“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. 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.
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 provides. This 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.