Reflections on Catholic Revisionism: Garry Wills’ “Why Priests”?


 Gary Wills is trying to save Catholicism.

But not the way you might think.  Prospective readers of Why Priests? might see in the provocative title a veiled reference to the sexual abuse by priests and the hierarchy’s cover-up, so prominent in the news these days.  But the book, in fact, is not about priestly behavior.  At best the scandals are background for Wills’ real agenda: a general theological revision that leaves what  he believes are Catholic fundamentals intact while justifying the transition to a more convivial religiosity and representative government within the Catholic Church.

By “revision” I don’t mean to trivialize the depth of institutional reform that Wills study contemplates.  He is calling for nothing less than the categorical elimination of priesthood.  Perhaps a better word than “revise” for what he is doing would be “re-envision.”  If the changes he suggests were implemented, it would in fact be institutionally revolutionary, for it would mean the end of the Catholic caste system, setting priests apart from the laity based on their magical powers.  If it were up to Wills, the Ancien Regime Catholique would be over.  What Locke’s philosophy was to Jeffersonian democracy, perhaps his own theology might be to future Catholic forms of governance and religious practice.

But the effort still deserves the word “revision,” for it leaves “Catholic fundamentals” in place.  It does not directly attack Catholic dogmatic and moral absolutes or the sacred autocracy that sustains them.  Neither of those foundational features of Catholicism depends on “priesthood” for its justification.  They rest on the claim of the divinity of Jesus — the “Incarnation” — and that is something Wills does not dispute.

For those who believe that the problem with the Church can be exhaustively identified as the blow–back from a hydraulic view of the sacraments, a hierarchical male caste system, mandatory priestly celibacy and mediaeval papist authoritarianism, Wills’ book is just what the doctor ordered.  What we may all need to be reminded of, however, is that it has all been done before: it was called the Protestant Reformation.  And it had exactly the opposite effect on the Catholic Church from what the reformers intended; in fact it caused a violent defensive recoil that cast in concrete the worst features of Roman Catholic religious life.  The door was nailed shut at the Council of Trent 25 years after Luther’s protest at Wittenberg.   And even though since then Catholics have been living side by side with the very reformed Christianity that Wills calls for, it has done nothing but intensify their desire to cling to their unreformed “catholicity.”

In our own times, some of these “protestant” changes suggested by Wills’ theological study were encouraged (though not mandated) by the Second Vatican Council, 50 years ago.  Since then, an almost predictable backlash on the part of the Vatican authorities fundamentally repeated the reactions of Trent.  While a significant minority within the Church has criticized the Popes for their systematic unraveling of the visionary tapestry woven by the Council Fathers, it seems clear that the sacred authority and dogmatic absolutism that defines the Catholic hierarchy, setting Catholicism apart from all other religious institutions, remain firmly in place, unaffected by great numbers of defections.  Autocratic authority structures and doctrinal absolutes are the bedrock identifiers of this ancient Church; and the absence of democratic participation in governance means the Church has come to be equated solely with the hierarchy who also control its considerable corporate wealth.

Wills’ reforms are aimed at institutional changes that would make the Church indistinguishable from many of the protestant denominations that still flourish today.  At a time when the Catholic Church is more and more assimilated to a large business corporation whose stock-in-trade is private education, the focus of its managers on “brand recognition” requiring the maintenance of characteristics clearly recognizable as “Catholic” is quite explicit.[1]  Theology has nothing to do with it.  A prospective investor should be reassured that the institutional Catholic Church will resist any changes that would adversely affect its marketability.  This does not argue against the accuracy of Wills’ study or the validity of his recommendations, but it does suggest that there is little chance they will have any effect


Despite what I believe are his ultimate practical intentions, Wills’ chosen means are theoretical: historical and theological.  That means that Why Priests? could as easily be read as a direct foray into the theory of redemption.  The book is an attempt at a serious contribution to Christian self-under­stan­ding and should not be treated merely as an episode in the polemic between the current factions of internal Catholic politics.  It is in the common quest for historical accuracy and theological depth that the following critique is offered.

Wills’ primary thesis is that the priesthood was not an original Christian institution nor religious theme.  This is scripturally and historically incontestable.  In fact sacrifice itself — the raison d’etre for priesthood — as the traditional expression of worship in the ancient Mediterranean, was not part of Jesus’ message.  Jesus never claimed to be the “Victim” destined to save humankind or the Cosmos.  He neither identified himself as a priest nor did he confer priesthood on others.  Moreover, the earliest Christian communities show no signs of ritual practices that included “sacrifice.”  Christian leaders presided over communal meals with prayers and exhortation but the rituals were not “sacrifice,” they were eucharistía, “thanksgiving,” and those who led them were not priests.  In fact, Wills claims, the meals were not even primarily re-enact­ments of the last supper but rather the living symbols of Christian sharing.  He supports all this with extensive citations from the New Testament and early Church documents, like the Didache.[2]

So where did “sacrifice” and “priesthood” come from?  Wills lays the “blame” squarely on the one document in the NT that uses sacrifice and priesthood as the central metaphors for the Christ-event.  That is the letter of pseudo-“Paul” to the Hebrews.  This letter, like the entire Pauline corpus, is based on the assumption that the transcendent significance of Jesus for the world was not his life and message but rather his death and resurrection.  That is the only reason why the author of “Hebrews,” who in all other ways — theological perspective, analytical procedures and literary style — is clearly not Paul, could ever have been so identified:

It is often said that Saint Paul’s Letter to Hebrews is not Paul’s, not a letter, and not to Hebrews. It cannot be by Paul, since basic Pauline concepts are not in it, and its concepts are not in Paul (especially the idea that Jesus is a priest).  Moreover, its language is not that of Paul or of any other author in the New Testament.  Its style and vocabulary are unparalleled.  Its uses of sentence structure and rhetorical devices are far more polished than those found anywhere else.[3] …  As Raymond Brown asks, “Why would the author compose in elegant Greek a dissuasive to Jewish Christian priests who would have known Hebrew as part of the liturgy, or to Jewish Christians of Judea, for whom Hebrew or Aramaic would have been a native language?” Koester agrees: “Hebrews was written in Greek using a Greek form of the Old Testament, which does not seem fitting for an audience of Hebrew-speaking Christians based in Jerusalem”?[4]

What about its antiquity?  New Testament documents are accepted as reliable witnesses to the early faith because they were written while the apostles were still alive.  Wills admits, “The letter had to be written before the nineties of the Common Era, since it is quoted and paraphrased in Clement of Rome’s letter of that date … this puts the Letter sometime in the eighties — approximately when the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written.”[5]

So it is an extremely early document, earlier possibly than Matthew’s gospel which many scholars assign to the ‘90’s, and much earlier than “John” which came even later.  Despite the anti­quity of Hebrews and its final inclusion in the canon, the fact that it was not universally accepted as canonical from the beginning, probably because it was known not to have been of Pauline or apostolic origin, allows Wills to get a foot in the door.  His case against “sacrifice” and “priest­hood” as validly Christian categories includes the insinuation that there is something questionable about Hebrews as an authentic document with apostolic authority.

I feel Wills is grasping at straws here.  Hebrews was never questioned as to its very early date nor its consonance with the Christian vision of the significance of Jesus.  Regardless of the doubts regarding Pauline authorship due to style and thematic differences with other letters, no one ever challenged the sincerity of the author’s claims to personal acquaintance with Timothy, placing him firmly in apostolic times.  Wills may not like it, but Hebrews, regardless of authorship, represents an undeniably authentic imagery used, known and admired in the very early Church.

Does that obviate his argument that “sacrifice” and “priesthood” did not exist in early Christian communities?  Not at all.  The two issues are separate.  “Hebrews” was a sermon given at a time of looming persecution.  Thinking of Jesus’ death and the possible death of Christians meta­phorically as a “sacrifice” offered by  “priests” was quite compatible with a community of equals.  There is no indication that the epistle was speaking about current structures or practice.  It was poetry.  I feel Wills is railing at a literary and homiletic device as if it had been intended as de fide definita dogma — a quasi-scientific thesis of philosophical theology — a projection based on his own misplaced literalism.

His trenchant criticism, on pp. 145-146, of the letter’s “illogical” attempt to match Jesus “sacrifice” to the details of an imagined Melchizedekian priesthood, is a case in point.  Wills’ censure only makes sense if you insist that the author meant it literally.  It seems obvious to me that the whole train of thought was intended figuratively from the start.  Every analogy limps.  There was never any intention of instituting priesthood, nor “sacrifice” for that matter.  What Wills should be doing instead of punching at these shadows is defending the document for what it was meant to be — a powerful sermon based on an extended metaphor — and thus illuminate the metaphorical and poetic nature of New Testament documents in general.  Wills, and other “theologians” like him, need to be instructed in religious reality:  New Testament documents were poetry not science, just as religion is a love relationship, not a business contract or formulas of eternal “truth.”

Hebrews was an exhortation to Christians to remain steadfast in the face of persecution.  Its evocation of “sacrifice” and the imagery of Jesus as “priest” was meant to inspire its readers.  “Sacrifice” was not adduced as some metaphysical reality.  There was nothing directly dogmatic going on here.  The “sermon” might have been used by later generations to provide a metaphysical justification for a caste priesthood, but it was not intended that way nor was it the source of it.  For that we have to look elsewhere.


We all know that the shared meal of the early communities eventually became the “mass,” considered a “sacrifice” offered by “priests” as a ritual repetition of Jesus’ “sacrifice” on the cross.  That transformation is an undeniable fact.   How did it happen?  Wills’ analysis myopically focuses on the epistle to the Hebrews to the exclusion of other factors.   He omits the historical context: the political, social, economic and religious world of the Roman Empire in the first three centuries ce.

A nascent religious movement like Christianity, driven by apocalyptic energies making a transition from one culture to another was necessarily engaged in a street-level struggle for institutional survival.  Jesus was a Jew and Christianity began as a messianic sect within Judaism.  Its original categories were Jewish and its authorities were the traditional Jewish sources of Torah: the Bible and the oral tradition.  The spectacular success of Christianity in the Greco-Roman cultural milieu, spearheaded by Paul and others, required the delicate “transplanting” of this Semitic Palestinian phenomenon onto Greco-Roman soil.  That meant not only the translation of terms, religious imagery and concepts, but it meant Christians living with their “pagan” neighbors in ways that were seen by them as acceptable even if not completely understood.

The Roman Empire has been called a theocracy.  That’s not quite accurate; every form of government in those days was a theocracy.  Life was inconceivable outside of the will of the gods.  Whatever government a people had, it was really the gods that ruled: they rewarded and punished, they sent harvests or famines, they gave victory in war or they punished with defeat.  Part of the job of every government was to placate the gods and ensure the well-being of the land.  The principal instrument for that, used since time immemorial by all peoples everywhere, by Jews as well as gentiles, was sacrifice. 

“Sacrifice” needs no elucidating from me.  Whole libraries have been written by anthropologists on the origins and evolution of sacrifice in human history.  What may have begun as human sacrifice came to be considered barbaric; at some point a transition was made to animal sacrifice which, at the time Christianity was born, was the universal practice throughout the Mediterranean world.  The very word “redemption” in our tradition had its origins in the ancient Hebrew custom of offering the “first-born” of every living thing (including people) and the first fruits of every harvest to “God.”  People would then “buy back” (redeem) their children from the priests for a price.  It was a ritual fiction that preserved the vestiges of the ancient offering and simultaneously provided a sustenance for the priests.[6]

In the Greco-Roman world of the first century, animal sacrifice offered to the traditional pantheon of Mediterranean gods was an official state function.  Other religions like the mysteries of Demeter, Isis and Mithra — and Christianity would have been considered one of these — were more private matters and existed alongside the official cult of the gods with their temples and official priesthood maintained by the state.  Sacrifice was a public responsibility in which all were expected to participate even the devotees of other religions.  It was a display of reverence for the gods on the part of the whole people.  We are well reminded that the word “liturgy” comes from a Greek word leitourgía:

At Athens the leitourgía was the public service performed by the wealthier citizens at their own expense … The meaning of the word liturgy was then extended to cover any general service of a public kind.  In the Septuagint it is used for the public service of the temple.  Thence it comes to have a religious sense as the function of the priests, the ritual service of the temple.  In the New Testament this religious meaning has become definitely established.[7]

The world the early Christians shared with the “pagans” was not godless and devoid of religion; just the opposite.  And the expression of the official state religion was animal sacrifice.  For those familiar with Christianity’s Judaic roots, there was nothing strange about animal sacrifice or the prestigious office of priesthood that performed those rituals.  The Jewish annual animal sacrifices and the title of priest mirrored the official rituals sponsored by the Roman state.  The epistle to the Hebrews tapped into that familiarity.

In such a milieu, it would be surprising if “gentile” Christians would not be inclined to continue to express their new faith in the terms to which they were accustomed, which came from their ancestral religions, and which continued to be the universal custom of their extended families, neighbors and community.  “Sacrifice” was normal to the world they lived in — a political and social and not just a religious responsibility — a “natural” way to worship “God” and insure the well-being of the community.  Hence, long before the emperors’ selection of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman State, there was an inevitable drift toward accommodation with the religious categories and customs of the Greco-Roman world.  In this light, “Hebrews” would represent an example of the attempt to acculturate Christians with a background in the Old Testament to the predominant “sacrifice” genre of the Greco-Roman world.  In other words, instead of causing the entrance of the “sacrifice” and “priesthood” categories into the Christian theological lexicon, I believe that “Hebrews” was actually the effect of their predominance in the Greco-Roman social environment.  “Hebrews” was an acknowledgement that “sacrifice” and “priests” were part of everyday reality and it gave them a Christian interpretation.   Where Christians differed from “pagans” was not on the question of “sacrifice” but what god they were willing to worship.  It was the Christian refusal to honor the gods of Rome that the authorities feared would bring disaster upon the land.  The Caesars launched persecutions against the Christians as part of their responsibility to protect the Empire.

This accommodation to “sacrifice” would naturally coincide with the social stratifications that characterized Mediterranean society.  The class divisions that set the educated and wealthy elite above artisans and slaves displaced the original Christian egalitarianism.  Authority positions were “appropriately” given to upper class personnel and a two tier caste system developed.  Once “sacrifice” became the preferred category for the interpretation of Jesus’ death and the worship of the community, the bishop, as the one leader of the community,  became the archierus, “high priest,” and his adjutant presbyteroi, “elders” functioned under him.  (Our English word “priest” derives etymologically from presbyter.)

I believe this transition was already well under way when Constantine, aware of the general conformity of Church structures to the life and customs of the Roman people, decided to govern under the aegis of the Christian “God.”  The cross was the “sign” that gave him the victory in 312 that made him emperor.  Although the Church did not become the official religion of the empire until 380, Constantine operated as if it were. He gave state religious functions over to the Christians, along with the priests’ stipends, temples and basilicas with their treasures.

With Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, not to mention the enormous imperial financial support, the building of churches veritably exploded in the course of the fourth century. … One can get some sense of the extravagance of the imperial donations from the list of gifts to the Lateran basilica in the Liber Pontificalis. For example, Constantine gave seven altars of finest silver each weighing 200 pounds, seven gold patens each weighing 30 pounds, two censers of finest gold each weighing 30 pounds.  And this is not even a fraction of the gifts that are enumerated for this building alone.[8]

Constantine intervened in Church disputes over authority and control of property within two years of his accession as emperor and even sent legions to North Africa to forcibly quash the Donatist rebellion a full century before Augustine joined the fray.

Constantine summoned a council of bishops from the western provinces of the empire at Arles on Aug. 1, 314, and again Caecilian was upheld (against Donatus) and his position strengthened … .  Despite further appeals by Donatus and his supporters, Constantine gave a final decision in favor of Caecilian in November 316.  The schism did not die out.  Persecution from 317 to 321 failed, and in May 321 Constantine grudgingly granted toleration to the Donatists.[9]

No sooner had the emperor selected Christianity, than he began shaping it to his will.  it was Constantine himself who, despite not being baptized, and remaining a priest of the Mithraic divinity Sol Invictus all his life, called all the world’s bishops to his private villa in Nicaea in 325 to conduct an Ecumenical Council to settle the question of the divinity of Christ.  And he was no silent observer.  It didn’t take long before the bishops found themselves at an impasse and …

It was at this stage Constantine dropped his bombshell on the Council.  He suggested that the relation of the Son to the Father might be expressed by the word “homoousios,” of one essence.  Eusebius is explicit that the emperor himself proposed this term …[10]

When Christians were given the task of replacing the official “state religion” with their own, many features of what became the standard Roman ritual assumed their character from the pagan liturgies they had to replace.  The “sacrifice of the mass” in the Roman Rite is an example we are all familiar with.  What had originally been a meal shared by equals seated around a common table, ended up being a stylized dramatic event performed by a “priest,” facing an “altar,” conspicuously set apart from and with his back to the people, offering a “sacrifice” designed to “please God.”

This turned the eucharist into the imitation of a pagan animal sacrifice.  The prayer attitudes and relational imagery of each kind of ritual are poles apart, and the differences in the way you relate implies a difference in the character of “God.”  A meal is a natural symbol of the convivial sharing of a community of equals.  That such a community action was then called eucharistía, “thanksgiving, reflects the religiously radical nature of Jesus’ vision and the “God” he worshipped.  It suggests that for Jesus the kind of “God” that would require “sacrifice” does not exist.  Jesus’ “Father,” according to the first letter of John, is irrepressible creative LIFE that has existed “from the beginning” and expresses itself in love.  In Jesus’ message there are none of the attitudes of “sacrifice”:  no fear, no notion of appeasement, no placating an angry potentate, no special caste of men who mediate for us … and forgiveness is assumed.  That is the invitation of Jesus … that is what he meant by religion.[11]

Wills seems to agree; he attacks the very notion of “sacrifice” as unChristian.  Locked into the literalism that characterizes Catholic theology, Wills cites Augustine on the gross impossibility that the “Father” could ever be literally pleased by the death of his “Son.”  He is absolutely right.  Following the striking poetry of the prophetic verses in Psalm 40:

Burnt offerings and sin offerings

             Thou hast not required

Then I said “Lo, I come;

             In the roll of the book it is written of me;

My delight is to do thy will, O my God;

             Thy law is within my heart.”[12]

… the crucifixion as “sacrifice” was understood as a metaphor for obedience and surrender to God.  And that is precisely the way Hebrews presents it in chapter 10: 5-10 and why the author quoted that psalm.[13]  But its metaphoric nature got lost in a world dominated by pagan sacrifice and the literalisms of philosophical theologians like Augustine of Hippo.  In his rush to eliminate “sacrifice” as the basis of priesthood, Wills fails to recognize that well before Anselm of Canterbury blood sacrifice was justified on other grounds, and by Augustine himself.

But Wills is right in saying that “sacrifice” was not Jesus’ way of relating to “God.”  And I agree that literal “sacrifice” and an ordained “priesthood” should have no place in a community that claims to follow Jesus’ “way.”  But Wills has to face the historical facts.  Ritual “sacrifice” as “worship” and probably its attendant priesthood has been with Christianity from at least the beginning of the third century if not earlier, and two centuries later Augustine provided a sophisticated theological justification for maintaining the practice.


 Augustine of Hippo was a bishop and theologian from North Africa whose work of over 40 years spanned the turn of the century after Constantine.  Augustine died in 430.  He had converted to Christianity three years after it had been decreed the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 380.  By that time the Church was no longer known as Christian, but “Catholic” which meant “official,” the religion of the “whole people.”  What Augustine thought and wrote at that crucial moment dominated European religious ideas for 1500 years.   No one has been more influential in our cultural heritage and in forming the western personality.

How should we characterize Augustine’s thought?  I believe it’s his capacity for what I call, after Orwell, “double-think” — the ability to separate “God’s” subjective intentions from “God’s” objective behavior.   Here’s an example: If there is one idea which pervaded all of Augustine’s thinking it is the absoluteness of “God.”  All-powerful, all-knowing, infinitely good, infinitely inscrutable, this “God” was totally in charge — not unlike a Roman emperor.  Nothing happened without his knowledge and acquiescence.  There was only one “God;” he had no rivals, he had no limits, and he loved us each with a personal love that Augustine was convinced he could feel directing his own life.  He applied this premise to issue after issue with relentless consistency.

But this belief was countered by a background “doctrine” that was an unstated, almost subliminal part of his philosophical (neoplatonic) inheritance.  That was that there was an objective order — in reality an emanation of the very inner nature of “God” as being and truth and ruled by logic — to which “God” himself was inescapably bound.[14]  This logic went beyond “love” (taken in its ordinary subjective sense of preference); Augustine’s loving “God,” since he was not arbitrary and whimsical, was bound by this natural order and had to “work within it.”  This “principle” was given such priority by Augustine that, as we shall see, it fatally compromised the omnipotence and compassion of “God.”  The attempt to explain how the two concurred was “double-think.”

Let’s look at another example: Augustine claimed that because of original sin humankind was radically incapable of doing good, or even wanting to do good, without the miraculous grace of “God.”  To the accusation that this implied that human nature was created defective, he answered that ”God” made humankind good, but that Adam’s sin corrupted us fatally.  By artificially separating the original creation as imagined in the Genesis myth from the actual “creation” of the human organism here and now, Augustine claimed he was still being faithful to the fundamental goodness of creation, when he was actually doing the opposite.  He said humankind was born thoroughly corrupt, morally impotent and alienated from “God.”  That the goodness and omnipotence of “God” were being undermined in such a vision seemed to pass without notice.

*  *  *

What does all this have to do with Wills and “sacrifice”?  Wills correctly disputes “sacrifice” as a valid Christian category justifying priesthood.  He bases his opinion on the spirit of Jesus’ message and the evidence of the overwhelming majority of NT documents.  I have no argument with him there.  The problem I have is that he calls on Augustine to testify against this patently outrageous “sacrifice” theory of redemption when in fact Augustine, applying his creative mechanism of “double-think,” did as much as anyone to set it as bedrock in Catholic thinking.

Wills cites multiple places where Augustine formally repudiates the literal sense that Jesus’ death pleased “God.”  But what he doesn’t talk about is that for Augustine this same “God” was so bound by the objective order of “justice” that he not only “devised” the death-by-crucifixion of Jesus to repair it, but will send even innocent new-born infants to eternal conscious torment in hell if they die without being included in that repair … precisely because they remain outside the objective order of justice.  With Jesus’ death, “God,” who is obliged to sustain nature’s universal order, finds a way to satisfy the demands of justice while at the same time “saving” humankind from being totally destroyed.  This “two birds with one stone” effect is achieved by Jesus (“God”) voluntarily taking our place for the punishment (death) that we deserve for sin:

… the universal Church daily cries in prayer to God, “Forgive us our debts,” and they are forgiven us by means of that singular sacrifice for sins which the apostle, speaking according to the law, did not hesitate to call “sin.” Whence, moreover, is that much plainer passage of his, … “We beseech you in Christ’s stead to be reconciled to God. He made Him to be sin for us, who had not known sin; that we might be the righteousness of God in Him.” …  But this passage, where God is said to have made Christ Himself “sin,” who had not known sin, does not seem to me to be more fittingly understood than that Christ was made a sacrifice for sins, and on this account was called “sin.”[15]

Augustine says “Jesus was made a sacrifice” but it wasn’t “God” he was satisfying; it was the objective order of justice.”  “God” is officially off the hook; he simply carries out the sentence imposed by the natural order. The strange thing is that Wills attributes this “theory” to Anselm of Canterbury.[16]  I beg to differ.  The thinking is quite prominent in Augustine, as the citations in this section will show, and I remain thoroughly perplexed as to why Wills insists on claiming that “Augustine rejected Anselm’s argument seven centuries before it was made.”[17]  Wills, I’m afraid, is mistaken here; Augustine did no such thing.  Anselm put it in mediaeval Teutonic terms, but it was Augustine’s argument.  Whatever differences Wills thinks he sees between them is entirely due to disregarding the metaphysics of Augustine’s view and falling for the superficial justifications of his “double-think.”  Anselm, as he did in all areas, fundamentally reproduced Augustine’s theory of redemption.

As he himself [Anselm] repeatedly said, his only ambition was to restate what his master Augustine had already stated.  And that is exactly what he did.  Moreover, Anselm was so thoroughly convinced of the validity of Augustine’s method that its most perfect definitions are to be found in the writings of Anselm rather than in those of Augustine.[18]

For Augustine, Jesus’ saving “sacrifice” is made available to human beings uniquely and exclusively through individual incorporation into the “body of Christ” in baptism.  Hence, anyone, innocent or not, even newborn babies, if they die without being baptized, are punished eternally because they were still part of Adam who was outside the objective order of “God’s” justice.  Augustine was not talking about subjective “moral” behavior here, neither on the part of the innocent infant nor the infinitely loving “God.” He was talking about an objective order, a kind of metaphysical / juridical state which “God” himself had to deal with and by which the unbaptized had to be damned.  The same mechanism that obligated “God” to send babies to hell, also impelled “God” (in the person of Jesus) to die in our stead for the sin of Adam — a death to which we were all condemned.

The following citations come from the same booklet of Augustine written about 420 called “A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians.” It was intended to refute what Julian of Eclanum had written to Pope Innocent I in defense of Pelagius.  Augustine says,

Nor do you [Pelagians] regard what is written, “Whosoever believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he who believeth not shall be condemned.” …  if you are forced by the words of the gospel to confess that infants departing from the body cannot have either life or salvation unless they have been baptized, ask why those who are not baptized are compelled to undergo the judgment of the second death, by the judgment of Him who condemns nobody undeservingly, and you will find what you do not want,—original sin![19]

Augustine obviously believes that because of original sin unbaptized infants deserve divine condemnation and that such punishment is entirely compatible with both the moral innocence of the children and the “loving” character of “God.”  This is “double think” at its best.  Just so there is no mistake, listen to Augustine again a short time later in the same treatise making himself perfectly clear:

… the venerable Innocent [Pope from 401 to 417] … writes that infants who are not baptized cannot have life. And who will deny that, as a consequence, they have death, if they have not life?  Whence, then, in infants, is so wretched a penalty as that, if there is no original fault?  …  certainly, since by the letters of the venerable Innocent concerning the abode of infants in eternal death unless they were baptized in Christ, the antiquity of the catholic faith shone forth, …  Because the catholic faith does not say that the nature of man is bad in as far as he was made man at first by the Creator; nor now is what God creates in that nature when He makes men from men, is evil; but what he derives from that sin of the first man.[20]

Please note the final sentence.  “God” is absolutely not to be blamed for humankind being born with original sin (and going to hell); Adam’s sin was a moral lapse that resulted in a metaphysical collapse and “God” was powerless in the face of its train of effects.  “God” was forced to continue to create humans contaminated with original sin.  And if “God” wanted to repair this broken system, “God” was also constrained by the universal order of justice, following a calculus imposed by the juridical principle of laesa majestas,[21] to die, as the Second Person of the Trinity, in the place of humankind — for our punishment was death and it had to be paidThus was “sacrificial death” redefined as voluntary and justified.  Augustine’s application of his extraordinary “double think” mechanism authorized what was otherwise a patent contradiction of the absolute omnipotence and providential control of an infinitely loving “God.”

Augustine’s “solution” borrowed its dynamics from Roman Law.  In the Roman system the law was treated as if it had “force” and it created personal conditions or “states” like innocent or guilty or debtor or enslaved that were treated as if they were quasi physical for the purposes of adjudication.  They were legal fictions, of course, but Augustine considered the case of “Adam’s guilt” to be physically / metaphysically literal because the effects of the “state of sin” were clearly manifest in human bodies that were wracked with “concupiscence.”  “Concupiscence” proved we were guilty; guilt demanded punishment.  Those in the “state” of guilt could only be released from that state by paying what they owed.  In this case it was “death” (announced by “God” in Genesis itself) and it had to be paid.  Jesus paid it for us.

Imagine yourself in the Roman Empire where life was ruled by law.  No one could suspend the law except the lawgiver, who was the emperor.  A good emperor who made good laws, would never waive them for it would disrupt the established order, risk the loss of control and inevitably be unfair to someone.  So the emperor, who was called “father” by his subjects, might suffer intensely for the pain he was causing his “children” by allowing the full force of the law to be applied.  Notice that “God” is passive here; the “law” — the order of justice and its punishments — had its own energy.  It was the law that sent non-baptized infants to hell, and required that Jesus die; it wasn’t “God.”  The “cleverness” and compassion of “God” was on display, however, in Jesus’ initiative.  “God,” (Jesus) voluntarily took the place of condemned humankind and died in our stead.  Thus, “choosing” the death of Christ was not sadistic, but an act of heroic love; it paid the debt that was owed by the guilt of Adam’s sin:

 … should the death of Christ not have come to pass?  Nay, rather, why should not that death itself have been chosen above all else to be brought to pass, to the passing by of the other innumerable ways which He who is omnipotent could have employed to free us; that death, I say, wherein neither was anything diminished or changed from His divinity, and so great benefit was conferred upon men, from the humanity which He took upon Him, that a temporal death, which was not due, was rendered by the eternal Son of God, who was also the Son of man, whereby He might free them from an eternal death which was due? … Therefore “God commends His love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified in His blood, “we shall be saved from wrath through Him;” from the wrath certainly of God, which is nothing else but just retribution. For the wrath of God is not, as is that of man, a perturbation of the mind; but it is the wrath of Him to whom Holy Scripture says in another place, “But Thou, O Lord, mastering Thy power, judgest with calmness.” If, therefore, the just retribution of God has received such a name, what can be the right understanding also of the reconciliation of God, unless that then such wrath comes to an end?[22]

By the end of the fourth century Jesus’ death as a “sacrifice” was already an established Christian practice and religious category that had been absorbed by osmosis from the surrounding culture.  As with infant baptism, Augustine inherited the practice, he did not create it; he was trying to make sense of it.  By elevating Roman juridical categories to the metaphysical level in order to explain Church practice, he made it make sense in those termsHe redefined “God,” man, original sin and redemption along with a host of other doctrines and embedded his interpretative categories in Christian theology for the next 1500 years.  Anselm at the beginning of the twelfth century took Augustine’s theory whole cloth, left out the sugar-side of “double think,” and adjusted it to reflect feudal Teutonic concepts of satisfaction as a substitute for punishment.  Together they denigrated the character of “God,” turning “God” into a punitive monster unwilling to mitigate our punishment, whose main interest was not humankind, but preserving the established order.[23]

The ironic thing is that they associated this vision with the man, Jesus, to whom it was totally foreign.  I blame it all on the very early mistake of his followers, of focusing “salvation” on Jesus’ death and resurrection, rather than on his life and message.  Once you claim we are “saved” by Jesus’ death, there are not many places you can go with it.  The disciples saw “sacrifice” in Isaiah’s “prophesies” of the Suffering Servant, and the Christian vision has been built around that ever since.  However, that was not Jesus’ Jewish message.  In his life, Jesus labored to restore “God’s” reputation as a truly “loving Father” and thus ground human dignity, compassion and freedom which were being hopelessly eroded by a rigid Jewish legalism in reaction to national humiliation under the Romans.  He was murdered for it … end of story — the story of the human condition.[24]  It wasn’t long before Jesus’ reform movement among the gentiles was caught up in the “theism of power” that ruled Rome as the inheritor of the empires which formed our western civilization.  By Augustine’s time, that reversal had already taken root in the practice of the western Church; theocracy had won and Roman Christians were offering “the sacrifice of the mass” to the “one true God” for the health of the emperor and the success of the Roman empire.  Rome had not been “baptized” by Christianity, rather Christianity had been co-opted (“paganized”?) by Rome, and Augustine set it all in theological stone.


 Wills wants to tinker with doctrine and still remain “Catholic.”  That’s the way with revisionists.  I can understand the temptation.  We Catholics cling to our Catholicism with an intensity that reveals the ethnic energies that feed all religious phenomena.  We believed that to abandon it would mean to abandon who we were.  On top of that, we were subjected to a formation that elevated Catholicism to divine status.  For us, the Catholic Church was the very place on earth where “God” himself exclusively resided and infallibly taught eternal truths to his people.

It’s time all this foolishness ended.  The Catholic Church is one organization among many that brokers relationship to the sacred.  It is no more divine than any other religious club and just as prone to superstition and self-serving abuse of power.  We are learning from scripture scholars and historians that the ultimate source of the absolutism that has characterized our Church was not Jesus of Nazareth but the ancient Roman Theocracy — the belief that Rome was divine, diva Roma, — chosen by the gods to rule the earth.  Rome was the Empire; the sole ruler of the known world.  When Rome chose its “church,” it automatically became “the Church,” the religion of “the whole world” — kat’olica.

Wills insists that he is Catholic and takes pains to list the doctrines to which he holds fast; they prove his orthodoxy and guarantee his membership.  Here they are, copied directly from page 256:

But if I do not believe in popes and priests and sacraments, how can I call myself a Catholic? What do I believe? I get that question all the time. Well, I will tell you what I believe. The things I believe are not incidental or peripheral, but central and essential. They are:


The Creation (which does not preclude evolution).

The Trinity.

Divine Providence.


The Incarnation.

The Resurrection.

The Gospels.

The Creed.


The Mystical Body of Christ (which is the real meaning of the Eucharist).

The Eucharist.

The Second Coming.

The Afterlife.

The Communion of Saints.

I notice there is no mention of “Original Sin,” and “Redemption” — a conspicuous omission given the discussions in his book, and no clue as to why.  The “doctrines” that remain on the list are some of the metaphors our western culture has generated to express the mystery of existence.  Other cultures with different histories and different poets have generated other metaphors that focus on the same existential issues, sometimes in ways that are recognizable to us, sometimes not.  Religion is a universal phenomenon because the insecurity of existence — an existence that our flesh is programmed to cling to but which is inexorably moving toward death — is absolutely universal.  Religion will always be with us because of that inherent contradiction: it affects us all, we can’t help it. 

Christianity has never acknowledged that its doctrines and practices are metaphor.  Born in Greece at a time when science in the form of rational philosophy had swept away the pantheon of the gods, Christianity was embraced by the Greeks as the ritual expression of a “scientific” Platonism, and its narratives objective history.  That is still true today.  Garry Wills is a Christian literalist whose critique of the Catholic doctrines of “sacrifice” and “priesthood” is based squarely on challenging their factual authenticity.  He meets literal claims with literal refutations.

Catholic doctrine is, however, pure metaphor, and its practices, structures and rituals, poetry.

Wills does not agree.  For him, it is literal.  When Wills provides us with this list of “what he believes,” he is not saying that this is a list of acceptable metaphors … and that “sacrifice” and “priesthood” are not acceptable metaphors.  Not at all.  He is saying this is a list of “realities,” things that are really, literally “true,” and that “sacrifice” and “priesthood” are not among them,

but the Incarnation is … and the rest of that list of “facts.” 

Take the Incarnation.  If Wills accepts the Incarnation as real in the sense that the Church has traditionally proclaimed it, then he is also saying that Jesus is literally “God” exactly as the “Father” is “God” — homoousios, defined at Nicaea and therefore it was “God” himself who founded the Christian Religion.

How can Catholicism be faulted, then, for drawing the inescapably logical literalist conclusion, a century before Augustine’s time, that “outside the Church there is no salvation”?  You can’t blame logic, it’s only an obedient tool that validates conclusions.  If the conclusion is invalid — and we know it is — it must mean the premise was wrong … incorrect as stated or as understood … not true.  Where does that leave the “Incarnation” … and Wills’ “Catholicism”?

Belief in the literal Incarnation has entailed the “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” of Catholicism that Wills surely rejects.  Catholics are on the horns of a dilemma: if they want to avoid saying that the Catholic Church was founded by “God”-in-person, and to that end declare that the Incarnation is only a metaphor, they stop being Catholic.  On the other hand, if they want to remain Catholic, they have to live with “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” as acceptable conclusions from the premises they support … and just hope and pray that the “Holy Spirit” will deter the authorities from acting on its literalist implications.   But think what that means: it implies that we are praying that the Incarnation not be taken literallty — that it be treated “as if” it were a metaphor!

The contrary to exclusivism, whether as applied to sectarian Catholicism or to all of Christianity, is universalism, i.e.,  a recognition that all religions provide similar metaphorical vehicles for their people.

Is there a middle ground between exclusivism (literalism) and universalism?  I don’t think so.  Doesn’t the realization that even if Christian doctrine like the Incarnation were literally true, that it can only avoid contradictions like “exclusivism” when treated as metaphor, … doesn’t that fact compel acceptance of the poetic nature of religion and therefore, paradoxically, argue for religion’s universal validity?

However you ask it, the question highlights the metaphoric, artistic, non-literal character of the religious phenomenon.  Religion is a work of the imagination, and Wills’ entire study in Why Priests?, by pursuing the question of sacrifice and priesthood in the same literalist terms that philosophical theology has used since the days of Augustine, does a disservice to the evolution of religious thought in our time.  We are learning that religion — all religion — is symbolic, part of the virtual world we create with our heads to override the indeterminacy of life.  Priesthood and sacrifice are historically and regionally conditioned metaphorical expressions of the religious relationship.  But so is Incarnation.  If for some reason I no longer wish to embrace the first two doctrines and still accept the third, I have a perfect right to do so, but not on the claim that one is a “fact” and the others are not.  None of them are “facts.”  They are all metaphors; they are all poetry.  And, yes, we have the right to choose the poetry that inspires us, to listen to the music that expresses our feelings and to surround ourselves with the art and buildings that represent our relationship to that “in which we live and move and have our being.”  But once you admit that, you have entered the universalist dimension because that’s what every religion does.

In our time we are thankfully “beyond religion,” meaning an obligatory imposition of objectively true propositions from and about another world, administered by a social elite which controls our destiny here and hereafter.  But in another sense, today we have finally discovered what religion really is and we have made it ours.  We have entered an era where the power of the religious poetry of millennia of multiple traditions has been made available for the enrichment of us all.   In our time the universal respect for all religions is our celebration of the profound insights and luxuriant expression here­­to­fore denied us by the pre-emptions of our “only true” religions.  Religion is human poetic insight functioning at some of its deepest levels.  We are now learning that religion does not come from “God,” it has been ours from the very beginning; and now we are declaring our rights of ownershipThese are depths that our ancestors reached on their own, and we will not be disinherited.

We are not going back where we came from.  We have entered a universalist age and any religion that earns our loyalty will have to acknowledge that irreversibility, perhaps even in the form of “official” declarations.  Such a universalist proclamation on the part of a newly reformed Catholicism would have to insist not only on the repudiation of its own erstwhile religious arrogance and claims to superiority, but will actively encourage its members to taste and share the poetry, ritual and relational attitudes of other traditions even as we offer to share ours with them.  For Wills to attempt to breathe life back into the moribund corpse of an unrepentant exclusivist sectarian Catholicism by separating “orthodox” from “heterodox” literalisms and bypassing entirely the metaphoric nature of all religious expression, is myopic and atavistic.  Derogating the priesthood and challenging the validity of the doctrine of “sacrifice” on which it rests, however valid, is to my mind, too little, too late and too small.  Wills’ proposals are hardly different from the reforms sought by the Protestants in the sixteenth century.  If those reforms had been embraced by the Church at Trent in 1545, it may have averted the bloody European nationalism and brutal, dehumanizing colonialism that characterized the last 500 years of “Christian” history.  It’s too late for that.  Now is not the time to “revise” Catholicism or even Christianity; it has had its day for good or bad — now is the time to transcend it all.


 Religion is relationship.  Religion is our relationship to our source and sustainer.  Therefore its doctrines can only be poetry, a work of art, a quintessential work of the imagination.

Poetry (in the broad sense) is the tool we have forged to talk about relationship.  It is necessarily inexplicit.  It uses one set of images — words, pictures, music, movements, structures — to evoke another.  And the reason is that the thing it is trying to express is inexpressible: relationship.  Relationship is not definable.  It is not something that can be known “objectively.”  Only persons, subjects, can understand relationship from inside as a valence between subjects, and only persons can try to express it in the strange symbolic form we call poetry.  Relationship cannot be weighed or measured; it has no physical dimensions; it is not predictable as to its birth or consequences, its intensity or its duration.  It is not a “thing” of any kind; it is sustained only in the empty interstices between mutually recognizing and intentionally embracing conscious individuals.

Poetry is symbolic, not literal.  It is metaphoric; it “throws” a word or image “beyond” the boundary line that separates one thing from another and thus evokes, does not define, points to, does not comprehend, suggests, does not declare, something else entirely.  What results is an understanding that comes from a lived experience, not knowledge.  Metaphor is a literally incorrect use of words; yet because it calls forth in the reader a remembrance that reconstructs the subjectivity of relationship, it brings it to life; and if the poetry is good, if the metaphors are good, it will be dead accurate and it will “work.” “Incarnation” can be one of these metaphors;  but it is not a “fact.”

Everything on Wills’ list of orthodoxies is poetry:  God, Creation, Trinity, etc..  They are all metaphors that try to elicit an understanding of a real relationship about which we have no direct know­ledge whatsoever.  We know nothing, but we understand how we are related to the source and sustenance of our existence, in which “we live and move and have our being.”  I know nothing; the only “thing” I know is myself, and I construct a felt relationship to my unknown source out of the inner experience of personal non-origination.  The doctrines do not refer to things that are known but rather inferred and experienced in my unknowing.

 Religion is the attempt to express the awe and mystery of dependent non-self-originating existence.  The irrepressible human “sense of the sacred” spontaneously arises in the awareness of existential vulnerability.  It not just a matter of fear.  The awareness of our undeniable conditionality — that we do not have possession or control over that which is most precious to us, our own existence — generates the empirical base on which the relationship is constructed.   And I want to emphasize, it is a construct, for the only intersubjective experience we have is with ourselves as individuals and as a community.  There is no other world; there is no “supernatural” experience; “God” is where we “live and move and have our being” and that’s right here and now!

Religion is not literalist: it is relational and poetic.  Theology, history, scriptural analysis, on the other hand, are not religion.  They are all literalist enterprises that approximate to the “exact” sciences whose methods they employ.  I do not criticize Wills for making a literalist analysis and coming to literalist conclusions.  I criticize him for not clarifying the difference between the work of the sciences and the work of religion.  Sacrifice and priesthood are metaphors.  Accurately identifying that difference and thoroughly analyzing the relational import of religious metaphors is precisely the work of scientific theology.  Doctrine, on the other hand, is not science, it is religion’s poetry.  Doctrine is not talking about “things,” it is offering evocative imagery that gives shape and intensity to the religious relationship.  Theology is different from doctrine.  The systematic comparison between the doctrinal metaphors of various religious traditions is one of the great contributions that a theologian can make to our universalist age and its potential for religious experience at depths never before imagined.

Theology is not religion and does not substitute for religion, and that was the mistake Augustine made.  He was a Platonist and it is not surprising that he fell into the trap set by Plato who was convinced that if he could merely think something, it must not only be real, literally true, but more than an idea.  It had to be something physical / metaphysical — like a thing or a force, or a state.  We approach things differently in our times.  Unfortunately, Wills’ enthusiasm for Augustine and his “solutions” risks maintaining the illusion that our imaginings are reality … that the lack of independent verification has nothing to say about the validity of religiously held “facts.”  I repeat: there are no such “facts.”  The only fact is an experienced existential crucifixion.  The religious relationship is the resurrection our conatus impels us to project.  I said “impel” not “compel.”  It’s our choice.  We either trust it or we don’t.  That’s the way relationship works.

[1] “Preserving the Vision: Strategic Plan 2011-2014”,” can be found on the Brooklyn Diocesan website ( The language used in that document reflects this corporate commercial mindset. Cf also John AllenVatican official warns of ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with LCWR,” NCR June 12, 2012, where it’s clear the same terminology was used by a member of the Roman Curia.  Also see Tony Equale, “Preserving the Vision?” blogpost for July 2, 2012

[2] Garry Wills, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Viking, 2013, p.17, Chapter 18, pp. 241-253 passim.

[3] Ibid., p. 119.

[4] Ibid., p. 124

[5] Ibid., pp. 122-123.

[6] Gigot, F.  “Redemption in the Old Testament”, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, (1911),  New York: Robert Appleton Company.  Retrieved May 21, 2011 from New Advent:

[7] Fortescue, Adrian, “Liturgy,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910, <;.

[8] John Baldovin, SJ, “The Empire Baptized,” in The Oxford History …, op.cit., pp. 78 & 79.

[9] Donatist. 2013. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 19 March, 2013, from (emphasis mine)

[10] A.H.M. Jones, Constantine and the Converson of Europe, Collier Books, NY, 1962 (1948), p.135

[11] These two paragraphs were adapted from Tony Equale, “The Religiosity of the People,” blogpost Jan 3, 2013

[12] Ps 40: 6-9, RSV translation.

[13] Myles Bourke, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,The Jerome Biblical Commentrary, Brown Fitzmeyer Murphy, eds., Prentice Hall, Eglewood Cliffs, NJ, Vol II, ch.61, ¶ 58, p.400,

[14] For more on this, see Tony Equale, Religion in a Material Universe, IED Press, Pamplin VA, 2013, p. 133-4, 144ff.

[15] (Saint) Augustine, Aurelius (2012-02-15). The Works of Saint Augustine, “A Treatise Against Two Letters Of The Pelagians” Bk I, ch 40.  (Kindle Location 172232).

[16] Wills, op.cit. pp. 177-180

[17] Wills, op.cit. p.191

[18] Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, NY, 1938, pp. 23-24, cited in Giles Edward Murray Gasper, Anselm of Canterbury and His Theological Inheritance, Ashgate Pub. Burlington, VT, 2004  p.11

[19] Augustine, op.cit. (Kindle Locations 173175-173184).

[20] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 173402-173412)

[21] laesa majestas (eng.: lese majesty) a crime in a class society where the magnitude of the offense is not determined by the act or the motivation of the perpetrator, but by the “status” (rank, “majesty”) of the one offended.

[22] De Trinitate, Bk XIII, ch 16, ¶21, op. cit. Saint Augustine (Kindle Locations 211860-211877).

[23] Robert Lowry Calhoun, Lectures on the History of Christian Doctrine, Yale Divinity School, New Haven CT, 1948 (class text, mimeographed) p.279-81

[24] For the significance of Jesus’ death in this “one world” scenario, see Tony Equale, Religion in a Material Universe, chapter V, section II on “Redemption,” p. 164ff.

American Exceptionalism: the theocratic imperative

“American exceptionalism” is a phrase that is becoming part of our common parlance.  It was given heavy traffic in the later Bush years to justify American foreign policy goals and prerogatives as projected by neo-conservative ideology.  It was a signature theme of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

The notion that America is exceptional has been with us for a very long time.  It originated with Alexis de Tocqueville whose observations in 1835 are often cited as a source for early attitudes toward the nascent American experiment in republican government.  But what he meant came from a straightforward comparison between American democracy and the restored monarchies of Europe.  It had none of the apocalyptic overtones projected by the modern neo-cons and tea-party fanatics.  For them, America represents the chosen instrument of “God” himself for the carrying out of the “divine plan” for the world.  It is precisely this theological dimension that I find religiously grotesque and politically dangerous.  The term may have originated with de Tocqueville as the historians say, but the theocratic notion as we have it today has an origin of its own.  I would like to trace that provenance.


 In the late fall of 2003, six months after President Bush officially declared “victory” and the US settled into the unofficial protracted bloodletting known as the Iraq War, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne sent out Christmas cards containing these lines:

 “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,

is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

Cheney’s greetings never used the phrase “American exceptionalism” but the sentiments express the core concept:  Empire may have traditionally been considered diametrically opposed to American democratic values, but America is special.  Its wealth and power are a proof of divine “blessings.”  If we are an empire — and Cheney’s card says, why deny it? — “God” himself must be behind it.  This is a religious, not a political sentiment.  And it derives from an American self-perception that developed far earlier than the 1830’s.  It came from the initial colonial experience itself.

The Puritans who landed near Boston in 1620 were not particularly interested in democracy.  In fact, politics was not their main concern.  They came to these shores because they were escaping a religion they could no longer abide — the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church — and if they were going to have the reformed “pure” Christianity they wanted, they would have to get away from the King to do it.  Kings were not the issue … kings were fine.  The problem was with this particular English king for whom the all-too-Catholic Anglican Church had been made an agent of the monarch’s theocratic rule.  Subjects of the king had to embrace his religion or face punishment.  Hence, to escape what they saw as an unreformed religion, the Puritans had to escape the English King.

The King, for his part, could not have been more pleased.  The massacre by Indians of the colony founded at Jamestown in Virginia made it very likely that these Puritan troublemakers would be similarly dispatched.  Yes, go to America!  The Puritans were well aware of the dangers and the attitude of the King who would not protect them.  But they went because they were willing to invest their lives in what they believed was “true Christianity.”  “God” was with them and through them “God” would build a “new world.”

The colonization of New England was a foundational religious undertaking; it had nothing directly to do with the rejection of monarchy or a desire for democratic government.  Evidence for this abounds.  Colonists who refused to hew to the Puritans’ creed and standard of behavior were expelled or even executed as the infamous witchcraft trials attest.  The Puritans believed they had founded “God’s” “City on the Hill,” a “pure” Christianity, and the “blessings” that they would accrue in prosperity and dominion would prove it.  Their goal for this City was religious truth and “Christian” behavior.  That its government was democratic and respected the freedom of religious conscience of its dissident citizens was the last thing on their mind.  They were as religiously intolerant as the King.

It is my contention that the Puritans’ attitude toward their new life in America was shared, broadly speaking, by most of the people emigrating from Europe who followed them.  Immigrants were leaving places where things were being done wrong and coming to America where they were going to do them right.  They were convinced that “God” was squarely on their side in this adventure in founding a new and better world.

This sense that America was “God’s” promised land remained as an unofficial but often expressed truism — the assumed underpinning of the complex constitution drawn up to guarantee the religious rights of competing visions of the “City on the Hill.”  It came to reside, often dor­mant, in the American subconscious and would suddenly awake and emerge when least expected.

Take, for example, the Church of Latter Day Saints, known as “Mormons.”  This millenarist ersatz-Christian religion was founded in 1830, the same year as de Tocqueville’s visit.  Few are familiar with the Mormons’ bizarre beliefs and the traumatic history that resulted from them.  According to the Mormon faith, shortly after the Palestinian ministry that culminated in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection, Jesus himself preached in America, giving his law to an ancient tribe of Native Americans.  Another of their beliefs that energized the early Mormon years was a revelation announced by their founder, Joseph Smith, that the imminent Second Coming of Christ was going to occur at the “center place” of Zion (the United States), located near Independence, Missouri, which they believed had also been the site of the Garden of Eden.  The attempt to establish their community there in 1844 ran into violent resistance from the local residents.  The Mormons were driven out, and eventually settled in Utah.  The Mormon faith teaches that God, himself, inspired the Constitution of the United States, much as he inspired the Bible.[1]   The United States was not just another country.  It was “God’s” chosen place.

It would be wrong to single out Mormonism as the source of “American exceptionalism.”  I offer it as only the most extreme example of an attitude which is shared by many religious Americans.  Fundamentalist Protestants seem especially prone to express similar beliefs, but they are not alone.  It’s interesting to note how the Mormon perspective emerged spontaneously without any influence from the outside.  That meant it had been there all along, subconsciously, as it were, among the rural people of Western New York State since the days of the Puritans.  This speaks to its widespread existence among the colonial and early American population.  It is a national characteristic and can be reasonably assumed to continue on today.


 Simply put, these attitudes provide the basis and justification for theocracy — the ideological projection of a set of religious “truths,” required behavior and ritual practices as the norms of civil society and governance.   When the term “American exceptionalism” is used, it is usually associated with a conservative form of Christianity and a belief that the “God” who is identified as the Hebrew “God” and the Father of Jesus Christ micro-manages events through­out the world through the use of “chosen servants” who are the agents of his “plan.”  “American exceptionalism” assumes that the United States is one of those agents, and the principal one.  As a social dynamic, except for the details of doctrinal content, it functions remarkably like the Islamist theocracies that Americans fear and condemn.

Theocracies have existed since time immemorial and everywhere on the planet.  Politics has rarely been separated from religion.  In fact, given the organic integrity of the human phenomenon, ideological homogeneity between ruler and religion would naturally occur unless prevented.  At root and initially there are no hard distinctions between the political, economic, moral and religious side of humankind’s presence in the world.  It is only later, when aspects of social existence are rationalized for the purposes of organizational control that the political came to be distinguished from the religious, the social from the individual, the moral from the doctrinal.  Let’s look at some examples of how this played out in Western history.

The Greek experiment in republican government, on which the American constitution was modeled, coincided with the birth of philosophical rationalism around the 6th century bce but always functioned within a set of religious assumptions and ritual practices.  It turned out to be a relatively short lived phenomenon.  Around 400 bce Socrates himself was executed by democratically elected officials on religious grounds because he “corrupted the youth” of Athens undermining their faith in the gods.  And representative government itself disappeared from Greece barely 75 years later when Alexander the Great conquered the then known world and assumed the mantle of empire.

The gods were important to Alexander and his three successor monarchies.  The Seleucids’ attempt to install idols of the Greek gods in the Temple at Jerusalem in the 2nd century bce sparked a fierce resistance from the Jews that led to the Maccabean War recorded in the Old Testament.  The Roman Republic, too insignificant at the time for inclusion in Alexander’s Empire, had begun its history around 500 bce and lasted until dictatorship was finally established with the Caesars at the end of the 1st century bce.  The gods were central to Republican Rome’s belief about itself throughout the time of its phenomenal growth through conquest.  Rome’s last major expansion took place under Julius Caesar who at the time was a military commander still answerable to the Senate.  The loyalty of the legions to his person came from their conviction that the gods were with him personally.  “Fortuna” was a goddess the soldiers worshipped.  It was this belief in his divine destiny that allowed him to defy the Senate, cross the Rubicon and turn the republic into a dictatorship.

Military success and unparalleled wealth “proved” Rome’s divine status.  That was a generalized undisputed conviction of the ancient world (and still is for many today).  Known as diva Roma, “divine Rome” ruled its conquered subjects on this reputation.  When Caesar Augustus encountered difficulty in maintaining control over Rome’s vast empire he attributed it to the moral laxity of the Roman ruling classes and the consequent displeasure of the gods.  The two issues, of course, religion and morals, were always intimately linked, and empire was the will of the gods.  Augustus was so convinced of these connections that he called adultery “treason.”  He introduced draconian measures designed to tighten morality, going so far as to exile even his own daughter Julia for “immorality.”  He used dictatorial power in an attempt to restore the moral fiber of the republic and secure the good will of the gods.  Long before Christianity, the Roman Empire was a theocracy.[2]


 With the election of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, Rome was finally able to ground the moral reform that the emperors had been seeking for so long.  They had failed because trying to motivate moral behavior by appealing to gods whose own behavior was flagrantly immoral was an exercise in futility.  Christianity provided the whip they needed.  The central focus on reward and punishment in the afterlife, presided over by a sinless “God” who was both all-powerful and all knowing, was perfect for their purposes.  This providential “God” micro-man­aged every event that occurred anywhere in the universe including political success.  Hence the Romans, well before Cheney, could justifiably ask “… could our empire have arisen without his aid”?  It was precisely this rhetorical question that St Augustine, the 5th century Roman Catholic theologian, answered emphatically in his book De Civitate Dei, “The City (Rome) of God.”  The Roman Empire, he confidently declared, had been predestined by “God” to universal dominion — no matter what theft and slaughter was perpetrated in the offing — precisely to be the instrument of the universal diffusion of Christianity.  Hence was established a new principle: The true purpose of the state was to advance true religion.  With Augustine’s theology the religious and political orders were united in Christianity and never completely separated until the French revolution in 1789.  Even the American “separation of Church and State” was guaranteed by a constitution that continued to use the western theist “God” for its justification and legitimacy.  Quiet as it’s kept, for most people, despite official toleration of other traditions, the American republic was always a Christian nation.

Due to the dominance of Roman culture, Western Europe, from Portugal to Poland, from Norway to the Danube was solidly Roman Catholic for the next thousand years.  Augustine’s interpretation of the ancillary role of the state in promoting Christianity as the true religion was accepted without question.  The Puritans were no different.  And it was precisely because they had not changed their theology that they changed their religion.  When the Puritans decided the King, not unlike the Pope before him, could not be trusted with the protection and advancement of true Christianity, they rejected the King, just as they had rejected the Pope.  The mantle of “divinely approved authority” thereupon devolved upon them, the Puritans and other Christians who shouldered the task of spreading the “truth of God’s salvation” throughout the world by establishing it first in America.  If people of this persuasion embraced democracy it was not for its own sake.  It was a way of bypassing a retrograde King; it was a tool for advancing their reformed theocracy.   For them it was a tactic driven by the theocratic imperative — the need to have a government that allowed true religion to flourish.  So long as “democracy” served that purpose, they would live with it.  But once it threatened Christian pre-eminence all bets were off.  Thus was born an “Exceptionalism” that subordinated the American constitution and the foreign policy adventures of its government to the “plan of God.”


 There are things that emerge from this quick survey that are extremely important, and they bear emphasizing:  Once you posit a micro-managing personal “God” who providentially guides all events that occur in the universe including the affairs of men, theocracy becomes the default position and it is logically very difficult, if not impossible to escape from it.  If you want out, your one recourse is arbitrary and subjective: you have to claim — without evidence — that “God” really does not want things the way they are but permits them because “he” respects human freedom and the laws of nature.  Then, you are stuck with finding reasons that fly in the face of the “proofs” of wealth and power for your claim that “God” really wants things to change.  Without that escape clause, your theology tells you that everything that happens is part of “God’s plan,” and that what “God” wants is indicated by where he bestows his “blessings.”

This means the way things are is the way “God” wants them to be.  This tends to canonize the status quo and insulates it from criticism.  It justifies the elite beneficiaries who want to keep things just the way they are no matter how damaging it might be to other people.  If furthermore you are convinced that your own prosperity and economic security are “blessings” that are sent you personally by “God,” then, you probably also believe that you (or your race or your ethnic origins) are superior — that those who are not so “blessed” are somehow genetically and morally inferior, and are destined to immorality, laziness, lack of initiative, stupidity, etc. and therefore deserve what they get. 

Moreover, it means that the wealthiest and most powerful nation — the current empire? — and its way of life (its language, culture, government, laws, religion and esthetic taste) must be the very best because it is “blessed” by “God,” and others should at least emulate it if they can’t actually become part of it.  For many immigrants, in this scenario, coming to America corresponds as much to a kind of idolatry — entering “God’s” promised land — as to a rational choice for economic opportunity and political freedom.  If, again, this nation’s people promote what they claim is one true religion — in this case Christianity — founded and given its governing structure by “God” himself, then it follows that the national government should be dedicated to its protection, and every human being across the face of the earth should be encouraged to incorporate into it for their own good.  It would seem predictable that over time a fundamentalist Christianity will come to dominate and eventually displace or distort other traditions.  It happens with all empires … the Celtic and Teutonic religions have all disappeared … the religions of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas have all disappeared … religious, linguistic, cultural homogeneity is the inevitable by-product of empire.

Notice that in all of the above, human rational choice and decision are pre-empted by a sacred order preordained and managed by “God.”  What theocracy requires of human beings is, fundamentally, to leave things alone.  Do not presume to determine your own destiny, it has already been determined for you by “God” as articulated by the true religion and as the status quo providesThis is the “accepted wisdom” inherited from our multi-millennial culture.  Some of these notions go back to the ancient totalitarian empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt and were inherited by the Roman Imperial theocracy.  They became embedded in the dogmas of Rome’s Church and formed the attitudes of its people; they are the common heritage of theocracy and empire.  Indeed it might be reasonably argued that empire, which needs to control a multiplicity of diverse cultures and populations, could not function without the extraordinary compliance and self-submission to the established order that universal religion alone can inspire.  Empire must somehow convince its people that by submitting to it, they are submitting to “God.”  This may help explain why people who do not share the religion of the overlord often have to be controlled by military force.  They are not inclined to self-submit to a “God” they do not believe in.

Now, on the other hand entirely, if you do not share this perspective … if you are convinced that governments and their constitutions do not come from  “God” but are created and installed by men for the purposes that they decide in common … if you realize that wealth and power are the products of a particular way that we have organized the distribution of goods necessary for human survival and well-being and are not the “blessings” of “God” as a reward for moral or intellectual superiority … if you recognize that all religions are the conditioned efforts of culturally diverse peoples across the planet to express their sense of the sacred and to discern the “God” who is the source of LIFE, and therefore are all equally valid … then you have to rethink your idea of “God” and religion.  The traditional concept of “God” as a rational, micro-managing “person” and the traditional western conviction that “God” established Christianity as the “one true religion” for whose protection the state exists, lead inevitably to the kind of theocracy that fueled the siege engines of ancient Rome.  These doctrines may be justly called, “the theology of theo­cracy” … and empire is impossible without it.


  Cheney’s card was right to this extent: there is a logical connection between theology and politics.  You will have to adjust your theology to your politics, or you can be certain that your politics will ultimately adjust to your theology.  Dump religion altogether?  It may work for you personally, but as a solution it will not carry over into the next generation or beyond your little clique.  There is no real “solution” to the human problem that does not deal with the radical transformation of mass religion.  Humankind has a sense of the sacred and religion will not go away.  Religion, like everything else we do, has to be made subordinate to human needs.  When it seemed the Roman Empire was good for all of humanity, our Roman Catholic religion was made subordinate to the needs of the Roman Empire, and Rome’s successor states through the next millennium and a half were all made in its image and likeness through the conscientious formation of Christian doctrine.  It is time now to acknowledge this imperial etiology and subordinate religion to another political vision, one that we in our time determine is good for all of us.  We no longer believe in Empire or in empire’s “God.”

Cheney, finally, was quite wrong.  His card omitted the second half of what Jesus said:  “You are worth more than many sparrows.”  He was referring to our intrinsic value.  We can trust this LIFE we bear as our own: it makes us sacred and calls us to determine our own destiny.

[1] Richard T. Hughes, “The Mormon Faith and the Romney Doctrine of American Exceptionalism,” Huffington Post  9/12/2012

  [2] Catherine Edwards The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, Cambridge U. Press, (1993) 2002, p.44-45, 61