The God of American Politics
Paris, December 18, 2007 -- The talk about religion that has become so
revealing a part of the developing American presidential campaign
demonstrates that the God who in the past in American political
discourse was invoked with awe in great causes, sometimes even with
Biblical fear and trembling, has been traded in for a deity that offers
competitive political endorsements based on the fundamentalist
Protestant orthodoxy of the candidates.
This I suppose was to be expected ever since George W. Bush in 2001
brought the fundamentalists' divinity into international play as a
fighter for America against the agents and agencies of Evil.
In the present campaign, particularly among the Republicans, God is
convened to play a partisan role as backer of one or another of the
candidates. In the background mischievous attacks are audible upon
rivals said unlikely to enjoy the privileged heavenly access of certain
others. Can a Mormon message get through the heavenly static?
This exploitation of religion is not only puerile and demeaning of the
nation but objectively an attack on religion itself. Introducing God
into the political debate in these mean terms, so as to intimate that
God's favor is at the rival beck and call of the Mike Huckabees and Mitt
Romneys, as well as those others forced to edge into this regrettable
affair in ways meant to suggest that they too bear on their brows the
mark of divine approval (if not heavenly election; it is too early to
But such are small people trying to make use of God to advance their
personal political ambitions, in itself evidence of the superficiality,
if not the perversity, of their religious beliefs. God, we may safely
assume, is not for political hire.
This God the politicians talk about is not, to use terms from formal
theology, the immeasurable God of all-knowing power, ubiquity,
transcendence, and omnipotence, himself the immanent being who holds in
existence all contingent being, and is the source of all being,
sustaining all that exists: who said to Moses, "I Am that Am."
The fear of God was once taught, which was not the fear of punishment or
of the wrath of God (although in the history of religion both were
taught often enough), but the fearful awe that ought to be inspired by
the existence of such a God, in his inexpressibility and plenitude.
If you believe in God, you should be serious about it. God is not the
cartoon character suggested in current political debates, or as
presented in the current best-sellers attacking the idea of God's
existence. The God of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher
Hitchens certainly does not exist, for which one may be grateful. It
ought to be a sobering thought for those authors that the real God, as
described in theology, might exist.
Jefferson said of slavery in America that if a God of justice exists, "I
tremble for my country." This is a consideration that might deserve
discussion in the presidential campaign, although it will not receive it.
The problem is that Americans cannot conceive of a God who is not an
American; this is the nonsensical effect of generations of myth about
Americans as a chosen people. It has deafened them to any other
This was not always so; such is what Lincoln was referring to when he
replied to the preacher who had declared that God was with the Union in
the Civil War. Lincoln said that while he did not know whether God was
on his side, it was his, Abraham Lincoln's, "constant anxiety and prayer
that I and this nation should be on God's side."
Senator John McCain, interviewed a few days ago, suggested that he was
disappointed by those Democrats and rare Republicans who are against the
war in Iraq, because, he asked: "where is their patriotism?" Aside from
the profound error of thinking that a patriot supports any war at all
that his or her country is engaged in (wise or stupid, disastrous or
otherwise, so long as it's an American war), it is a more profound
mistake to confuse nationalism with patriotism, and to confuse either of
them with the result of serious moral judgement.
To the Bible-quoters on the campaign trail, this ought to recall the
First Commandment: Thou shalt not set strange gods before me. The
presidential candidates ought, like Lincoln, be asking not who has God
on his side, but who, in the place of God, worships Baal, the nation.
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