Tuesday, October 17, 2006

God's Country?

I've just finished reading an essay called "God's Country", in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, by Walter Russel Mead. The full essay can be read for free, and is well worth the time. Mr. Mead has laid out a historical overview of American Protestantism, dividing it into fundamentalist, evangelical, and liberal camps, and he offers some observations on the directions that the United States is now taking.

He paints in broad strokes, and I will summarize his argument in even broader ones. In his view, it was Darwinism above all that basically divided early American Protestantism into three types. Fundamentalista and evangelicals place great importance on Biblical literalism and Christian doctrine than do liberals, for whom Christian ethics form the core of their faith. But while fundamentalists and evangelicals both read the Bible literally, the former are the main intellectual driving force behind creationism.

Fundamentalists are basically pessimistic about the capacity for human beings to create a better world while evangelicals and liberals share the basic American trait of optimism about that or any other goal. In contrast to the fundamentalist tendency to withdraw from the world into a pure Christianity, evangelical and liberal Protestants both believe in engaging the non-Christian world; both of the latter groups believe in missionary work in the sense of service, but liberals are less at ease with proseletyzing, which is of utmost importance to evangelicals.

Mr. Mead notes that evangelicals have grown the most as a percentage of the American population, while liberal Protestants have decreased significantly. This represents a marked change from the middle and late decades of the 20th century, when liberal Protestants may be said to have been in the ascendancy among our public officials and to have promoted values that are often defined as secular humanist as much as Christian.

I am much encouraged by any effort to make distinctions among Christians, since the general impression many people in the world have is that the United States is simply becoming fundamentalist, or simply becoming Christian, or merely theocratic. Properly speaking, the country seems to be taking a turn toward its evangelical roots, which is not the bad news that many think it is. I'm glad that Mr. Mead has described the concern of evangelicals with humanitarian and human rights issues, foremost among them the abolition of slavery, but also now, under the Bush administration, such things as increased aid to Africa to combat AIDS and to end Sudan's wars; human trafficking and the sexual enslavement of women and children has also come to the fore of their efforts.

In short, evangelicals belong no less than liberals in the ethical tradition that produced abolitionism and American optimism about moral progress in the world. The same might be said about the civil rights movement, which was in many ways inspired by both liberal Protestants like Reinhold Neibuhr (a major influence on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and by evangelical faith among African-Americans.

The country is, then, not turning into a monster by becoming more "Christian," nor is it even turning away from the things of which it can be proudest. What is happening to America, at least as far as its Christianity, is not something radically new.

I do think that what is happening in a more general sense is worrisome. I mean that the United States is an empire and is behaving ever more like one. The political power that it wields in the world is what worries me, when it is wielded in such ways as to produce, for instance, the invasion of Iraq.

Of course, political power and religion do not exist separately, and there is every reason to question the relationship between the two. Religious faith, by giving us a sense that God is blessing the country and its actions, can produce over-confidence and diminish self-criticism and humility. But then, again, so can secular humanism and liberal Christian ethics. If Iraq is the great overconfident act of America during this new time when evangelical Christianity has been in the ascendent, certainly Vietnam is the counterpart for that time when American presidents were liberal Protestants who believed in moral progress.

For me it seems rather that Christian precepts, whether derived literally or liberally from the Bible and other Christian traditions, must constantly inform the country and guide it against error.

One specific worry I do have comes from something described in Mr. Mead's article: the evangelical belief that the modern state of Israel is Biblically prophesied. Mr. Mead notes that in the Bible, God promises to bless Abraham's descendants and to bless those who bless them; therefore, many evangelicals believe that God will literally bless the United States if the country blesses Israel.

I am Roman Catholic, and I have always been most comfortable, by far, with liberal Protestantism, which may be the reason that I am more comfortable with the kind of support-and-criticism that the United States once gave to Israel under administrations like Truman, JFK's, and even one so recent as the elder Bush's, rather than with the pure support that seems to exist now. And I am troubled by what Mr. Mead points out, that evangelicals are unmoved by criticism of Israel, since they just see criticism as further sign that Israel is favored by God. Even if evangelical attitudes toward Israel can be said to be more sophisticated than this, it seems what we have here is the danger of issuing a blank check to a worldly government and not letting fair criticism come through. There is a Christian tradition of just war, and it would seem to me that whatever form of Christianity is dominant needs to embrace it more -- and continue to develop it.

An article well worth reading.


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