RELIGION VS. AMERICA
by Leonard Peikoff
This lecture was delivered at the Ford Hall
Forum on April 20, 1986, and published in
"The Objectivist Forum," June 1986.
A specter is haunting America--the specter of religion. This, borrowing
Karl Marx's literary style, is my theme tonight.
Where do I see religion? The outstanding political fact of the 1980's is
the rise of the New Right, and its penetration of the Republican party
under President Reagan. The bulk of the New Right consists of Protestant
Fundamentalists, typified by the Moral Majority. These men are frequently
allied on basic issues with other religiously oriented groups, including
conservative Catholics of the William F. Buckley ilk and neoconservative
Jewish intellectuals of the "Commentary" magazine variety.
All these groups observed the behavior of the New Left awhile back and
concluded, understandably enough, that the country was perishing. They
saw the liberals' idealization of drugged hippies and nihilistic yippies;
they saw the proliferation of pornography, of sexual perversion, of
noisey Lib and Power gangs running to the Democrats to demand ever more
outrageous handouts and quotas; they heard the routine leftist deprication
of the United States and the routine counsel to appease Soviet Russia--and
they concluded, with good reason, that what the country was perishing from
was a lack of values, of ethical absolutes, of morality.
Values, the Left retorted, are subjective; no lifestyle (and no country) is
better or worse than any other; there is no absolute wrong or right anymore--
unless, the liberals added, you believe in some outmoded ideology like
religion. Precisely, the New Rightists reply; that is our whole point. There
_are_ no absolute truths and absolute values, they say, which are the key
to salvation of our great country; but there is only one source of such
values: not man or this earth or the human brain, but the Deity as revealed
in scripture. The choice we face, they conclude, is the skepticism, decadance,
and statism of the Democrats, _or_ morality, absolutes, Americanism, and their
only possible base: religion--old-time, Judeo-Christian religion.
"Religious America is awakening, perhaps just in time for our country's
sake," said Mr. Reagan in 1980. "In a struggle against totalitarian tyranny,
traditional values based on religious morality are among our greatest
"Religious views," says Congressman Jack Kemp, "lie at the heart of our
political system. The 'inaliable rights' to life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness are based on the belief that each individual is created by God and
has a special value in His eyes...Without a common belief in the one God who
created us, there could be no freedom and no recourse if a majority were to
seek to abrogate the rights of the minority." 2
Or, as the Education Secretary William Bennett sums up this viewpoint: "Our
values as a free people and the central values of the Judeo-Christian tradition
are flesh of the flesh and blood of the blood." 3
Politicians of America have characteristically given lip service to the
platitudes of piety. But the New Right is different. These men seem to mean
their religiosity, and they are dedicated to implementing their religious
creeds politically; they seem to make these creeds the governing factor in
the realm of our personal relations, our art and literature, our clinics and
hospitals, and the education of our youth. Whatever else you say about him,
Mr. Reagan has delivered handsomely one of his campaign promises: he has
given the adherents of religion a prominence in setting the national agenda
that they have not had in this country for generations.
This defines our subject for tonight. It is the new Republican inspiration
and the deeper questions it raises. Is the New Right the answer to the New
Left? What _is_ the relation between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the
principles of Americanism? Are Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, as their admirers
declare leading us to a new era of freedom and capitalism--or to something
In discussing these issues, I am not going to say much about the New Right
as such; its specific beliefs are widely known. Instead, I want to examine the
movement within a broader, philosophical context. I want to ask: what is
religion? and then: how does it function in the life of a nation, any nation,
past or present? These, to be sure, are very abstract questions, but they are
inescapable. Only when we have considered them can we go on to judge the
relation between a particular religion, such as Christianity, and a particular
Let us begin with a definition. What is religion as such? What is the
essence common to all of its varieties, Western and Oriental, which
distinguishes it from other cultural phenomena?
Religion involves a certain kind of outlook on the world and a consequent
way of life. In other words, the term "religion" denotes a type (actually, a
precursor) of _philosophy_. As such, a religion must include a view of
knowledge (which is the subject matter of the branch of philosophy called
epistemology) and a view of reality (metaphysics). Then, on this foundation,
a religion builds a code of values (ethics). So the question becomes: what
type of philosophy constitutes a religion?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "religion" as "a particular system of
faith an worship," and goes on, in part: "Recognition on the part of man of
some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being
entitled to obedience, reverence and worship."
The fundamental concept here is "_faith_". "Faith" in this context means
belief in the abscence of evidence. This is the essential that distinguishes
religion from science. A scientist may believe in the entities which he
cannot observe, such as atoms or electrons, but he can do so only if he can
prove their existence logically, by inference from things he does observe.
A religious man, however, believes in some "higher unseen power" which he
cannot observe and cannot logically prove. As the whole story of philosophy
demonstrates, no study of the natural universe can warrant jumping outside it
to a supernatural entity. The five arguments for God offered by the greatest
of all religious thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, are widely recognized by
philosophers to be logically defective; they have each been refuted many times,
and they are the best arguments that have ever been offered on this subject.
Many philosophers indeed now go further: they point out that God is not
only an article of faith, but that this is essential to religion. A God
susceptible of proof, they argue, would actually wreck religion. A God open to
human logic, to scientific study, to rational understanding, would have to be
definable, delimited, finite, amenable to human concepts, obedient to
scientific law, and thus incapable of miracles. Such a thing would be merely
one object among others within the natural world; it would be merely another
datum for the scientist, like some new kind of galaxy or cosmic ray, not a
transcendant power running the universe and demanding man's worship. What
religion rests on is a true God, i.e., a God not of reason, but of faith.
If you want to concretize the idea of faith, I suggest that you visit, of
all places, the campuses of the Ivy League, where, according to "The New York
Times," a religious revival is now occurring. Will you find students eagerly
discussing proofs or struggling to reinterpret the ancient myths of the Bible
into some kind of consistentcy with the teachings of science? On the contrary.
The students, like their parents, are insisting that the bible be accepted as
literal truth, whether it makes logical sense or not. "Students today are more
reconciled to authority," one campus religious official notes. "There is less
need for students to sit on their own mountain top"--i.e., to exercise their
own independent mind and judgement. Why not? They are content simply to
believe. At Columbia University, for instance, a new student group gathers
regularly not to analyze, but to "sing worship and speak in tongues." "People
are coming back to a religion in a way that some of us once went to the
counterculture," says a chaplain at Columbia. 4 This is absolutely true. And
note what they are coming back to: not reason or logic, but _faith_.
"Faith" names the method of religion, the essence of its epistemology; and,
as the Oxford English Dictionary states, the belief in some "higher unseen
power" is the basic content of religion, its distinctive view of reality, its
metaphysics. This higher power is not always conceived as a personal God; some
religions construe it as an impersonal dimension of some kind. The common
denominator is the belief in the supernatural--in some entity, attribute, or
force trancending and controlling this world in which we live.
According to religion, this supernatural power is the essence of the
universe and the source of all value. It constitutes the realm of true reality
and of absolute perfection. By contrast, the world around us is viewed as only
a semi-real and as inherently imperfect, even corrupt, in any event
metaphysically unimportant. According to most religions, this life is a mere
episode in the soul's journey to its ultimate fulfillment, which involves
leaving behind earthly things in order to unite with Deity. As pamphlet issued
by a Catholic study group expresses this point: Man "cannot achieve perfection
or true happiness here on earth. He can only achieve this in the eternity of the
next life after death... Therefore...what a person has or lacks in worldly
possessions, priviliges, or advantages is not important." 5 In New Dheli a few
months ago, expressing this viewpoint, Pope John Paul II urged on the Indians a
life of "asceticism and renunciation." In Quebec some time earlier, he decried
"the fascination the modern world feels for productivity, profit, efficiency,
speed, and records of physical strength." Too many men, he explained in
Luxumbourg, "consciously organize their way of life merely on the basis of the
realities of this world without any heed for God and His wishes." 6
This brings us to religious ethics, the essence of which also involves
faith, faith in God's commandments. Virtue, in this view, consists of
obedience. Virtue is not a matter of achieving _your_ desires, whatever they
may be, but of seeking to carry out God's; it is not the pursuit of egoistic
goals, whether rational or not, but the willingness to renounce your own goals
in the service of the Lord. What religion counsels is the ethics of self-
transcendence, self-abnegation, _self-sacrifice_.
What single attitude most stands in the way of this ethics, according to
religious writers? The sin of pride. Why is pride a sin? Because man, in this
view, is a metaphysically defective creature. His intellect is helpless in the
crucial questions of life. His will has no power over existence, which is
ultimately controlled by God. His body lusts after all the temptations of the
flesh. In short, man is weak, ugly, and low, a typical product of the low,
unreal world in which he lives. Your proper attitude towards yourself,
therefore, as to this world, should be a negative one. For earthly creatures
such asyou and I, "Know thyself" means "Know thy worthlessness"; simple honesty
entails humility, self-castigation, even self-disgust.
Religion means orienting one's existence around faith, God, and a life of
service - and correspondingly downgrading or condemning four key elements:
reason, nature, the self, and man. Religion cannot be equated with values or
morality or even philosophy as such; it represents a specific approach to
philosophic issues, including a specific code of morality.
What effect does this approach have on human life? We do not have to answer
by theoretical deduction, because Western history has been a succession of
religious and unreligious periods. The modern world, including America, is a
product of two of these periods: of Greco-Roman civilization and of medieval
Christianity. So, to enable us to understand America, let us first look at the
historical evidence from these two periods; let us look at their stand on
religion and at the practical consequences of this stand. Then we will have no
trouble grasping the base and essence of the United States.
Ancient Greece was not a religious civilization, not on any of the counts
I mentioned. The Gods of Mt. Olympus were like a race of elder brothers to man,
mischievious brothers with rather limited powers; they were closer to Steven
Spielberg's Extra-Terrestrial visitor than to anything we would call "God."
They did not create the universe or shape its laws or leave any message of
revelations or demand a life of sacrifice. Nor were they taken very seriously
by the leading voices of culture, such as Plato and Aristotle. From start to
finish, the Greek thinkers recognized no sacred texts, no infallible priesthood
and no intellectual authority beyond the human mind; they allowed no room for
faith. Epistemologically, most were staunch individualists who expected each
man to grasp the truth by his own powers of sensory observation and logical
thought. For detail, I refer you to Aristotle, the preeminent representative
of the Greek spirit.
Metaphysically, as a result, Greece was a secular culture. Men generally
dismissed or downplayed the supernatural; their energies were devoted to the
joys and challenges of life. There was a shadowy belief in immortality, but the
dominant attitude toward it was summed up by Homer, who has Achilles declare
that he would rather be a slave on earth than "bear sway among the all the dead
that be departed."
The greek ethics followed from this base. All the Greek thinkers agreed
that virtue is egoistic. The purpose of morality, in their view, is to enable
a man to achieve his own fulfillment, his own happiness, by means of a proper
development of his natural faculties - above all, of his cognitive faculty, his
intellect. And as to the Greek estimate of man - look at the statues of the
Gree gods, made in the image of human strength, human grace, human beauty; and
read Aristotle's account of the virtue - yes, the virtue - of pride.
I must note here that in many ways Plato was an exception of the general
irreligion of the Greeks. But his ideas were not dominant until much later.
When Plato's spirit did take over, the Greek approach had already died out.
What replaced it was the era of Christianity.
Intellectually speaking, the period of the Middle Ages was the exact
opposite of classical Greece. Its leading philosophic spokesman, Augustine,
held that faith was the basis of man's entire mental life. "I do not know in
order to believe," he said, "I believe in order to know." In other words,
reason is nothing but a handmaiden of revelation; it is a mere adjunct of
faith, whose task is to clarify, as far as possible, the dogmas of religion.
What if a dogma cannot be clarified? So much the better, answered an earlier
Church father, Tertullian. The truly religious man, he said, delights in
thwarting his reason; that shows his commitment to faith. Thus, Tertullian's
famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God's self-sacrifice on the
cross: "Creo quia absurdum." ("I believe because it is absurd.")
As to the realm of physical nature, the medievals characteristically
it as a semi-real haze, a transitory stage in the devine plan, and a
troublesome one at that, a delusion and a snare - a delusion because men
mistake it for reality, a snare because they are tempted by its lures to
jepordize their immortal souls. What tempts them is the prospect of earthly
What kind of life, then, does the immortal soul require on earth? Self-
denial, asceticism, the resolute shunning of this temptation. But isn't unfair
to ask men to throw away their whole enjoyment of life? Augustine's answer is:
what else befits creatures befouled by original sin, creatures who are, as he
put it, "crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous."
What were the practical results - in the ancient world, then in the
medieval - of these two opposite approaches to life?
Greece created philosophy, logic, science, mathematics, and a magnificent,
man-glorifying art; it gave us the base of modern civilization in every field;
it taught the west how to think. In addition, through its admirers in ancient
Rome, which built on the Greek intellectual base, Greece indirectly gave us the
rule of law and the first idea of man's rights (this idea was originated bt the
pagan Stoics). Politically, the ancients never conceived a society of full-
fledged individual liberty; no nation achieved that before the United States.
But the ancients did lay certain theoretical bases for the concept of liberty;
and in practice, both in some of the Greek city-states and in republican Rome,
large numbers of men at various times were at least relatively free. They were
incomparably more free than their counterparts ever had been in the religious
cultures of ancient Egypt and its equivalents.
What were the practical results of the medieval approach? The Dark Ages
were dark on principle. Augustine fought against secular philosophy, science,
art; he regarded all of it as an abomination to be swept aside; he cursed
science in particular as "the lust of the eyes." Unlike many Americans today,
who drive to church in their Cadillac or tape their favorite reverend on the
VCR so as not to interrupt their tennis practice, the medievals took religion
seriously. They proceeded to create a societythat was antimaterialistic _and_
anti-intellectual. I do not have to remind you of the lives of the saints, who
were the heros of the period, including the men who ate only sheep's gall and
ashes, quenched their thirst with laundry water, and slept with a rock for
their pillow. Theses were men resolutely defying nature, the body, sex,
pleasure, all the snares of this life - and they were canonized for it, as, by
the essence of religion, they should have been. The economic and social results
of this kind of value code were inevitable; mass stagnation and abject poverty,
ignorance and mass illiteracy, waves of insanity that swept whole towns, a life
expectancy in the teens. "Woe unto ye who laugh now," the Sermon on the Mount
had said. Well, they were pretty safe on this count. They had precious little
to laugh about.
What about freedom in this era? Study the existence of the feudal serf tied
for for life to his plot of ground, his noble overlord, and the
all-encompassing decrees of the Church. Or, if you want an example closer to
home, jump several centuries forward to the American Puritans, who were a
medieval remnant transplanted to a virgin continent, and who proceeded to
establish a theocratic dictatorship in colonial Massechesetts. Such a
dictatorship, they declared, was necessitated by the very nature of their
religion. You are owned by God, they explained to any potential dissenter;
therefore, you are a servant who must act as your Creator, through his
spokesmen, decrees. Besides, they said, you are inately depraved, so a
dictatorship of the elect is necessary to ride herd on your vicious impulses.
And, they said, you don't really own your property either; wealth, like all
values, is a gift from heaven temporarily held in trust, to be controlled like
all else, by the elect. And if all this makes you unhappy, they ended up, so
what? Your not supposed to pursue happiness in this life anyway.
There can be no philosophic breach between thought and action. The
consequence of the epistemology of religion is the politics of tyranny. If you
cannot reach the truth by your own mental powers, but must offer an obdient
faith to a cognitive authority, then you are not your own intellectual master;
in such a case, you cannot guide your behavior by your own judgment either, but
must be submissive in action as well. This is the reason why - as Ayn Rand has
pointed out - faith and force are always corollaries; each requires the other.
The early Christians did contribute some good ideas to the world, ideas
that proved important to the cause of future freedom. I must, so to speak, give
the angels their due. In particualr, the idea that man has a value _as an
individual_ - that the individual soul is precious - is essentially a
Christian legacy to the West; its first appearance was in the form of the idea
that every man, despite original sin, is made in the image of God (as against
the pre-Christian notion that a certain group or nation has a monopoly on
human value, while the reat of mankind are properly slaves or mere barbarians).
But notice a crucial point: this Christian idea, by itself, was historically
impotent. It did nothing to unshackle the serfs or stay the Inquisition or
turn the Puritan elders into Thomas Jeffersons. Only when the religious
approach lost its power - only when the idea of individual value was able to
break free from its Christian context and become integrated into a rational,
secular philosophy - only then did this kind of idea bear practical fruit.
What - or who - ended the Middle Ages? My answer is: Thomas Aquinas, who
intriduced Aristotle, and thereby _reason_, into medieval culture. In the
thirteenth century, for the first time in a millennium, Aquinas reasserted in
the West the basic pagan approach. Reason, he said in opposition to Augustine,
does not rest on faith; it is a self-contained, natural faculty, which works
on sense experience. Its essential task is not to clarify revalation, but
rather, as Aristotle had said, to gain knowledge of this world. Men, Aquinas
declared forthrightly, must use and obey reason; what ever one can prove by
reason and logic, he said, is true. Aquinas himself thought he could prove the
existence of God, and he thought that faith is valuable as a supplement to
reason. But this did not alter the nature of his revolution. His was the
charter of liberty, the moral and philosophical sanction, which the West had
desperately needed. His message to mankind, after the long ordeal of faith,
was in effect, "It's all right. You don't have to stifle your mind anymore. You
The result, in historical short order, was the revolt against the authority
of the Church, the feudal breakup, the Renaissance. Renaissance means
"rebirth," rebirth of reason and man's concern with this world. Once again, as
in the pagan era, we see secular philosophy, natural science, man-glorifying
art, and the pursuit of earthly happiness. It was a gradual, tortuous change,
with each century becoming more worldly than the preceding, from Aquinas to the
Renaissance to the Age of Reason to the climax and end of this development: the
eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. This was the age in which
America's founding fathers were educated and in which they created the United
The Enlightenment represented the triumph (for a short while anyway) of the
pagan Greek, and specifically of the Aristotelian, spirit. Its basic principle
was respect for man's intellect and, correspondingly, the wholesale dismissal
of faith and revalation. "Reason the Only Oracle of Man," said Ethan Allen of
Vermont, who spoke for his age in demanding unfettered free thought and in
ridiculing the primitive contradictions of the Bible. "While we are under the
tyranny of Priests," he declared in 1784, "...it ever will be their interest,
to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems
incompatible therewith." 7
Elihu Palmer, another American of the Enlightenment, was even more
outspoken. According to Christianity, he writes, God "is supposed to be a
fierce, revengeful tyrant, delighting in cruelty, punishing his creatures for
the very sins which he causes them to commit; and creating numberless millions
of immortal souls, that could never had offended him, for the express purpose
of tormenting them to all eternity." The purpose of this kind of notion, he
says elsewhere, "the grand object of all civil and religious tyrants...has
been to suppress all the elevated operations of the mind, to kill the energy
of thought, and through this channel to subjugate the whole earth for their
own special emolument." "It has hitherto been deemed a crime to think," he
observes, but at last men have a chance - because they have finally escaped
from the "long and doleful night" of Christian rule, and have grasped instead
"the unlimited power of human reason" - "reason, which is the glory of our
Allen and Palmer are extreme representatives of the Enlightenment spirit,
granted; but they _are_ representatives. Their was the attitude which was new
in the modern world, and which, in a less inflammatory form, was shared by all
the founding fathers as their basic, revolutionary premise. Thomas Jefferson
states the attitude more sedately, with less willful provocation to religion,
but it is the same essential attitude. "Fix reason firmly in her seat," he
advises a nephew, "and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question
with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must
more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." 9
Observe the philosophic priorities in this advice: man's mind comes first; God
is a derivative, if you can prove him. The absolute, which must guide the human
mind, is the principle of reason; every other idea must meet this test. It is
in _this_ approach - in this fundamental rejection of faith - that the
irreligion of the Enlightenment lies.
The consequence of this approach was the age's rejection of all the other
religious priorities. In metaphysics: this world once again regarded as real,
as important, and as a realm not of miracles, but of impersonal natural law. In
ethics: success in this life became the dominant motive; the veneration of
asceticism was swept aside in favor of each man's pursuit of happiness - his
own happiness on earth, to be achieved by his own effort, by self-reliance and
self-respect leading to self-made prosperity. But can man really achieve
fulfillment on earth? Yes, the Enlightenment answered; man has the means, the
potent faculty of intellect, necessary to achieve his goals and values. Man may
not yet be perfect, people said, but he _is_ perfectible; he must be so because
he is the rational animal.
Such were the watchwords of the period: not faith, God, service, but
reason, nature, happiness, man.
Many of the founding fathers, of course, continued to believe in God and to
do so sincerely, but it was a vestigal belief, a leftover from the past which
longer shaped the essence of their thinking. God, so to speak, had been kicked
upstairs. He was regrded now as an aloof spectator who neither responds to
prayer nor offers revelations nor demands immolation. This sort of viewpoint,
known as deism, cannot, properly speaking, be classified as a religion. It is a
stage in the atrophy of religion; it is the step between Christianity and
This is why the religious men of the Enlightenment and even panicked by the
deist atmosphere. Here is the Rev. Peter Clark of Salem, Mass. in 1739: "The
former Strictness in Religion, that...Zeal for the Order and Ordinances of the
Gospel, which was so much the Glory of our Fathers, is very much abated, yea
disrelished by too many: and a Spirit of Liscentiousness, and Neutrality in
Religion...so opposite to the Ways of God's People, do exceedingly prevail in
the midst of us." 10 And here, fifty years later, is the Rev. Charles Backus
of Springfield, Mass. The threat to divine religion, he says, is the
"indifference which prevails" and the "ridicule." Mankind, he warns, is in
"great danger of being laughed out of religion." 11 This was true; these
preachers were not alarmists; their description of the Enlightenment atmosphere
_This_ was the intellectual context of the American Revolution. Point for
point, the founding fathers' argument for liberty was the exact counterpart of
the Puritans' argument for dictatorship - but in reverse, moving from the
opposite starting point to the opposite conclusion. Man, the founding fathers
said in essence (with a large assist from Locke and others), is the rational
being; no authority, human or otherwise, can demand blind obedience from such a
being - not in the realm of thought or, therefore, in the realm of action
either. By his very nature, they said, man must be left free to exercise his
reason and then to act accordingly, i.e., by the guidence of his best rational
judgement. Because this world _is_ of vital importance, they added, the motive
of man's action should be the pursuit of happiness. Because the individual, not
a supernatural power, is the creator of wealth, a man should have the right to
private property, the right to keep and use or trade his own product. And
because man is basically good, they held, there is no need to leash him; there
is nothing to fear in setting free a rational animal.
This, in substance, was the American argument for man's inalienable rights.
It was the argument that reason demands freedom. And this is why the nation of
individual liberty, which is what the United States was, could not have been
founded in any philosophically different century. It reqiured what the
Enlightenment offered: a rational, secular context.
When you look for the source of an historic idea, you must consider
philosophic essentials, not the superficial statements or errors that people
may offer you. Even the most well-meaning men can misidentify the intellectual
roots of their own attitudes. Regettably, this is what the founding fathers did
in one crucial respect. All men, said Jefferson, are endowed "by their Creator"
with certain unalienable right, a statement that formally ties individual
rights to the belief in God. Despite Jefferson's emminence, however his
statement (along with its counterpart in Locke and others) is intellectually
unwarranted. The principle of individual rights does _not_ derive from or
depend on the idea of God as man's creator. It derives from the very nature of
man, what ever his source or origin; it derives from the requirements of man's
mind and his survival. In fact, as I have argued, the concept of rights is
ultimately incompatible with the idea of the supernatural. This is true not
only logically, but also historically. Through all the centuries of the Dark
and Middle Ages, there was plenty of belief in a Creator; but it was only when
religion began to fade that the idea of God as the author of individual rights
emerged as an historical, nation-shaping force. What then deserves the credit
for the new development - the age-old belief or the new philosophy? What is the
real intellectual root and protector of human liberty - God or reason?
My answer is now evident. America does rest on a code of values and
morality - in this, the New Right is correct. But, by all the evidence of
philosophy and history, it does not rest on the values or ideas of religion. It
rests on their opposite.
You are probably wondering here: "What about Communism? Isn't it a logical,
scientific, atheistic philosophy, and yet doesn't it lead straight to
totalitatarinism?" The short answer to this is: Communism is _not_ an
expression of logic or science, but the exact opposite. Despite all its anti-
religious posturings, Communism is nothing but a modern derivative of religion:
it agrees with the essence of religion on every key issue, then merely gives
that eesence a new outward veneer or cover-up.
The Communists reject Aristotelian logic and Western science in favor of a
"dialectic" process; reality, they claim, is a stream of contradictions which
is beyond the power of "bourgeois" reason to understand. They deny the very
existence of man's mind, claiming that human words and actions reflect nothing
but the alogical predetermined churnings of blind matter. They do reject God,
but they replace him with a secular stand-in, Society or the State, which they
treat not as an aggregate of individuals, but as an unperceivable, omnipotent,
supernatural organism, a "higher unseen power" transcending and dwarfing all
individuals. Man, they say, is a mere social cog or atom, whose duty is to
revere this power and to sacrifice every thing in its behalf. Above all, they
say, no such cog has the right to think for himself; every man must accept the
decrees of Society's leaders, he must because this is the voice of Society,
whether he understands it or not. Fully as much as Tertullian, Communism
demands faith from its followers and subjects "faith" in the literal, religious
sense of the term. On every account, the conclusion is the same: Communism is
not a new, rational philosophy; it is a tired, slavishly imitative heir of
This is why, so far, Communism has been unable to win out in the West.
Unlike the Russians, we have not been steeped enough in religion - in faith,
sacrifice, humility, and, therefore, servility. We are still too rational, too
this-worldly, and too individualistic to submit to naked tyranny. We are still
being protected by the fading remnants of our Enlightenment heritage.
But we will not be so for long if the New Right has its way.
Philosophically, the New Right holds the same fundamental ideas as the New
Left - its religious zeal is merely a variant of irrationalism and the demand
for self-sacrifice - and therefore it has to lead to the same result in
practice: dictatorship. Nor is this merely my theoretical deduction. The New
Rightists themselves announce it openly. While claiming to be the defenders of
Americanism, their distinctive political adgenda is statism.
The outstanding example of this fact is their insistence that the state
prohibit abortion even in the first trimester of prgnancy. A woman, in this
view, has no right to her own body or even, the most consistent New Rightists
add, to her own life; instead, she should be made to sacrifice at the behest of
the state, to sacrifice her desires, her life goals, and even her existence in
the name of a mass protoplasm which is at most a potential human being, not an
actual one. "Abortion," says Paul Weyrich, Executive Director of the Commitee
for the Survival of a Free Congress, "is wrong in all cases. I believe that if
you have to choose between new life and existing life, you should choose new
life. The person who has had an opportunity to live at least has been given
that gift by God and should make way for a new life on earth." 12
Another example, men and women, the New Right tells us, should not be free
to conduct their sexual or romantic lives in private, in accordance with their
own choice and values; the law should prohibit any sexual practices condemned
by religion. And: children, we are told, should be indoctrinated with state-
mandated religion at school. For instance, biology texts should be rewritten
under government tutelage to present the Book of Genesis as a scientific theory
on par with or even superior to the theory of evolution. And, of course, the
ritual of prayer must be forced down the children's throats. Is this not,
contrary to the Constitution, a state establishment of religion, and of a
controversial, intellectual viewpoint? Not at all, says Jack Kemp. "If prayer
is said aloud," he explains, "it need be no more than a general ackknowledgment
of the existence, power, authority, and love of God, the Creator." 13 That's
all - nothing controversial or indoctrinating about that!
And: when the students finally do leave scholl, after all the indoctrina-
tion, can they be trusted to deal with intellectual matters responsibly? No,
says the New Right. Adults should not be free to write, publish, or to read,
according to their own judgement; literature should be censured by the state
according to a religious standard of what is fitting as against what is
Is this a movement on behalf of Americanism and individual rights? Is it a
movement consistent with the principles of the Constitution?
"The Constitution establishes freedom _for_ religion," says Mr. Kemp, "not
from it" - a sentiment which is shared by President Reagan and by the whole
New Right. 14 What then becomes of intellectual freedom? Are meetings such as
this evening's deprived of Constitutional protection, since the viewpoint I am
propounding certainly does not come under "freedom _for_ religion"? And what
happens when one religious sect concludes tthat the statemnts of another are
subversive to true religion? Who decides, which, if either, should be struck
down by the standard of "freedom _for_ religion, not from it"? Can you predict
the fate of free thought, and of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,"
if Mr. Kemp and associates ever get their hands fully on the courts and the
What we are seeing is the medeivalism of the Puritans all over again, but
without their excuse of ignorance. We are seeing it on the part of modern
Americans, who live not before the founding fathers' heroic experiment in
liberty, but after it.
The New Right is not the voice of Americanism. It is the voice of thought
control attempting to take over in this country and pervert and undo the actual
But, you may say, aren't the New Rightists the chapions of property rights
and capitalism, as against the economic statism of the liberals? They are not.
Capitalism is the seperation of the state and economics, a condition that none
of our current politicians or pressure groupe even dreams of advocating. The
New Right, like all the rest on the political scene today, accepts the welfare-
state mixed economy created by the New Deal and it heirs; our conservatives now
merely haggle on the system's fringes about a particualr regulation or handout
they happen to dislike. In this manner, the New Right is moved soley by the
power of tradition. These men do not want to achieve any change of _basic_
course, but merely to slow down the march to socialism by freezing the economic
status quo. And even in regard to this highly limited goal, they are disarmed
If you want to know why, I refer you to the published first drafts of the
 pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, men who are much more
consistent and philosophical than anyone in the New Right. The bishops
recommended a giant step in the direction of socialism. They ask for a vast new
government presence in our economic life, overseeing a vast new redistribution
of wealth in order to aid the poor, at home and abroad. They ask for it on a
single, basic ground: consitency with the teachings of Cristianity.
Some of you may wonder here: "But if the bishops are concerned with the
poor, why don't they praise and recommend capitalism, the great historical
engine of productivity, which makes everyone richer?" If you think about it,
however, you will see that, valid as this point may be, the bishops cannot
Can they praise the profit motive - while extolling sellflessness? Can they
commend the passion to own material property - while declaring that worldly
possessions are not important? Can they urge men to practice the virtues of
productiveness and long-range planning - while upholding as the human model
the lillies of the field? Can they celebrate the self-assertive risk taking
of the entrepreneur - while teaching that the meek shall inherit the earth? Can
they glorify and libearate the creative ingenuity of the hidden mind, which is
the real source of material wealth - while elevating faith above reason? The
answers are obvious. Regrdless of the unthinking pretenses of the New Right, no
religion, by its nature can appeal to or admire the capitalist system; not if
the religion is true to itself. Nor can any religion liberate man's power to
create new wealth. If, therefore, the faithful are concerned about poverty - as
the Bible demands they be - they have no alternative but to counsel redistribu-
tion of whatever wealth already happens to have been produced. The goods, they
have to say, are here. How did they get here? God, they reply, has seen to
that; now let men make sure that His largesse is distributed fairly. Or, as the
bishops put it: "The goods of this earth are common property and...men and
women are summoned to faithful stewardship rather than to selfish appropriation
or exploitation of what was destined for all." 15
For further details on this point, I refer you to the bishops' letter;
given their premises, their argument is unanswerable. If, as the New Right
claims, there is scriptural warrant for state control of men's sexual
activities, then there is surely much more warrant for state control of men's
economic activities. The idea of the Bible (or the "Protestant ethic") as the
base of capitalism is ludicrous, both logically and historically.
Economically, as in all other respects, the New Right is leading us,
admittedly or not, to the same and as its liberal opponents. By virtue of the
movement's essential premises, it is supporting and abetting the triumph of
statism in this country - and, therefore, of Communism in the world at large.
When a free nation betrays its own heritage, it has no heart left, no
conviction by means of which to stand up to foreign aggressors.
There was a flaw in the intellectual foundation of America from the start:
the attempt to combine the Enlightenment approach in politics with the Judeo-
Christian ethics. For a while, the latter element was on the defensive, muted
by the eighteenth century spirit, so that America could gain a foothold, grow
to maturity, and become great. But only for a while. Thanks to Immanuel Kant,
as I have discussed in my book "The Ominous Parallels," the base of religion -
faith and self-sacrifice - was reestablished at the turn of the nineteenth
century. Thereafter, all of modern philosophy embraced collectivism, in the
form of socialism, Fascism, Communism, welfare statism. By now, the distinctive
ideas at the base of America have been largely forgotten or swept aside. They
will not be brought back by an appeal to religion.
What then is the solution? It is not atheism as such - and I say this even
though as an Objectivist I am an atheist. "Atheism" is a negative; it means not
believing in God - which leaves wide open what you do believe in. It is futile
to crusade for a negative; the Communists, too, call themselves atheists. Nor
is the answer "secular humanism," about which we often hear today. This term is
used so loosely that it is practically contentless; it is compatible with a
wide range of conflicting viewpoints, including, again, Communism. To combat
the doctrines that are destroying our country, out-of-context terms and ideas
such as these are useless. What we need is an integrated, consistent philosophy
in every branch, and especially in the two most important ones: epistemology
and ethics. We need a philosophy of reason and of rational self-interest, a
philosophy that would once again release the power of man's mind and the energy
inherent in his pursuit of happiness. Nothing less will save America or
There are many good people in the world who accept religion, and many of
them hold some good ideas on social questions. I do not dispute that. But their
religion is not the solution to our problem; it _is_ the problem. Do I say
therefore there should be only be "freedom for atheism"? No, I am not Mr. Kemp.
Of course, religions must be left free; no philosophic viewpoint, right or
wrong, should be interfered with by the state. I do say, however, that it is
time for patriots to take a stand - to name publicly what America does depend
on, and why that is _not_ Judaism or Christianity.
There are men today who advocate freedom and who recognize what ideas lie
at its base, but who then counsel "practicality." It is too late, they say, to
educate people philosophically; we must appeal to what they already believe;
we must pretend to endorse religion on strategic grounds, even if privately we
This is a counsel of intellectual dishonesty and of utter impracticality.
It is too late indeed, far to late for a strategy of deception which by its
nature has to backfire and always has, because it consists of confirming and
supporting the very ideas that have to be uprooted and replaced. It is time to
tell people the unvarnished truth: to stand up for man's mind and this earth,
and against any version of mysticism or religion. It is time to tell people,
"You must choose between unreason and America. You cannot have both. Take your
If there is to be any chance for the future, this is the only chance there
1. Quoted in "Conservative Digest," Sept. 1980.
2. From a symposium on "Sex an God in American Politics," "Policy Review,"
3. Quoted in "The New York Times," Aug. 8, 1985.
4. "The New York Times," Dec. 25, 1985 & Jan. 5, 1986.
5. "What the Catholic Church Teaches About Socialism, Communism, and Marxism,"
The Catholic Study Council, Washington, DC.
6. "The New York Times," Feb. 2, 1986, Sept. 11, 1984, & May 17, 1985.
7. From "Reason the Only Oracle of Man," ("Bennington:" 1784), p.457.
8. "The Examiners Examined: Being a Defence of the Age of Reason" (New York,
1794), pp. 9-10. "An Inquiry Relative to the Moral and Political Improvement
of the Human Species" (London: 1826), p.35. "Principle of Nature" (New York:
1801), from Ch. I and Ch. XXII.
9. "Writings," Ed. by A.E. Bergh (Washington DC: 1903), vol.6, p.258.
10. "A Sermon Preach'd...May 30th, 1739" (Boston: 1739), p.40.
11. "A Sermon Preached in Long-Meadow at the Public Fast" (Springfield: 1788).
12. From "Sex and God in American Politics," op. cit.
14. "Jack Kemp at Liberty Baptist," "Policy Review," Spring, 1984.
15. "Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy" (First Draft); in "Origins,
NC documentary service," vol.14, no.22/23, Nov. 15, 1984, p.344.