Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A term paper worth reading: On religion and American nationalism

My Writing About the Apocalypse research papers came in last week. I just finally finished reading and grading them yesterday. One of them was so cogently written, and addressed such an important issue in such a clear headed fashion, that I wanted to post it on my blog. I had asked the writer of this essay if I could post it on my blog. The student in question said yes, but upon some further thought asked for me not to use his/her name because the person in question is currently applying to graduate schools and has some concerns about the political content of this paper. If you respond to the essay, I will forward your remarks onto the writer. This was one of the five best research essays I have received in my class in more than 20 years of teaching.

On Christian Nationalism

A popular email forward that made viral headway after the 2004 presidential election reorganized the United States along electoral lines, joining Canada with the left-leaning northeast and western coastal states under the moniker “United States of Canada,” and assigning an entirely new geographic title to the south and midwest: “Jesusland.”

The map colorfully expressed a darker reality: like a multitude of leading economic and military powers before it, the United States has embraced radical religion, buoyed by hubristic notions of national exceptionalism, that pose a dangerous liability to policymaking and to the future of the empire. The historical quandary is that while religion has by and large been an asset to mankind, there are clear exceptions to this trend, like macabre religious wars and virulent crusades.

Indeed, if history repeats itself, the model of previous military and economic powers prove that intemperate religion accompanies the decline of empires. Topics like global warming, resource depletion, and military conflict staged in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holy lands make it imperative that United States public policy is guided by rational discourse and scientific fact, not creationism or the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. The concerns facing the United States are perhaps even greater than those facing leading empires before it, as the world has entered a nuclear age and warfare has a new potential to bring to bear a most injurious and devastating outcome.

In an essay published in The American Conservative, Theodore Dalrymple intoned that “God is dead in Europe, and I do not see much chance of revival except in the wake of catastrophe.” (Dalymple). He continued to present an argument oft laid out by members of the religious right. Under this view, “Americans are apt to believe in their own exceptionalism,” for in addition to American military power, geographic isolation from the conflicts of other nations and a founding based on optimistic philosophies rather than sociobiology, Americans maintain an emphatic religious belief. Dalrymple argues that:

Religion has survived better [in the United States] than in countries where religious belief has been closely associated with temporal power. Once the power to enforce conformity and suppress dissent declines in states where there has been a state religion, religious belief itself declines precipitately, for it is seen as having chosen the wrong side of history. There is no danger of this in the U.S., and the religiosity of Americans keeps alive the little platoons that are so important in maintaining the vigor of civil society independent of government…. In short, the United States is free, or nearly so, from the principal factors that have led to the decline and immobilization of Europe, its sclerosis, rigidity, and lack of ability to confront the challenges facing it. (Dalrymple)

Yet Dalrymple’s proclamation disregards a long trajectory of historical precedent that illustrates the clearly negative consequences of religious overreach. The concept of American exceptionalism asserts that Americans are uniquely special, “a nation chosen by God himself to play a unique and even redemptive role in the world.” (Phillips, p. 125) Americans were destined to save the world from fascism and tyranny during World War II, and they were destined to disseminate principles of freedom and democracy across the Middle East.

This concept is not new, nor is it unique to the United States. The citizenry of all leading empires have believed themselves chosen, and much like apocalyptic theory, it is only when the belief is disproven and no plausible explanation can be provided that settles both assertions -- if it was Britain’s duty to save the world, why then must the United States save Britain? -- that adherents reject it. An ardent grasp of religion that undergirds already prevalent national hubris can be seen as a particularly disquieting bellwether signaling the end of an empire.

Religion need not be the defining causal factor of empire decline, but it more often than not occurs during the empire’s downward turn. Ancient Rome, for example, began as a polytheistic and reasonably tolerant state, but as Kevin Phillips carefully explains in his American Theocracy, an “overconfident and intolerant Christianity” practiced a coercive religion that hastened “the forces of disintegration and dissolution.” (Phillips, 221) Spain rose to power through a clear embrace of Catholic religion, reconquering the Iberian Peninsula from Islam, and greatly expanding the empire as conquistadors and religious teachers spread Catholicism throughout what would become Latin America.

Again, coercion and intolerance precipitated the empire’s downfall, as the Spanish inquisition “bred a climate of orthodoxy and fear” and Spain “sagged under the weight of church bureaucracy… and the crown’s preoccupation with advancing Catholicism globally.” (Phillips, 222-3) Catholicism engulfed any attempt at appropriate statesmanship, as historian Paul Allen explains, “Spain’s monarchs and ministers would steadfastly reject… reason of state approaches to policy in favor of providing solid support for the Catholic cause, even at the expense of Spain’s empire. In so doing, they fulfilled to the letter Phillip II’s pious vow to Pope Pius V that ‘rather than suffer the least damage to the Catholic church and God’s service, I will lose all my states and a hundred lives if I had them.’” (Phillips, 224)

In Britain, Phillips noted, “Moral pretension became a second [national] flag.” Missionary activity swelled during the nineteenth century, as did moral imperialism, “belief in Britain’s duty to save the world.” (Phillips, 225)

The rising trend of secular humanism among northeastern university graduates and cultural elites makes it more difficult to recognize the United States as a deeply religious nation, but religion has overwhelmingly shaped American history and cultural tradition. In designing the Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed the seal bear a depiction of “Moses standing on the Shore, extending his Hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by command of the Deity.” (Medved, 89)

Thomas Jefferson proposed an illustration of the Children of Israel guided by fire in the wilderness. Ultimately, the chosen seal bore a secular design created by Philadelphia artist Pierre Eugene du Simitere. Alexis de Toqueville expounded on the omnipresent and insidious influence religion wielded on American life after his travels in the nineteenth century, and periodic religious revivals during this time incited a significant increase in church membership. American religions are especially suspect to revivalism, and many are wholly unique to the United States.

As cultural historian Christine Heyrman has explained, in order for Baptists and Methodists to make headway in the early South, they had to eliminate from the bible philosophies that would be considered radical to the Southern way of life, like the promotion of egalitarian social systems and opposition of slavery. This had a tendency to alter, she said, “often drastically, many earlier evangelical teaching and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black…. As a result, evangelism looked much different in the 1830s than it had in the 1790s.” (Heyrman, 216)

The United States also spawned religions like Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of which exert significant political impact. Among other things, Seventh Day Adventists regularly challenge labor laws, as their religion dictates rest on Saturday, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse service in the military, and the founder of Mormonism initiated a brief run for president. Today, scholars routinely include the United States in their studies of nations where religious fundamentalism has taken root, lumping it together for analysis with nations like Iran and India.

In their compendium Fundamentalists Observed, Martin Marty and Scott Appleby argue that “fundamentalisms arise in times of crisis, real or perceived. The sense of danger may be keyed to oppressive and threatening social, economic or political conditions, but the ensuing crisis is perceived as a crisis of identity by those who fear extinction as a people.” (Marty, 882) Charles Kimball, one of the pre-eminent voices on religious and Mideast history expanded upon this in his When Religion Becomes Evil, theorizing that there are five key warning signs. Fundamentalists, he argues, claim to hold knowledge of Truth. By that notion, they “presume to know God” and manipulate religious texts to “propagate their particular visions of absolute truth.” (Kimball, 54)

They also cite an ideal time, claiming imminent apocalypse or end of days scenarios. They promote blind obedience to their religious and spiritual beliefs, and they use ends to justify means. Finally, they pursue holy wars, like the Crusades or jihad. Both Martin and Appleby and Charles Kimball are among a large group of scholars who consider Southern Baptists, the United States’ second largest religious denomination, to be fundamentalists.

The burgeoning religious right emerged as a strongly voiced political participant during the Cold War, asserting that the evil empire of the Soviet Union was both a biblical and political enemy. Religious authorities argued frequently that the Soviet government was the ultimate evil referenced in the bible. In the last thirty years the religious right shifted concern from the defunct Soviet Union to the Hussein regime in Iraq. Now state Republican parties in the south and southwest have in large number sanctioned “Christian Nation party platforms,” political platforms that espouse the radical political theology of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.

Key principles espoused by this movement include the promotion of religious schools, the subordination of women to men in keeping with the familial role women hold in biblical stories, and most worrisome, the use of the Bible as a framework for establishing and evaluating domestic law. It is true that Christian Reconstructionism is far from a household name: few Americans are familiar with the term and few self-identify as part of the movement, but it is important to note that many Christian figures who would not self-identify as part of this movement still subscribe to some or all of their positions.

For example, Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Missouri Synod Lutherans all ascribe women secondary status, like Reconstructionists contending that the role of women should be biblical and familial. Further, groups like the First Amendment Foundation and Theocracy Watch argue that Christian Reconstructionists exert a large degree of influence via groups that share many of their more moderate viewpoints, like the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian Coalition, Assemblies of God, and Christian Broadcasting Network. The opinions of many members of the religious right are shaped not just by the Bible, which they consider to be the inerrant word of God, but by increasingly popular apocalyptic literature.

A 1999 Newsweek poll determined that more than 40 percent of Americans believe that a clear chronology of end-times events is specified in the Bible.(Ortega) Most theologians disagree with such a belief, but its origins can be traced back to the teachings of John Nelson Darby, an Angelican priest divested of his position who paid frequent visits to the United States during the nineteenth century, disseminating an inventive and radical reading of the Bible predominantly shaped by a dispensationalist interpretation of Biblical prophecies.

His claims were expounded upon through popular books by Cyrus Scofield, Hal Lindsey, and most emphatically, evangelical minister and former co-chair of Jack Kemp’s short-lived presidential campaign, Tim LaHaye, whose Left Behind series has reached an audience of approximately 60 million Americans. In the series, a Romanian politician is not only the antichrist but United Nations secretary-general, and a family of born-again Christians must save the lost in preparation for the impending Tribulation.

As Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism argued in Salon, the books are important because they “[provide] a narrative and theological rationale for a whole host of perplexing… policies, from the White House’s craven decision to cut off aid to the United Nations Family Planning Fund to America’s surreally casual mobilization for an invasion of Baghdad -- a city that is, in the Left Behind books, Satan’s headquarters.” (Goldberg) Obviously, it would be irresponsible to argue that every reader of apocalyptic literature is a Christian fundamentalist, but Goldberg’s larger point, that the “Christian theory of everything… that slates current events into a master narrative in which the world is destroyed and then remade to evangelical specifications…. an alternative universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs -- especially liberals and Jews” is tolerable on a fantastical level, but inherently dangerous when the author is “at pains to show that the Left Behind books are meant as more than fiction.” (Goldberg)

This collection of literature helps to explain the motivation of the religious right. While certainly a special interest group, the religious right wield enormous power in the political arena. To wit, as much as 70 percent of the 2004 Bush electorate was composed of individuals who self-identified as born-again Christians or who claimed belief in the Armageddon. (Domke, 14) The belief of this interest group in biblical prophecy and end-times literature was clearly showcased in its attitudes toward United States foreign policy. Scholars argue that throughout the administration, Bush coded his public speeches to speak directly to this following, urging them to mobilize behind political initiatives that he framed as being in their religious interest.

University of Chicago religious historian Bruce Lincoln depicted one such attempt in his Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, arguing that in an October 2001 speech in which the president introduced planned military retaliation to the terrorist attacks, the president’s word choice mimicked that of Osama Bin Laden, as “both men constructed a Manichaean struggle, where Sons of Light confront Sons of Darkness, and all must enlist on one side or the other, without possibility of neutrality, hesitation, or middle ground.” (Lincoln)

Further, he utilized metaphors from the revelation of St. John and Isaiah to hint to Christians that he subscribed to their personal spiritual beliefs. Lincoln uncovered similar coding in Bush’s 2004 acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination, where “Bush spoke of ‘hills to climb’ and ‘seeing the valley below,’ an allusion to Israel’s escape from slavery and Moses’s vision of the Promised Land as described in Deuteronomy 34.” (Lincoln)

Bush also “described losses overcome through ‘hope, steadfastness, and faith,’” in regards to the War on Terror and dampening economic climate, emphasizing their importance in his conclusion, where he “name[d] what he saw in them all. ‘For as long as our country stands,’ he proclaimed, ‘people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say, ‘here buildings fell, and here a nation rose.’” Lincoln further adds that Bush’s use of the word resurrection was no accident, but instead intended to impart biblical imagery. Further, Lincoln noted that Bush employed the phrase “I believe” no less than a dozen times, in some cases to “justify his wars as holy” and the will of God.

Lincoln was not the only theologian to recognize this style of coded speech: Appleby expressed concern that Bush’s mission of promulgating democracy throughout the Middle East represented a “theological version of Manifest destiny,” and David Domke, author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, in a discourse that highlighted the use of religious imagery in presidential speeches from Eisenhower to Clinton, noted that while “Other presidents petitioned for blessings and guidance, Bush positions himself as a prophet, speaking for God.”

The purpose of this argument is not to criticize Bush as a president or policy maker: if one is interested in such arguments, like jeremiads against all previous presidents they are easily accessible and prolific in number, but lie outside the scope of this piece. These presidential tools are not unique to the Bush presidency. The American attention span can be difficult to attract and even more difficult to maintain, and all great orators employ certain techniques, like call and response, that are traditional to churches but of great use politically as Americans are predisposed to be receptive to the speech pattern. As Lincoln explained in an essay for The Christian Century, Assemblies of God minister and Republican political operative Doug Wead advised Bush 41 to “’signal early and signal often’… urging that the candidate’s speeches be larded with biblical allusions.” (Lincoln)

Clinton also relied heavily on biblical metaphor, but Lincoln’s larger argument explains that Bush 43 uses the technique as a political tool, not necessarily to express his own religious motivations. He does not necessarily consider himself to be on mission from God, but “if such things please you, he wants you to know that he thinks of himself as a faithful servant of Christ, and feels himself accountable to no law save God’s, no court save the Last Judgment. But if such things make you uneasy, he would prefer the question never arise…Bush employs biblical citation to communicate with his base, the linguistic equivalent of winks and nudges.” (Lincoln)

In other words, Bush framed his policies both foreign and domestic in a way that would mobilize his key interest group behind them, making them actionable and sustainable even though these policies were not necessarily designed with those interests in mind. One example, as Republican strategist Kevin Phillips points out in his American Theocracy, is oil-based foreign policy. Though the war in Iraq was acknowledged by high-ranking administration officials as having great potential benefit towards America’s oil-based future, it would be nearly impossible to mobilize Bush’s voting coalition behind such action as the 70 percent that self-identify as born again Christians or claim belief in the Armageddon believe oil to be directly linked to the antichrist and further believe that God provides all natural resources thus there can be no shortage.

In truth, Bush regularly expressed a Manichaean view of the world in which there was no obligation, political or otherwise, that could compete with the task of defeating evil. As Glenn Greenwald explained in an interview with Bill Moyers, “the idea of being a Manichaean comes from this third century BC philosophy that… understood the world [as] a never-ending battle between the forces of pure good and the forces of pure evil. And all human events could be understood … through that prism.” (Greenwald) Greenwald continues to explain that the philosophy was rejected even by early Christians as one that lacked cognizance of “the moral ambiguities” that prevail worldwide and dominate interpersonal and foreign relations. (Greenwald) Whether or not this worldview is one that Bush himself holds, it speaks directly to the beliefs of a large percentage of Americans who interpret current events through a filter of religious belief and a particular hermeneutical ability that predisposes them to dig beneath the rhetoric of political speech for deeper meaning.

The worldview and political power of this particular interest group is of extraordinary importance for a number of reasons. First, as Greenwald argued, while good and evil certainly exist, to frame one’s worldview on such a narrow and absolutist moral understanding may ultimately lead one to make questionable decisions, like mobilizing for armed conflict in Iraq. Further, such a worldview may lead one to justify the taking of actions that lie outside of his or her personal moral code -- like perhaps torture -- but that are taken in pursuit of the eradication of evil, which clearly sets a dangerous precedent.

Such a worldview also presents an unnecessary hindrance to political proceedings. In addition to an inability to process information contrary to religious framing -- a 2004 study by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies showed that 75 percent of Bush supporters believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was assisting al-Qaeda in acts of terrorism despite the widespread dissemination of contradictory official reports -- a belief in biblical inerrancy, particularly that of the book of Genesis, make it difficult to address political concerns like diminishing natural resources, impending global warming, and petroleum geology.(Edsall, 62)

It is not in the national political interest when government officials like Senator James Inhofe, the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, contend that the Bible holds all answers. Instead they appear irrational and ludicrous as they cannot discuss or address impending challenges of vital importance.

Further, the religious right exerts great influence in questions of social policy. Their impact was perhaps most publicly noticeable in the Terri Schiavo proceedings, but they actively assert a particular vision of moral values, frequently promoting legislation against perceived immorality that is in obvious contradiction to the larger Republican political philosophy of smaller government and a hands-off approach to private relationships.

Still, this issue remains most important where issues of foreign policy are concerned. As this paper has determined, former military and economic world powers have set a precedent in which blind devotion and religious overreach factors into imperial decay, a notion which should concern American policy makers, particularly in a nuclear age where conflict between nations has the potential to exert much greater destruction and devastation than even the remarkably bloody religious wars of yore.

Works Cited

Dalrymple, Theodore. "Suicide of the West: Will America Follow Eurpoe into Anomie and Atheism?", The American Conservative, March 2010.

Domke, David. The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. Oxford University Press, New York, 2008.

Edsall, Thomas. Building Red America. Perseus Books, New York, 2006.

Goldberg, Michelle. "Fundamentally Unsound." Salon, July 29, 2002.e

Heyrmann, Christine. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Knopf, New York, 1997.

Kimball, Charles . When Religion Becomes Evil. HarperCollins, New York, 2008.

Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking About TReligion After September 11. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003

Lincoln, Bruce. "Words Matter: How Bush Speaks in Religious Code." Boston Globe, September 12, 2004.

Lincoln, Bruce. "Bush's God Talk" the Christian Century, October 5, 2004.

Marty, Martin & R. Scott Appleby. Fundamentalisms Observed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

Medved, Miochael. The Ten Big Lies About America: Combating Distortions About Our Nation.

Ortega, Tony. "Peace-monger." Phoenix New Times, February 13, 2003.

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy. Penguin Group, New York, 2006.

1 comment:

  1. I don't need no stinkin religion! Wow, what a fabulous essay. I don't think graduate school will be much of a problem.