The use of the word "empire" in relation to American power in the world was once controversial, often restricted to left-wing critiques of U.S. hegemony. But now, on op-ed pages and in the nation's political discourse, the concepts of empire, and even the phrase "Pax Americana," are increasingly referred to in unapologetic ways.
William Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard, admits the aspiration to empire. "If people want to say we're an imperial power, fine," Kristol wrote. Kristol is chair of the Project for the New American Century, a group of conservative political figures that began in 1997 to chart a much more aggressive American foreign policy (see Project for a New American Empire). The Project's papers lay out the vision of an "American peace" based on "unquestioned U.S. military pre-eminence." These imperial visionaries write, "America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible." It is imperative, in their view, for the United States to "accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles." That, indeed, is empire.
There is nothing secret about all this; on the contrary, the views and plans of these powerful men have been quite open. These are Far Right American political leaders and commentators who ascended to governing power and, after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, have been emboldened to carry out their agenda.
In the run-up to the war with Iraq, Kristol told me that Europe was now unfit to lead because it was "corrupted by secularism," as was the developing world, which was "corrupted by poverty." Only the United States could provide the "moral framework" to govern a new world order, according to Kristol, who recently and candidly wrote, "Well, what is wrong with dominance, in the service of sound principles and high ideals?" Whose ideals? The American right wing's definition of "American ideals," presumably.
Bush Adds God
To this aggressive extension of American power in the world, President George W. Bush adds God—and that changes the picture dramatically. It's one thing for a nation to assert its raw dominance in the world; it's quite another to suggest, as this president does, that the success of American military and foreign policy is connected to a religiously inspired "mission," and even that his presidency may be a divine appointment for a time such as this.
Many of the president's critics make the mistake of charging that his faith is insincere at best, a hypocrisy at worst, and mostly a political cover for his right-wing agenda. I don't doubt that George W. Bush's faith is sincere and deeply held. The real question is the content and meaning of that faith and how it impacts his administration's domestic and foreign policies.
George Bush reports a life-changing conversion around the age of 40 from being a nominal Christian to a born-again believer—a personal transformation that ended his drinking problems, solidified his family life, and gave him a sense of direction. He changed his denominational affiliation from his parents' Episcopal faith to his wife's Methodism. Bush's personal faith helped prompt his interest in promoting his "compassionate conservatism" and the faith-based initiative as part of his new administration.
The real theological question about George W. Bush was whether he would make a pilgrimage from being essentially a self-help Methodist to a social reform Methodist. God had changed his life in real ways, but would his faith deepen to embrace the social activism of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said poverty was not only a matter of personal choices but also of social oppression and injustice? Would Bush's God of the 12-step program also become the God who required social justice and challenged the status quo of the wealthy and powerful, the God of whom the biblical prophets spoke?
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Bush's compassionate conservatism and faith-based initiative rapidly gave way to his newfound vocation as the commander-in-chief of the "war against terrorism." Close friends say that after 9/11 Bush found "his mission in life." The self-help Methodist slowly became a messianic Calvinist promoting America's mission to "rid the world of evil." The Bush theology was undergoing a critical transformation.
In an October 2000 presidential debate, candidate Bush warned against an over-active American foreign policy and the negative reception it would receive around the world. Bush cautioned restraint. "If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent us," he said. "If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."
The president has come a long way since then. His administration has launched a new doctrine of pre-emptive war, has fought two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq), and now issues regular demands and threats against other potential enemies. After Sept. 11, nations around the world responded to America's pain—even the French newspaper Le Monde carried the headline "We are all Americans now." But the new pre-emptive and—most critically—unilateral foreign policy America now pursues has squandered much of that international support.
The Bush policy has become one of potentially endless wars abroad and a domestic agenda that mostly consists of tax cuts, primarily for the rich. "Bush promised us a foreign policy of humility and a domestic policy of compassion," Joe Klein wrote in Time magazine. "He has given us a foreign policy of arrogance and a domestic policy that is cynical, myopic, and cruel." What happened?
A Mission and an Appointment
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum says of the president, "War had made him…a crusader after all." At the outset of the war in Iraq, George Bush entreated, "God bless our troops." In his State of the Union speech, he vowed that America would lead the war against terrorism "because this call of history has come to the right country." Bush's autobiography is titled A Charge to Keep, which is a quote from his favorite hymn.
In Frum's book The Right Man, he recounts a conversation between the president and his top speechwriter, Mike Gerson, a graduate of evangelical Wheaton College. After Bush's speech to Congress following the Sept. 11 attacks, Frum writes that Gerson called up his boss and said, "Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought—God wanted you there." According to Frum, the president replied, "He wants us all here, Gerson."
Bush has made numerous references to his belief that he could not be president if he did not believe in a "divine plan that supersedes all human plans." As he gained political power, Bush has increasingly seen his presidency as part of that divine plan. Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, recalls Bush once saying, "I believe God wants me to be president." After Sept. 11, Michael Duffy wrote in Time magazine, the president spoke of "being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment."
Every Christian hopes to find a vocation and calling that is faithful to Christ. But a president who believes that the nation is fulfilling a God-given righteous mission and that he serves with a divine appointment can become quite theologically unsettling. Theologian Martin Marty voices the concern of many when he says, "The problem isn't with Bush's sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he's doing God's will." As Christianity Today put it, "Some worry that Bush is confusing genuine faith with national ideology." The president's faith, wrote Klein, "does not give him pause or force him to reflect. It is a source of comfort and strength but not of wisdom."
The Bush theology deserves to be examined on biblical grounds. Is it really Christian, or merely American? Does it take a global view of God's world or just assert American nationalism in the latest update of "manifest destiny"? How does the rest of the world—and, more important, the rest of the church worldwide—view America's imperial ambitions?
Getting the Words Wrong
President Bush uses religious language more than any president in U.S. history, and some of his key speechwriters come right out of the evangelical community. Sometimes he draws on biblical language, other times old gospel hymns that cause deep resonance among the faithful in his own electoral base. The problem is that the quotes from the Bible and hymnals are too often either taken out of context or, worse yet, employed in ways quite different from their original meaning. For example, in the 2003 State of the Union, the president evoked an easily recognized and quite famous line from an old gospel hymn. Speaking of America's deepest problems, Bush said, "The need is great. Yet there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." But that's not what the song is about. The hymn says there is "power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb" (emphasis added). The hymn is about the power of Christ in salvation, not the power of "the American people," or any people, or any country. Bush's citation was a complete misuse.
On the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush said at Ellis Island, "This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it." Those last two sentences are straight out of John's gospel. But in the gospel the light shining in the darkness is the Word of God, and the light is the light of Christ. It's not about America and its values. Even his favorite hymn, "A Charge to Keep," speaks of that charge as "a God to glorify"—not to "do everything we can to protect the American homeland," as Bush has named our charge to keep.
Bush seems to make this mistake over and over again—confusing nation, church, and God. The resulting theology is more American civil religion than Christian faith.
The Problem of Evil
Since Sept. 11, President Bush has turned the White House "bully pulpit" into a pulpit indeed, replete with "calls" and "missions" and "charges to keep" regarding America's role in the world. George Bush is convinced that we are engaged in a moral battle between good and evil, and that those who are not with us are on the wrong side in that divine confrontation.
But who is "we," and does no evil reside with "us"? The problem of evil is a classic one in Christian theology. Indeed, anyone who cannot see the real face of evil in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is suffering from a bad case of postmodern relativism. To fail to speak of evil in the world today is to engage in bad theology. But to speak of "they" being evil and "we" being good, to say that evil is all out there and that in the warfare between good and evil others are either with us or against us—that is also bad theology. Unfortunately, it has become the Bush theology.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House carefully scripted the religious service in which the president declared war on terrorism from the pulpit of the National Cathedral. The president declared to the nation, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." With most every member of the Cabinet and the Congress present, along with the nation's religious leaders, it became a televised national liturgy affirming the divine character of the nation's new war against terrorism, ending triumphantly with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." War against evil would confer moral legitimacy on the nation's foreign policy and even on a contested presidency.
What is most missing in the Bush theology is acknowledgement of the truth of this passage from the gospel of Matthew: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." A simplistic "we are right and they are wrong" theology rules out self-reflection and correction. It also covers over the crimes America has committed, which lead to widespread global resentment against us.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that every nation, political system, and politician falls short of God's justice, because we are all sinners. He specifically argued that even Adolf Hitler—to whom Saddam Hussein was often compared by Bush—did not embody absolute evil any more than the Allies represented absolute good. Niebuhr's sense of ambiguity and irony in history does not preclude action but counsels the recognition of limitations and prescribes both humility and self-reflection.
And what of Bush's tendency to go it alone, even against the expressed will of much of the world? A foreign government leader said to me at the beginning of the Iraq war, "The world is waiting to see if America will listen to the rest of us, or if we will all just have to listen to America." American unilateralism is not just bad political policy, it is bad theology as well. C.S. Lewis wrote that he supported democracy not because people were good, but rather because they often were not. Democracy provides a system of checks and balances against any human beings getting too much power. If that is true of nations, it must also be true of international relations. The vital questions of diplomacy, intervention, war, and peace are, in this theological view, best left to the collective judgment of many nations, not just one—especially not the richest and most powerful one.
In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of evil—they are too often caught up in complicated webs of political power, economic interests, cultural clashes, and nationalist dreams. The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, and for the people of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience. But God has not given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much less to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national interests. To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do, is a serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.
It's easy to demonize the enemy and claim that we are on the side of God and good. But repentance is better. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, paraphrasing Alexander Solzhenitzyn. "The gospel, some evangelicals are quick to point out, teaches that the line separating good and evil runs not between nations, but inside every human heart."
A Better Way
The much-touted Religious Right is now a declining political factor in American life. The New York Times' Bill Keller recently observed, "Bombastic evangelical power brokers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have aged into irrelevance, and now exist mainly as ludicrous foils." The real theological problem in America today is no longer the Religious Right but the nationalist religion of the Bush administration—one that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God's purposes with the mission of American empire.
America's foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous. George Bush's personal faith has prompted a profound self-confidence in his "mission" to fight the "axis of evil," his "call" to be commander-in-chief in the war against terrorism, and his definition of America's "responsibility" to "defend the…hopes of all mankind." This is a dangerous mix of bad foreign policy and bad theology.
But the answer to bad theology is not secularism; it is, rather, good theology. It is not always wrong to invoke the name of God and the claims of religion in the public life of a nation, as some secularists say. Where would we be without the prophetic moral leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Oscar Romero?
In our own American history, religion has been lifted up for public life in two very different ways. One invokes the name of God and faith in order to hold us accountable to God's intentions—to call us to justice, compassion, humility, repentance, and reconciliation. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin King perhaps best exemplify that way. Lincoln regularly used the language of scripture, but in a way that called both sides in the Civil War to contrition and repentance. Jefferson said famously, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
The other way invokes God's blessing on our activities, agendas, and purposes. Many presidents and political leaders have used the language of religion like this, and George W. Bush is falling prey to that same temptation.
Christians should always live uneasily with empire, which constantly threatens to become idolatrous and substitute secular purposes for God's. As we reflect on our response to the American empire and what it stands for, a reflection on the early church and empire is instructive.
The book of Revelation, while written in apocalyptic language and imagery, is seen by most biblical expositors as a commentary on the Roman Empire, its domination of the world, and its persecution of the church. In Revelation 13, a "beast" and its power is described. Eugene Peterson's The Message puts it in vivid language: "The whole earth was agog, gaping at the Beast. They worshiped the Dragon who gave the Beast authority, and they worshiped the Beast, exclaiming: 'There's never been anything like the Beast! No one would dare to go to war with the Beast!' It held absolute sway over all tribes and peoples, tongues, and races." But the vision of John of Patmos also foresaw the defeat of the Beast. In Revelation 19, a white horse, with a rider whose "name is called The Word of God" and "King of kings and Lord of lords," captures the beast and its false prophet.
As with the early church, our response to an empire holding "absolute sway," against which "no one would dare to go to war," is the ancient confession of "Jesus is Lord." And to live in the promise that empires do not last, that the Word of God will ultimately survive the Pax Americana as it did the Pax Romana.
In the meantime, American Christians will have to make some difficult choices. Will we stand in solidarity with the worldwide church, the international body of Christ—or with our own American government? It's not a surprise to note that the global church does not generally support the foreign policy goals of the Bush administration—whether in Iraq, the Middle East, or the wider "war on terrorism." Only from inside some of our U.S. churches does one find religious voices consonant with the visions of American empire.
Once there was Rome; now there is a new Rome. Once there were barbarians; now there are many barbarians who are the Saddams of this world. And then there were the Christians who were loyal not to Rome, but to the kingdom of God. To whom will the Christians be loyal today?