Once upon a time—it was the 1976 bicentennial of the American founding, to be precise—I wrote a book on the American experiment and the idea of covenant. Time magazine picked up on it and reported, “On the day of judgment, Neuhaus wants to meet God as an American.”
That’s not quite right. What I wrote is that I expect to meet God as an American. And that for the simple reason that, among all the things I am or have been or hope to be, I am undeniably an American. It is not the most important thing, but it is an inescapable thing. Nor, even were I so inclined, should I try to escape it. It is a pervasive and indelible part of what is called one’s “identity.” Among American thinkers, and not least among American theologians, one frequently discerns an attempt to escape one’s time and place. It is a very American thing to try to do. We are never more American than when we believe we have transcended being American. America is, after all, as some like to say, the world’s first “universal nation.”
The theologian Robert Jenson has employed to fine effect the phrase “the story of the world.” The story of Israel and the Church, he writes, is nothing less than the story of the world, and the world is today lost in its confusions because it has “lost its story.” I would add that, for those of us who are Americans, we are as Americans part of the story that is the story of the world. Moreover, America itself—this nation that the founders called an experiment and, like any experiment, may succeed or fail—is part of the story that is the story of the world. Of the many ways of thinking about America—economic, political, cultural, etc.—there is today a striking scarcity of thinking about America theologically.
It was not always so. Not so long ago, American intellectuals, including American theologians, spent considerable time thinking about their place as Americans. But in the last half century or so, we have largely lost our story and our place in the story of the world. Theologians, too, have succumbed to the false-consciousness of having transcended the American experience, which is expressed, more often than not, in a typically American anti-Americanism that is relished and imitated by others, notably by European intellectuals. As in the writing of biography, or of history more generally, one cannot think truly about a story with which one is not sympathetically engaged. Love is sometimes blind, but contempt is always blind.
Perhaps we should from the start attend to one common misunderstanding. To think about the American experiment theologically, or to suggest that God is not indifferent to the American experiment, in no way implies that people who are Americans are “special” in the sense of occupying a superior place in God’s concerns and purposes. The Christian tradition gives us to understand that a beggar on the streets of Calcutta is in the view of God, sub specie aeternitatis, as important as the president of the United States. As for the proud pretensions of worldly powers, Psalm 2 tells us that God holds them in derision, laughing them to scorn. And yet, it is precisely God’s concern for everyone, including the littlest and the least, that warrants our belief that He takes an interest in realities that affect billions of people on earth. America and its role in the world is such a reality.
To the God who marks every sparrow that falls, everything matters. God is infinite and his capacity for concern is inexhaustible. To propose that He cares more about one people than another is both unseemly and theologically incoherent. To God and to its five million citizens, the Kingdom of Denmark “matters” as much as the United States of America. But the Kingdom of Denmark is not, insofar as we can measure consequence, as consequential for human history as is, for better and for worse, the United States. Our subject is the stories within the story of the world, which is to say human history, which is to say the events and forces that influence and engage people who are the object of God’s infinite concern. Any suggestion that one nation is more “special” to God than another is excluded. The people of Israel and the Church joined to Israel are His elect people, but God is no respecter of nations. At the same time, neither is He indifferent to, among other things beyond numbering, the political configurations that may hinder or serve His purposes. It is by no means the decisive thing, but neither is it a trifling thing, that we Christians in America are American Christians. We have a measure of responsibility for this country and its influence in the world. As do Danes for Denmark, Japanese for Japan, Kenyans for Kenya, and on and on. Because America impinges upon them all, they, too, have more than a passing interest in how the American story within the story of the world is told.
Thought that is real and not merely, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it, “notional,” is thought that is sympathetically situated in time and place. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Christians have here no abiding city. In the third eucharistic prayer of the Mass we pray, “Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth.” We Christians are a pilgrim people, a people on the way, exiles from our true home, aliens in a strange land. There is in all the Christian tradition no more compelling depiction of our circumstance than St. Augustine’s City of God. Short of the final coming of the Kingdom, the City of God and the earthly city are intermingled. We are to make use of, pray for, and do our share for the earthly city. Here Augustine cites the words of Jeremiah urging the people not to fear exile in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace.”
It is often forgotten how very much of a Roman Augustine was. The City of God is, among other things, a sustained argument with pagan interlocutors whom we might today call “public intellectuals,” in which Augustine is contending for the superiority of the Christian philosophy and understanding of history. It is sometimes suggested that Augustine knew he was writing in the ruins of a collapsing empire that he dismissed as terminally corrupt. In fact, he wrote, “The Roman Empire has been shaken rather than transformed, and that happened to it at other periods, before the preaching of Christ’s name, and it recovered. There is no need to despair of its recovery at this present time. Who knows what is God’s will in this matter?” Knowing that we do not know God’s will does not mean that we do not think about God’s will in this and all matters, for, as Augustine writes in the same text, “It is beyond anything incredible that God should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of His providence.”
The Christian disposition toward exile in Babylon, wherever that Babylon may be, is nicely caught in the second-century Letter to Diognetus, in which it said of the Christians that “though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, every foreign country is a homeland, and every homeland a foreign country.”
Taking their full part as citizens in the foreign country and homeland that is our American Babylon, Christians have, at least until fairly recently, tried to understand the part of the American experiment within what Augustine calls the laws of God’s providence. In this they followed the precedent of the Great Tradition of Christian thought in other times and places.
As Oliver O’Donovan reminds us in Desire of the Nations and his more recent The Ways of Judgment, “Constantinianism,” far from being a term of opprobrium, represents a considerable Christian achievement of that place and time. The distinguished historian Robert Louis Wilken convincingly argues that the toleration and later establishment of the Church was not a corruption in which, as it is sometimes said today, the Church ended up “doing ethics for Caesar.” When, in A.D. 390, St. Ambrose excommunicated the Christian Theodosius for his massacre in Thessalonika, he was holding Caesar accountable to the ethics of the Church. Similarly, what is often dismissively referred to as medieval “Christendom” can be seen as a creative coordination, for its time and place, of the tensions between, and the mutual interests of, the earthly city and the City of God.
In the light of this long and complex tradition, we can view the distinctive ways in which American Christians have tried to understand the American story—the ways in which (if one is permitted that barbarous phrase) they “did theology” about America. The first Puritan settlers understood themselves to be, in Perry Miller’s happy phrase, 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 Church of England.
With these Puritan beginnings, American thinking about America radically reversed the image of exile. The Church of the Letter to Diognetus and of Augustine became Babylon, and the foreign country unqualifiedly the Christian homeland. In the Puritan imagination, America became Jerusalem, and even, in the more utopian flights of theological imagination, the New Jerusalem.
After his visit to this country, G.K. Chesterton famously remarked that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” The remark is both famous and true. America, he said, is about “making a home for vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.” It is a “home for the homeless.” It is a temporary home, to be sure, but a happy refuge for pilgrims along the way. Every human being, said Chesterton, can become an American by accepting a political creed. And the great thing about that political creed is that it leaves one free to accept a higher creed and pledge a higher allegiance to a country where we will, at last, be homeless no more.
In the absence of an ecclesiology that tethered them to the Church through time, for many American Protestant thinkers the nation with the soul of a church became their Church. That was true then, and it is true now. More than three hundred years later, in yet another reversal, some theologians today depict America itself as Babylon. But, like their Protestant forebears, they, too, have no Church in continuity with the Christian story through time. It is not enough to have the soul of a church. American Protestants have a tendency 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 Harold Bloom’s argument that “the American religion” is gnosticism. Religious gnosticism goes hand in hand with ecclesiological docetism. The result is less the Christian story than the free-floating and ambiguously Christian experience untethered from an ecclesiology that, as Newman would say, is not notional but real.
But I get ahead of myself. 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 Jefferson—whom ideological secularists depict as the chief, if not the only, founder—was much more of a Christian than is generally allowed. (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 years—the Supreme Court’s Everson decision of 1947 is the usual reference here—for 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.
In rebelling against what claimed to be legitimate authority of the British crown, the founders appealed to the laws of nature and of nature’s God, making the argument that they were acting upon self-evident truths about inalienable rights with which we are endowed by the Creator. The inspiration of the errand into the wilderness resonates in The Great Seal of the United States of America printed on the back of every dollar bill, declaring this America to be a novus ordo seclorum—a new order for the ages. Again, the ecclesiological intimations appear: Here is a new church, and one hears in the background the voice of the one who promised that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Thus was born what some call the American civil religion, a religion that is intricately intertwined with the religion that most Americans call Christian.
The church of the novus ordo seclorum had a thin public theology. As political philosopher Leo Strauss observed, its founding principles were “low but solid.” Perhaps too low and not solid enough. To change the metaphor, the new order was not wired for first-principle questions such as the humanity and rights of slaves of African descent. As it is not wired for today’s questions about the humanity and rights of the unborn child and others who cannot assert their rights. These are the questions at the vortex of what we call the culture wars. In the 1860s the church of the novus ordo seclorum was shattered by the bloodiest war in our history, and from that catastrophe emerged the greatest theologian of the civil religion. Lincoln’s second inaugural address, with its profound reflection on the mysteries of providence, is in some ways worthy of St. Augustine—except, of course, without Augustine’s Church and therefore without the communal bearer of the story of the world by which all other stories, including the story of America, are truly told.
American theology has suffered from an ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the Church through time. Alongside this development, and weaving its way in and out of it, is a radical and vaulting individualism that would transcend the creaturely limits of time, space, tradition, authority, and obedience to received truth. Here the prince of apostles is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it is little wonder that he is revered by Harold Bloom as the font of what he calls the American Religion. Here there is no doctrine other than what Emerson calls “the doctrine of the soul.”
The many today who say they are interested in spirituality but not in religion are faithfully following in the tradition of Emerson’s battle against tradition and the idea of the authoritative. Consider his powerful 1838 address to the divinity students at Harvard:
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, “I also am a man.” Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man’s.
Surveying what he views as the corruptions of historic Christianity with its doctrines, rituals, and traditions of authority, Emerson declares, “The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.”
Emerson was surely right to say “imitation cannot go above its model,” and the many who have followed him have, in fact, fallen far short of the Emersonian model. Witness the fate of what used to be called “liberal religion” in the form of Unitarian-Universalism or visit the shelves upon shelves in the “spirituality” section of your local bookstore. One can agree with Harold Bloom that gnosticism is the right word for it.
At the same time, there were other American Christians who, remembering the words of Jesus that the servant is not above his master, did not aspire to go above their model. The latter part of the nineteenth century, when almost all Protestants called themselves evangelicals, the nation witnessed the impressive construction of the “Benevolent Empire” in what is commonly designated the third great awakening. The social gospel movement, led by formidable figures such as Walter Rauschenbusch, embraced the goal of “Christianizing America and Americanizing Christianity.” Once again the note is struck that America is not only a nation with the soul of a church but is the church. This self-understanding was soon to be shattered by the fundamentalist-modernist clash of the first part of the twentieth century, giving rise to the conviction that theology, so rife with conflict and divisiveness, must give way to something like a public philosophy.
Here the most notable figure is John Dewey who died in 1952 at age ninety-two, having presided for six decades as perhaps the most influential public intellectual in American life. Like so many liberal reformers of his time, Dewey was only one step away from the Protestant pulpit. A Common Faith, published in 1934, proposed a distinctively American religion that would leave behind the doctrinal and ecclesiological disputes of the hoary past and embrace all people of good will in the grand cause of progressive social reform. In what was deemed to be a post-Christian era, here was a new novus ordo seclorum with America as the elect people in the vanguard of leading history toward its liberal consummation.
Today, Richard Rorty, the grandson of Rauschenbusch, claims the mantle of Dewey. The common faith of the elect people lives on. In his 1998 Achieving Our Country, Rorty writes that Dewey and his soul-mate Walt Whitman “wanted [their] utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul.” He quotes favorably the lines of Whitman: And I call to mankind. Be not curious about God. / For I who am curious about each am not curious about God. “Whitman and Dewey,” Rorty writes, “gave us all the romance, and all the spiritual uplift we Americans need to go about our public business.” In this he sets himself against other leftist thinkers whom he accuses of a “semi-conscious anti-Americanism which they carried over from the rage of the late 1960s.”
Radical Christians’ understanding of America’s part in the world-historical scheme of things is very different, but Rorty shares with those radical Christians of an anti-American bent a belief that America is at center stage in the cosmic drama. For the followers of Rorty, America replaces God as “the unconditional object of desire,” while for radical Christians, America is the Anti-Christ in pitched battle against God’s purposes through time. Both are quintessentially American in their indifference to Augustine’s City of God, intermingled with the earthly city and on pilgrimage toward the End Time, and in their indifference to the Church of Augustine that sustains that pilgrimage.
There have been other efforts to establish a public philosophy quite apart from over-arching claims of providential purpose. To cite an outstanding instance, thirty-four years ago John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. It will be remembered that, in this intricately reasoned work, Rawls proposed that reasonable persons motivated by self-interest and risk-aversion and unencumbered by a knowledge of their place in the world could deliberate behind a “veil of ignorance” and agree upon the principles of a just society.
Rawls, to his great credit, helped revive an interest in political philosophy. Like Aristotle, and against the thinkers for whom politics is all procedure to the exclusion of ends, he understood that politics is the deliberation of how we ought to order our lives together. But his “oughtness” was assiduously insulated from what he called “comprehensive accounts” of history and the world, resulting in an esoteric theory of little use to the democratic deliberation of the question of how we ought to order our lives together. In that sense, Rawls is very un-American. From the Puritan beginnings to the Founding, from Emerson and Lincoln to Rauschenbusch and Dewey, Americans have been embroiled in comprehensive accounts, trying to make sense of the story of America within the story of the world.
Stephen Webb has recently published a little book titled American Providence: A Nation with a Mission. It is deserving of much more attention than it has received. Nor should we be ignoring the important contributions of Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, especially the latter’s The Kingdom of God in America. Reinhold was, I believe, much more of a Christian and much more of a Christian thinker than some of his contemporary critics allow. In many ways his sensibility might aptly be described as Augustinian. A half century ago and more, both Niebuhrs were in the long tradition of theologians wrestling with the story of America within the story of the world. Reinhold in particular was perhaps too much impressed by what he called the irony of American history. So skeptical was he of the pridefulness that often accompanied the idea of a national mission—one thinks, for instance, of the notion of “manifest destiny” and the purposes to which it was sometimes put—that he failed to engage constructively the irrepressible devotion to a national story, a line of devotion that runs from the errand into the wilderness to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community” to Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill” and George W. Bush’s second inaugural on America’s appointed task in advancing freedom and democracy in the world.
There was another theologian who has an important place among those who have thought deeply about the American experiment: John Courtney Murray. Father Murray, who died in 1967, is best remembered for his part in the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom. But his 1960 book We Hold These Truths is an unavoidable point of reference in discussions about America and providential purpose. He had the greatest admiration for the American founders, and admired most of all the modesty of their intention. This constitutional order, he insisted, rested not upon “articles of faith” but upon “articles of peace.” Unlike so many others, Murray never confused America with the Church. As a Catholic, he already had a Church that claimed his prior allegiance. That Church is universal”as in “catholic”—and she has centuries of experience with nations, including nations with universal aspirations, that lay claim to that prior allegiance. We see again and again that, without a Church—not notional but real—that transcends the American experience, the American experience becomes one’s church.
James Madison wrote in his famed Memorial and Remonstrance that those who enter the political community must have a prior allegiance to God and the laws of God. That allegiance is prior in both time and priority. For Madison and so many others, however, that allegiance was not instantiated in a community that claimed priority to the political community. Thus, again, America itself became their de facto church. Indeed the fundamental charge of anti-Catholics in American history is that Catholicism requires a “dual loyalty”—an allegiance to America and a prior allegiance to the Church. That was, and is, exactly right. A prior allegiance is not necessarily a conflicting allegiance. Murray argued that the Catholic allegiance complemented and reinforced the allegiance to the American experiment. In this he agreed with the Letter to Diognetus that America is both homeland and foreign country.
Already in 1960, Murray saw that the Protestant establishment, and not least its theological establishment, had wearied of thinking about America in terms of divine providence. In We Hold These Truths, he anticipated a day when Catholics would have to catch the fallen flag of this novus ordo seclorum. Murray envisioned a democracy in which citizens are “locked in civil argument” about how we ought to order our life together. He believed that the genius of this American experiment, grounded in what he called the American Proposition, is to have provided the procedures and to have cultivated the habits by which the argument could continue until the final coming of the promised Kingdom—a coming uniquely anticipated in the eucharistic life of the Church.
Along the way to the Kingdom, he proposed that politics—the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together—be guided by natural law. Natural law is by definition not the property of any one religion or denomination, although it has been the providential task of the Catholic Church to guard and to propose again and again the truths of nature and nature’s God that were assumed by the American founders. “From the beginning,” wrote the second century St. Irenaeus, “God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then He reminded him of them by giving the Decalogue.”
The American founders, without exception, agreed. In the vision of John Courtney Murray, public discourse guided by appeal to natural law—and accompanied by the presence of a Church that effectively challenged democracy’s idolatrous aspirations to ultimacy—could provide a public philosophy for sustaining the American experiment in producing as just and free a society as is possible in this our Babylonian exile from our true homeland.
Talk about a public philosophy for the American experiment strikes many today as nonsensical or utopian. In their view, a common public discourse has been shattered, leaving only the shards of myriad constructions of reality. Abandoning the idea of moral truth, politics is no longer the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together but is now, in the phrase of Alastair MacIntyre, warfare carried on by other means. All politics is combat politics. There is no longer, some say, a common American culture, and we should stop pretending that there is. There are only subcultures. Choose your subculture, take up its grievances, contentions, and slogans, and prepare to do battle against the enemy. Liberated from the delusion that we and our opponents can together say “We Hold These Truths,” we are urged to recognize the futility of being locked in civil argument and accept the fact that there is no substitute for partisan victory.
Such, we are told, is our unhappy circumstance, and many think it not unhappy at all. They relish the battle, with no holds barred, no compromise, and their opponents’ unconditional surrender as the goal. Our circumstance is not entirely new. Today’s culture wars, as they are aptly called, bear striking similarities to the moral and political clashes prior to the Civil War. I recently had occasion to revisit Walter Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy, on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. There he describes a circumstance—before the civil-rights movement, before Vietnam, before the cultural and sexual revolutions, before Roe v. Wade, before wave upon wave of critical theory and deconstructionisms—not entirely unlike our own. That was a long time ago. It has been a long time since we have been locked in civil argument premised upon the confidence that we together “Hold These Truths.” Incidentally, Lippmann’s proposed remedy, to the extent he proposes a remedy, is a recovery of natural law. Although Lippmann was, however ambiguously, a Jew, Reinhold Niebuhr thought the book was altogether too Catholic.
It must be admitted that over these fifty years the churches have been of little help in restoring a politics of democratic deliberation about how we ought to order our life together. Those churches—once called mainline, and now more aptly oldline and, increasingly, sideline—have planted the banner “Thus Saith the Lord” on the cultural and political platform of the Left. The evangelical Protestant insurgency has often planted the same banner on the cultural and political platform of the Right.
For the purposes of this reflection, it matters little that those on the Right have greater political potency. With notable exceptions, both are enemies of a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment; both contribute to the political corruption of Christian faith and the religious corruption of authentic politics.
As for the leadership of the Catholic Church in this country, it oscillates between, on the one hand, a touching desire to be accepted by the oldline, and, on the other hand, cobelligerency with evangelicalism on great moral and cultural questions. But there are also, let it be said, some Catholics, including bishops and theologians, who remember that the Church is to be the “contrast society” of Madison’s prior allegiance. As such a contrast society, the Church is not above the fray, but neither is she captive to the fray. Her chief political contribution is to provide a transcendent horizon for our civil arguments, to counter the confusion of the political penultimate with the theological ultimate, and to insist that our common humanity with God’s gift of reason is capable of a common deliberation about how we ought to order our life together.
And so we return to the beginning. When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American. Not most importantly as an American, to be sure, but as someone who tried to take seriously, and tried to encourage others to take seriously, the story of America within the story of the world.
The argument, in short, is that God is not indifferent to the American experiment, and therefore we who are called to think about God and His ways through time dare not be indifferent to the American experiment. America is not uniquely Babylon, but it is our time and place in Babylon. We seek its peace in which we find our peace as we yearn for and eucharistically anticipate the New Jerusalem that is our pilgrim goal. It is time to think again—to think deeply, to think theologically—about the story of America and its place in the story of the world. Again, the words of Augustine: “It is beyond anything incredible that God should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of his providence.”
Richard John Neuhaus is editor-in-chief of First Things . This essay is adapted from a lecture given at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton.