Thursday, July 06, 2006

On a Mission from God

Very early in my teaching career, I was asked to teach a two-semester survey of political theory. I was woefully unprepared for the task, which is probably why Clint Milner's frequently repeated question--What is justice?--invariably seemed to stymie rather than stimulate discussion. After a while, I came to believe that Clint might be using the question to side-track discussions when he hadn't done the assigned reading. And after a much longer while, I came to believe that if I had known what I was doing, I would have structured the entire class around that question. We all would have learned something important about politics and ethics--and Clint would have had to develop different diversionary tactics.

Thanks in part to Enlightenment egalitarianism and its influence on the founding principles of the United States, most people in the world today seem to believe that justice must be defined the same way for all. Some means of addressing inequality, in other words, is an essential component of justice. Few people are willing any more to argue the justice of slavery, monarchy, imperialism, or any other system that institutionalizes extreme inequality.

But what if God prefers one particular group of people over all others? Can those of us who believe in God simultaneously believe that "all men and women are created equal"? (Here I quote from the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848, which in some important respects improved on Jefferson’s wording in the Declaration of Independence.) Can we believe in universal human rights? Can we believe that international law of every sort applies equally to weak states and superpowers, to Christians and Muslims, to secular governments and theocratic regimes? Or must we accept that the rules for those who enjoy God's favor differ from the rules for those who don't?

I happen to believe that God does not prefer one group of people over another. In fact, I believe that a god of partiality would be a deity with serious limitations, not the God Almighty I was taught to believe in. The most ancient Christian creeds assert the existence of an all-powerful God--Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem--and that, it seems to me, argues strongly against believing that God might take sides with one part of Creation against another.

But Scripture is unequivocal in asserting a special relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Jews, in fact, are identified in Scripture as God's "Chosen People."

Perhaps this reveals a contradiction in my religious beliefs, but I don't think so. There are ways to understand what it meant for the Jews to be "chosen" by God while also believing what the apostle Peter preached, that "God is no respecter of persons." But because my point is more political than theological, I will skip the Bible lesson and cut straight to the take-home message: The claim that some Americans have made throughout our history and continue to make today that the United States is a "chosen nation" is a dangerous delusion.

My colleague Richard Hughes, in an outstanding book called Myths America Lives By, writes (p. 19), "Among the most powerful and persistent of all the myths that Americans invoke about themselves is the myth that America is a chosen nation and that its citizens constitute a chosen people." It's a myth, as Hughes points out, that was brought over on the Mayflower. Indeed, during the colonial period of our history, the belief was particularly strong among the religious refugees who settled New England. (Think of the biblical place names like Salem, New Canaan, and Providence that are scattered across New England.) Today the belief is strongest in the South, according to Kevin Phillips, but as many political scientists, historians, and sociologists have noted, the belief is widespread.

Why is it a dangerous delusion? For one thing, it ignores the history of other nations that have believed themselves to be divinely blessed. Phillips reminds us of a couple of these in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. He writes (p. 125):

For centuries Americans have believed themselves special, a people and a nation chosen by God to play a unique and even redemptive role in the world. Elected leaders tend to proselytize and promote this exceptionalism--presidential inaugural addresses are a frequent venue--without appending the necessary historical cautions. Previous nations whose leaders and people believed much the same thing wound up deeply disillusioned, as when Spanish armadas were destroyed while flying holy banners at their mastheads, and when World War I German belt buckles proclaiming "Gott Mit Uns" became objects of derision in the Kaiser's defeated army.

My more immediate concern with the religious version of American exceptionalism is that it commonly leads to the belief that the rules don't apply to us. As Elwood said to Jake in The Blues Brothers, "They're not gonna catch us. We're on a mission from God." Only in the present circumstances, it's not a matter of evading arrest so much as it is trying to establish an a priori case that we have a right to operate beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps a line from John Adams would more plainly articulate the problem than a line of movie dialogue uttered by Dan Aykroyd.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote,

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.


What, you may well ask, brought on this unusually long post about religion and politics? It was an item in the New York Times yesterday. A mega-church in Memphis, Tennessee unveiled a statue on its property. Of course, non-denominational mega-churches like this one--the World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church--tend to be evangelical and evangelicals don't generally erect statues of saints. Nor do they tend to have icons of any sort. So what might their statue depict?

It's the Statue of Liberty with Lady Liberty holding the Ten Commandments and, in her right hand, a cross where the torch would ordinarily be. The converted Lady Liberty stands seventy-two feet tall and is called the Statue of Liberation Through Christ. As for its meaning, the Apostle Alton R. Williams (no relation) summed it up in the title of a pamphlet he published: "The Meaning of the Statue of Liberation Through Christ: Reconnecting Patriotism With Christianity."

I don't think we really want to reconnect patriotism with Christianity. It's far too easy to give our leaders a pass if we believe that somehow they're doing God's work. We need instead to recall that even the rulers of ancient Israel, the state that embodied the original "Chosen People," were constantly chastised by the prophets. Prophetic witness that points out injustice wherever it exists--that is what we should expect from churches that want to "reconnect" with the state.

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"We're on a mission from God."

It was funny when Elwood said it to Jake in The Blues Brothers. It's not so funny when people think it's true of their own country.