National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

By the editors at SkyLight Paths
Skylight Paths Publishing, $16.95, 160 pages
America's God-given role in the world

Belief in a sacred mission drives U.S. policy


In a speech to a joint session of Congress after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush adopted a homiletic tone when he reminded us, “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice.”

Belief in American Providentialism -- that the United States has a special God-given role in world history -- was first proclaimed from pulpits in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritan divines taught their flock that they had been raised up by God to be a “city on a hill,” a “New Jerusalem” and a “light to the nations.” Since the time of Jonathan Edwards, Providentialism’s most ardent defenders and cagey promoters have come from the ranks of America’s preachers. This includes politically conservative and liberal sermonizers. Christian preaching promoted war with Spain (America was to be God’s instrument in the conversion of the Philippines to Christianity) and Lyndon Johnson’s New Society (God had called America to be a moral exemplar). What these sermons have in common with George Bush’s address to Congress is the belief that America has been chosen by God for a Godly duty. Either as crusader or exemplar, Americans like to believe that they have been given a special role in God’s plan to save the world.

Spiritual Perspectives on America’s Role as a Superpower, a collection of essays by various religious leaders, provides ample evidence of the continuing popularity of American Providentialism among religious liberals. The collection includes essays by Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, but mostly Christian liberals. Unitarian minister Forrest Church wants America to recover its “creed” so it can return to its “spiritual mission.” The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell calls on Americans to “export” their ethic of care “to the entire planet.”

With few exceptions, the idealism with which these religious liberals approach America’s role as a superpower substitutes for careful political analysis of the multipolar complexities of the post-Cold War world. While liberals sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire of American Providentialism, religious conservatives and their neocon friends are taking this American belief in a distinctly apocalyptic direction -- and dragging U.S. foreign policy with them. America was chosen to vanquish godless communism in Eastern Europe. Under George Bush, God’s chosen nation has stepped into the ring to confront an axis of evil. Armageddon must be just around the bend, and there is no doubt about what side America is on.

Now that the United States is an unrivaled superpower, American Providentialism has become too toxic for Americans to handle. Many religious liberals haven’t figured this out yet. The belief that we have a special role in history has always been an ambiguous force in our political life. Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Kennedy’s Peace Corps were inspired, in part at least, by American Providentialism.

This belief provided ideological cover for the destruction of the Indians as well. Today, as Franklin Graham gets ready to democratize Iraq, and the Pentagon has Tehran and Pyongyang in its crosshairs, religious liberals need to ask if belief in American Providentialism has become the political equivalent of plutonium -- too dangerous by half to leave lying around any longer.

The essay by Dennis Prager, a Jewish talk-show host in Los Angeles, is a good example of how dangerous American Providentialism has become. “I believe that America is a chosen nation just as I believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people.” This means that America needs to stand tall in the Middle East in order to defend “little Israel” against the enemies of God. The United States is “the only Judeo-Christian country in world history,” writes Prager. “Many fundamentalist Muslims hate America because it is a combination of the two religions that prevent them from taking over the world, which is the goal of all Islamists.”

If this sounds surprisingly like a page ripped from The Protocols of Zion, Prager goes on to note that, since Europeans don’t reproduce, Europe will eventually become Muslim territory, peacefully or otherwise. Europeans need to get cracking in the procreation department. The ultimate resolution to the Muslim problem, however, lies with America’s God-given mandate to stand up to the forces of Islamic darkness.

Two of the essays in this collection are spot-on. Rosemary Radford Reuther starts with American infatuation with Providentialism and relates this to our penchant for crusading against Indians, communists, the United Nations and now against Muslims. Rabbi Arthur Waskow uses the Exodus narrative to deconstruct the myth of sacred nationhood and its modern iteration in the form of America as a superpower.

The majority of the essays, however, accept the premise of the book, for example, that there is in fact a spiritual dimension to America’s superpower status. While religious liberals talk in idealistic generalities about America as a moral exemplar, religious conservatives are going to the larder of American Providentialism and serving up generous helpings of apocalyptic certainties.

Can American democracy, to say nothing of world peace and security, handle the volatile mixture of Providentialism and America’s superpower status? Things aren’t looking good. The apocalyptic side of American Providentialism has always needed an enemy. Muslims, in their post-colonial struggle with MTV, Victoria’s Secret and “The Brady Bunch,” to say nothing of the occupations of Palestine and Iraq, are obliging America’s religious conservatives. Today, foreign policy based on the belief that America has a special mission from God has become an apocalyptic game. Religious liberals play this game at great risk. Liberals need to lose the rhetoric of American Providentialism.

The point is not to divorce politics from any moral compass or religious vision. The point is to remove the aura of the sacred from our sense of national identity and to free our foreign policy from the apocalyptic logic of holy war.

In the beginning of the fifth century, barbarians sacked the city of Rome. The catastrophe woke the bishop of Hippo from his dogmatic slumbers about the Empire. Augustine wrote The City of God in order to purge himself of his belief that Rome served a sacramental role in God’s plan of redemption. God did not need the Roman Empire to save the world.

God doesn’t need America either. Augustine got his wake-up call. America’s religious liberals need to get theirs as well.

James Fredericks, a priest of the Los Angeles archdiocese, teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University and is a specialist in interreligious dialogue.

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: