Beware an empire that saves souls at sword point
BY JAMES LEVY | James Levy is a special assistant professor and teaching fellow of history at Hofstra University.
November 18, 2007
Last year, in a talk on Britain in the 1930s, I found myself discussing in the opening paragraphs not Britain but Spain. Why? Because the analogy between Britain in the 1930s and Spain in the 1610s was somehow deep and appropriate.
Both nations were great imperial powers with holdings across the globe. Both were experiencing difficulties dovetailing their vast ambitions with the realities of their relatively small core states with sputtering economies.
Spain needed a rest, to restore her financial stability and reform her creaking social, economic and political structures. Britain needed rest and recuperation after World War I. The Spanish elite did not see things that way after their conquests in the New World and plunged headlong into the Thirty Years War. British elites around Neville Chamberlain did see the need for rest and reform, but Hitler's insane aggression in Europe intervened. Britain ended up not having the choice to rest. Spain had a choice and went to war.
Old news, you may say. Yet the example of Spain says a great deal about us in the United States. Today, in somewhat similar circumstances, we face a similar choice.
What kept the Spanish from catching their breath? What compelled them to fight multiple wars on multiple fronts and ruin their nation's finances? At heart, it was not stupidity or vanity or riches, but ideology.
Spain, the Spanish believed, was God's instrument on Earth, here to fight the infidel Muslims and the heretic Protestants. It was the job of God's anointed, the king of Spain, to chastise and vanquish all who would not see the light and submit to the teachings of the One True Catholic Church. To admit failure, or even propose a respite, was to question God or, worse, whether Spain really was God's instrument.
I see in America frightening echoes of such ideological zeal, especially in the rhetoric of President George W. Bush. Our political speech always had a touch of religion (as in "one nation under God" of the Pledge of Allegiance), but it stayed low-key, out of respect to the differences that were critical to our identity as Americans.
Yet beginning with President Ronald Reagan - who spoke about the nation as a "shining city on a hill," quoting from a famous Protestant sermon - and now going full force with Bush - who evokes sermons of Jesus with an attitude of absolute certainty - we have seen the gradual infiltration of religious zealotry into political discourse.
Americans have always had a sneaking suspicion that they were specially favored by the Christian God. Now such thinking has made it into the mainstream of political discussion.
We have people talking about how "our God is mightier than their God" and an open-ended war against "Islamofascism." That word sounds to me like the Crusades revisited.
We should be concerned when our president says: "You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists," echoing the prophesy of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats at the end of the world.
The Spanish once sincerely wanted to plant the cross of Christ around the world and save souls. Many Americans today would like to plant our notions of democracy and freedom in other lands. Spain could not, however, disentangle its message from conquest and the sword.
Are we proceeding down a similar path? Are the people of Iraq capable of separating our positive message (democracy, freedom) from the means (invasion, occupation) used to bring it? Even if the Iraqis were sympathetic to our ideas, it would be hard for them to accept our words at the point of a gun.
What troubles me most in this process of looking to God for national validation is the underlying irrational belief that America was put on Earth by some unseen power to "end evil" and right the world's wrongs, by force, if necessary.
A growing absolute faith that our way of living and believing are the only way, will lead us down the road Spain traveled 400 years ago, to bankruptcy, decline and enforced ideological rigidity. We should be happy to be a great and free nation, without religious hubris. Let's leave the talk about divinely ordained missions to zealots overseas.