God as Country: “American Government” in Barthesian Perspective

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Photo: Amanda Nelson

From the outset, we must observe that—when it comes to the matter of government—there is a profound level of mystery shrouding its precise origin in history, its own means of self-existence and self-sufficiency. Even the astute polilogians, those teachers of the law who write the government textbooks, have hardly an idea as to what its emergence can be assigned to. On the surface, we have a vague notion of the national government, that it is an immovable entity at the very top of every society’s hierarchical structure. But more than this, it is a reflection of a god mythology. Being in the form of a deity, Frank Abbott Magruder’s government takes on all the roles, titles, and functions that are inherent in such a spiritual personage.

In the very first section of his textbook American Government, the writer establishes the eternality of this god figure, something which ought to be plainly evident in its presence across all the ages. Not at all a deity removed from the world that it has both called into being and organized according to infinite wisdom and benevolent desires, this god affects us “today, it did so yesterday, and it will do so every day for the rest of your life” (Magruder 4, emphasis mine). It can neither be outrun nor outlived. In like manner, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews declares that the God-man Jesus Christ “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (English Standard Version, Heb. 13.8).

Magruder quickly endeavors to put forth a series of questions before his readers, the first of which ponders over what one’s “life would be like without the government” (Magruder 4). He compels us to understand this necessity not just as a matter of practicality, but as one of religious import. These are questions of provision and preservation, of creation and covering. Government in its mythological role as deity and messiah is pivotal, something which is essential to the right ordering of society and of all earthly systems of human interaction.

Consider what this section in suggesting: mere humans associating and working with one another are incapable of defending themselves from anyone and everyone who might cause them harm. What must this also suggest but the desperate need for a higher form than ourselves, the need for a savior who walks among us—and profoundly affects us—even if we fail to recognize him? Magruder, in fact, channels the very spirit of the psalmist David, who speaks of the Israelite God as “my rock and my fortress and my deliverer … in whom I take refuge, my shield” (Ps. 18.2). The seat of the modern national government is that of heaven, the very kingdom which must be protected from unspeakable and ever-present “threats from abroad” (Magruder 4), those devilish armies and invaders who would seek to overthrow this god’s dominion and institute a rival authority in its place.

With divine sovereignty come also the attributes of divine ability, infinitude, and imperishability. It is no surprise, then, that this god exhibits the manifest qualities of omnipotence. Without end, it is capable of dispensing education, thereby providing sight to the blind. It has the ability to “guard the public’s health” by protecting its people above and beyond what their respective physicians and pharmaceutical shops are able to accomplish. And more than this, it is able to guard and preserve the earth itself from misuse and utter destruction. This god consistently engages in unmatchable acts of creation, merely speaking the divine words that are needed to “pave the streets” and to “regulate traffic.”

The unrelenting punishment of evildoers, of course, is also present in this political religion. The god of government is always just in its legal decisions. The defiance of a deity through sinful volition has sometimes been called cosmic treason among theologians; in this modern myth, the ultimate sinful act of a localized, political treason against the national government is equivalent to religious apostasy, still dealt with as it was in some historical faiths by the employment of the death penalty.

One is able to discern another certain power in the divine being: its ability to deal decisively with preventing calamity from overtaking its human subjects. That so many disasters are “human-made,” and yet are responded to by this outside force, must imply that the remedy to these predicaments is non-human in origin and essence.

“Who,” questions the apostle Magruder, “would protect civil rights” in the absence of this god? Even such basic things as rights within a civil society can only emerge and be guarded, he suggests, by the perfect guidance and provision of the deity.

This god, likewise, is the same one who endlessly watches over the old and infirm, the poor and destitute, ensuring that each one of them is able to take his or her place in the heavenly kingdom as unoppressed and equally-accepted subjects. Traders of goods and owners of property are themselves incapable of total self-sufficiency in keeping intruders and other destructive forces at bay. Dealing with these elements, just the same, requires another entity entirely. It is this god alone that is all-perceiving, wholly capable, and entirely sovereign. It is this god’s supreme hand that must act in all such matters. In short, it offers its own solemn promise to those within society, the same promise given by Christ upon his ascension into heaven: “behold, I am with you always” (Matt. 28.20b).

Yes, Magruder assures us, it is “government [that] does all of these things.” But the scope of its sovereignty and power is far greater than even this; it is capable of performing these glorious feats “and much more.” The deity’s subjects, in addition, are constantly affording it love by way of patriotic sentiments (“I’m so grateful to live in a free country”) and through annual offerings of the substance of their labors (through the income tax). For many worshippers, there is even the grace of tax rebates at the end of the year and subsidies throughout: they are given to those who remain steadfast in keeping the god’s commandments and continually petitioning.

It is the final sentence of this modern psalm that fully asserts the fundamental and indispensable existence of the deity: “if government did not exist, we would have to invent it.” This seamlessly mirrors Voltaire, who writes in his own 1768 epistle that “[i]f God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (qtd. in Cliteur 73). This modern god, called by various names in previous eras and now embodied in government by the new polilogians, is one from which no living thing is capable of escaping. But this is not a fact that ought to be realized with any overwhelming sense of surprise or dread. Rather, it was always imperative that we would be reminded of government’s precise importance in the first place. The god that is government is the sine qua non of purposeful and effective human existence.

Works Cited

Cliteur, Paul. The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Magruder, Frank Abbott, and William A. McClenaghan. “Section 1: Government and the State.” Magruder’s American Government. Boston, Mass.: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.

The English Standard Version Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

One thought on “God as Country: “American Government” in Barthesian Perspective

  1. The comparison of God to government intrigued me. In a sense, government does have powers that are like God but at the same time, God in religion has rules and laws that some may perceive as an interference with their lives as well as certain national governments.

    So the question I would like to ask is, “How big should the government be?”

    Comparing government to God, should they be big enough to cover just enough so that everyone can be guaranteed freedoms (own property, live their lives, be who they want to be) as long as they do not violate the freedoms of others? Should they be much bigger so they can provide social programs like welfare? Should they be able to control the people’s social lives and determine what they can or cannot do?

    Voltaire’s quote caught my attention. Whereas I, who is not religious, may not necessarily agree with him when it comes to God, I can see how the context is different if you replace God with government. For a state to exist, I do think you need at least some form of government so that they can guarantee our rights and freedoms, but not so much that they are controlling us.

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