on earth to men of good will.

“Modern nationalism, while evolving customs and ceremonies which externally are very reminiscent of rites and practices of Christianity,” says Dr. Hayes, a devout Roman Catholic who wrote at length on nationalism, “has developed quite a different spirit, and set itself quite a different goal. Despite the universality of the general concept of nationalism, its cult is based on a tribal idea and is, therefore, in its practical manifestations, peculiar to circumscribed areas and to persons of the same language. The good at which it aims is a good for one’s own nation only, not for all mankind. The desires which it inspires in an Englishman or a German or a Japanese are not the same as the desires which it inspires in a Frenchman, a Pole, or an American.

Once more, chosen peoples

“Nationalism as a religion represents a reaction against historic Christianity, against the universal mission of Christ; it re-enshrines the earlier tribal mission of a chosen people. The ancient reflective Roman imagined that one chosen people — the Hebrew nation — was one too many for general comfort and safety; the thoughtful modern Christian may be pardoned for being a bit pessimistic about a world devoid of a Roman Empire and replete with dozens upon dozens of chosen peoples.

“Nationalism as a religion inculcates neither charity nor justice; it is proud, not humble; and it signally fails to universalise human aims. It repudiates the revolutionary message of St. Paul and proclaims anew the primitive doctrine that there shall be Jew and Greek, only that now there shall be Jew and Greek more quintessentially than ever. Nationalism’s kingdom is frankly of this world, and its attainment involves tribal selfishness and vainglory, a particularly ignorant and tyrannical intolerance, — and war.”

On Memorial  Day Americans are infused with a sense of patriotism and love of country. (Photo David Tulis)

Veterans have planted flags in the lawn of Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., town hall. On Memorial Day Americans are infused with a sense of patriotism and love of country. (Photo David Tulis)

‡ Here’s the interview with Greg Bialy.

Carlton Hayes, “Nationalism as Religion,” 1926,

See also Randolph Bourne, “The State,” 1918, whose conception is “war is the health of the state.” Bourne is a socialist, but his essay is a remarkable attack upon the religious nature of nationalism and progressivism.

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Internal use of the military seems to be overlooked by Memorial Day enthusiasts. 4 minutes.

One Response

  1. john cummins

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