The modern world is dominated by the cult of politics. There is no better way to describe how we imagine things to work. Regardless of our protests to the contrary, contemporary people believe in a secular world – a world that operates according to its own laws and principles (cause and effect) – and where those with power are those who are able to “make things happen.” Power is understood to be identical with coercion (or the “authority” to coerce) and wealth (the ability to pay people to do your bidding). The apex of this power is identified with governments. As such, we understand “politics” to be the primary means of controlling and shaping the world. This is life as cult. We are told (and agree) that the thing we call “government” controls and shapes the world, and that it is its legitimate role. Every protest to the contrary is met either with perhaps two verses of Scripture (if you’re a Christian) or dismissal as some sort of nut (perhaps an Amish nut of sorts).
Much of this cult has been created in the crucible of modernity itself. At its heart, modernity (and all of its political forms) teaches that the shaping and control of history is the proper role of government. It is the agent of change. If anyone resists this claim or refuses to participate, then they are charged with failing to take up their responsibilities. It is a cult that demands our participation (the very nature of a cult).
Malick’s film concludes with a quote from George Elliot’s Middlemarch:
“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I would go further than Elliot. The hidden life is the only true life, and what is deemed “historic” is little more than propaganda. The propaganda does not serve the moment-by-moment reality that each of us necessarily inhabits. Rather, it serves to empower those who most want to do violence without the distraction of a conscience.