February 8, 2007
On the Migration of Religious Ideas
— W. Clark Gilpin
The current issue of the New York Review of Books contains a probing article by the noted author and columnist on international relations, William Pfaff. Entitled "Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America," Pfaff's essay excoriates the Bush administration for pursuing its international economic and political goals "by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities." Increasingly, the American public is joining the international community in criticizing the catastrophic folly of President Bush's violent efforts to impose his vision of democratic virtue. "A claim to preeminent political virtue is a claim to power," Pfaff rightly observes, "a demand that other countries yield to what Washington asserts as universal interests."
For Sightings, however, with its mandate to identify and assess the role of religion in public affairs, another aspect of Pfaff's essay holds particular interest. How is it, Pfaff wants to know, that President Bush's political, journalistic, and foreign policy critics find themselves "hostage to past support of his policy and to their failure to question the political and ideological assumptions upon which it was built?" The ideological assumptions, Pfaff recognizes, have deep roots in an American religious history that has generated a national myth of exceptional mission and destiny. Pfaff locates the origins of this national myth in the religious beliefs of the New England Puritans and synoptically observes its later appearances in nineteenth-century ideas of manifest destiny, Woodrow Wilson's idealism regarding the League of Nations, and the Cold War rationale for American international involvement, "interpreted in quasi-theological terms by John Foster Dulles."
The myth-building energies of religious ideas are a perennial source of hope in a world all too frequently cruel and difficult. Simultaneously, these energies combine with the human will to power to generate many of these very cruelties and difficulties. Theologians through the centuries have therefore constrained and counterbalanced visions of future possibility with more austere spiritual norms. Among the New England Puritans, for instance, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop, did not simply announce that the colony would be "as a city upon a hill" but immediately followed with the warning that the people's failure to observe their covenant with God would invite the wider world to "speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God's sake." Embarking on their mission, these Puritans insisted that humility was the "fundamental grace" and the gateway to all the virtues, and they agreed completely with the great Puritan poet John Milton that the primordial sin was pride.
The "failure to question the political and ideological assumptions" of the Bush administration, therefore, lies not only with Congress, the media, and the foreign policy community. In addition, the public responsibility of the theologian entails appraisal of the role of religious ideas in the formation of ideological assumptions. When religious vision migrates from its theological context, amidst the constraining and countervailing spiritual norms of responsible humility and wariness of pride as the deepest fault, its hope-engendering powers become perilous indeed.
William Pfaff's article "Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America" (New York Review of Books, February 15, 2007) can be read at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19879.
W. Clark Gilpin is Margaret E. Burton Professor of the History of Christianity and Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Artaxerxes to Abu Ghraib: On Religion and the Pornography of Imperial Violence" by Bruce Lincoln. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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