Perspectives: Obedience to the civic religion

OPINION – If you were walking down the street and a total stranger politely instructed you to alter your pace or to jump in place, would you do it without question? Most of us would require a solid reason to obey.

Now, how would you react if that stranger was wearing an official-looking uniform? Would you question the stranger or would you comply simply because you’ve been raised to be obedient to authority?

The difference in how many people would respond illustrates a curious and potentially dangerous shift in how we think. It’s a shift that has occurred in plenty of other societies before us and it almost always leads to great suffering.

Few of us would associate the desire to be obedient with human suffering. Nonetheless, a connection exists.

From mass murder to human rights violations to political or religious persecution, there is a common thread linking the most egregious historical examples of man’s injustice toward other men.

That link was summed up by mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford who said: “There is one thing in the world more wicked than the desire to command, and that is the will to obey.”

This means that true power does not reside within the person or persons issuing commands. Instead, unquestioning obedience is the real foundation for abuse of power. Think about what that means in a society where we are conditioned from childhood to defer to symbols of authority.

To see what this looks like in action, take four minutes to watch this hyperlinked video in which a man wearing a very official-looking costume, asks passersby to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. Some he asks to walk in a different path, others he asks to litter. Some are asked to jump in place and a few are asked to use violence against a total stranger.

More than half the people do what the man in the uniform tells them without hesitation. But when the same individual tries to instruct random strangers without his uniform, no one gives him the time of day.

With his costume, the public’s obedience is swift and without complaint – regardless of morality. They’ve been conditioned to obey when they see symbols of the state and its power.

More likely than not, they also understand that failure to comply will bring violence against them. These are the actions of people who have become converted to a belief system where the law has come to represent the religion of the state.

This civic religion is most visible in the church-like courtroom where the judge officiates from an elevated position while wearing priestly robes. Also, sacred symbols of the state are prominently displayed, archaic language is spoken, and rituals and ceremonies are performed. During these proceedings, the public’s reverence is strictly enforced.

Unlike traditional religions which seek converts through persuasion, our new civic religion has no problem with converting us to its dogma by force.

At one time, the law served the people in its intended purpose, as described by Frederic Bastiat, “to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.”

Today, however, the law is rapidly becoming an instrument that primarily serves the interests of the state by magnifying its power over the people.

Man-made administrative laws cannot change the laws of nature, but the state still enforces them with the same gravity and violence as the good laws that actually protect our natural rights.

Laws based in natural law, such as prohibitions against murder and theft, have been overtaken by the creation of administrative rules creating licensing, administrative checkpoints, and prohibitions on consumption or ownership of certain arbitrary items.

Obedience to such laws is not the same thing as being virtuous. It simply makes a person compliant to the civic religion. Obedience to corrupted authority is what enables its corruption to spread and consolidate its hold over the people.

Over time, society has been trained to measure the state’s actions in terms of legal or illegal rather than right and wrong or moral and immoral.

We have allowed ourselves to buy into the ridiculous notion that just because the ruling class makes a law, it must be obeyed – even if it is a bad law.

For generations now, we have been conditioned to bow down and submit to the state and its authority, no matter how corrupt or how questionable it may appear. The state encourages the adoration of its costumes and symbols to the point that even questioning it is considered heretical.

True freedom requires more than just reflexive obedience to authority figures whether they are in or out of costume. It requires respect for proper and legitimate authority.

That means the kind of people who understand right and wrong and are willing to withdraw their consent when commanded to act against their better judgment.

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Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and opinion writer in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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  • JJ October 13, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Wow considering 80% of the community here belongs to a religion that preaches that obedience is the most important virtue, I think the response to this will be interesting

    • Common Sense October 13, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Obedience to God is far from the same as obedience to man.

      • Bender October 13, 2014 at 12:30 pm

        Typo above COMMON SENSE. Fixed below by your friend Bender. You’re welcome.
        Obedience to a God, as perceived by 0.2% of the world’s population, is far from the same as obedience to man.

      • ladybugavenger October 13, 2014 at 1:21 pm


      • clarks123 October 13, 2014 at 2:29 pm

        No. You’re obedient to men in official looking uniforms who claim to represent God. You jump when they say jump because they claim it’s in the name of God. “Morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right.” You’re obedient to men telling you gays are lesser. In the 60s, the religious were obedient when told blacks and women were inferior. In 2001, the religious were obedient when told to fly planes into the twin towers. So, actually, no. Obedience to “God” is nothing more than obedience to men in official looking suits telling you to jump regardless of whether it’s moral to or not.

        • Koolaid October 13, 2014 at 8:46 pm

          And aside from being obedient without questioning, you hand over your money to those same men when they demand it.

    • Senior Fun October 13, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      What’s also interesting is that your commenting on a guy from St. George, who lives in St. George, on St. George News. That religion you speak of founded St. George based on the obedience you bash them for following. I don’t know what you hold dear or what you like about living here, but whatever it may you can’t deny their obedience made it possible.

      • Visiting Anthropologist October 13, 2014 at 5:52 pm

        “There are two classes of people – the righteous and the unrighteous. The classifying is done by the righteous.”

      • Bender October 13, 2014 at 5:57 pm

        What’s your point old timer; Shut up and do as you’re told? Does that apply to a large percentage of the local population who are not Mormon?

      • Neil October 13, 2014 at 6:53 pm

        Right, and people that live in the south eastern US should have more appreciation for slavery…

    • Koolaid October 13, 2014 at 8:45 pm

      Brainwashing to obey the control freaks claiming it’s for a religious cause.

  • Ron Olroyd -- Chu Lai '69-'70 October 13, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Thank-you, Bryan. We’ve agreed to disagree on a couple minor things here and there, but I really like this article and the “wake-up call” message.
    Looking forward to seeing you around.
    And JJ, thank-you, too. The 80% won’t make the connection.

  • Visiting Anthropologist October 13, 2014 at 9:17 am

    “Laws based in natural law, such as prohibitions against murder and theft,” … Don’t you mean “religious law”? What is this natural law you refer to? And where can I get a copy? Nature is full of creatures who steal and kill…

    I agree with JJ (above)…Will be interested in reading what others write.

    • Neil October 13, 2014 at 1:17 pm

      Everyone is born with a copy. If you’ve misplaced yours, try looking in your heart. That’s where it’s stored.

  • Bobber October 13, 2014 at 10:55 am

    I don’t bother to read Hyde’s garbage anymore. I just check in for the comments…

  • Neil October 13, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Great piece Bryan. I appreciate the fact that you possess the wisdom to see the truth and the courage to share it.

  • St georgenative October 13, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Very good article. Thank you for your insight into what may soon be the downfall of what’s left of the good of our society. A country that should be a free society full of liberty and truth.

  • bishpoul October 13, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Washington County, Assessor’ Office says jump. You say how high. Bad local
    government. Someone needs to put thier feet to the fire. God bless America.

  • Roy J October 13, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    It is possible to agree that our own government might in some areas has created, or is creating, spurious or even perverse laws, without also coming to the conclusion that all man-made laws are bad, or that they do not derive their authority and necessity from the natural law. Such a necessary distinction was argued for by Thomas Aquinas, who derived human law from the natural law in one of two ways:
    “Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; as that one must not kill may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that one should do harm to no man; while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; as the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.”
    Aquinas gives his reason for this derivation thus “The general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs: and hence arises the diversity of positive laws among various people.” So while it may be acceptable to drive down the left side of the street in Japan, it is anathema to do so in the United States, for some reason which escapes me, but most probably because your car would get all fricacked up.

    If I remember correctly, the last time this question was poised, Bryan preferred to call this derivation of human laws ‘administrative rules’, and did not attach much consequence to them. However, by not making this distinction, I believe Bryan is forced to conclude that these laws are arbitrary, and therefore the citizen has no conscientious obligation to observe them, though he may if he chooses. I think that is what he means by saying that to follow them is no virtue, and I think, from his principles, he is logically in the right. However, I would like to oppose to this conclusion another distinction and opinion, as given by Etienne Gilson:
    “Between the universal principles of natural law and the infinitely complex detail of the particular acts which should be in conformity with it, an abyss opens up which no individual reflection can cross by itself and which it is the particular mission of human law to close.”
    Regarding obedience to human laws, Aquinas makes these comments:

    “Whether human law binds a man’s conscience

    Human laws are either just or unjust. If they are just, they have the power to bind our conscience because of the eternal law from which they are derived. As Proverbs says, “Through me kings reign and lawmakers decree just laws” (Prov. 8:15).
    Laws are said to be just either because of their end, when they are ordained to the common good; or because of their author, when the law does not exceed the power of the lawmaker; or because of their form, when burdens are distributed equitably among subjects for the common good. For since a man is part of the multitude, whatever he is or has belongs to the multitude as a part belongs to the whole. Thus nature inflicts harm on a part in order to save the whole. Accordingly laws which inflict burdens equitably are just, bind the conscience, and are legal laws.

    Laws are unjust in two ways: First, they may be such because they oppose human good by denying the three criteria just mentioned. This can occur because of their end, when a ruler imposes burdens with an eye, not to the common good, but to his own enrichment or glory; because of their author, when someone imposes laws beyond the scope of his authority; or because of their form, when burdens are inequitably distributed, even if they are ordered to the common good. Such decrees are not so much laws as acts of violence, because, as Augustine says, “An unjust law does not seem to be a law at all.” Such laws do not bind the conscience, except perhaps to avoid scandal or disturbance, on account of which one should yield his right. As Christ says, “If someone forces you to go a mile, go another two with him; and if he takes your tunic, give him your pallium” (Mtt. 5:40f.).

    Second, laws may be unjust because they are opposed to the divine good, as when the laws of tyrants lead men to idolatry or to something else contrary to divine law. Such laws must never be observed, because “one must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). ”

    I apologize for the length of this comment. I thought it just to thank the author for working from stated first principles to reply in kind.

    • Bender October 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm

      tl; dr – Scripture Monday!

      • Roy J October 15, 2014 at 8:08 pm

        Hahaha! Sorry, Bender! I am loving reading your comments, by the way!

  • LadyK October 14, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Thank you Roy. That was beautifully done.

  • Mike October 14, 2014 at 1:57 am

    Just as thrilling as it was to read the article; it was heart breaking to read the comments.

    Statism is certainly the most widely and tightly held religion of our day. Its dogma demands the taking or destruction of the lives of all who live among its adherents and then consumes its own.

    Liberty is a salutary virtue which exhalts its adherents and blesses the lives of those who live among its adherents. Statism is its opposite.

    • Bender October 14, 2014 at 1:10 pm

      Oh hi Ayn Rand groupie. You’ll grow out of your Rand worship once you exit your teens and understand the world is slightly more nuanced than depicted in rambling novels written by an amoral, atheist Russian emigree.

  • Julia October 14, 2014 at 5:27 am

    Another foundation: Who trains us in obedience? Our parents! And for our good and safety, we obey even when we don’t understand. To deny legitimate authority and presume each person always knows his or her own best, is ignorance.
    To the author’s points, we still have and enforce laws against murder and theft to our ability, civil debate and protest are not only allowed but encouraged, and no one is forced to comply–you are free to leave the country for a better rule of law. I believe you will not find another. Please don’t confuse application with purpose.

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