In many ways, America deserves Ted Cruz. After all, it’s been nearly eight years since voters (and the Supreme Court) elected a cocksure, right-wing adopted Texan, long on discredited ideology but short on wits, who plunged the United States into a sinkhole of economic and foreign policy chaos from which it has yet to fully emerge. The American political attention span is notoriously short.
Thus, when the bumptious junior senator from Texas announced his 2016 presidential bid at Liberty University — the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s brick-and-mortar attempt to reverse the entire Western Enlightenment — pundits across the political spectrum weren’t exactly surprised. In typical Republican fashion, his announcement was larded with plenty of patriotic fanfare, an inordinate amount of unearned chutzpah, and carefully staged, color-coded, gender-designated patriarchal family posing. Moreover, students expressed palpable support, especially since they were forced to attend the event. Taking a page out of the Barack Obama playbook (but without the critical thinking), the Texas senator with only a few capital years under his belt cultivated his star-power within his party via pointless filibusters that weren’t really filibusters and carefully calibrated pandering to the Tea Party base to emerge as the GOP’s most starry-eyed White House hopeful.
Cruz’s White House run is disturbing, and not just because it involves Ted Cruz. Rather, he embodies the modern conservative propensity toward a fundamentalist American civil religion and its attendant, overly simplistic myths. As the English political activist George Monbiot observed during the dawn of the second President Bush’s Iraq War, to America’s conservative subculture “the United States is no longer just a nation. It is now a religion… It is not just that the Americans are God’s chosen people; America itself is now perceived as a divine project.” American civil religion hinges on what Ted Cruz defined in his Liberty University speech as “the promise of America,” embodied in “the American exceptionalism that has made this nation a clarion voice for freedom in the world, a shining city on a hill.” The religion of America is a civil religion that casts the United States as a divine world power shaped by a series of comforting myths that, in the eyes of fervent believers like Cruz, make it the ultimate political Promised Land.
The term “civil religion” goes back to the writings of French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who ruminated on the tensions that arise when church and state become separate entities. In American discourse, the term is most closely associated with sociologist Robert Bellah. In 1967, Bellah characterized civil religion as “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that was “neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian” but nonetheless constituted a shared experience of being American that was inspired by Christian notions of redemption and spiritual fulfillment. Civil religion casts America as a beacon of secular and sacred hope in a fallen modern world. In this context, Bellah wrote, “Europe is Egypt” and America was the Promised Land to which ”God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations.” And if this concept seems open-ended and ripe for abuse, that’s because it is.
In his book “God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945,” historian Raymond Haberski Jr. observes that civil religion is a “strange beast” that can be appropriated by anyone for any purpose. “As a hybrid of nationalism and traditional religion, civil religion has an ideological flexibility that is intoxicating because it is so evocative, elastic, and deceptively complex,” Haberski writes. Moreover, civil religion is “not a set of laws but a collection of myths” such as the idea that America is “the last best hope for mankind,” and these myths can’t be empirically confirmed. Myths are indeed the key elements in American civil religion. Religious scholar Richard T. Hughes identifies six core myths that Americans live by: the myth of the Chosen Nation, of Nature’s Nation, of the Christian Nation, of Manifest Destiny, of the Capitalist Nation and of the Innocent Nation. These myths have been sources of American strength and unity. But they’ve also been abused by those who would “absolutize the righteousness of the United States,” confuse the ideals of the American creed “with the realities of the present moment” and stifle all dissent. Enter Ted Cruz.
Cruz packed his Liberty University speech with simplistic — and often historically inaccurate — myths that so often define American conservatives’ approach to civil religion. Of course, civil religion isn’t the sole property of the right. As sociologist Philip Gorski notes, Barack Obama has always filled his rhetoric with “the promise of America.” However, just as they are wont to do with Christianity, conservatives boil civil religion in a steaming pot of moral absolutes, anti-intellectualism and redemptionist history until all nuance and context is burned away, leaving a distilled political elixir of fundamentalist dogma that absolves America of any of the human faults that plague other nations.
Cruz had the myth of the Chosen Nation down pat when he claimed that America is “an indispensable nation, a unique nation in the history of the world.” As for the myth of Nature’s Nation, he evoked America as the cultivated political garden of God Himself that, “from the dawn of this country, at every stage… has enjoyed God’s providential blessing.” The myth of the Christian Nation? Cruz parroted the now standard (but historically bogus) right-wing claim that the U.S. “was founded upon” the idea that rights come from a very specific “God Almighty.” Cruz’s reference to the myth of Manifest Destiny was more veiled, but he name-dropped key historical figures such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (no doubt for good bipartisan measure) and, of course, Ronald Reagan to reiterate his point that God has blessed every step in America’s development. The myth of the Capitalist Nation came via his railing against standard conservative government bogeymen like “regulators,” “tax collectors” and Obamacare that despoil the purity of the Free Market. Finally, Cruz touted the myth of the Innocent Nation when he claimed that political change will only come from “lovers of liberty” who realize that “God isn’t done with America yet.” Bless their liberty-loving souls.
Cruz’s speech was a prime example of how the right wing promotes a deeply fundamentalist American civil religion that relies on time-honored myths to characterize the United States as a nation guided by providential destiny. Cruz and other conservatives don’t see America as one nation that is a part of world history; they see it as one nation apartfrom world history, one that exists free of the flawed human agency and historical contingency that — contrary to Cruz’s claims — has shaped all of the human experience.
An America as defined by a future President Cruz is an America that sees itself as blindingly perfect, naively innocent, incapable of critical reflection over both its strengths and weaknesses and utterly convinced of its capacity to shape the world in its own image. Cruz’s version of civil religion is the ultimate example of how conservatives “absolutize the righteousness of the United States.” When you believe that God has blessed America from the beginning, you ignore the times that Americans have invoked God to justify the evils of Indian removal, slavery, racism, sexism and environmental destruction. More importantly, you undervalue the times when Americans have overcome those sins to demonstrate what Abraham Lincoln called ”the better angels of our nature.” When you worship capitalism and tout the United States as the world’s only hope, you ignore the false idols that led to the Great Recession and the bloody folly of the Iraq War that’s left the Middle East in tatters. When you develop a false sense of American innocence, you view national self-reflection as a weakness.
In the recent past, voters elected a conservative Texas politician who genuflected at the altar of fundamentalist American civil religion, who famously valued faith and ideology over critical examinations of the world’s complexities — and they paid a stiff price. Here’s hoping that the electorate won’t repeat recent history by elevating Ted Cruz as High Priest of the American civil religion temple.
Jarret Ruminski is a writer and historian who blogs at That Devil History, where he discusses the intersection of U.S. history, politics, and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @TheDevilHistory.