American henotheism revisited

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.


6 thoughts on “American henotheism revisited

  1. As I just tweeted, I think you get here at the generally unspoken, very impolitic problem with a missionary national politics: It seems to imply a collective sacrificial career or at least a sacrificial denouement – sooner or later. If the thought creeps into discussion, it tends to do so via the kind of millenarianism and crank theodicy that regularly gets candidates too close to the John Hagees and Pat Robertsons of the world in trouble. Your example of Rev Wright is terrifically on point: His “jeremiads” were spoken in the prophetic mode, and we know what we know about prophets in their own countries. In the longer version of the post you link, I had started getting into this question, but decided it needed a longer and very careful treatment, since political and theological discussion hardly ever gets more dangerous.

  2. The thing about Christianity is that the Cross always places not only forgiveness but a culture-critical perspective at the heart of things. Americanist Christianity is not culture-critical of itself either in its Christian expression, or of the United States as they would conceive of it. And that is what makes it Americanist, and in my opinion, dangerous. Moreover, sacrificial and justice rhetoric equally easily slip into a colonizing mindset that is at odds with our claim about Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice and our call to accompany, to be with and alongside rather than lord it over either by might or service. Americanist Christianity simply cannot no “do something” to someone.

    • Also, further to the below, it’s worth keeping in mind, though may be hard to see from within, that what we’re calling “Americanist Christianity,” was itself and in many senses still is an enacted critique of a or the way of the world. Yes, it’s dangerous, but so were and perhaps are any conceivable alternatives – for instance, a politics of its negation.

  3. Just wanted to say, I found this post and the comments very useful in a long post I’ve been working on, on the subject of American Theodemocracy. Also stole crystal’s video for a separate, intermediate post. So thanks!

    To reply here directly to Christopher’s point: The problem may be that all available alternatives for us to Americanist Christianity (or Americanist Judeo-Christianity), by definition all of the ones that fall within the left-right spectrum of modern politics, also are “somethings” for someone to do, while the other main alternatives – “releasement” as in the later Heidegger or even more completely voided in the anti-humanism of John Gray, or the alternative to the politico-religious in Leo Strauss (the philosopher, not the boogeyman), or Adorno’s negative dialectics, or Voegelin’s or even Evola’s traditionalisms – aren’t really alternatives at all. They aren’t in that sense preferable, they’re just inevitable.

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