Is Americanism the Fourth Biblical World Religion? (Partial Review of Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and the Beast)
Some time ago I posted two reviews of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine. At the end of the second one I suggested that he publish a sequel explaining his view of empire and especially Christianity and empire.
Well, perhaps that book has been published. This year (2012) Cascade Books (imprint of Wipf & Stock) has published Leithart’s contribution to its Theopolitical Visions series. Its title is Between Babel and the Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective.
I’m not sure yet (I’ve read all but the last part of the book) whether this book answers the questions I raised about Leithart’s vision of Christianity and empire in relation to Defending Constantine, but right now that’s not my interest.
I cannot recommend highly enough especially Part II of Between Babel and the Beast (henceforth BBB): “Americanism.” It’s an incisive critique of what David Gelernter has identified as the “fourth biblical world religion.” Leithart agrees with Gelernter and goes so far as to label America “a heretic nation.” (71)
Before saying more about BBB (and here I’m going to restrict myself to Part II), let me give a little background. A few months ago a local newspaper published a column by business guru and writer Mark Stevens. Here’s its original publication (on line edition): http://www.msco.com/blog/i-spell-god-with-stars-and-stripes/. (I’m typing this in Word and it’s hyperlinked; if that doesn’t show up when I copy and paste this into my blog, please hyperlink it yourself or cut and paste it into the address box of a web browser.)
Stevens’ theme was that his religion is America. If you peruse the web using key words like “Americanism” you’ll see that he’s not alone.
But Leithart’s message is not about people who explicitly affirm that their religion is America; it’s about how America has come to regard itself as “God’s New Israel.” But it’s even worse than just that. Here is one quote that will give you a sense of what Leithart is saying about America and Americanism: “America became an agent not of God’s kingdom but an instrument for the spread of American institutions and American culture, and there was a tendency to see America ‘basking in [God’s] permanent favor.’ … Throughout American history, orthodoxy has been strong enough to check the danger of deifying America itself—check, but not eliminate. But the intellectual structure is in place for Americanists to think those who worship America are offering service to God.” (72)
In a relatively short space and with comparatively few words, Leithart goes through American history, quoting American leaders and retelling the stories of America’s treatment of people considered a threat to its prosperity, with the result that one cannot deny the reality, throughout its history, of American exceptionalism. Leithart affirms that America is exceptional, but it has inflated its self-image and pride to monstrous proportions so that today, as at some times in the past, “American exceptionalism” means whatever America does is automatically right.
Now, lest anyone think Leithart (or I) is anti-American; he’s not and he makes that clear. He is decidedly for America and the best think a person can do for someone or something he/she is for is point out their flaws. (Remember the line of the patriotic song America the Beautiful that says “God mend thy every flaw?”) Leithart talks also about the great and wonderful American ideals and services to humanity. But those do not justify ignoring the heresy of Americanism.
Leithart says “We [America] are not the new Israel, nor the last best hope of mankind, nor the novus ordo saeclorum. Insofar as Americans have believed and acted on those convictions, we have been quite literally a heretic nation.” (82)
Sometimes Leithart’s rhetoric can be off putting even when his intention is exhilarating. Here’s a typical example: “Americanism is the monstrous Nephilim that people the earth when the sons of God intermarry the daughters of men. Americanist Christians are Joktanites who uncritically join Nimrod in building Babel. Americanism is ideology with the mythical power to bewitch a Babel into thinking it is Persia, a distorting mirror that might fool a predator into believing he sees the reflection of a cherub.” (82-83) Huh?
Now, I’m sure you have questions about Leithart’s message. I can do no better than strongly recommend that you get the book and read it—especially Part II. It’s prophetic, convicting, challenging, worth considering even if you don’t agree with everything the author says.
One thing I want to clarify for Leithart, lest anyone misunderstand, is that his main target of criticism is not America per se but American Christians, American churches, that have not only allowed this situation to develop but have actually contributed to it. He gives many examples. He doesn’t mention this, but one cannot help but think of the absolutely over-the-top church services of worship of America that take place all across the country on the Sunday before July 4.
I think I have met many Christians over the years whose real religion is America, not Jesus Christ. And that is the case not because they replace Jesus with America but because they insert America into Jesus. That is, they confuse the two so that Jesus becomes for them the American Lord—not Lord over America, but Lord who especially favors and sanctions America in everything it is and does.
Whenever the cross and the flag are merged, the heresy of Americanism is symbolized.
Some time ago I went to the web site of a major evangelical drug treatment program. The first thing I saw at their welcome page was just that—the cross and the American flag merged. That’s a symbol of the heresy Leithart is condemning.
So far Leithart hasn’t really talked about the solution, but the first step is obvious—Christians and churches must step away from American exceptionalism and even speak out against it insofar as it implies that America is always right and stands above basic principles of ethics such as just war and humane treatment of captives.
Next I will talk about Leithart’s own view of Christian empire, insofar as I am able to discern what that may be.