American Babylon by Richard John Neuhaus
Reviewed by Spengler
Asia Times Online
March 17, 2009
President Abraham Lincoln famously called Americans an "almost chosen people". That might qualify as America's national joke, for you can't be "almost chosen" any more than you can be almost pregnant.
Lincoln's oxymoron frames the tension between the religious impulses that made America and the reality that ultimately it is one imperfect polity among many others. America is "a country with the soul of a church", as G K Chesterton wrote, and by no accident, the only industrial nation (apart from Israel) in which religion plays a decisive role in public life. The central role of religion continues to polarize Americans and confuse foreign observers.
The working of faith in America's public square is more complex than Americans acknowledge, or foreigners understand, Richard John Neuhaus shows in this study of the heavenly city versus the earthly city of our exile.
Idolatry attracts both wings of American politics: the right tends to confound the United States of America with the City of God, while the left makes an object of worship out of its utopian imagination. Neuhaus was a pre-eminent social conservative and an advisor to former president George W Bush, but no less an even-handed critic for that. That quality that makes American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile one of the indispensable books of our time, of such importance that one wants to suspend debate of America's character until everyone has had time to read it.
Until his death on January 8, Father Neuhaus was America's pre-eminent Christian intellectual, and his posthumous book reminds us what a gap in public discourse is left by his absence. Starting in 1990, Neuhaus edited (and wrote a good deal of) the monthly journal First Things. It is hard for this writer to imagine intellectual life in America without First Things.
I have missed very few issues in the past 15 years, and could not have found my own journalistic vocation had Neuhaus not blazed such a broad trail. In 2007, I had the honor to contribute an essay on Franz Rosenzweig to his journal. Neuhaus was the rare sort of writer from whom one learned especially in disagreement, for his formulation of the issues was so lucid as to force those who did not share his views to rethink their own.
"There is in America," he wrote, "a strong current of Christian patriotism in which 'God and country' falls trippingly from the tongue. Indeed, God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two." Neuhaus added that "this book is animated by a deeply and lively patriotism", adding, "I have considerable sympathy for Abraham Lincoln's observation that, among the political orders of the earthly city, America is 'the last, best hope of mankind'."
On the left, utopian efforts to create a heaven on Earth expressed American idolatry, for example, in the Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenberg, "Christianizing America and Americanizing Christianity." The liberal philosopher John Dewey embodied the drift of mainline Protestantism into a social reform movement. The heir of this left-wing current is Rauschenberg's grandson, the late philosopher Richard Rorty, whose career was dedicated to proving the proposition that no proposition can be proven.
It is even sillier than it sounds, in Neuhaus' amusing account. As Neuhaus says,
Rorty writes that [John] Dewey and his soulmate Walt Whitman "wanted [their] utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country's animating principle, the nation's soul". He quotes favorably the lines of Whitman:
'And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God.'
"Whitman and Dewey," Rorty writes, "gave us all the romance, and all the spiritual uplift we Americans need to go about our public business."
That is the left-wing version of American self-worship. American nationalism harbors a civic religion as well. There is, Neuhaus explains,
a line of devotion that runs from the [Puritans'] "errand in the wilderness" to John F Kennedy's inaugural ... It is the American story, the American promise, that is invoked in Martin Luther King Jr's dream of the "beloved community" and in Ronald Reagan's vision of the "city on a hill".
Some readers will be surprised and others scandalized by the suggestion that George W Bush was in the tradition of Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Kennedy, King and Reagan in sounding the characteristic notes of the American story, but so it is.
This is painfully clear, observes Neuhaus, in George W Bush's second inaugural address:
We are led [Bush said in his address] by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America's vital interest and our deepest beliefs are now one ... We go forward with complete confidence in the even triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills.
"Both the power and the danger of the story is in the sincerity with which it is told," Neuhaus commented. "Good intentions go awry; we blind ourselves to our own capacity for self-deception when we cast ourselves in the role of God's agents in history's battle between The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, to cite the title of [a] book by [Reinhold] Niebuhr."
Bush's second inaugural was an exercise in American self-worship, in its assumption that the free institutions of the United States were an earthly manifestation of the divine, such that the American government should become a Bureau of Missions for the cult of democracy. But it is manifestly false that America's security depends upon the success of freedom elsewhere. China's political system is not free by Western standards, yet China poses no strategic threat to the United States. Dictatorships that support terrorism well may constitute a strategic threat to the United States, especially if they are able to employ nuclear weapons. But the United States could just as well wipe all of them off the face of the Earth through pre-emptive nuclear bombardment, or let them fight each other to exhaustion, as try to foster democracy in their midst. America had no strategic imperative to promote democracy, only a narcissistic one.
However high our appreciation of America's achievement and promise, and whether that appreciation is expressed from the left, as in the case of Richard Rorty's work, or from the right, as in George W Bush's speech, with its confidence in "a new order of the ages", the great danger is in forgetting that America, too, is Babylon.
From a Christian vantage point, Neuhaus means, every earthly city is an exile, like the Babylon whence the Jews of the 6th century were exiled after the fall of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as Neuhaus retells the story, saw themselves as a new chosen people founding a new promised land.
In some tellings of the story, they and the New World were Jerusalem, having escaped the captivity of the Babylon of the Old World ... And, in the more fantastical flights of theological imagination, America is something very close to the New Jerusalem.
That, as Neuhaus reports, was the view of the great 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose "Great Awakening" preceded and by most accounts prepared the ground for the American Revolution. Yet the fervent Calvinism of the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards turned into the mushy transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson by the 1830s. With good reason, American critic Harold Bloom characterized this peculiar variety of American religion as Gnostic. Nonetheless:
In the 1860s the church of the novus ordo seclorum was shattered by the bloodiest war in your history, and from that catastrophe emerged the most profound theologian of the civil religion. Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, with its troubled reflection on the mysteries of providence, is in some ways worthy of St Augustine, except, of course, that it is without Augustine's Church, and therefore without the communal bearer of the story of the world by which all other stories, including the story of America, are truly told. American theology has suffered from an ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the Church through time.
There is no gainsaying Neuhaus' critique of the Puritans, who were in a sense play-acting at being Jews with their vision of a new chosen people and a new promised land. Gentiles do not emulate the Jews, or "Judaize", with success, perhaps because Jewish continuity depends not only upon faith but upon blood ties. By 1800, every formerly Puritan church in Boston but one had turned Unitarian, and the vapid Emerson became their intellectual heir.
Still, the tiny band of English separatists who departed Delft on the Mayflower in 1620 had better reasons to seek an "errand in the wilderness" than we easily can imagine today. Then in its second year, the Thirty Years War eventually would kill about two-fifths of the people of Central Europe, and destroy forever the Christian Empire of the Middle Ages, leaving the secular nation state in its place as Europe's principle of political organization.
A red line connects the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 to the Second Thirty Years War of 1914-1945. Whether the Puritans were right to conclude that Europe already had been lost for Christianity is a matter for historians to debate. But it is hard to imagine how Europe might have avoided the victory of communism or fascism were it not for the United States, now the only major nation in which Christianity remains at the center of public life. If the Puritans had not sailed to America in emulation of Israel leaving Egypt, the Gates of Hell well might have prevailed over St Peter.
Lincoln appeared not only "as the most profound theologian of the civil religion", as Neuhaus argues, but arguably as the most profound American theologian of any religion. That is the view of the evangelical historian Mark Noll in his book America's God. "Views of providence," Noll writes, "provide the sharpest contrast between Lincoln and the professional theologians of his day."
Noll muses that "the American God may have been working too well for the Protestant theologians who, even as they exploited Scripture and pious experience so successfully, yet found it easy to equate America's moral government of God with Christianity itself. Their tragedy - and the greater the theologian, the greater the tragedy - was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions God's own loyal servants had exploited so well."
Because America is not a chosen nation, Neuhaus warns, "we should be uneasy even with Lincoln's sharply modified claim that we are an 'almost chosen' people". But "almost chosen" is like "almost pregnant", and the absurdity of Lincoln's joke suggests the possibility of a more benign reading.
America brought into the world a new political form, the non-ethnic democracy, a necessary but not sufficient condition for a Christian nation. America really is different, from, say, Poland, the homeland of the greatest religious leader of our times. Pope John Paul II's last book, Memory and Identity, "is about Poland and being Polish, both of which John Paul explores and affirms in a way that many might think scandalously chauvinistic", Neuhaus observes.
In some respects, Poland deserves the special admiration of her pre-eminent son. As a breakaway Soviet buffer state on the central front, Poland occupied center stage in the Cold War, and the Polish people led by the Catholic Church rose heroically to the occasion.
The trouble is that Poland's story is coming to an end. The country's population will fall by almost 30% by mid-century, and the median age will rise from 36 years to 56 years. Benedict XVI, for that matter, ranks by my reckoning as the best mind on the planet, but it is questionable whether today's Germany is capable of educating another Joseph Ratzinger.
America's story will not end, at least not in the same way. What we might call America's "Special Providence" is founded on its capacity to absorb the talented and energetic immigrants vomited out by the wars and persecutions of the Old World.
Europe's residual paganism, the persistence of ethnic self-worship under a Christian veneer, became the downfall of Christendom. America's fresh start made it congenitally receptive to Christianity.
Only in its potential is America "almost chosen"; the extent to which it actually is Christian will depend not on its constitution but on its churches. Ultimately, the Puritan hope of forming a new chosen people in a new promised land only could fail, but it is hard to see how Christianity could have prevailed in the West without it.
Sometimes, perhaps, Christians may have to emulate the Jews in order to remain Christians.
American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile by Richard John Neuhaus. Basic Books, New York 2009. ISBN-10: 0465013678. Price US$26.95, 288 pages.