The Idolatry of America

by Damon Linker | April 23, 2008

Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel From Political Captivity

By Charles Marsh

(Oxford University Press, 243 pp., $25)

Who would now deny that the political ascendancy of the religious right has been bad for the United States? Its destructive consequences are plain for all to see. It has polarized the nation. It has injected theological certainties into public life. It has led political leaders to invest their aims and their deeds with metaphysical significance. It has made America a laughingstock in the eyes of the educated of the world. And it has encouraged devout believers to think of themselves as agents of the divine, and their political opponents as enemies of God.

So much for the political damage. What about the consequences for religion itself? The strongest arguments for separating church and state--including the classic ones advanced in the writings of John Locke, accepted by America's constitutional framers, and codified in the First Amendment--have always emphasized that separation benefits religion as well as politics. The secular political order of the United States not only helps to ensure the perseverance of limited government; it also permits religion to thrive, uncorrupted by political ambition and petty partisanship.

While the shelves of our bookstores sag under the weight of tracts arguing the political case for church-state separation, surprisingly few authors have undertaken the task of reminding us, in light of the Bush administration's faith-based policies, why religious believers should think twice before plunging into partisan politics. Until recently, David Kuo's Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction was the only prominent example. A deeply pious evangelical, Kuo was brought on board by the Bush administration to oversee the implementation of the president's program in Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He quickly discovered that his high hopes for synthesizing religion and politics would be disappointed. Not only did Bush show little interest in fighting for the chronically under-funded program in Congress, but high-level White House staffers repeatedly expressed contempt for the evangelicals who were the president's strongest supporters. In Kuo's view, the faith of devout Christians had been manipulated by the Bush administration for the sake of political gain. Kuo himself was so certain--and so ashamed--of such manipulation that he concluded his book with the suggestion that evangelicals refrain from political engagement for two years as an act of penance for their recent overindulgence in power politics.

The gimmicky arbitrariness of the proposal--why not four years of penance? why not six months?--told readers all they needed to know about Kuo's intellectual and spiritual depth. Like so many of the evangelicals tapped by the Bush administration to serve in high-level positions throughout the executive branch, he was a well-intentioned nice guy, eager to do good deeds in the name of his faith. As for thoughtful reflection on the deeper questions raised by his political engagement, his sincere but mildly ridiculous book made it clear that such a reckoning was beyond him.

Charles Marsh's Wayward Christian Soldiers may lack the gossipy appeal of Kuo's White House exposé, but it is in every way the better book. A professor of religion at the University of Virginia and a devout evangelical, Marsh believes that the politicization of Christianity in recent years--using the good name and moral commandments of the church to "serve national ambitions, strengthen middle-class values, and justify war"--has been spiritually disastrous for evangelicalism in the United States. Conservative American Christians, he claims, have forgotten the difference between "discipleship and partisanship." They have "seized the language of the faith and made it captive to our partisan agendas--and done so with contempt for Scripture, tradition, and the global, ecumenical church." The result has been a collapse into spiritual unseriousness, as Christians have "recast" their faith "according to our cultural preferences and baptized our prejudices, along with our will to power, in the shallow waters of civic piety." Resisting despair, Marsh hopes that his book might inspire some of his fellow believers to repent of their recent ways--to "take stock of the whole colossal wreck of the evangelical witness" and then try to rebuild a more authentic Christianity in its place.

Unlike most books about the religious right, positive or negative, Wayward Christian Soldiers is addressed primarily to the movement's most devoted members. Accordingly, much of the book is written in a prophetic register, alternating between rebuke and exhortation, as Marsh tries to persuade his readers of the enormity of their transgressions. He employs a rhetoric of outraged denunciation most effectively in his introduction, where he recounts visiting a Christian bookstore near his home in the spring of 2003, shortly before the start of the Iraq war. The store was stocked with "a full assortment of patriotic accessories--red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, 'I support our troops' ribbons, 'God Bless America' gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag bangle with the two images welded together and interlocked." By the cash registers, he found numerous books about the faith of George W. Bush. In Marsh's words, "It looked like a store getting ready for the Fourth of July, although Easter was just weeks away."

The problem with such displays is not simply that they blur Christian piety with patriotism, but also that the patriotism is highly partisan. It is not all of America, or even most of America, that these godly patriots love. If Marsh's neighborhood bookshop was preparing for the Fourth of July, it was the holiday as scripted by the Republican National Committee. And such displays have hardly been limited to selected Christian businesses. As Marsh notes, Christian Coalition activists made a habit of attending rallies for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign with specially designed crosses emblazoned with Bush-Cheney logos and American-flag emblems. On some of them, "the president's name appeared in full at the places where Jesus's hands were nailed" to the cross. At these rallies, which took place all over the country, the blending of politics and religion was complete.

Marsh is well aware that such displays reflect the genuine views--the deeply held political opinions and spiritual convictions--of the American evangelical community. Unlike secular liberal critics such as Thomas Frank, who argues that the social conservatism of evangelicals is the product of elite manipulation on the part of Republican Party politicians and media consultants, Marsh understands that all the political consultants in the world could not produce the astoundingly strong support for the GOP found among conservative Protestants. Just as the history of the civil rights movement has led the overwhelming majority of African Americans to identify themselves with the Democratic Party, so the vast run of evangelical Protestants have come to view the Republican Party as their natural home--the place on the American political spectrum where their distinctive outlook will be represented and championed. Elites have undoubtedly contributed to this political-cultural congruence, but they have not conjured it out of thin air, or imposed it from above on the unwitting masses.

Still, the complicity of evangelicals in their own politicization does nothing to mollify Marsh. It only intensifies his indignation. Evangelicals, in his view, have actively betrayed Jesus. An authentic commitment to Christ, he says, produces a "flowering of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control," not passionate devotion to worldly power--and especially not a worldly power that blasphemously identifies itself with divinity, as Marsh contends Bush has done throughout his presidency.

Consider Bush's speech at Ellis Island on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In his remarks, the president described the United States as the "hope of all mankind" and asserted that this "hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it." Marsh bristles at this passage, which alludes to the prologue to the Gospel of John but modifies its message in a crucially important respect. Whereas the New Testament describes God as the light that will not be overcome by the darkness that surrounds it, Bush ascribed divine agency to America. For Marsh, this substitution is unforgivable--nothing less than the idolatrous "identification of the United States with Christian revelation."

Marsh stands firmly within the mainstream of the Christian theological tradition in making this and similar criticisms, which go back at least to Augustine's City of God, if not to even earlier documents. These sources--as well as countless others from more recent centuries: Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, warned often against "the idolatry of America"--teach Christians that however much they may love their terrestrial homes, their families as well as their political communities, their true home lies elsewhere, in the next life, in eternal unity with Jesus Christ. They must always remember, in other words, that love for God comes first, conditioning, ordering, and limiting the scope and intensity of their other loves. For a devout Christian, then, patriotism can never be uncomplicated, never wholehearted. It will always be to some extent ironic, mitigated, partial--an unstable alloy of divine love and human selfishness.

There is nothing ironic, mitigated, or partial about the evangelical commitment to the Bush administration--and this is what infuriates Marsh more than anything else. Out of a combination of cultural parochialism and theological illiteracy, American evangelicals have come to believe that their Christian faith is perfectly compatible with unwavering faith in the Bush administration--in fact, many of them have come to believe that the two faiths are, at bottom, identical. Jesus Christ and George W. Bush, the city of God and the city of man, the Righteous Kingdom and the United States of America: for a distressingly large number of evangelicals, the clashing tonalities at the core of orthodox Christianity have become perfectly harmonious chords in an uplifting rendition of "God Bless America."

Marsh is suspicious of all such attempts at synthesis, believing that a Christianity that compromises with the ways of the world inevitably conforms to the ways of the world. And Marsh makes his point with alarming ease, noting in one of his later chapters that although polls in early 2003 showed that an astonishing 87 percent of white evangelical Christians in the United States supported Bush's invasion of Iraq, "Christian leaders around the world--evangelical, orthodox, and liberal" expressed "dismay over the administration's case [for war]." Marsh quotes, to great effect, twenty-five of these critical statements, written by the leaders of Christian organizations from every corner of the globe, most of which the majority of American evangelicals have undoubtedly never seen or read. Regardless of one's position on the war, these pages of Marsh's book make a powerful and important point about the American evangelical difference: either the United States contains the only Christians capable of recognizing the fundamental compatibility between the moral message of Christianity and George W. Bush's foreign policy--or else evangelicalism in America has transformed itself into Republican Party propaganda.

The most intellectually stimulating pages of Marsh's book concern the theological antecedents of this troubling transformation. Relying heavily on Karl Barth's classic work Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, Marsh tells the story of how German Protestant theologians responded to the skepticism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment by jettisoning much of Christian orthodoxy and refashioning a rump Christianity in which faith was based on subjective feeling instead of the objective truth of revelation and religious worship was defended in terms of its social utility. Before long, this "liberal" theology was all the rage, teaching modern men and women that they could continue to enjoy the psychological comfort of religion while embracing scientific discoveries that seemed to undermine the authority of the Bible, and that it was unnecessary for them to choose between political freedom and the political establishment of religion. In Europe the churches became, in effect, ministries for moral edification, administered and regulated by the state for the sake of inculcating virtues that contributed to the well-being of the nation.

Marsh delights in the irony that, despite their boundless contempt for "liberalism" in all its forms, right-wing American evangelicals think about God in a way that marks them, in the decisive sense, as liberal Protestants. As Marsh mischievously puts it, "It strikes me as a noteworthy turn of events that our patriot preachers and court prophets remain our most zealous proponents of the liberal theological tradition." Just as nineteenth-century German theologians tailored God to fit the psychological needs of the rising bourgeoisie and the political needs of the Rechtsstaat, so twenty-first-century American evangelicals take their theological cues not from the Bible or the Church Fathers but from Karl Rove and Michael Gerson.

 

The Barthian critique of liberal Protestantism is both clever and compelling, empowering Marsh to accuse the religious right of exemplifying the very liberalism it claims to detest. But is the critique fair to theological liberals? It depends, in the end, on whether Barth was right to insist that liberalism in religion is primarily an attempt to provide the modern state with a theological grounding or justification. That is certainly what some political and religious thinkers have made it out to be. But others--from Schleiermacher to Tillich--have defended theological liberalism in more robustly intellectual terms, as an authentically Christian response to modern advances in science and biblical criticism. For these theologians, liberalism, in one form or another, is the only intellectually honest position for a modern believer to take. Such serious theological liberals would most likely also insist that their position has very little--if anything--in common with the anti-intellectual and emotivist piety that prevails among America's politicized evangelicals.

Marsh is supremely uninterested in making distinctions between kinds of theological liberals. Unless you embrace the neo-orthodox position that Barth staked out and developed in his writings, Marsh insists, it necessarily follows that you affirm liberal Christianity, which he dismisses as a "theological dead end"--one that "leads to the conclusion that God is but an extension of human experience, a projection of human need and longing." Genuine Christian faith, by contrast, begins and ends with Jesus Christ, who "comes to us from a country far from our own." In order to adopt the otherworldly standpoint of Christ, believers must lay their "values, traditions, and habits at the foot of the cross." The Christian then begins his life anew as a citizen, first and foremost, of the city of God, with his "unholy nature ... infused with God's holiness." From the perspective of this genuine follower of Christ, the profane faith of American evangelicals, which worships American power in the name of God, fails to confess "Christ as Lord" and ends up "incarcerating Christ in our own ideological gulags." The true Christian is more intimately connected to those with whom he shares "worship and prayer--rich and poor, black and white, American, Asian, African, the immigrant crossing the border, the victims of violence, the reviled, the outcast, and the pariahs, heterosexuals and homosexuals--than to partisan allies or compatriots." In this sense, at least, Christianity subverts all political allegiances.

Which is not to say that Marsh adopts an explicitly anti-political position. Rather, he champions those who, in his judgment, bring the stringent moral teachings of Christ most fully to bear on political life. Once again Barth serves as an admirable example. Although Barth's early formulation of neo- orthodoxy, in his various editions of the Letter to the Romans, appeared to counsel an abandonment of politics altogether, the triumph of National Socialism in Germany, and even more the collusion of the Protestant churches in Hitler's rise to power, led him to reconsider his position. Less than a year after the Nazis seized control of the German state, Barth took a courageous stand in writing and disseminating the Barmen Declaration, which firmly rejected the Nazification of German Christianity, and in helping to organize the Confessing Church, which went on to play an important role in resisting Hitler. As punishment for his political activities--including his refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler--Barth was first forced to resign his professorship at the University of Bonn and then was expelled from Germany.

Even more dramatic is the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who organized and led the Confessing Church, joined the resistance movement against the Nazis, and even participated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler--an act for which he was sent to a series of concentration camps and eventually executed by hanging in April 1945. Marsh discusses Bonhoeffer in the first paragraph of his book, and returns to him again and again in later chapters. In starkest contrast to the obsequiousness of American evangelicals, who eagerly prostrate themselves before political power, Bonhoeffer risked and ultimately gave his life rather than bow down before evil. Here, Marsh means us to conclude, is an example of authentic. Christian piety in action.

 

Marsh's strenuous, uncompromising version of Christian belief, which insists on placing theological commitments ahead of political commitments, presents a nobler vision of the faith than the heavily politicized one that currently prevails among America's evangelicals. But is this purer form of Christianity good for liberal politics? Does the contemporary United States suffer from an absence of prophets and martyrs? Would American democracy (as opposed to American Christianity) be better off if its tens of millions of religious conservatives were replaced with an equal number of would-be Dietrich Bonhoeffers?

We have reason to doubt it. Critics of Christianity have often charged that the extreme distance of devout Christians from the world of politics--their emphasis on moral perfection--tends to distort their practical judgment. These critics assert, in other words, that the attribute Marsh considers authentic Christianity's greatest political virtue--its Christ-centered detachment from the temporal world--is in fact one of its greatest vices.

Unfortunately, Marsh's book is marred by numerous examples of precisely this kind of distorted judgment. Nearly every time Marsh mentions Bonhoeffer, he does so in order to compare the enthusiastic embrace of Bush by American evangelicals unfavorably to Bonhoeffer's righteous denunciation of Hitler, as if the circumstances of Nazi Germany and present-day United States were morally identical or in any meaningful way analogous. To be sure, he nearly always follows such statements with disclaimers about how "political comparisons between German Nazism and American democracy are fairly absurd." Yet these disclaimers are nearly always followed, in turn, by passages in which he gives in to the "strong urge to make theological comparisons" between them.

Marsh is hardly the only social critic in our time to yield to such obscene urges, as one learns from a cursory scan of the left-wing blogosphere on any day. Does Marsh consider the authors of the paranoid and venomous rants that regularly pollute the comment threads of Daily Kos and other websites to be morally next of kin to Christian saints? And how about the many millions of evangelicals who voted for Bush in 2004--are they the moral equivalent of the "German Christians" who added a swastika to the cross, incorporated Nazi racism into Christian theology, and sought to form a unified German Protestant "Reich Church" under the leadership of the Fuhrer?

Marsh would no doubt deny that he intends to imply any such thing. Yet the implication is there, and it is perhaps more difficult for him to avoid than he realizes, since it follows directly from his theological position. From the heavenly heights of his otherworldly Christianity, the vast moral differences separating human communities cannot help but be obscured or flattened out. After all, a of the communities, after all--from the best to the worst--fall radically, even infinitely, short of divine perfection. All are human cities; none is the city of God.

A more terrestrial perspective yields a very different picture. From a resolutely humanistic standpoint, a totalitarian regime committed to genocide and worldwide domination is so profoundly different from a decent if greatly flawed liberal democracy (even when it elects a dogmatic simpleton as its president) that comparisons between them obscure more than they clarify. And though Marsh would deny it, this vast difference in context affects the moral character of his preferred form of Christianity. In Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer was an exemplar of justice and honor in a moral wasteland. But in the contemporary United States--yes, even during the bungled presidency of George W. Bush--Bonhoefferian protests cannot help but sound shrill and even comically self-righteous.

Consider Marsh's treatment of Daniel Coats, the former American ambassador to Germany. In the months prior to the invasion of Iraq, Coats was invited by the Lutheran bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg to read the Sermon on the Mount--including its admonition to "bless those who curse you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you"--at a commemorative service for (you guessed it) Bonhoeffer. Coats, an evangelical Protestant, turned down the invitation, according to Marsh, "out of respect for the evangelical president's mission in Iraq." Once again, an American Christian had placed his devotion to Bush ahead of his devotion to Christ. Or so it seems to Marsh, who tells us precisely how Coats should have responded to the invitation: "How I wish he had exclaimed, 'Of course, I will read from the Sermon on the Mount. I have no other choice. The refusal to read would amount to a renunciation of my faith, and I can never allow my service to the nation to compromise my loyalty to Jesus Christ.'"

It would be an understatement to call this a troubling passage. There is, first of all, Marsh's absurdly high--and thus distinctly un-Madisonian-- expectation for public servants. Then there is the question of whether the invitation to read the Sermon on the Mount against the backdrop of the run-up to the Iraq war warranted such an extreme statement of theological principle. After all, nearly all the arguments in favor of going to war against Saddam Hussein appealed to moral considerations, including the good of the United States, its allies in the Middle East, and the Iraqi people. (Indeed, the strongest criticism of those arguments, then and now, is that they placed moral concerns ahead of dispassionate empirical analysis of the challenges that were likely to attend the occupation of the country.) In making it seem as if devout Christians had a corner on moral seriousness in discussions of Iraq policy, Marsh careens across the line that separates moral indignation from moral grandstanding.

Finally, we have Marsh's injunction that a public servant should never allow his service to the nation to compromise his loyalty to Jesus Christ--a demand that could pose a significant problem for Christians in American public life, many of whom swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution above all else. Precisely how big a problem it would be will depend on how often and how severely the two spheres--religion and politics--conflict with each other, requiring Christians to make a choice between their duties to God and to country. And this, too, will depend on context. A conservative evangelical will experience such conflict rarely (at least under a Republican president). A Christian who upholds orthodoxy as Marsh defines it, on the other hand, will experience such conflict regularly (especially, it seems, under this Republican president). No wonder Marsh concludes his discussion of Coats's "decision to compromise his faith for access and power" by wistfully reminding his readers of the time, "not so long ago, when evangelical Christians regarded their marginal place in society as a mark of their faithfulness to Christ." Despite his desire to bring the authentically prophetic voice of a purified Christianity to bear on American public life, Marsh's theological commitments ultimately point beyond the moral compromises and imperfections that mark politics in all civilized times and places, including our own.

Certain kinds of believers will accept with composure the compromises and the imperfections of political life. They will not be discouraged, but at once chastened and emboldened by the knowledge that on this side of eternity our saints will not be statesmen and our statesmen will not be saints. Yet others will respond differently to the tragic conflicts at the core of the human condition. With their gaze transfixed by a vision of a more perfect world, they will be tempted to turn their backs on the realm of the profane and its merely human pursuits, including politics. We should be grateful to Charles Marsh for reminding us of the nobility of the true believers. And yet those of us who do not share their faith cannot help but wonder about the moral status of their impulse to secede from the often mundane duties and responsibilities of political citizenship, all the while scolding those who freely take on those duties and responsibilities. When does the fixation on one's own purity lapse into self-indulgence? This is a question for which Marsh has amply prepared us, but to which he has not even begun to supply an answer.

Damon Linker is the author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Anchor Books).

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