AMERICANS LOVE TO TALK ABOUT FREEDOM, SO WHY DOES THEIR RELIGION CALL THEM SLAVES?
Last week we noted that some of America’s loss leaders are having trouble not wallowing in the very essence of pestilence and contagion. As you do, it seems.
But at least they have a good reason: their “freedom.” American political culture all but fetishizes the trappings and language of “freedom,” however vaguely we define the term. Sometimes–at Thanksgiving, for example–it’s all some people seem to know how to say.
But the theology of mainstream America (especially white Protestants) remains steeped in submission–even slavishness. This is a built-in contradiction, but they never seem to notice it. It’s grandfathered in–or in this case perhaps Founding Fathered.
Usually, god is not god, and he’s not even Yaweh–he’s “the lord.” A title not only of political but also of material and class dominance, the ultimate expression of privilege.
Editors Victorian writes that the English word “lord” has the same root as “warden.” In Old English it was “hlaflord,” meaning, among other things, “master,” “ruler,” “superior,” and, perhaps annoyingly, “husband.”
Sometimes that’s not yet enough, and instead it becomes “the king of kings,” a title that appears most often in Revelation but which, according to the Melammu Project, was historically associated with ancient rulers of Babylon, Assyria, and Persia.
America, we may recall, had a tense relationship with terrestrial kings. But conventional American theology invariably frames the human experience as one of submission to divine monarchy. Many popular translations of Romans 6 even employ the phrase “slaves of god,” a timeless example of saying the quiet part loud.
You might think that’s archaic language, but actually it pops up most prominently in the New International Version circa 1978, a favorite of American fundies who have an, uh, awkward history with slavery, shall we say.
“Every knee shall bow to me” Jesus grimly predicts in Romans 14, a phrase that, if spoken by a tangible leader, would serve as a marker of ultimate megalomania. The very thought of a contemporary political figure uttering such words provokes a chill.
“Anti-monarchism is at the core of what defines America,” a UC Riverside editorial said in 2018, but this is not true–our neighbors have simply transferred monarchical deference to an imaginary ruler. Hell, in the Muslim tradition, even the word “Islam” means “submission.”
And like all forms of political dominance, it’s not optional. According to Pew Forum, in 2020 some 70 percent of white American Protestants say that when the Bible conflicts with popular will, the law should favor the Bible.
In his 1981 book The Antichrist, Jesuit priest Vincent Miceli predicted, “This world has a death-wish to be dominated by the Antichrist,” but this is projection of the highest order. It’s people like Miceli who crave domination–and of course he’s Catholic, so he can’t just do rope play like a healthy person.
In Social Dominance Theory, social psychologists Felicia Pratto and Andrew Stewert hold that in a latter age the power of a divine king served as a “hierarchy-enhancing legitimizing myth” that helps justify “who is entitled to rights and privileges” and who is not.
Absent a traditional king, we just cut out the middleman in favor of a direct heavenly tyrant. Religion is supposed to be the opiate of the masses–I forget who said that, it’s probably not important–the pleasant drug that distracts from exploitative nature of worldly institutions. But the terms that we couch major religions in only underscore the world’s built-in inequities.
And of course that leaves only one avenue for contrasting liberties. “Here at least we shall be free,” the recently toppled Satan advises in some of the opening lines of Paradise Lost.
Milton, disappointing Protestant that he was, probably did not intend for readers to interpret this at face-value. But he could not intervene once future writers put hands on his work.
The devil “saw no sufficient reason for that extreme inequality of rank and power which the creator assumed” radical journalist and anarchist William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley and thus presumably the most harried father of all time) wrote, further praising the faltered revolutionary who “was not discouraged by the inequality of the contest.”
“Liberty, for you, is the devil,” 19th century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote to his critics a generation later, even rhapsodizing, “Come, Satan, let me embrace you, let me clutch you to my breast.”
Victor Hugo went so far as to make Liberty the devil’s daughter in his own (unfinished) poetic epic God & The End Of Satan, an angel sprung from a single feather of his wings as he fell from Heaven.
America’s furious fundies like the word “freedom.” They like the sound of it. They like to put it on t-shirts. They like endorphin high that it gives them, especially if they’re able to hurt someone.
But what they seem to truly crave is obeisance and capitulation. I’m not even saying that to be condemnatory–it’s what they say. They’ve coined the phrase “god-given freedom,” blithely unaware that this is a contradiction in terms.
Satanist circles generally credit the phrase “non serviam” to Lucifer. But in fact in Jeremiah 2 it’s the people who favor freedom over servitude:
“A sæculo confregisti jugum meum: rupisti vincula mea, et dixisti: Non serviam. In omni enim colle sublimi, et sub omni ligno frondoso, tu prosternebaris meretrix.”
“Long ago you broke your bonds and said, ‘I will not serve you,’ and on every hill and beneath every tree you play the harlot.”
Satan, in a sense, learned the phrase from all of us. You have to wonder how much longer it’s going to take everyone else to catch onto the lesson.