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.
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)