Thursday, October 16, 2008

"The Idolatry of America"

Scott Horton references Reinhold Niebuhr's concept of "the idolatry of America" in an effort to explain why Sarah Palin gains no favor among moderate Christians for her aggressive and overtly-religious conception of America as a "shining city on a hill":

For the mainstream Protestant, Palin is engaging in what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “the idolatry of America.” As Niebuhr would have it, an American Christian may be patriotic and love his country, but he must also remember that his true home rests outside of these bounds fixed by geography and time and in an eternal community with Jesus Christ. The Christian’s commitment to his faith must come first, and it must transcend a commitment to the nation-state. This means that patriotism is, in the mainstream Protestant view, a fairly complicated matter. In particular, again in the Niebuhr tradition, a Christian must guard against the risk that vanity, haughtiness and hatred towards the balance of mankind enter into his heart under the guise of patriotism; he must retain a skeptical and critical attitude which recognizes the imperfection of human works. The perspective of Religious Right figures like Palin that elevates America—as their political blinders conceive her—to some sort of sacred object is therefore little short of an act of idolatry. Jesus Christ, as Charles Marsh reminds us, “comes to us from a country far from our own” and requires that believers lay their “values, traditions, and habits at the foot of the cross.” Or, as John Calvin says, “the heart is a factory of idols,” and a primitive noncritical form of patriotism can be a particularly troubling and entrenched idol.

In other words, Christ first, country second. This is not as frightening as it sounds at first. America is not a nation filled with Christians waiting to betray the nation in the interest of their faith. If anything, this proscription against mixing faith and country too closely is an admonishment to Christians not to concern themselves too greatly with the political affairs of the nation. No man can be expected to involve himself in politics without carrying into his involvement his own particular beliefs; of course a Christian will be guided morally by his faith. And his faith should instruct him that men are flawed, and any system created by men-such as a government, or a nation-is equally flawed. America cannot always be right when compared to the dictates of faith, and faith must come first. Consequently, a Christian with this in mind will enter politics only reluctantly, or with a healthy dose of skepticism about the limits of what he can achieve, or what his country can achieve. Of course, the exact opposite is true for the nationalist Christians who flock to Palin. To them it is not at all incongruous to mix the flag and the cross, even though one is a symbol of God and the other is a symbol of man, because what the flag represents has been blessed and ordained by God. The "shining city on the hill" becomes not an admonishment by God to act in humility, but a sign of God's blessing.

That being said, I noticed something else that I found interesting about Niebuhr's idolatry of America, from the chapter by that name in his book "Love and Justice." In this chapter Niebuhr is interested less in American foreign or military policy, and more in American economic policy. Here's an excerpt:

The pious layman wants good Christians to be socially minded, but he doesn't want them to be coerced to do justly, for 'man's individual behavior as a social being cannot be forced on people...Social qualities come from within' he declares, 'and can therefore only be cultivated.' One is reminded of the day when Herbert Hoover opposed unemployment insurance on the ground that it destroyed the good old American way of voluntary aid to the unfortunate.

Thus Christian sentimentality is made a cloak for a corrupt form of lasseiz-faire politics...Our present prosperity is actually creating a mood among our lay Christians that approximates the uncritical Christian adoration of the 'free enterprise system' before the rise of the social gospel that challenged it. The social gospel was frequently itself too moralistic, but one might be grateful now for some of its emphases, however inadequate.

So, another "idolatry of America" is the raising of free market capitalism above the "social gospel", the desire to alleviate the problems of poverty, injustice and immorality in America. Unfortunately, it would appear that Niebuhr's way of thought is not much adhered to by modern Christian conservatives. Here for example is Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, discussing our present economic crisis:

The big debate in Washington is over the extent of government intervention. Prudence would indicate that the less government intervention, the better. Adam Smith was confident that a "hidden hand" within the economy would rectify excesses and punish bad actors. I think he is basically right, but the government is, like it or not, one of the actors in this economic system.

So watch the debates in Washington with interest and consider how a Christian should understand the economy and our economic lives. The free market is not perfect, but capitalism has brought more wealth to more people than any other system. It rewards investment, labor, and thrift and rises on innovation. Better ideas and better products push out inferior ideas and inferior products. Given the reality of human sin, we should not centralize economic control in the hands of the few, but distribute economic power to the many. A free market economy distributes power to multitudes of workers, inventors, investors, and consumers.

Nowhere in any of that do I see questioning of the fundamentals of the economic system that we live under. Everything Mohler says sounds quite reasonable, and he counsels the Biblically-approved of traits of thrift and hard work. But where in the Bible is it said that less regulation is better? Suppose Mohler is taking a pragmatic approach; this approach to economic regulation brings more wealth and prosperity to all, alleviating poverty as we are admonished to do by Christ. But it can hardly be argued that our economic system rewards some with vastly greater amounts of wealth than others. And yet it is no surprise that Mohler is similarly opposed to taxation as a means to redistribute wealth. But where does Christ counsel Christians to vote for lower taxes? Perhaps Mohler values freedom in general, something that all Americans can appreciate. But where does the Bible say that Christians are free of their obligation to care for their fellow man?

Just as Palin's version of Christian patriotism has become indstinguishable from nationalism (or more accurately, nationalism is embraced by the Christian patriot) so too has unquestioning acceptance of the free market sytem and lasseiz-faire economics become the Christian right's economic system. A book could be written about why this is so (and surely many have been) but it's really no surprise that men should seek to make the message of Christ, who dictates that families will be divided and set against each other by his teachings, somewhat more palatable to our modern inclinations. Few systems of belief can be less challenging than religious teachings which approve of an unwillingness to pay taxes and the desire to profit and live in comfort, and it should hardly come as a surprise that laymen who believe as much and powerful business interests have found a home in the same party, and can each equally justify the other's essential selfishness with Biblical passages. 

It would appear than that Niebuhr was right to fear the ascension of free market Christianity. But for the religiously inclined, the present economic crisis we are enduring-and the fundamental flaws it has exposed in our economic way of life-could be a sign that God does not favor the free market as much as some of his followers do.

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