(Originally published in The Immanent Frame, April 3, 2017). http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2017/04/03/weak-theology-and-the-anti-gospel-of-american-exceptionalism/.
A few years ago, I reviewed David Martin’s On Secularization. In it, Martin argued,
“America is a religious country, Hebrew and philosemitic, progressive and providential, enlightened and pious, religious in its secularity, secular in its religiosity, this-worldly in its apocalyptic, Protestant in its Catholicism and offering immortality not so much by faith as by natural right.”
In a word, Americans lack irony; we perceive no gap between our aspirations and our actions. Europeans see nothing but the gap. All of this seems apt today, in that our aspirations have so far exceeded our grasp that claiming innocence is pure malpractice, and yet our desire to snatch success from failure, to make America great again, has once again brought a mythmaker back into office. Barack Obama’s Niebuhrian realism and stoic sense of maturity has given way to fantasy and the glory of a new morning in America.
For those of us who have been down this road, from Ronald Reagan to the second George Bush, the game seems not only rigged but unbelievable at best. And yet, here we are again, backed by a large portion of the American religious conservative community, veering back into the fantasy of greatness, blessed by a God of our own making. Indeed, American exceptionalism is the transit car between our actions and our aspirations, making a way in the wilderness, not unlike so many Americans who have gone before us. This essay lifts up a postmodern and prophetic perspective on the Christian faith—the blues note in the American ideological landscape—not so much as a solution, but as a forgotten resource in a time of despair.
The postmodern turn in Christianity is an eruption that one might expect in a prophetic tradition that was started by a revolutionary figure like Jesus Christ—a figure who continues to prod and poke and produce new interpretations two thousand years after his death. Like any religion, though, Christianity has often been divested of its original charisma and has come to serve and reinforce the conventions of human society—to reinforce the status quo. The presentation of Jesus in the New Testament, however, indicates that he regularly went against this pattern.1 Christianity is based on the teachings of a Messiah that was willing to die rather than be compromised, willing to say things that disturb as often as they provided comfort. Jesus is the great deconstructor of normal human social life.2 So the postmodern turn is the radical call of Christianity that resonates with the prophetic language in the Hebrew Scriptures and is central to the demands of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.3
And yet, America has a long history of producing fairytales of providential success. The nineteenth-century myth of American exceptionalism has its own complicated history. The American frontier was imagined as a vacant and open wilderness that at best ignored indigenous populations and Mexican sovereignty, and at worst committed acts of genocide and kleptocracy. Andrew Preston’s most recent history of American religion and US foreign policy tells the brutal and tragic story of US expansion. And it is an epic adventure of a young nation fighting and defeating one empire after another, whether the British, French, or Spanish. It is a cunning story of “acquiring” land from Mexico and “filling” the wilderness with explorers, all the while painting these early Americans with a heroic and epic brush. And then again, at the turn of the twentieth century, the global enterprise of American expansion, in which the United States conquered nations in order to save them, including Cuba and the Philippines.
Preston narrates the zenith of this impulse in the Wilsonian social gospel for the world—to make the world “safe for democracy.” Despite Woodrow Wilson’s own failure to implement his dream, in 1941 Franklin Roosevelt announced his own secular gospel of Four Freedoms—freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear. Among others, John Foster Dulles sought a durable peace following World War II—the long shadow of the Cold War—a nightmarish interregnum “won” by the West. With the fall of the Soviets, the end of history was proclaimed—surely, a myth-making moment. But even in the midst of this success, four of America’s last five military campaigns have been defeats. The crusade to topple Islamic terrorism, while relentless, has been a pyrrhic victory.
Since I’m teaching this history next quarter, under the rubric of the United States and the World, inevitably we will ask the question: Has the United States been a source of good in the world? Weak theology assumes a position of service to the vulnerable as the point of redemptive activity. A strong theology would argue that it is our task to defeat the enemy in order to save them and then to convert them to our “way of life.” The most recent incarnation of this “destroy to save” motif is the Iraq War—a war that put the lie to our exceptionalism, and made many rethink our noble experiment in the new world order. So in this moment of deep division and national ambivalence, a know-nothing, carnival barker stood on the stage and said, “I will make America great again!”
So we might ask, what is American greatness now? What makes us exceptional? There is no clear path toward fulfilling this myth, other than following this rag tag apprentice and philander, promising that the dream of greatness is not dead at all—it is a dream that is more like a festival of fantasies in which dreams can become true not because they are great, but because we are great—whatever we want, we deserve. It is a strange miasma of megachurch charisma and wishful thinking, a promise that whatever you want, if you believe in it, it can happen.
It is a deeply confusing and disturbing time. Can we live without the fairy tale of our own greatness? Do we need the myth of our own exceptionalism to create an identity that both binds us and backs our future dreams? Or can we grow up, recognizing the gap between our aspirations and our dreams? And to what extent does the Christian faith, as one of the key engines of our exceptionalism, deflate our dreams or motivate them further? And to what extent is Christianity, as a faith system, so elastic that it can be used to fan our faith as an exceptional nation or prophetically undercut this myth-making enterprise, calling us back to the tradition of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, a lonely voice calling out, “Blessed are those that mourn, who are the meek, who are the merciful, who are the peacemakers . . . .”
To be sure, the Beatitudes are a call to a theology of weakness and are a marker of the faith. But, as we know, there is also another image—that which our conservative brothers and sisters take from scripture, from the book of Revelations, chapter 19: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war.” This is another vision of the weak and meek savior who is no longer preaching a nonviolent way of life, but a story of judgment, victory, and a conquering hero.
These dueling narratives work their magic in the American imagination such that the gap neither holds nor is particularly stable. Europeans seem long past the dream of a righteous victory, much less a righteous empire. But this dream still carries Americans forward toward making America great again. Which of these dueling visions will win is anyone’s guess, but the reality of their power in the American imagination is undeniable.