American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile. I really like the title of the book I’m writing, in the hope of having it ready for publication in the first part of 2009. That can be a problem in writing books. You fall in love with a title and then labor to build a book around it. But I’m finding it’s not a problem with this one. The title itself has, if I may be permitted the term, a proleptic quality, anticipating what is unfolding as I go along.
The subject immediately at hand is the distinctive ways in which American Christians have tried to understand the American story. They have produced at times, and with very mixed results, what is aptly termed a theology of the American experience. The seventeenth-century Puritan settlers understood themselves to be, in Perry Miller's happy trope, on an “errand into the wilderness.” The image was that of God's chosen people on the way to the promised land, and they were the New Israel. Sometimes they and the New World were Jerusalem, having escaped the captivity of the Babylon of the Old World and, most particularly, having escaped the Babylon of Catholicism and of the insufficiently Protestantized lowercase catholicism that was Anglicanism in the old country. From these Puritan beginnings, American thinking about America will radically reverse the image of exile.
In the Puritan view, the Church of the "Letter to Diognetus" and of Augustine, namely Catholicism, is now Babylon, and the foreign country, namely America, is now and more or less unqualifiedly the Christian homeland. America is Jerusalem. And, in the more utopian flights of theological imagination, America is something very close to the New Jerusalem.
The eighteenth-century Jonathan Edwards was a leading light of the astonishing spiritual revival called the “First Great Awakening,” and is still today recognized as one of the great theological minds in our national experience. Robert Jenson, in his book by this title, calls him, quite simply, America’s Theologian, and many would agree. The evangelical Christianity that figures so prominently in American public life today is not, as many would have it, a phenomenon that appeared with the rise of Billy Graham or the election of Jimmy Carter as president. The emphasis on “experimental religion”meaning the experience of conversion and revivalgoes back to the great awakenings of the eighteenth century and receives a detailed accounting in works such as Edwards’ 1737 report, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.
Edwards and others of like mind believed that with the defeat of “popery,” which they identified with the Antichrist, and the outpouring of the Spirit evident in revivals, the End Time may be near. “'Tis not unlikely,” wrote Edwards, “that this work of God’s Spirit is the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God so often foretold in Scripture . . . There are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.” (A distinctively American religion, one notes, did not await Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden tablets in upstate New York.) Other accounts written at the time by people less reflective than Edwards were less conditional in the confidence that God had elected America to play the decisive role in the cosmic drama of salvation. The story of how that confidence has worked its way through history is brilliantly told by Ernest Lee Tuveson in Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role.
After his visit to this country in the early 1930s, G.K. Chesterton famously remarked that "America is a nation with the soul of a church." The remark is both famous and true. One notes in passing that, during his visit this past April, Pope Benedict referred to religion as the “soul” of the American nation. I don’t think he picked that up from Chesterton. A peculiarity of the American experience is that, in the absence of an ecclesiology that tethered them to the Church through time, for many American Protestant thinkers, America became their Church. That was true then, and it is true now. More than three hundred years later, in yet another reversal that they describe as radical, some evangelical theologians, notably those influenced by my friend Stanley Hauerwas, today depict America not as the Church nor as the precursor of the New Jerusalem but as Babylon. Of course, America is that, in the sense that every place is a place of exile for those whose true home is the City of God.
Whether America is depicted as the anticipation of the New Jerusalem or as its antithesis, whether America is the precursor or the enemy of the City of God, what such thinkers have in common is the lack of a clear connection to the Church in continuity with the Christian story through time. It is not enough for America to have the soul of a church. It is an American Protestant trait to forget that, in the biblical image, the Church is not the soul of Christ but the body of Christ. With this in mind, we can better understand the argument of the literary and cultural critic Harold Bloom that "the American religion" is gnosticism.
By gnosticism is meant the beliefsometimes more implied than explicitly statedthat the particularities of matter, time, and place are merely incidental, if not actually evil. Emancipation is to be found in transcending such particularities by “spiritualities” attuned to esoteric religious knowledge (gnosis) or experience. In American evangelicalism, the esotericthat which is known by the initiatedis to be shared with everyone, thus producing what has been described as the democratization of American religion. Democratic gnosticism may seem like a contradiction in terms, but religion in America is notorious for producing improbable combinations of apparent opposites.
Religious gnosticism goes hand in hand with ecclesiological docetism. Docetism was an early Christian heresy holding that Christ only seemed to have a human body and to have suffered and died on the cross. Ecclesiological docetism is the idea of an “invisible Church.” To be sure, the saints who have gone on to glory are not visible to us, and only God knows who among the living are the truly faithful. But the invisible Church affirmed by many is largely divorced from the Christian story through the centuries and becomes an ethereal and free-floating community untethered from the actual community of the Church in time that is, as Newman would say, not notional but real.
These peculiarities have powerfully shaped the American religious sensibility. After the Puritan errand into the wilderness came the national founding. With very few exceptions, it was presided over by men who understood themselves to be serious Christians. Even Jeffersonwhom ideological secularists depict as the chief, if not the only, founderwas much more of a Christian than is generally allowed. (On the religion of the founders see, for instance, Michael Novak's On Two Wings, or James Hutson's Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.)
In order to advance a principle of freedom, and in order not to threaten the religious establishments of the several states, the founders did a historically unprecedented thing. In the first provision of the First Amendment, they declared that the national government abdicated control of religious belief and practice. It would take almost two hundred yearsthe Supreme Court's Everson decision of 1947 is the usual point of reference herefor religious freedom to be radically recast as the government's "neutrality" between religion and irreligion, much to the benefit of irreligion. The consequence is what has been described as the naked public square. By that phrase is meant the enforced privatization of religion and religiously informed morality, resulting in the exclusion of both from the government of "We the People" who stubbornly persist in being a vigorously, if confusedly, religious people.
Nobody should need to be reminded that these tensions continue, and in some ways intensify, in our day. Both the vigor and the confusion are abundantly evident in the recent Pew survey of religion in America. And consider Senator Obama’s enthusiasm for faith-based delivery of social services, so long as the state gets to regulate the hiring practices of participating religious institutions, thus vitiating the faith in “faith-based.” One thing that is missing from today’s grapplings with these questions, however, is public reflection on the theological meaning of the American experiment itself. Today, religion is private and what belongs to public life is the business of the state. The contentions are over how to relate the one to the other. It was not that way in the beginning with figures such as John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards and, as I hope to show in American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, it need not be that way in the future.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things.