C.K. MacLeod has a thoughtful post that is, in part, a response to my earlier post on the “God vote” and what I called “American henotheism.” C.K.M. argues that I didn’t adequately grapple with the response that “Americanist” Christians would make to my claim that enlisting God on the side of the American project is tantamount to idolatry:
In short, Americanist Christians, whose assumptions may extend far beyond the religious right, would reject Lee M.’s characterization of their beliefs. Strictly as a matter of logic, their position, which the right takes to be the authentic American position, would be necessarily idolatrous, or “henotheistic,” only under the presumption that Americanism is not or cannot also be an expression or embodiment of Christian universalism. Yet for these believers the two ideas, American and Christian, if properly understood and realized, are mutually reinforcing, complementary, and bi-conditional. For them, and in their view for all of us, Americanism embodies the Christian mission as viewed from a world historical perspective, with an expanding democratic community of free, equally infinitely worthy individuals being the purest implication in social, economic, and political terms of Niebuhr’s radical monotheistic proposition. Ardent American patriotism would in no way require or imply a subordination of the deity to the “limited group,” since it would be a response to divine providence, in support of a universal missionary project.
I think there’s something to this. Clearly American ideas about democratic equality have roots in Christian thought and are, in principle, compatible with Christianity (or so I think). Moreover, there’s a universal aspect to the democratic ethos that, again in principle, could underwrite a “missionary” project to spread democratic ideas and institutions.
What I want to emphasize, though, is how often God-laden rhetoric actually masks national self-interest and even aggression. It’s easy to slip from the idea that the democratic ethos is, in principle, universal to thinking that the spread of that ethos is identical with U.S. national interest. When politicians invoke the deity, they rarely distinguish between God’s blessings and God’s prophetic call to expand the boundaries of justice. The latter entails a degree of self-criticism, and potentially self-sacrifice, that is virtually unthinkable in contemporary American politics. (The reaction to Jeremiah Wright in 2008 helpfully illustrates this point.) No one gets elected by delivering jeremiads to the electorate. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to suggest that this is a logical result of treating a particular nation as the bearer of a “universal” (and religious) mission.