Peter Hitchens’ next chapter was profound and moving. Entitled “Britain’s Pseudo-Religion and the Cult of Winston Churchill,” he makes the brave move of identifying the carnage of the two great wars of the 20th century as a massive blood sacrifice to false gods. He does this on the basis of the meaning that was assigned to the struggle in England, a meaning fundamentally antithetical to the claims of Christ. Of course, he does not do this out of any sympathy for the poor, misunderstood Nazis. Because the sacrifices in the two great wars were mind-boggling, and because the courage and bravery involved were staggering, to point out this underlying problem takes a great deal of courage. This is a God-and-country problem, and the problem is that the latter frequently wants to swallow up the former.
There are some false gods that require no courage to attack — drunken frat parties, let’s say, or excessive consumerism at Christmas. But modern states summon their devotees to the highest pitch of commitment, and represent what might be called a serious religion. If that is challenged, the response is often a response of great anger. The sacrifices in themselves make it a very serious idolatry, but not everything about it is bad.
“As pseudo-religions go, ours was attractive and elegant, and it contained many decent and godly elements” (p. 67).
Unfortunately, the virtues that are in evidence make it a more destructive idolatry, not less destructive. In England, evidences of this peculiar form of worship are everywhere.
“The great cult of noble, patriotic death has its shrines everywhere, thousands and thousands of them” (p. 69).
“Americans who wish to begin to understand the extent of the British commemoration of war should imagine a Vietnam memorial in every town and city in the country, the center of an annual ceremony and parade and for much of the year adorned with fresh wreaths” (p 76).
The thing that is missing from this honor shown to the dead is a sense of a transcendant God who judges all the nations, and not just those nations on the opposite side of all our conflicts. The God of the Bible does not come when kings and rulers whistle for Him. The cause can even be just, and the “good guys” can still do enormous damage by refusing to trust in the Lord. Think of Ahaz. And there is a vast difference between actually trusting in the Lord, and trying to use the Lord to prop up the war effort, whatever it is.
“What is the thing that is being worshiped in these places? It may counterfeit the majesty of great churches and imitate their mystery and grandeur. But it not God. It is an attempt to replace God, an attempt that failed” (p. 77).
Later, when Peter found out a bit more than what he had been taught about the war as a child, it “unraveled my entire faith in the whole pseudo-religion we once called, ‘We Won the War’ (p. 67).
At the same time, even while he refuses to merge God-and-country into one holy faith, Peter demonstrates the enormous distance that separates him from the shrill leftist critics of nationalism.
“I do not mean to be disrespectful. In fact, I am not disrespectful. I love Remembrance Day still. It is a noble remembrance of fine soldiers who did their duty with chivalry and courage, and only a dolt could fail to honor them for their unselfishness and devotion” (p. 79).
Leftist critics of nationalism are angry at the parochialism involved — at the petty claims made by petty states. They want internationalism, and various regionalism and nationalisms just get in the way. They don’t like the local baals because they want one great Baal. But Christians object to such idolatry because God inhabits eternity and He looks down upon the sons of men, and sees that the nations are but dust in the balances.
So the central problem is not that England fought the war, but rather how.
“Those who fought so hard to defend Britain against its material enemies did so at a terrible spiritual cost” (p. 80).
“In fact, I think it safe to say that the two great victorious wars of the twentieth century did more damage to Christianity in my own country than any other single force. The churches were full before 1914, half-empty after 1919, and three-quarters empty after 1945″ (p. 80).
But then Peter concludes the chapter, chillingly, that, however bad war is — and it is terrible — there “are even worse things than war” (p. 80). The next chapter is about the time he spent living in the Soviet Union.
The central lesson that should be gleaned from this chapter is of enormous importance. The God-and-country riff functions differently in the United States, but, as with all great powers, it presents a real danger. But, before anybody gets their defenses up, it presents a danger entirely different than the danger that Jim Wallis thinks it presents. This might take a minute to explain.
My wife and I both come from military families, and we were caught up, directly or indirectly, in many of the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. An uncle on my father’s side had his destroyer sunk by the Japanese. An uncle on my mother’s side was killed in the invasion of Sicily. My father-in-law was wounded at Guadacanal, and also flew bombing missions throughout the Korean War. My father’s destroyer was blown almost clean in two in the Korean War. I did my part in the Cold War harassing the Soviets, and I have seen mother Russia through a periscope. I think it would be fair to say that we don’t exactly come from pacifist stock.
So we were willing to fight, kill, and die for our nation’s security. But the leftist assumption that military men are nothing but brain-washed killing machines (or, as we submariners called ourselves, “steely-eyed killers of the deep”) is pretty far wide of the mark. It was my father, a graduate of the Naval Academy, who taught me how to dissect propaganda — our own propaganda — and to reject it with contempt. It was in these military circles that I was taught to hate every confusion between the claims that Christ had on me, claims that were and are total, and the claims my nation had on me, which were limited, bounded, and kept in a box.
Jim Wallis begrudges a lump in the throat at a Fourth of July parade, afraid of the incipient idolatry, but does not begrudge men with guns and block letters on the backs of their windbreakers taking away half our incomes for the sake of his coercive redistributions. The biblical phrase that comes to mind is fools and blind. In the recent noise about Jim Wallis, I saw a cover of the magazine Post-American, published many years ago, where Wallis and others had draped a statue of Jesus in the American flag, along with the caption “and they crucified Him.” They thought they were being very wittyclever, and were chortling about how they are really frosted the cornpones out there who had muddled up Jesus with Uncle Sam. And there is some of that on the right, and whenever it is encountered it ought to be treated like the blasphemy it is.
But Wallis now advises the president, and his tune has changed. When it comes to coercive taxation, he is one of Rehoboam’s crowd, telling the president to lay it on. Obama’s little finger will be thicker than LBJ’s loins (1 Kings 12:10). And when Wallis is telling Obama that Jesus wants a little more socialism around here, what flag is flapping on the pole outside? Right. The American flag . . . and Wallis has apparently come a long way. The American flag is now an acceptable mantle for Jesus, because it is draped over the shoulders of socialism.
In this chapter, Peter Hitchens shows how this difficult and crucial distinction is done right. The Christian approach to this thorny problem is to honor God above all, and to render sharply subordinated honor to our assigned nation, whatever that nation may be. This is in sharp distinction to those who, in the grip of self-loathing, are in love with “every century but this, and every country but their own.” Without faith in the transcendent God of Scripture, this is impossible. As Peter shows in this chapter, the consequences are deadly. When the living God is linked up in the minds of the people with the gods that die, then, when those gods eventually die, as they always do, you have led a generation up to the edge of atheism.