An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire
By Michael Northcott
I.B. Tauris. 220 pp. $35.
God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It
By Jim Wallis
HarperSanFranciso. 416 pp. $24.95
In the eyes of secular Europeans, Christianity is an American disease. And in the eyes of European Christians, secularism is an American disease, too. In reality, both Christianity and secularism came to America, like most other things, from Europe. The difference is that in America Christianity is vigorous enough to fight for its corner in the public square, whereas in Europe Christianity has largely been driven out of public life. The readiness with which invocations of the Almighty spring to the lips of American statesmen arouses cynicism and a kind of atavistic fear among those who attribute imperialist ambitions to the United States.
The one group of Europeans who might be expected to take a more balanced view of God's own country are those whose profession and vocation it is to know what can be known of God. I mean, of course, the theologians. Michael Northcott, who teaches Christian Ethics at Edinburgh University and has written books on environmentalism and global debt, is the very model of a modern theologian. He begins his latest, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire, by establishing his credentials as an informed and unprejudiced critic of the United States: “I first flew to JFK to join my family in Connecticut in the summer of 1969 when Americans first walked on the moon.”
Northcott uses his American connections, however, to make common cause with American critics of the Bush administration, including not only Christians such as Stanley Hauerwas but also the anti-Christian Michael Moore and the neo-Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. But Northcott's critique of the United States from a European perspective goes far beyond its indigenous American counterparts. An Angel Directs the Storm does not merely caricature but demonizes the United States. The book depicts the American republic as an evil empire, driven to global conquest by an apocalyptic religion that has more in common with fundamentalist Islam than with biblical Christianity.
Northcott's political argument is based on the evolution of American eschatology: the perversion of the faith of the pilgrim fathers into the militant ideology of the Christian Right, which he characterizes as “premillennialist dispensationalism.” On this account, the postmillennial American religion of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, which held that the idea of a promised land was already close to being realized in the United States, has been replaced by a rival premillennial form of evangelical Protestantism, based on apocalyptic expectation that the last days are imminent. Northcott claims that the original optimistic vision of America as a moral force in world affairs has given way to a grimly pessimistic fatalism, in which American self-interest is the only thing that matters. If the end of the world is nigh, all attempts to improve it are pointless. The “dispensation” granted by God to true believers means that they will be saved before the terrors of the apocalypse.
Northcott attributes even neoconservatism, an essentially secular strain of thought, to the fading of the messianic dream of a better world and its replacement by premillennial dispensationalism. He traces a line of descent from Locke's “theology of property,” via Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Leo Strauss, to the market-driven imperialism of George W. Bush.
“The U.S. corporate elite,” he claims, “increasingly see themselves as engaged in a planetary war for the maintenance of their own prosperity and way of life, and for the directing of all human history to American ends.” Christian Zionism, too, driven by the belief that the Jews must return to Israel before the prophecies of Revelation can be fulfilled, fits into Northcott's scheme of an “American apocalypse.”
Northcott takes his title from a quotation used by President Bush in his inaugural address: the eighteenth-century Virginian statesman John Page, who asked Jefferson after the Declaration of Independence: “Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?” Northcott contrasts this expression of faith—that “God was on the side of the underdog, the small emergent communities of the new America in their long struggle to overthrow imperial power”—with Bush's words on the USS Lincoln, when he declared victory in the war against Saddam Hussein: “The freedom you defend is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity.”
Northcott interprets the president to mean that “God is now on the side not of the weak but of the strong.” But Bush's words are entirely consistent with the sentiments of Page and the other founders of the republic, or for that matter the pilgrim fathers. It is precisely because the United States is now by far the strongest military and economic power on earth that the president was at pains to emphasize his humanitarian intentions—internationalist altruism, not national egotism.
Liberty is a universal right, not an exclusively American one. In using a theological vocabulary, he was doing exactly what his predecessors, from Washington onwards, have always done. They, too, saw the republic and its military forces as “the servants of God's purposes in history not just for America but for the world.” Northcott is just factually mistaken to draw a sharp contrast between past and present rhetoric.
The rest of Northcott's tract is devoted to proving that the war on terror and the “warrior ethos” of Bush's America are at odds with biblical Christianity. This is more conventional stuff, and much of the argument is familiar from the controversies that accompanied the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reconciling the teachings of Jesus Christ with the necessity of war has never been easy, and it was no easier for ancient Rome and Jerusalem than it is for America today. But George W. Bush would subscribe wholeheartedly to St. Augustine's classical definition of the just war: “Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. . . . Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared.”
Northcott would not, of course, regard Augustine as any sort of authority, for he condemns not only the warrior ethos, but the whole “Constantinian” settlement, the “religion of empire,” of which Augustine was perhaps the greatest ornament.
He contrasts the “Jeremaniac model,” to which he believes early Christians and the Jews of the Diaspora were faithful, with the reincarnation of the Roman Empire that he sees in the United States. Though he castigates FIRST THINGS for using the phrase “hugging terrorists” and insists that only Christian pacifists are “taking violence and evil as seriously as God took them,” Northcott makes scarcely any attempt to explain how civilization is to resist its enemies without using force.
It is perhaps unfair to expect Northcott to have given thought to any of the following questions, but I shall ask them anyway. Why, if America is such a diabolical creation, does this nation repeatedly generate from within its own supposedly benighted depths such powerful movements of reform, altruistic impulses, signs of contradiction that illuminate not only domestic but global iniquities? How, if the “American Empire” is the source of conflict and oppression, can it also have rescued Europe three times in a century from its own incomparably more belligerent and oppressive regimes? Where, if not to America, have the opponents of tyranny looked for refuge, inspiration and support, ever since the republic first gained its independence? Who, if not the United States, is able or willing to preserve the peace and prosperity of the world, through an unprecedented network of multilateral alliances, organizations, and treaties? What, if not a pax Americana, is to prevent a resurgence in the twenty-first century of the same forces and ideologies that made the twentieth century the bloodiest in history? And whose, if not America's, is the manifest destiny to defend the rights of man, and especially woman, against the latest of several Islamic jihads to be launched against the West, the last of which ended with the siege of Vienna more than three centuries ago?
If Northcott had wanted to examine American Christianity as it really is, he could have done worse than to read Jim Wallis' God's Politics. The author is a well-known evangelical preacher, columnist, and broadcaster who founded the Sojourners network and the Call to Renewal lobby group.
He was once close to George W. Bush, and claims that at a meeting in December 2000 the newly elected president said to him: “I've never lived around poor people. I don't know what they think. I'm a white Republican guy who doesn't get it. How do I get it?” Wallis replied: “You need to listen to the poor and those who live and work with poor people.” Bush later included an echo of this exchange in his inaugural address: “Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who do.”
These days Wallis is no longer invited to the White House, and his book argues that neither Republicans nor Democrats have a monopoly of Christian truth. It's not a particularly profound book—it reads like the amalgam of newspaper columns that it presumably is—but a cheerful sincerity shines through that is about as remote as possible from Northcott's sinister evocation of American evangelism.
Wallis believes that all people of goodwill—liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and atheists—can find common ground. “Neither religious nor secular fundamentalism can save us, but a new spiritual revival that ignites deep social conscience could transform our society,” he writes.
The trouble with Wallis' approach is that it can easily resolve itself either into motherhood-and-apple-pie or into the kind of well-meaning internationalism that has no purchase on those prepared to use force. Thus Wallis seems to spend much of his inexhaustible energy trying to persuade Israelis to give up their land to Palestinian terrorists, or persuading Tony Blair to abandon his support for George W. Bush over Iraq.
Wallis loves the “new Marshall Plan” for debt relief in Africa proposed by the British chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, precisely because it is vacuous enough to accommodate everyone's aspirations. In short, Wallis is naïve and gullible in the way that only American evangelicals can be.
But though his good intentions are by no means incapable of leading to Hell, they are certainly not demonic. If a man like Wallis can have as large a following as he and others like him undoubtedly do, then Northcott cannot be right—not even remotely so—that the United States is a force for evil in the world, let alone that its president is the kind of Antichrist Northcott supposes George W. Bush to be.
Political theology is far too dangerous to be left to the theologians.
Daniel Johnson has been a senior editor and columnist for the London Times and Daily Telegraph. He now writes a weekly column for the New York Sun.