In a Memorial Day special on WORLD‘s web site, Lee Wishing jumps off Russell Kirk’s The American Cause to do some typical musing that results in a typical insinuation: the American cause and the Christian cause are all but the same thing.
Kirk cautions that we not make an idol of the USA, and become jingoistic and the self-appointed “keepers of the world’s conscience.” But it’s clear he thought we should work to preserve, protect, and promote the Christian ideals that make American society thrive, such as belief in an unchanging God who made people in His image and entitled to life, liberty, and the protection of their property; punishing actions that violate these inalienable rights; an understanding that mankind and societies are not perfectible through government tinkering and revolution; recognizing that leaders who think otherwise are dangerous ideologues; tolerating other religious faiths and valuing liberty of conscience; and cultivating free and orderly markets to improve the human condition.
Defending America begins with understanding her Christian foundation and that America, its faults notwithstanding, is the greatest society the world has known for upholding human dignity. As America battles foreign enemies and domestic ideologues this Memorial Day, understand, Christian, that you and I bear a great responsibility for defending this nation and we owe a great debt of gratitude to those whose graves are decorated today.
First, I’ve no objection to recognizing the ways that Christian ideas, even though they were filtered through a kind of theistic rationalism, shaped America’s political and legal infrastructure. But that admitting that fact is different than the embracing the kind of seamless blend of 20th-century evangelical Christianity, conservative economics, and national ideology on display in Mr. Wishing’s post. I feel obligated to call attention to that particular intellectual cocktail wherever I see it because it does neither Christians nor Americans any good. If anything, it prevents some evangelicals from letting their faith critique their national ideology by helping them make-believe that God and Country are one and the same.
The two are so tightly intertwined in Mr. Wishing’s piece that it’s difficult to address it systematically. He throws around a number of subtle politicizations of the Christian faith, which, coming from WORLD or elsewhere on the evangelical right, obviously go much deeper than the milquetoast phrases he employs. In practice, they amount to an exalted view of the United States as the primary Christian nation on earth, where Christians play a privileged role in determining society’s moral direction. (Note that Mr. Wishing says we “tolerate” other religions, not that they are on an absolutely equal playing field with Christianity, without institutional preference or special treatment.) I get the sense that many of these people, even while citing Russell Kirk, fail to heed his many warnings against turning the United States itself into a religion.
For example, Mr. Wishing puts the “life, liberty, and the protection of property” phrase — an Enlightenment idea if there ever was one — in God’s mouth. Same with “understanding that man and societies are not perfectible through government tinkering and revolution” and “cultivating free and orderly markets to improve the human condition.” These are statements of conservative political ideology, not inherently Christian theology. They are American dogmas, not Christian ones; modern political ideas rather than universal truths or theological principles. Lining all this up as if one followed from the other until we eventually ended up with the “best society in the history of the world” is either patriotic fluff or, if meant to be taken seriously, remarkably hubristic.
I have no quibble with the point that certain American values — the rule of law, the dignity of the individual, legal limits on power — deeply parallel the Christian view of humanity and should stir every American Christian to their defense. But again, that’s different than saying that modern American political obsessions — free markets and global dominance, for example — are directly derived from the Christian faith and are, in their specific, current incarnations, integral to What America Is.
I’m also with Mr. Wishing in believing Christians should defend America from the threat of “ideologues,” but I would have to include some Christians in that designation. I don’t believe the evangelical right is committed to a religion-blind society the way the country’s founders were; I believe they have revised history to support their view that these men intended a certain type of Christianity specifically to play a central role in the American experiment. To people who believe that, the U.S. “tolerates” other religions and unbelievers, but we consider them our enemies on the world stage and we certainly don’t trust them to run the country. We are suspicious even of American leaders “who believe otherwise” and attempt to force a political orthodoxy onto them. Propagating the suspicion of Christianity’s possible supplantation as the dominant power structure in the United States by Barack Obama or Islam is the primary function of these calls to arms. According to theocons, America holds the key to “true civilization,” and anyone who recognizes the limits of that proposition is a radical ideologue to be met in battle.
So by all means “defend the American cause” from radical ideologues. But make sure you’re clear that the American cause isn’t necessarily a Christian cause, and make sure the radical ideologue isn’t you.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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