Any president who attempts to wage diplomacy on North Korea will inevitably face the ire of the warnicks—men who hear the words “mutually-assured destruction,” shove their hands in their pockets, and mutter: “I’ll take that bet.”
I suspect one of the reasons interventionists are so cavalier over Pyongyang is because the Kim dynasty is so completely lacking in personal charisma. Dictators ought to be handsome like Mussolini or fatherly like Stalin. They should be great orators like Hitler or great warriors like Napoleon. We can understand why personality cults grow up around such great men—“great,” of course, in Carlyle’s meaning of the word.
And while Kim Il-sung may have fit that bill, his son and grandson are not “great men” in any sense of the word. North Korea’s public probably didn’t know that Kim Jong-il was a porn addict, but if they were anything less than completely brainwashed, they could have deduced as much just from looking at him. And Kim Jong-un is just the sort of manbaby-king who incited rebellions in empires greater than North Korea.
We rightly (though excessively) complain about President Trump’s compulsive, illiterate tweets. But imagine if we were led by a man who, were he born in any other country in the world, would have been bullied by the chess club in junior high. Yet the people of North Korea adore him more than most American Christians adore Jesus Christ.
We can’t imagine any such scenario, of course, which is a grim testament to Pyongyang’s propaganda machine. But I think we can imagine what would happen if NATO committed to surgical strikes against North Korea’s elite, as some interventionists have suggested we do. Even if the entire civilian populace was spared, what then? We couldn’t silence the jingoistic anthems that have been seared into their minds over generations. We couldn’t prevent the ritual mourning, the well-rehearsed despair, that would shatter the nation. They could never un-see the Tower of Juche’s electric torch burning over the cityscape at night.
Interventionists seem uninterested in the near-impossibility of rebuilding North Korea after the regime’s fall. It wouldn’t be like purging Iraq of Ba’athism: it would be like purging Iraq of Islam. It would take generations of re-education and the suppression of bands of armed zealots.
Again, it speaks well of the West that we can’t fully imagine such gross fanaticism being directed at such petty individuals. But we should have some sense of that unconditional devotion and ingrained loyalty—at least enough to consider the extraordinary difficulties that would attend reconstruction.
We know the cliché that totalitarianism is a kind of secular religion. The Nazi poet Hanns Johst made it perfectly clear that Hitler intended to swap the Germans’ faith in Christianity for a new faith in National Socialism:
The Reich our life (instead of “Christ our life” – Col. 3:4) and our blood and soil (instead of “creation itself”) will be delivered from bondage of corruption, that is, from its impurity, its Jewishness, into the glorious liberty of the children of our Führer (instead of the “children of God” as Rom. 8:12). We are the redemption of the world, sent forth into the world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Mt. 5:13-16).
Hardened rationalists like the late Christopher Hitchens used this as evidence that religious thinking—both supernatural and secular—were inherently dangerous. That’s not a novel idea, of course. “Doth some one say that there be gods above?/ There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool,/ Led by the old false fable, thus deceive you,” as Euripides famously quipped.
But is it ever possible to entirely supplant religious thinking in any country, or in any age? If so, we should think the French Revolution would have made some headway. Unlike so many communists and fascists, who cultivate a kind of secular fideism, the Jacobins truly hated the concept of organized faith. “Priests are to morality,” said Robespierre, “what quacks are to medicine.” Yet even he couldn’t resist “baptizing” his secularism. Robespierre and the deists had their Culte de l’Être suprême; their atheist rivals had the Culte de la Raison.
This came as no surprise to the Catholic counter-revolutionaries. “All true philosophy must opt between these two hypotheses: either a new religion is going to come into existence or Christianity will be rejuvenated in some extraordinary way,” wrote Joseph de Maistre. But this speaks less to individuals (who may be theists or atheists) than it does to society, which is theistic by nature. “If the religious spirit is not reinforced in this part of the world, the social bond will dissolve,” Maistre warned.
Maybe that’s why both North Korea and the Soviet Union became more cultish as their regimes wore on. Maybe at the start they earnestly thought they could erase religious patterns of thought, only to realize later on that this need to believe in—and to belong to—something greater than oneself must find its expression. Religion, for all purposes, is the social bond. It’s the one thing we cannot do without. (That’s why Edmund Burke called society a spiritual unity, not an organic one.) If we can’t have the real thing, we’ll find a substitute.
Because roughly 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, conservatives like to think we’re still basically a Christian nation. But that’s only our privately held faith. Christian conservatives no less than liberal atheists balk at any whiff of theocracy. (Consider Rusty Reno’s and Rod Dreher’s responses to the Mortara debate.) But that doesn’t mean America has evolved beyond the need for a corporate religious identity.
Indeed, American politics makes more sense if we look at the issue through a sectarian lens. There are fundamental, almost metaphysical, differences between the various factions vying for control of the republic.
On the one hand, we have Trumpism, which bears a close resemblance to the Roman imperial cultus. Peter Navarro appropriately describes his role in the administration as an oracle, interpreting and expounding on the president’s infallible judgements. “This is the president’s vision,” he said. “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”
Movement conservatism, meanwhile, is a kind of Protestantism. The Constitution fills the role of the Bible. It is immutable, if not infallible, and we must hold it, as Hamilton said, in “sacred reverence.” Like Protestantism, this conservatism defines itself by what it isn’t—monarchism, socialism, etc.—just as Protestantism is a blanket term for those Christian sects that arose in opposition to the Catholic Church. Jefferson and Adams are like Calvin and Luther: united by a common enemy more than a common creed.
And the left? I defer to Adrian Vermeule’s brilliant essay “The Liturgy of Liberalism.”
I would argue that movement conservatism comes nearest to the truth, as I’m sure many readers of this magazine would. But it is incomplete. For one, Adams himself did not share Hamilton’s belief in the Constitution qua divine revelation. Massachusetts’s own constitution, which Adams himself largely wrote, holds that “the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.”
The most Burkean of our Founding Fathers understood that our Anglo-American political tradition is native to orthodox Christianity. Planted firmly in that soil, it evolves slowly, adapting to changes in the environment. Uproot it and it begins to wither, or else mutate beyond recognition.
So we may confidently repeat Maistre’s warning. All true philosophies must opt between these two hypotheses: either we find our politics in authentic religion, or some weird new sect will arise from its choked and twisted roots.
Michael Davis is U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald. He tweets @MichaelDavisCH.