Make America Great (just like England, France, Russia, and Germany)

Ron Granieri reminds that idolizing one’s nation is something that came to Americans late:

We begin with England. Formerly a semi-barbaric province of the Roman Empire, England re-imagined itself during the Reformation as a specially favored place, threatened by Spanish tyranny and Inquisitional obscurantism. As this story developed, this favored land defended itself thanks to its native creativity and bravery and the divine blessings of a Protestant Wind.

The poet of English exceptionalism was, of course, Shakespeare, who, sunning himself in the glow of Gloriana herself, wrote less than a decade after the defeat of the Armada these immortal words in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands, —

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Those last lines in particular suggest the ultimately defensive nature of English exceptionalism, the idea that the blessed plot could retreat behind its moat and revel in the perfection of the “little world.”

Don’t forget France:

England’s great rival as it grew into a world power was France, and France also displays the imperial temptation of exceptionalism. Threatened with extinction in the 15th century after English victories at Agincourt and elsewhere, the French monarchy reasserted itself in part thanks to a sense of exceptionalism. Jeanne d’Arc heard divine voices calling her to save France from the invaders and to restore a divinely sanctioned order—a crusade that made her a saint to her fellow Frenchmen and a dangerous witch to her English coreligionists.

After going through its own internal religious struggle during the Reformation and Wars of Religion, France then reasserted itself as a special model of its own, thanks to the Absolutism of Henry IV, Cardinal Richelieu, and Louis XIV. This organization of the state magnified French power and led to triumphs in wars that expanded the size as well as the wealth of France. The more that France imagined itself to be special, the harder it was for French leaders to keep it to themselves. Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 on the eve of a major campaign against France’s Habsburg rivals; Richelieu opened the era of secular warfare when he allied France with Protestant Sweden against those same Habsburgs during the Thirty Years’ War; and Louis XIV spent virtually his entire reign attempting to expand France into its “natural boundaries,” while asserting France’s claim to cultural leadership on the continent and beyond.

It was the French Revolution, however, which especially marked French Exceptionalism. Shaped by their interpretation of Enlightenment thought, the Revolutionaries initially imagined France as an island of new thinking in a sea of obscurantism. When Revolutionary France declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792, France’s initial posture was completely defensive. The revolutionary anthem embraced during the first months of war, the Marseillaise, called on the “children of the fatherland” to rush to arms and march on to fight off invaders “so that their blood can water our fields.” After the surprising French victory at Valmy that September, however, which offered the chance to go on the offensive, Revolutionary France dropped its defensive pose and embraced the mission to expand and spread the benefits of revolution. Victory at Jemappes in November 1792 was just the beginning, and by the time the Revolution had been co-opted by the military dictator and future Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the Marseillaise was associated with expansion and conquest. Indeed, when writing his 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky drowned out the Marseillaise with God Save the Tsar to symbolize Russia’s deliverance, turning the revolutionary anthem on its head as a hymn to monarchy triumphs.

Exceptionalism Russian-style:

France’s rise in the 19th century provoked two other large cultures to action and to develop their own sense of exceptionalism.

The first was Russia. Already having developed its own historical narrative about shaking off the “Tatar yoke” and defending Christianity against the Asiatic hordes, Russia was uncertain about its place in the larger world. Leaders such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great had hoped that selective embrace of western ideas would make Russia modern and strong, and they pursued aggressive expansion of Tsarist power at home and imperial conquest abroad. But it was the mystic Alexander I, in the wars against Napoleon, who tried to formulate a specifically Russian vision of conservative stability and engagement with Europe, heavily flavored with Orthodox religiosity. Alexander’s Russia was the architect of Napoleon’s defeat, though the Hundred Days and Waterloo robbed Russia of its role as the Corsican’s conqueror. Alexander also joined with Metternich of Austria in creating the Holy Alliance as a vehicle for preserving the postwar order. Alexander’s vision faltered on his own odd personality and his early death, and he bequeathed a mixed legacy to his successors. After the failed liberal Decembrist revolt in 1825, Nicholas I and subsequent conservative Tsars rejected the liberal ideas of the West and adopted a more defensive posture toward the outside world, but continued to believe that Russia had a special mission. As the “third Rome,” Russia imagined itself as the defender and cultivator of Christian civilization, which encouraged imperial wars against the Turks in the south and expansion into Siberia in the east. By the mid-19th century, conflicts between Slavophiles and Westernizers marked differences within the Russian elite, though both groups could be motivated to expand Russia.

And then there was Germany:

Which brings us to France’s other rival, Germany. In a way, Germany was born to consider itself exceptional. It was a German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, who first explicitly developed the idea that every individual culture had its own unique Volksgeist. That was Herder’s way of reacting to the universalist claims of French Enlightenment thought, using its principles to develop the idea that the Germans—indeed, every people—were different from other peoples, and thus each nation should cultivate its own identity and also govern itself. The French may have invented the idea of modern nationalism to serve their revolutionary purposes, but the Germans were the first culture to shape it both retrospectively and prospectively developing a historical narrative to impose coherence on a scattered collection of territories with no natural boundaries. Thus, various past leaders whose Germanness was, at best, notional, from Arminius to Frederick the Great, were absorbed into a nationalist narrative that made the creation of the German empire the inevitable product of historical logic, irrefutable in the eyes of scholars who had themselves created it in the first place.

German nationalism offered, in AJP Taylor’s famous phrase, two faces: to the West, it offered the eager face of the mimic and aspirant, attempting to measure up to the cultural trendsetters across the Rhine. To the East, however, the Germans offered the cold sneer of cultural superiority, justifying centuries of conquest and dominance over allegedly inferior cultures of the East. By the 20th century, as the German Empire emerged as a powerful state in its own right, German opinion leaders tired of the earnest mimic pose and complained of the encirclement of Germany by envious inferiors.

This new attitude crested during the First World War. Novelist Thomas Mann was the most distinguished of thinkers who attempted to explain this by distinguishing authentic German Kultur, with its deep appreciation of art, community, and history, and the shallow, materialistic civilisation of France and Britain. . . .

In bringing up the Nazis, I realize I have just violated Godwin’s Law, but in this case, it is unavoidable. For the Nazis took ideas of exceptionalism and imperialism to their logically illogical conclusions. The greatest temptation for a people that considers itself exceptional is to conclude that it is superior, and that superiority justifies spreading the word to other peoples—even imposing this allegedly superior system on them and removing those people who stand in the way. Indeed, as Mark Mazower’s monumental work, Hitler’s Empire, has demonstrated, the Nazis essentially applied the lessons European powers had perfected in their overseas empires to their European empire. By forcing Western Civilization to recognize the barbarous implications of their conquests, the Nazis delivered a fatal blow to justifications for empire.

One lesson is that American exceptionalism is pretty ordinary.

The second is that the United States had a real chance to be exceptional by not following the ways of European greatness. A modest republic of hardworking and self-discipline citizens with a limited government was what some had in mind. That would have been great.

Selective Implicit Bias

The journalistic treatment of the Larycia Hawkins controversy at Wheaton College is out (written by a lapsed Orthodox Presbyterian no less). Once again evidence of academic naivete cloaked in a pose of dissent and asking hard questions emerges.

I have no problem with Dr. Hawkins questioning jingoistic American patriotism or American Protestants who wrap themselves in the flag. American civil religion is national patriotism at it worst and Protestants have been especially egregious in their fawning over American greatness (though for the last 30 years they have had lots of help from Neuhaus Roman Catholics). But if you challenge Americanism, don’t you also have to question Islam?

A year or two after arriving on campus, [Hawkins] developed a distaste for performances of patriotism and decided to stop saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. “I feel very strongly that my first allegiance is to a different kingdom than an earthly kingdom,” she told me. “It’s to a heavenly kingdom, and it’s to the principles of that kingdom.” Evangelicals tend to emphasize righteousness on an individual scale, but Hawkins was becoming attracted to theological traditions that emphasize systemic sin and repentance.

In particular, she was reading a lot of black liberation theology, a strain of thinking that emerged from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Jesus’ central mission was to liberate the oppressed, the philosophy argues, but mainstream American Christianity is beholden to irredeemably corrupt “white theology.” The tone of black liberation is often angry — think of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “God damn America” sermon — and conservative evangelicals are wary of it because of its theological pessimism and its politically radical roots. But Hawkins was beginning to view many of the Bible’s commands through a lens of race and class. “Theology is always contextual,” she told me, a core idea of black liberation theology. She said that evangelicals have trouble confronting “an ontological blackness of Christ.” Responding to Wheaton’s charge for professors to “integrate faith and learning,” she took these ideas into the classroom.

Fine. But an academic’s job is also to ask hard questions about Islam, liberation theology, and Jeremiah Wright. It’s not fair selecting which ox you gore.

A Liberal Cigar Smoker? Go Figure

Don’t always believe all that the Allies tell you.

Thanks to our southern correspondent now comes news (only 25 years old) that Charles Spurgeon brought politics into the pulpit (good and hard):

The great preacher did not shun political questions as a diversion from spiritual religion. Although he kept political ventures within limits, especially in his sermons, he urged others to go further. “I often hear it said,” runs one passage in a sermon, “ ‘Do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought, and set there in the face of all men as on a candlestick.”

Not only that, he was a Liberal:

Spurgeon’s identification with the Liberal Party is well illustrated by an address to local voters that he issued at the 1880 general election. “Are we to go on slaughtering and invading in order to obtain a scientific frontier and feeble neighbours?” he asked. “Shall all great questions of reform and progress be utterly neglected for years? … Shall the struggle for religious equality be protracted and embittered? … Shall our National Debt be increased?”

Spurgeon was advocating four great principles. First, he was protesting against the recent imperialistic ventures of a Conservative government; that was a stand for peace. Second, he was calling for measures of change that would benefit the common people; that was a commitment to reform. Third, he was urging religious equality, the distinctive aim of Nonconformists. Fourth, he was demanding a decrease in wasteful public spending; that was a recommendation of retrenchment.

Nothing wrong with being a Liberal, and the British Liberal Party was more akin to positions advocated by Republicans and Progressives in the United States. So we’re not talking Barack Hussein Obama or John Kerry. Still, I sure would like to know how you minister the word of God and endorse a party platform outside the promised land of Israel. Can we get a little exegesis here?

2K Makes You (and mmmeeeeEEEE) Virtuous

That’s because two-kingdom theology allows you to distinguish between what is and isn’t explicitly a matter of faith.

For instance, Rod Dreher goes batty over Ben Carson’s remark (in support of Trump) that “Sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done.”

Unless Rod is thinking about joining the Covenanters, his very citizenship is an instance of putting aside Christian convictions — the Constitution, hello! — in order to accomplish a measure of social order among a people with different religious (and other) convictions. Or is Dreher in favor, as an Orthodox Christian, of some kind of Constantine political order? Then please send back the advance on the book on the Benedict Option since the original Benedict Option arose out of a sense that political establishment compromised genuine faith.

A little 2k could also help Archbishop Chaput who seems to be doing his impersonation of college undergraduates who fear the campus of Princeton University is but little removed from Ferguson, Missouri. The wikileaks of emails with critical remarks about Roman Catholic political maneuvering shows a hyper-sensitivity normally associated with 19-year olds (maybe spoiled ones at that). Chaput quotes approvingly an email from a non-Roman Catholic friend:

I was deeply offended by the [Clinton team] emails, which are some of the worst bigotry by a political machine I have seen. [A] Church has an absolute right to protect itself when under attack as a faith and Church by civil political forces. That certainly applies here . . .

Over the last eight years there has been strong evidence that the current administration, with which these people share values, has been very hostile to religious organizations. Now there is clear proof that this approach is deliberate and will accelerate if these actors have any continuing, let alone louder, say in government.

These bigots are actively strategizing how to shape Catholicism not to be Catholic or consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but to be the “religion” they want. They are, at the very core, trying to turn religion to their secular view of right and wrong consistent with their politics. This is fundamentally why the Founders left England and demanded that government not have any voice in religion. Look where we are now. We have political actors trying to orchestrate a coup to destroy Catholic values, and they even analogize their takeover to a coup in the Middle East, which amplifies their bigotry and hatred of the Church. I had hoped I would never see this day—a day like so many dark days in Eastern Europe that led to the death of my [Protestant minister] great grandfather at the hands of communists who also hated and wanted to destroy religion.

Michael Sean Winters thinks that the charge of anti-Catholic bigotry is overheated and shows the calming effects of 2k:

The supposed “bigotry” towards the Catholic Church exposed in the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, released by Wikileaks last week, is nothing of the sort, despite the best attempts of some to make it so. This whole controversy is simply an effort, a stupid effort, to stop Clinton’s ascent to the White House. I say stupid because crying “wolf” is never a smart political or cultural strategy and, besides, anyone who is genuinely concerned about bigotry could not possibly be supporting Trump. This is about Republican operatives who hold the portfolio for Catholic outreach doing their part to ingratiate themselves with Trump.

Even though Winters is Roman Catholic and writes for the National Catholic Reporter, his additional comments reveal that he understands 2k and is willing to employ it:

First, conservative Catholics have every right to be Republicans, to try and play their faith in ways that correspond to their conscience, to reach conclusions that might differ from that of more liberal Catholics. They sometimes leave aside certain concerns that I think are central to the relevance of our faith at this time in history, but as Halpin said in explaining the context of the email, there are those on the left who do the same. The bastardization came when conservative Catholics claimed theirs was the only acceptable application of faith. Second, by aiding the reduction of faith to morals, these conservative Catholics have unwittingly been agents of the very same secularization they claim to oppose. As soon as our faith is no longer about the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, it has no claims to authority and people will walk away.

The only problem for Winters is that his bishops and pope keep commenting on political matters that invite the laity to bastardize the faith by seeking papal authority to back up — like — their own opinions — man.

Even Kevin DeYoung sheds a little 2k light to the allies who are usually tongue-tied by the transformationalist rhetoric of its NYC celebrity preachers:

This does not mean I think every Christian must come to the same decision in order to be a good Christian. There are simply too many prudential matters in the mix for Christians to be adamant that you absolutely cannot vote for so and so. . . . While our church might discipline a member for holding the positions Clinton holds or for behaving the way Trump has behaved, this does not mean we have biblical grounds for disciplining a church member who, for any number of reasons and calculations, may decide that voting for either candidate (or neither) makes the most sense. And if we wouldn’t discipline someone for a presidential vote, we should stop short of saying such a vote is sinful and shameful.

Now just imagine if Pastor DeYoung’s church or those of his gospel co-allies actually disciplined ministers who supported ministries of different faith and practice. It would be like having the Gospel Coalition show precisely the opposite of what DeYoung recommends for Christians when sorting out politics — firm about theology and ministry, soft about policy. But as we now know, the opposite is usually par for the course — indifferent about denominational distinctness and aggressive about civil affairs.

More 2k, more confessionalism, healthier churches, better citizens. Will that fit on a bumper sticker?

Michelle Obama is the Most Christian First Lady Ever

Okay, I’m borrowing a claim already made elsewhere about the First Lady’s husband.

But it is instructive when blessing Hillary Clinton as the Christian candidate in this year’s presidential contest to remember what Mrs. Obama said about Mrs. Clinton.

First, the baptism of Clinton (by a Fuller Seminary turned Yale University theologian no less):

The best case to be made for Hillary Clinton is that on balance she better represents the convictions and character that should concern Christian citizens. No candidate is perfect. There are certainly areas where Secretary Clinton’s policies and record might give Christians pause. But she takes the threat posed by climate change seriously. Her policies, such as paid family leave, would actually strengthen American families. She is committed to a just and welcoming approach to immigration that does not unduly compromise the legitimate good of security. She supports major reforms to America’s overly retributive and racially-biased criminal justice system. And, perhaps most importantly, she has demonstrated much deeper commitment to supporting the disadvantaged and the vulnerable than her opponent has, his grandiose rhetoric notwithstanding.

Second, keep in mind what Obama said about Clinton:

One of the important aspects of this race is role modeling what good families should look like. And my view is that if you can’t run your own house, you certainly can’t run the White House. Can’t do it.

Of course, Mrs. Obama and the president have not always been so discerning about certain popular entertainers or the lyrics to their songs which rival most of what Donald Trump has said.

Still, sorting out the Christianness of the candidates and their observers is getting really hard to do especially when partisanship clouds judgment.

Sasse 2020

I am calling the bluff of those who throw around the label “R2K.”

Listen to the interview Scott Clark did with Senator Ben Sasse and tell me where he is wrong. Sasse has a smart understanding of the U.S. political system, the nature of civil society, and his own calling as a Christian and many other duties. Imagine that, he can speak American and Reformed.

And if Sasse doesn’t measure up because of 2k views, are the critics of 2k going to support the dominionist Ted Cruz, the Opus Dei Rick Santorum, or the liberal moderate Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee? (Are they so particular about their pastor?)

I don’t know what the Senator’s plans are or whether he can clear all the hurdles of a primary campaign. But if you want a Reformed Protestant who sounds more like Yuval Levin than Mark Levin, Sasse is your guy.

Why Christians Should Read Mencken

If only the Jerry Falwell’s had considered this:

Preachers, of course, have a right to their political views, but it does not follow that they have a right to become politicians. When they dedicate their lives to religion they give over many of the common rights of ordinary men, the while they take on rare and valuable privileges one of those forfeited rights, I believe, is that of playing politics. Politics is a dirty business. It is inevitably and eternally contaminating. No man can touch it and not carry away his smear. As a profession it ranks with saloon-keeping and bookmaking. As a diversion it ranks with poker and cornet playing.

Preachers had better keep out of it. Let them vote as they please. Let them even, as private citizens, solicit the votes of their friends. But let them beware of going into active politics, as preachers. The public does not want to hear their political views in that capacity. Their training does not give them any appreciable fitness for judging politicians. Their opinions about the tariff, public expenditures and the trusts are no weightier than the opinions of other men. All the more danger, then, when they seek to give those opinions the false force of their ecclesiastical authority. All the more peril when they try to capitalize their good repute.