"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree." ~ James Madison
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Most American conservatives are Christians, and any Christian would no doubt be shocked and offended by the suggestion that he is an idolater. After all, the Bible strictly and repeatedly condemns the worship of images, symbols, and physical objects. Considering recent events in American politics, however, I think there are strong grounds to say that idolatry is a very real force in much of modern conservatism.
When I was a young boy, during my unsuccessful career in the Cub Scouts, I read an article about the American flag and its associated rituals in Boy's Life magazine. It mentioned that Jehovah's Witnesses do not salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance--they regard it as the reverence of a graven image, and thus a violation of the Bible's laws against idolatry. Considering myself pretty well read in the Bible at the time, this struck me as incredibly stupid. How silly, I thought, to compare the flag to some sort of pagan idol. Now, looking back, I have reconsidered that judgment.
It is commonplace among libertarians to remark that many statists seem to credit the state with godlike attributes, and to regard it with a sort of religious awe. Ludwig von Mises used the term "statolatry" to describe the attitudes of the fascists and socialists of his day. The Libertarian Party platform refers to "the cult of the omnipotent state." Murray Rothbard and Joseph Schumpeter described how Marxism mimics apocalyptic Christianity.
The state and its works serve as a sort of substitute (or supplement) religion for some people. Perhaps because of my past as a conservative, I have generally thought of this as a mostly left-wing phenomenon. The recent attempt to pass a flag-burning amendment jarred me out of that. In particular, the choice of language used by the amendment advocates got me thinking.
Destruction of flags is almost invariably described as "desecration." Now, outside of the flag burning debate, when is the word "desecration" customarily used? Not in secular matters, but when discussing disrespect towards religious objects. Destroying graves, burning churches or temples, destroying or defiling religious texts, symbols, or icons--this is what is usually meant when people say "desecration." It is interesting, and I think revealing, that people are so frequently using the word to describe the destruction of the emblem of a secular state. This made previously baffling phenomena fall into place--no wonder some people seem so prone to such fanaticism and vehemence on this issue, and no wonder some people are so outraged by the destruction of a symbol of America that they're willing to abrogate both free speech and property rights (that is to say, the substance of America).
The idea of the flag as a sort of idol also explained why you see so many editorials talking about how American soldiers have died for "the flag," and saying that the flag is therefore of such sacred character that we ought to ban its destruction or mutilation. I had been under the impression that soldiers fought to defend their homes, or for some moral or political ideal, or to protect their comrades in arms. Apparently I was wrong; according to these people, it's all about the colorful fabric. The flag is invested with such extreme importance that it is held above the very nation and principles it is supposed to represent.
Now, this doesn't necessarily apply to the average guy who gets ticked off when he sees someone burning a flag on TV. To someone who values the flag as a symbol, that's an understandable and proportionate reaction. I'm talking about the people who get worked up enough to try to change the constitution to outlaw it, the people who write editorials spouting nonsense about how our soldiers through history have died for "the flag." However, I suspect it does apply to a depressingly large number of people, considering the large number of people who are willing to overturn basic principles of freedom for the sake of a physical emblem. Flag burning is for them what the alleged Koran-flushing incident at Guantanamo Bay was for millions of Muslim fundamentalists--an affront so intolerable that it must be stopped by force. After all, what believer could stand and do nothing when his god is being spat upon?