The national religion of the United States of America is nationalism. Its god is the flag. Its prayer is the pledge of allegiance.
The flag’s powers include those of life and death, powers formerly possessed by traditional religions. Its myths are built around the sacrifice of lives to protect against the evils outside the nation. Its heroes are soldiers who make such sacrifices based on unquestioning faith. A “Dream Act” that would give citizenship to those immigrants who kill or die for the flag embodies the deepest dreams of flag worship. Its high priest is the Commander in Chief. Its slaughter of infidels is not protection of a nation otherwise engaged, but an act that in itself completely constitutes the nation as it is understood by its devotees. If the nation stopped killing it would cease to be.
What happens to myths like these when we discover that flying killer robots make better soldiers than soldiers do? Or when we learn that the president is using those flying robots to kill U.S. citizens? Which beliefs do we jettison to reduce the dissonance in our troubled brains?
Some 85% of U.S.ians, and shrinking rapidly, are theists. Flag worship may be on the decline as well, but its numbers are still high. A majority supports a ban on flag burning. A majority supports the power of the president to kill non-U.S.ians with drones, while a significantly smaller percentage supports the president’s power to kill U.S. citizens with drones abroad. That is to say, if the high priest declares someone an enemy of god, many people believe he should have the power to kill that enemy . . . unless that enemy is a U.S. citizen. In secular terms, which make this reality seem all the crazier, many of us support acts of murder based on the citizenship of the victim.
Of course, the Commander in Chief kills U.S. citizens all the time by sending them into wars. Drones don’t change that. Drone pilots have committed suicide. Drone pilots have been targeted and killed by retaliatory suicide bombings. Drones have killed U.S. citizens through accidental “friendly” fire. The hostility that drones are generating abroad has motivated terrorist attacks and attempted attacks abroad and within the national borders of the United States.
But feeding corpses to our holy flag looks different when we’re feeding them directly to the president’s flying robots without a foreign intermediary. And yet to approximately a quarter of the U.S. public it doesn’t look different after all. The president, in their own view, should have the power to kill them, or at least the power to kill anyone (including U.S. citizens) so contaminated as to be standing outside the United States of America — a frightening and primitive realm that many U.S.ians have never visited and feel no need to ever visit.
Popular support for murder-by-president drops off significantly if “innocent civilians may also be killed.” But a religious belief system perpetuates itself not through the positions it takes on existing facts so much as through its ability to select which facts one becomes aware of and which facts remain unknown.