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American Providence: A Nation with a Mission
by Stephen H. Webb
Continuum. 173 pp. $22.95

Perhaps Stephen Webb should have added a question mark after the word “mission” in the subtitle of his brisk and engaging book, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission . But perhaps he did not need to, as the question mark is assumed. Is God using America to accomplish something special in the world? “Sophisticated people just do not talk that way. The cultural elite dismiss the doctrine of providence as the illusory product of fundamentalist fantasies. Providence is caricatured as a theological version of hide-and-seek.”

Webb claims that the effort to discern providence at work in America has given rise sometimes to heresies (such as Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century), sometimes to distortions (such as “countdown to Armageddon” caricatures in which “history is treated like a secret message”), and often to genuine insights (“One of the tasks of providential America was to serve as a sanctuary for the world’s deprived and persecuted . . . .”). In our era of religious terrorism, and especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks, “the relationship between America and Christianity has rarely been so hotly contested” and “we need more than ever a reasonable theological assessment of the role that America, along with its particular brand of Christianity, plays on the world stage.”

Webb sketches the genesis and history of “the construction of the idea of America” and argues that we have prematurely abandoned the notion of providence in relation to our own history and our understanding of our purposes. “Instead of repairing the doctrine of providence, which has been so badly abused in the modern world, theologians have more often dedicated themselves to the task of showing how God is not in charge of the world . . . .” Giving up on providence is one way to maximize space for human action. It is much easier to embrace self-sovereignty, even political sovereignty, if God’s sovereign power does not hold sway over the fate of nations.

But Webb hopes “to demonstrate the necessity of providence for three interrelated issues. First, I argue that political theology as such requires the doctrine of providence. Second, I argue that American history cannot be understood apart from this doctrine. Third, I insist that any theological analysis of nationalism, globalism, and the future of the church requires a strong grasp of providence.” Further, he insists, a “providential reading of world history must account for America’s miraculous rise to world power, and it must give an interpretation of God’s blessings for America as well as America’s responsibilities for those blessings.”

This is a tall order, and Webb acknowledges that he is scratching the surface of a hugely complex set of questions and problems. But his reflections are provocative, bold, and helpful in situating certain problems. For example, we know that the American framers saw providence at work in America’s coming-to-be and her future tasks. We know that “Lincoln was tortured by reflection on the transcendental meaning of the American experiment”; he saw us as an “almost chosen people” whose democracy was the “last, best hope” of earth; and he was convinced that God’s hand was at work in the visitation upon America of a terrible civil war.

Can any such view be defended today? Yes, insists Webb, but one must proceed cautiously in articulating the notion of a particular American mission. Webb reminds us that many presidents, including the sitting president, have been convinced that, as President Bush has put it, “God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom,” and that America is obliged to participate in a political mission consistent with this perduring truth. Yet Webb also cites Robert Bellah approvingly to the effect that “being chosen does not legitimate triumphalism.” Webb’s aim is thus to chart a course between strong triumphalism and an overly ascetic rendering of America’s purposes.

Webb detects behind the denial that God is in charge of things an embrace of “the modern myth that human beings are in control of their own destiny,” that we are not under any power save our own, individually and collectively. By contrast, Webb opts for, and defends, a position of chastened providentialism within which providence is felt as a burden that checks triumphalism. Reporting on the self-assured providentialism of our past, Webb notes that this providentialism as a way of understanding the meaning of America has never truly disappeared but has, rather, fragmented. One camp may stress America’s mission as a sanctuary for the persecuted, while another may discern a particular and even decisive role for America to play in foreign affairs. Some leaders and thinkers have brought these emphases together, says Webb, as when, throughout World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made “liberal use of providential rhetoric to justify the expansion of government and America’s commitment to freedom for all.” In the past four decades, however, providential readings of our history have either been abandoned altogether or have narrowed almost exclusively to the stress on sanctuary.

What, then, would a revival of providential thinking offer Christ-ians in our post“September 11 world? It would offer them a way of challenging liberal political philosophy’s repudiation of any possibility that a “good God can exercise preferential judgments.” (By liberal political philosophy, Webb means primarily the ideas of John Rawls.) American Christians, he writes, “know better than to think that the inscrutable ways of providence can be reduced to the idea of fairness.” It would offer them an opportunity to recognize themselves as a “nation under judgment” and as gifted (or burdened) with an unusual stewardship to offer democratic possibilities to the world. It would offer them a wider context in which to incorporate the legitimate insights of liberation theology, which are themselves a form of providential thinking: If there is a preferential option for the poor, why not also a preferential option for democracy as the political structure most likely to benefit the poor?

In Webb’s concluding three chapters, he advances a “particular theory of providence” that goes beyond generic or general notions of providence as “God’s regular mode of operating in the world . . . .” For Webb, God’s providence is always and everywhere “special and particular, not regular and general.” A classical doctrine of providence possesses the undeniable virtue of avoiding what Webb recognizes as the extremes of “humanizing God by making God an agent like us . . . or dehumanizing God by portraying God as the immediate cause of every event.” The opening into considerations of particular providence in political life is through the concept of political authority”a concept that also needs to be revised by new theological thinking.

Webb insists that Christianity is, in many profound ways, a political religion. Christianity helped to plant the seeds of democracy, whose fruit is freedom. Do not Christians, then, have a stake in the fate of systems that honor human dignity and human freedom? Webb insists that only if we reach deep into our theological past can we deal with the challenges of the present and future, including the challenge of Islamism. The Christian tradition of self-criticism is a wonder, he tells us, but if self-criticism turns into terminal self-doubt, even self-loathing, then we have a problem. If we scorn the notion that God intends freedom for all his people, including freedom in its political form, then we shall find ourselves helpless, theologically speaking, before determined and ruthless foes of freedom.

Webb concludes with a rather curious chapter on “Carl Schmitt and the Limits of Democracy,” Schmitt being the brilliant critic of liberalism whose life and thought are, as Webb says, “tainted by his impoverished political decision to join the Nazi Party in 1933.” Webb, like a number of current writers on law, jurisprudence, and political philosophy, urges that we need to confront Schmitt’s “insistence that democracies need an external principle of authority that can bring public debate to an end.” Schmitt’s view was that democracy could not rise to the challenges of “the exception,” those situations in which the system itself is challenged by the unanticipated and horrible, and in which routine procedures do not suffice. If one has collapsed Christianity and democracy into a moralistic, law-governed Kantianism, one may leave one’s own society open to dissolution through irresolution. Unlike Schmitt, who locates all value in the political, Webb references Reinhold Niebuhr and René Girard, who “point to the role of theology in limiting the political . . . .” Theology cannot play that role, Webb concludes, without some account of providence.

Webb might have done better to save this discussion of Schmitt for another day. That being said, it remains the case that in American Providence Webb has done a commendable job of taking on a huge and controversial subject and presenting it in clear language that alerts us to what is at stake and why we should be engaged. As he writes in concluding the book, “The critics of providence caricature it as an elaborate ruse of self-congratulation, but it is better understood as a form of trust and gratitude that frees the individual for confident action in the world. Freedom would have little meaning if it had no purpose or direction, and it would have little chance in the short run if there were no hope for its ultimate fulfillment. Democracy is a gamble on freedom, and providence is its surety.”

Jean Bethke Elshtain is The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and author of Just War Against Terror (Basic Books) .