I didn’t spend my time wandering ahead in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion to see what was next on his heresy agenda, so I was surprised a right-wing analyst in the NYTimes would take on America’s nationalism as a heresy. The one person in his scope in this chp is Glenn Beck, who himself blames Woodrow Wilson for all sorts of things.
Douthat is right in regarding American nationalism — and it’s not just America that has this problem — as a heresy, for we have seen since Reagan a blending of the Christian faith and partisan politics at an alarming rate and level. The problem is that Douthat’s analysis isn’t sharp enough or probing enough. To what he says first.
How significant is this problem of American nationalism as a religion?
For many in American history, the USA is to the modern world what Israel was to the ancient world: God’s chosen nation. To be sure, we find this at times in Spain and France and Puritan England and in the USA. The universal claim of Christianity was tied to the universal claim of democracy by the Americans. We’re a promised land, a new order for the ages, with a manifest destiny — that is, American exceptionalism. And this providentialism is found throughout the speeches of presidents: but what Douthat observes is that some have tempered this exceptionalism with humility (Washington, Coolidge, Eisenhower, esp Lincoln’s 2d Inaugural Address) but there’s many who haven’t (including Wilson and Bush the younger).
American’s temptation is two-fold: Messianism, the progressive agenda: “Instead of trying to make all nations Christian, it hopes to make them all American” (255). The second temptation is apocalyptic doom, the method of reactionaries. Since the Founding Fathers it’s been all down hill, with one disaster after another in the future if we aren’t more careful. The dangers are Social Darwinism, colonialism, progressivism, socialism, Marxism, New Deal liberalism, the Great Society and the sexual revolution. This is found in the John Birchers and the fundamantalists and now the Tea Partiers.
Douthat then sketches both Woodrow Wilson, who was both a pious Presbyterian and yet dramatically belligerent when it came to war. Douthat observes the “jingle-jangle of fanaticism” in Wilson (258). It was messianism untempered, and others have followed him including George W. Bush.
Beck illustrates the apocalyptic theme: predictions of imminent collapse, totalitarian regimes arising, hunt for enemies, enemies abroad and attacks on other religions. Beck is rooted in one Cleon Skousen, and he finds modern examples in David Barton and Michele Bachmann.
Messianism is respectable; apocalypticism is the madwoman in the attic (262). Messianism attracts idealists and apocalypticists the bigots. Messianism has done more good and bad. He sees Bush as more infected by the messianic temperament.
One of Douthat’s more interesting elements is that the parties have become both: Dems and GOPers are both messianists and apocalyptists, depending on whether they are in power or not. The Right has become more Wilsonian, the Left more apocalyptic.
Here is where Douthat puts on his hat as a NYTimes editorialist and forgets what his chp is about: there’s precious little analysis of the “heresy” of nationalism, which has been articulated so well by Anabaptists and theologians of empire (think Yoder, Hauerwas, whose voices are not heard here), and too much about politics.
I agree with Douthat’s clear articulation that what we seen in folks like Glenn Beck and Wilson and Bush and even Obama is an American heresy, which can be labeled the “eschatology of politics,” but he needs to turn his probing eye on the substance of this heresy: power, greed, narcissism, and a general lack of humanistic respect. It denies Jesus the rightful place as Lord over all, a Lord whose cross reveals the deepest reality and a Lord whose identification with the poor and marginalized turned politics on its head — from power to love and justice. Douthat lacks a serious engagement with the concept of power, or authority, and how power corrupted becomes idolatry. Ironically, Douthat’s politics deconstructs his own analysis of politics, rendering his own analysis another form of the heresy he derides. He needs some Yoder and Hauerwas, or at least some James Davison Hunter.