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Thursday, April 19, 2012

America–A Christian Empire

In a book review in The New Republic, Michael Kimmage discusses the premier role that religion, and in particular Christianity, has had in American politics since the founding of the nation  http://www.tnr.com/book/review/sword-spirit-shield-faith-andrew-preston, and perhaps the most interesting observation is the following:

Seeking to explain why “U.S. foreign policy has often acquired the tenor of a moral crusade,” Preston first turns his attention to the seventeenth century. Avidly Protestant, “the American colonies never underwent a counterreformation,” he observes, and they waged almost continuous war against enemies deemed theologically other—i.e. Catholics and Native Americans. These Christian soldiers prided themselves on fighting holy wars, regularly fitting themselves into Old Testament patterns, the New World’s Israelites imbued with “a consistent belief in America as a chosen nation and in Americans as a chosen people.”

This is of particular interest and importance because that sentiment is as true today as it was in 1776.  The Neo-Cons of the Bush Administration went to war in Iraq, among other, more practical geopolitical reasons, because of a deep-seated belief in the rightness of American democracy, our vision of freedom and individualism, and the anointed role we have in promoting it.  American ‘exceptionalism’ is a result of our fundamental religious beliefs:

American exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. In this view, America's exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming "the first new nation,"and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism populism and laissez-faire. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840.Historian Gordon Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” (Wikipedia)

Although Tocqueville may have been the first to observe and chronicle this phenomenon, its roots are thoroughly Puritan and Calvinistic.  Kimmage goes on to write:

Going forward, Preston [the author of the book Kimmage is reviewing] accents the Protestant origins of the American Revolution. London was equated with Rome, and “the new political order [in America] newly codified a very old and very Protestant tradition of hostility to arbitrary power,” Preston observes. American historians have outdone themselves in analyzing the Founders and the Enlightenment, the legacy of Hume and Montesquieu in American political thought. Preston notes that “Adams, Washington, and especially Jefferson cited Milton to justify or explain their political views,” citations that reflect the rise of an American-style Christian republicanism. In the place of an established church, and opposed to the Church of England, not to mention the Church of Rome, was the first amendment to the constitution.

Both Milton and Jefferson “derived their coherence from their Creator” (Camus), and the Declaration of Independence’s citing of inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable because they came from God.

The book not only describes America’s religion-based national and international imperialism, but what the author describes as its ‘double helix’ whereby both expansionist and humanitarian sentiments are part of our national DNA”

The double helix has two strands. One strand entails the melding of Christian sentiment with state power, through diplomatic maneuvers and the waging of war. This is the sword of the spirit, cherished by the Puritans and by George W. Bush alike. The other strand inverts the ideal of the church militant, appealing instead to a Christian hunger for international peace, for the beating of swords into ploughshares, for a fraternity of nations liberated from war...

Antiwar movements would continue to emanate from New England for centuries to come. In antebellum America, Christian republicanism nurtured the abolitionist spirit, and the Civil War was (among other things) a war over the proper relationship between the Christian faith and the American polity..

FDR’s was a “serene spirituality,” and no less tenacious for its serenity. Synthesizing centuries of historical experience, FDR held “the Christian republican view that religion was the source of democratic freedom because it was the source of conscience and private belief,” Preston writes. Roosevelt pushed this conviction in an ecumenical direction. Catholics and Jews were invited to participate in an American project sure to outshine the authoritarian evils of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

An extension of this religious-based conviction to promote peace and harmony not written about in the article (and presumably not the book) is America’s ‘humanitarianism’, also a component of exceptionalism.  We, the anointed nation, have the responsibility for bringing enlightened civilization to the rest of the world, for alleviating poverty and misery.  Our foreign aid program, although very geopolitical in nature, is fueled by the belief that democracy and liberty, God-given in nature, must be extended to the rest of the world.  There is a missionary zeal, therefore, in our attempts to reform authoritarian governments, to extend political representation and civil liberties. 

We are not simply extending a viable political system.  We are extending fundamental religious principles.  The focus of the Founding Fathers on individual liberties was not only a reaction against the tyrannies of Europe but a statement of the Calvinist belief in a personal relationship with God.  Communism and other statist regimes are particularly odious because they limit the ability of the individual to seek spiritual fulfillment if not salvation. 

The French also had a ‘mission civilatrice’ – a mission to bring French civilization to the rest of the world, but they were propelled more by secular traditions of ‘liberte, egalite, et fraternite’ and as importantly the preeminence of the French intellectual, literary, and artistic traditions than by any religious sentiment.  Although many of the goals of the mission may have coincided with the French, ours was unmistakably religious in origin.

Our foreign humanitarian programs are derived from the same religious foundation.  Such concerns always trump realpolitik because it is considered un-Christian to refuse to offer help to those who need it.  When I challenged the NGO I worked for on its decision to work in Burma under the generals – providing additional and free resources to a corrupt and tyrannical regime would only serve to strengthen its power, I argued – I was told, “Perhaps, but there are starving children in the country”.  I used the same argument to reject the NGO’s rush to work in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, but again was rebuffed. 

This scenario has played itself out over and over again.  There is no good reason to continue to prop up corrupt and self-serving regimes with grants and soft loans.  History has shown that few of the essential political, economic, and financial reforms necessary for real self-sufficiency and progress are ever adopted regardless of the ‘conditionalities’ or externally-funded donor programs; but we keep giving money because of ‘the children, the suffering, and the disadvantaged’.  A better outcome for these vulnerable groups would certainly ensue from more objective policies designed to wean irresponsible countries from foreign assistance; but our Christian conscience gets in the way every time. 

The influence of religious conviction within American politics has never been stronger, as evidenced by the recently-concluded Republican primaries.  Thinly veiled in conservative political arguments is the belief that America is a Christian country, and even though it may now be populated by increasing numbers of non-Christians, the religious principles of freedom of expression, respect for life and liberty, and the right to know God on a personal basis have not changed. 

One further aspect of Protestant and particularly Calvinistic theology that is often overlooked is that of predestination.  We are all predestined by God for salvation or damnation.

Calvinism's most distinctive dogma is the doctrine of predestination. Good works were not a means to salvation, but they were a sign of having been chosen.

Wealth has always been an indicator of material and spiritual success ever since the founding of the republic.  Therefore the link between individual liberty, freedom of religious expression, and the pursuit of happiness through individual labor has always been a strong one.  One of the strongest arguments used in the North against the South in the antebellum period was that of free labor.  It was against good Christian principles to sit back and become wealthy without working for it as the plantation owners of the South did.  Not only was slavery wrong, but so was the principle of riches without toil.  Of the many sentiments that Lincoln felt about slavery, free labor was perhaps the strongest.  Slavery denied slaves rewards for their work; and permitted slave owners to benefit from others labor without investing any of their own.

Although the Biblical parable of the camel and the eye of a needle is often recited; and although Catholic Popes may argue for Christian charity and a rejection of materialism, Protestant theology reins.  Conservative politicians are very right in assuming that the pursuit of individual riches is the lowest common denominator of American society, a principle to which all newcomers aspire and soon espouse.

The book is a welcome addition to the sociological literature concerning religion in America especially because it focuses on the historical antecedents of modern religious fervor and commitment.  We started as a religious nation and our politics have been guided by Christian principles throughout our history.

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