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War and the Gospel of American Power
PCA News - The Web Magazine for the Presbyterian Church in America ^ | February 6, 2003 | Bill McLellan

Posted on 02/15/2003 2:03:38 PM PST by ChemistCat

"I believe that there is a reason that history has matched this nation with this time. . . . Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity: freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor [New York]. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it" (President George W. Bush in a speech to the nation from Ellis Island, September 11, 2002). "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-5).

In the past year-and-a-half since the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, the United States has found its next great moral calling after the fall of communism. But at the same time, many are debating whether the US is using its unparalleled power in the world for good or evil, whether it genuinely cares about other nations or only about itself.

For example, in the current debate over war with Iraq, some have argued that America wants Iraqi oil more than it wants world peace or freedom for the Iraqi people. There indeed seems to be a strange mix of altruism and selfishness in U.S. foreign policy, but instead of trying to distinguish between to two, I want to suggest that America’s good motives may be as dangerous as its bad ones. Furthermore, this is a danger that should concern both Christian citizens and the church in America as a whole.

The issue of America’s role in human history and in the world poses the most basic political question facing Americans today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there has been a lot of speculation about the role the United States of America should play in the post-Cold War world, and now with the 9/11 terrorist bombings, the war on terror, and the looming invasion of Iraq, the issue is more important than ever.

In this article, I want to argue that since September 11, 2001, the public discussion about America’s role in history and the world reveals that the good motives of the American people and U.S. foreign policy are informed, motivated, and legitimated by a false gospel that could have disastrous consequences. This Gospel of American Power, as I will call it, claims that the world can be redeemed from evil and suffering through the universal spread of American values and power. It is composed of two visions, one of the past and one for the future. First, it interprets world history as a story of human progress toward freedom, peace, prosperity, and liberal democracy, and it sees America as the driving force and supreme example of that progress. Second, it assumes a divine calling for the United States to benefit humanity and carry it on toward the end of history by exerting its military and economic hegemony and by forcefully universalizing its values and civil religion.

I do not deny that the U.S. federal government has the responsibility to protect its people from attack and to work with other nations toward greater peace and justice. Rather, I want to argue that these legitimate functions of government have been corrupted and misdirected by America’s messianic identity. Therefore, after describing this false gospel in more detail and explaining how it influences U.S. foreign policy and contemporary global trends, I want to give an argument for why institutional churches in the United States (such as the PCA) should officially and vocally denounce it as an idolatry that competes against the Christian gospel and the Kingdom of God.

President Bush, in several speeches, has portrayed the United States as the primary force effecting the development of universal human freedom, and in this way, he echoes the popular historical arguments of Francis Fukuyama and Fareed Zakaria. For example, in a Newsweek article closely following the 9-11 attacks, Fukuyama argues that America stands at the apex of history, having already defeated communism (Cold War), fascism (WW2), and monarchy (WW1). He says that the “evolution of human societies” has “culminated in modern liberal democracy and market-oriented capitalism.”

Similarly, in an article written around the same time, Zakaria argues that although the U.S. has often failed to live up to its own great standards, history as the story of advancing American values. These two authors and President Bush all see history as a ladder of development with America standing at the top pulling weaker, less fortunate, non-Western nations up after it.

The link here from triumphant past to present responsibility has often been couched in the rhetoric of divine calling. President Bush and others who have adopted this picture of America’s unique and historic mission to the world have often emphasized the universality of its values and the redemptive nature of its military engagements. Fukuyama argues that American values are universal values that have gradually taken root around the world. Furthermore, he believes that it will take benevolent American and Western (economic, military, and ideological) power to effectively conquer “Islamo-fascism” just as we have conquered other powerful ideologies that have opposed liberal democracy in the past. Along similar lines, Fareed Zakaria and the Middle East historian Bernard Lewis have argued that America should be more consistent in using its unparalleled power to establish governments in the Middle East that will sympathize with our values and way of life.

President Bush worries that the only alternative to the universality of American values is unbridled relativism. “Moral clarity,” he said in his West Point speech, “was essentially our victory in the Cold War . . . Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place . . . . We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.” Furthermore, in his National Security Strategy, Bush makes it clear that the defense and progressive implementation of these values around the world will require America’s “position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence.”

As American Christians, much of what Bush and these other popular commentators say resonates with our beliefs and sensibilities. We value our religious and political freedoms, and it rightly bothers us that corrupt governments often prevent people like us around the world from enjoying these same freedoms. We agree that tyranny and violent aggression should be opposed, and we reject a lot of the moral relativism that characterizes our culture. We tend to like plain talk about right and wrong, good and evil.

But consider the grounding or the authority behind this universal, black-and-white moral clarity. The popular revival of God-talk since 9/11 refers most often not to the Father of Jesus but to a generic, national deity whose name we emblazon in red, white, and blue on billboards across our nation’s highways. This secularized god of American civil religion has certainly not arrived recently on the scene. It has often been noted that the American nation is held together not by ethnicity or heritage but by a common set of ideals historically derived from a synthesis of Enlightenment and Christian worldviews. The American god has, thus, evolved as a personification of our national ideals, and it now drives the quest for American power and dominance over non-Western, less-liberalized peoples while also justifying that quest with messianic motives. The Gospel of American Power may in places approximate a biblical worldview, but this only makes it more dangerous because it causes us to dominate others’ lives while thinking that we are delivering them from evil.

The many issues involved in America’s war on terror and the looming war with Iraq are certainly very complicated, and I do not intend to argue that America’s interaction with other nations is solely and completely determined by an ideology everyone agrees about. There has been substantial public debate on a wide range of these issues, but it seems to me that just about all sides take for granted that American values enforced by American power are keys to saving the world from evil.

The Christian church, especially in America but also around the world, should play a significant role in denouncing the Gospel of American Power. Preaching the gospel to cultures that worship other gods and see themselves as participants in fabricated narratives is central to the historic mission of the church, to make disciples of all nations. Scripture is full of examples of national deities and false gospels that served selfish interests of wealth and power, did violence to the weak, and sought control over people’s lives. The glory of God, which lies at the very heart of the church’s gospel proclamation, is presented throughout Scripture in contrast to the glory of man, especially the glory of human rulers who seek to replace God on earth. And while Jesus explicitly did not establish his church as a political institution, his people have throughout history proclaimed his Word to national leaders and stripped them of their idolatrous ambitions.

Isaiah preached against the king of Babylon, Ezekiel proclaimed judgment for the king of Tyre, and Luke records the death of Herod—all three for exalting themselves to divine status. Likewise, Christians under Rome refused to say, “Caesar is Lord,” the Confessing Church in Germany denounced Hitler as a false messiah preaching a false gospel; and Christians the world over have pointed out the danger of communist doctrine, which in many ways presents a secular parallel to Christian eschatology.

The Gospel of American Power may not prove as destructive as these other false gospels, but then again, it might. The United States currently possesses more military power than any nation in the history of the world, and its foreign policy is driven and legitimated in part by a civil religion it seeks to impose on the globe. The point is that whether or not this redemptive narrative poses as great a danger, it is a powerful false gospel that the institutional church in America must not fail to denounce as such through preaching and public resolution (perhaps at a General Assembly). If we do not, America’s world mission may blur together with the American church’s world mission, and some day we may not be able to tell them apart. ============ Bill McLellan is a senior at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. and a member of Church Creek Presbyterian in Charleston, S.C.

TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; Government; News/Current Events; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: activism; peace; religion; war
I've been saying for some time that a good case can be made against an American military attack on Iraq, but that nobody is making one that doesn't hinge on inflated partisan rhetoric and ad-hominem, ignorant, morally bankrupt arguments. Here at last is a good stab at making such an argument, written by the friend of a friend of mine. I don't AGREE with it but I'm pleased to have read it, and I hope FReepers will have some good insights on its point of view.

I think its main weakness, as my friend pointed out, is that the churches so far have been pretty weak at providing "security, militarily and economically."

1 posted on 02/15/2003 2:03:38 PM PST by ChemistCat
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To: ChemistCat
Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, render to God that which is God's.

The author compares the U.S. to Babylon, Tyre and Hitler and cautions that we could be in for a fall.

Are we like those three ?

2 posted on 02/15/2003 2:10:09 PM PST by happygrl
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To: ChemistCat
"Rather, I want to argue that these legitimate functions of government have been corrupted and misdirected by America’s messianic identity"

Of course it is the left (or modern liberalism) that lies at the root of the modern 'messianic identity'. The left wants America to fix all the world's problems. I think many on the right would have no problem with America pulling back internationally across the board so long as we remained strong economically and militarily.
3 posted on 02/15/2003 2:14:12 PM PST by Texas_Jarhead
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To: happygrl
Sometimes, sure. I'm not blind enough to think we're perfect. Are we still the chosen people? Time after time in the scriptures, non-believers are used to chasten God's Chosen when they've fallen away from what they are supposed to be doing. If you are religious, you can't help but see world events in light of scripture.

I listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck more than I listen to my religious leaders, or read scripture. Maybe that's good but probably that's bad....

Whatever, I remain pro-war, but only if we're going to do it RIGHT. If we let NATO and the UN dilute our efforts a second time, and leave with the real problem unresolved, we might as well not go in. But fundamentally we're in this because 9/11 showed us what people like Saddam can do to us, and we know that if we don't stomp him now he's gonna get us. The peaceniks have to address that problem, don't they?
4 posted on 02/15/2003 2:14:35 PM PST by ChemistCat (We should have had newer, safer, better, more efficient ships by now, damn it.)
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To: ChemistCat
Sorry to see PCA wobble into waffling mode. Iraq/Iran is not a difficult problem to understand: they are the state sponsors of a terrorism that has now impacted directly on our shores. They are messing up our sandbox now, and we need to put a stop to that pronto. We are going into their sandbox, in their face, to deliver a message that they will understand. That is all they understand.

Incidentally, too bad our President let the Colin Powell crowd get him all tied up. Now he is right where the Rats want him: getting it from all sides.
5 posted on 02/15/2003 2:17:21 PM PST by Check6
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To: ChemistCat
I don't know the author, but I do know folks at Covenant College, which is a fine school, and my daughter (PhD candidate in religious studies) believes very much as this sermon argues. I don't agree, however.

We have to distinguish between individuals and nations. That God loves each and every individual human, loves each enough to have sent Jesus Christ as savior, is our Gospel at its most basic. If an idea of American exceptionalism contradicted that, it would be antiChristian and therefore something that must be rejected.

But God is also "Judge of the nations" and Scripture makes clear that whole peoples may be blessed or cursed, may themselves BE the source of blessings or curses (i.e. the Jews). So it seems to me possible to argue that America is, in some real sense, a people assigned certain responsibilities by God, and accountable to Him for how we discahrge those responsibilities.

6 posted on 02/15/2003 2:19:23 PM PST by docmcb
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