The Hollow, Empty Freedom of America

So, here I am, continuing with William Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. This review/synopsis will cover chapter four, which deals with the messianic nature of American nationalism.

Cavanaugh begins with a discussion of American exceptionalism, and he says there are two kinds — one which is explicitly Christian, which sees America as the”New Israel,” and the other, which is grounded heavily in the Enlightenment (especially in Kant and Hegel), which sees America as history’s final meaning and end. America as history’s telos. While the first kind of exceptionalism is explicitly theological, the second kind avoids theological language or biblical imagery “out of respect for the human conscience.” (p. 93) For Cavanaugh, the American exceptionalism founded in Enlightenment philosophy is much more important than what he calls Judeo-Christian exceptionalism:

This kind of exceptionalism is based not on the particularism of the election of Israel by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but in the universalism of certain concepts of freedom and right. In the Enlightenment narrative, the tragedy of religious violence can only be solved by a recognition of the indeterminate nature of the truth about God, at least on a public level. It is this recognition that has given priority to the freedom to worship the god of one’s choice, or not god at all. The priority of freedom to the good becomes not just a political theme but an economic one as well. The priority of freedom is embodied in democracy and free markets, which hold the key to the happiness of all. The nation that is the vehicle for this hope for the world is exceptional, therefore, not because it was chosen by a particular act of the biblical God but because it is based on something prior and more universal, the freedom of the human will. The United States is not a successor to a past “chosen people,” but is, a Colin Powell has said, the first “universal nation,” the first to break the bonds of particularity. (p. 92-93)

Two things are very important here. First is what Cavanaugh describes as “the priority of freedom.” And the second is the universality of America as the ends of human history. Before I review Cavanaugh’s deeper discussion of these two (especially what “the priority of freedom” really means), I need to note that Cavanaugh’s great concern about the theologizing of the American state in an Enlightenment context makes America an “empty shrine,” which can then be filled up by whatever content its various worshipers choose to fill it with. That, for some believers in the American civil religion, that is the whole point — America itself is the thing that can be agreed upon. But Cavanaugh believes that explicit biblical exceptionalism actually puts America in the Bible story, and thus makes it accountable to something other than itself. Enlightenment exceptionalism has no means of accountability.

The deepest theological danger inherent in American exceptionalism, then, is that of the messiah nation that does not simply seek to follow God’s will, but acts as a kind of substitute god on the state of history. When the concept of chosenness becomes unmoored from the biblical narrative, the danger is that the nation will not only be substitute church but substitute god. When the shrine is empties of the biblical God and replaced with the generic principle of transcendence, the danger is that we will not come to worship God but will worship our freedom to worship God. The empty shrine is surreptitiously filled. Our freedom itself becomes an idol, the one thing we will kill and die for. (p. 96)

From here, Cavanaugh begins a fairly thorough exploration of Roman Catholic theologian Stephen Webb’s views on American nationalism as outlined in Webb’s book American Providence, and finishes with a brief examination of German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt (who influenced Leo Strauss). I mention this the way I do because I believe Cavanaugh focuses on Webb’s book because Webb’s book is reflective of how many American Christians have come to understand their place as Americans and their nation’s place in history.

For Cavanaugh, Webb believes the following:

  • God is active in history.
  • The purpose of history is to open up the world in ways that allow human beings to choose Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
  • America is doing more than any other nation to make the opening possible. In fact, American government, society, institutions and capitalist economy are better ways of opening the world to the Jesus than all others.
  • America in and of itself is universal freedom.
  • But the point of the freedom to choose is the ability to choose Jesus, and nothing else.
Cavanaugh finds numerous problems with the approach, the foremost being there is no standard by which to judge American actions. “The danger is locating God’s activity in America,” Cavanaugh writes, “in that America itself becomes the criterion for locating God’s activity in the world.” (p. 99) According to Cavanaugh, there is no mention of what Jesus does in the Gospels — no love of neighbor, no healing, no reconciling, nothing.
But most importantly, no cross. And no resurrection. Cavanaugh states that “Webb explicitly rejects the idea of reading history from the underside, that is, from the point of view of the poor majority of the world’s population.” (p. 99) They do not matter. They are not actors in history. For Webb, the poor are recipients of God’s grace, but only because they exist for the “nonpoor” (Cavanaugh quotes Webb) to engage in acts of charity. Charity itself is good, but achieves nothing a grand scale. Only governments and nation-states can do that. (Webb very much espouses a theology of glory.)
Cavanaugh also states that Webb has no room for the church as God’s agent in history. Salvation is for the world and for individuals, but there is no church. And thus, no way to embody the grace of God collectively and in community, and to speak the judgment of God, since the only actor in Webb’s history that matters is the United States of America, which embodies God’s will for humanity in the here and now.
Finally, Cavanaugh deals briefly with German jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt (who figures in the last chapter of Webb’s book). For Cavanaugh, Schmitt is important because of his belief that sovereignty is the power that decides the exception. Because of this, the sovereign cannot always be subject to the law. The purpose of politics is to decide who is a friend of the nation and who is an enemy. For Schmitt, the church has no business telling the state how to use this power. Webb goes even farther, and states (according to Cavanaugh) that attempts by the church to tell the state how to act in this regard is an attempt to exclude God from history. (!!!!) As Cavanaugh notes:

The problem, in my view, is that the political presence of the biblical God is mediated through the official discourse of America, and not through a distinctively Christian body that stands under the explicit authority of Jesus Christ. The church as mediator between God and America — a church that has the critical distance to pronounce judgment as well as blessing — is in danger of being erased. What has happened in effect is that America has become the new church. When the relationship of America and God is this direct, there is little to check the identification of Gods’ will with America’s. America is God’s people, the bearer of God’s salvation to the world. … Without the irritant of the body of Christ, the body politic is free once again to divinize the political authority, to transfer the sovereignty of God to the sovereign state. (p.104-105) 

Cavanaugh then concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of Israel’s sovereignty in scripture, noting that Israel was more a people than a polity. For most of its history, it was intertwined with enemies and truly sovereign, or was conquered and administered by foreigners. This is a point that I have long focused on, and have concluded from the scriptural narrative of Israel’s history that God does not intend for God’s people to be a polity, but rather, to be subject to polities while at the same time interacting with them. Cavanaugh also focuses on Paul’s description of the church as a grafting on to Israel, the opening up of Israel to all humanity, so that God’s chosenness may include all people.
I think Cavanaugh’s discussion of Webb contributes something important. Again, Webb is not crafting or creating an idea, but rather is reflecting a reality — this, I believe, is how many American Christians already view the American state. It is primarily a conservative view, and one very focused on the military and war making, but I believe this view — that the important actor in history is the United States of America — is also one held by more than a few liberal Christians as well. 
It also explains an interesting understanding of “freedom” current on the right. As someone with libertarian tendencies, I’ve always found the conservative belief in “freedom” to be somewhat at odds with how conservatives actually act. Freedom is not a thing to use in any meaningful way. It seems like it’s a hollow, empty freedom, this freedom that Lee Greenwood sings about. What good is it if it’s not used? But it’s not supposed to be used, this “freedom,” because this “freedom” itself is the end of human existence, and that end is embodied in the United States of America. It explains, I think, why someone like Rick Santorum can speak of freedom on the one hand, and restricting human action on the other. The freedom he speaks of is not the freedom to act without harming others, but the very purpose and meaning of history. That is why the “priority of freedom” is so important.
In effect, many conservative American Christians are mystical nationalists, and not really Christians at all.
Chapter five is a short chapter on how to do penance for the inquisition, and I probably will not deal with it. And so, I will lump chapters six and seven together, which deal with the liturgy of American nationalism and the church as a political entity.