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Romney, the “God vote,” and American henotheism

The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn must have a low opinion of religious people. That’s the only way I can explain her assertion that, because he dropped a platitudinous reference to “the Creator” during last night’s debate, Mitt Romney has captured the “God vote.” Weirdly, Quinn admits that President Obama often talks about his own Christian faith but says that he hasn’t done it in a debate. (There’s only been one!) Quinn says, without offering anything by way of evidence, that Obama needs to “wear God” like a lapel pin if he wants to woo the 85 percent of voters who say they believe in God.

Surely she knows that there must be substantial overlap between this “85 percent” and the roughly half of voters who went for Obama in 2008 and that say they’re going to again? And that many of these people might not need Obama to constantly drop references to the Almighty in order for him to show that he shares their values?

What I think was going on in Romney’s “we are endowed by our Creator with our rights” line was that he was echoing a bizarre (and demonstrably false) meme on the Right that the president intentionally omits the reference to “the Creator” whenever he quotes or paraphrases the opening lines of the Declaration. There’s a strain of conservative Christianity that maintains that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” and that secular liberals are always trying to efface this fact.

Ironically, the “God” of Americanist Christianity looks a lot more like a primitive tribal deity than the God of biblical theism. It’s a step backwards toward what H. Richard Niebuhr (and others) have called “henotheism”: a form of faith that “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends” (as theologian Douglas Ottati summarizes it). In its American variant, God exists to underwrite the American project.

By contrast, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” insists on “equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.” Abraham Lincoln captured the spirit of radical monotheism when he reflected that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which couldn’t be straightforwardly identified with the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. In the Bible, God’s preferential love for his people (Israel or the church) is tempered by a “prophetic” call to extend that love beyond the bounds of the group.

When we use God as a political prop or a tribal marker, we’re committing what the Bible calls idolatry–putting a creature, whether it be the self or the group, above the Creator.

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11 thoughts on “Romney, the “God vote,” and American henotheism

  1. I agree with much of what you say here, but I’m not sure that it gets to Quinn’s argument, however weakly stated it may have been. Rightly or wrongly, the religious right sees no contradiction between American patriotism and Christianity. The former becomes “henotheistic” only if you presume that the American Idea is not or cannot also be a universalism and even the same universalism – the same universal viewed from a different perspective, with the democratic community of free, infinitely worthy individuals being the purest correlate in social, economic, and political terms of “radical monotheism.” So the radical right holds up the American community as they envision it as the blessed community awaiting the universalization of its explicitly sacralized ethos, aka, “the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world,” to quote Bush 43′s 2nd Inaugural.

    I think of this perspective as a kind of Triple Covenant American Christianity, and I suspect that many self-styled skeptics are more deeply under its influence than they admit to themselves, since they are also used to suppressing or, if religious at all, compartmentalizing any recognition of the Judeo-Christian belief or structure of belief carried over into their secularism. What Quinn was speaking to, I believe, was a simple and too easy to trivialize absolute insistence on the part of the people to sanctify their politics, since the alternative must be to condemn it.

    • So if I’m reading you right there’s no essential contradiction between Christianity and American patriotism to the extent that the latter includes (embodies?) a potentially universalizable democratic ethos?

      I think there’s something to that, and I agree that politics probably always has a “sacred” dimension. But I’d offer two caveats: first, I think a “radically monotheistic” perspective relativizes even our best political ideologies. I may agree that liberal democracy is the best thing going (and I do!), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still a partial, finite perspective. If I’m using God to underwrite or validate that perspective–essentially investing it with infinite value–then I’m doing it wrong.

      Second, I’m not sure that in practice the brand of sacralized politics practiced by the US religious Right is as universalistic as we might like. There is a strong strain–particularly at the popular level–that sees America as specially blessed by God and which translates, practically speaking, into a form of nationalistic tribalism.

      • I’m not arguing here that there is or isn’t any essential contradiction between Christianity and American patriotism, and even less that the right’s universalism as we know it is or can be the right universalism. What I am arguing is that this Triple Covenant perspective has a logic of its own, and that many people, including the self-styled enemies of the nominal religious right, operate within the same ideological horizon, whether or not they articulate their beliefs in precisely the same terms. The American idea would be the overcoming of nationalistic tribalism, but necessarily embodied as a national tribalism among others in a world of national tribalisms, toward the end of time.To say that this notion of the greatest promise “incarnated” in a polity may be problematic would be the vastest known understatement (“We are He”), but the self-affirmation of that same polity in the open invocation of God on its own behalf is still unavoidable.

  2. Camassia says:

    I’m no expert, but the definition of “henotheism” I’d heard before was simply worshiping one god without denying the existence of others, and a brief perusal of the Internet shows that does seem to be the main definition. I guess I can see how that can fit with tribalism, but does it really necessitate it?

    • Right, so H.R.N. is using “henotheism” in an extended, even metaphorical sense. But the basic idea is that one’s loyalty, or “ultimate concern” (to use Paul Tillich’s expression), is to something partial–something less than the source of all being. He’s primarily concerned with present-day manifestations of it: when the source of value is one’s own group rather than Being as such.

  3. @CKM: Can you say more about what you mean by Triple Covenant Christianity, either here or at your place? I have my suspicions, but would rather hear your take.

    • “Triune Covenant” may sound better, but more pretentious. As you probably are aware, Dual Covenant Christianity has been applied to evangelicals who have in recent years more and more explicitly embraced the Judaic roots of Christianity and with them an attachment to the State of Israel. Where I’ve encountered it, it’s still distinctly Christian, not some attempt to merge Christian and Jewish worship – more like Rick Perry’s Philo-Semitism, the belief that scripture explicitly instructs Christians to honor and support the Jews and specifically the Jewish state. It’s often also attached to one or another species of apocalypticism, but maybe we can set that aside for the moment. If you combine this Dual Covenant belief with a providentialist view of America, the notion that the Founders were divinely inspired, last best hope, etc., then Americanism provides a third sacred trust, or third covenant.

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