Love Thyself: a Disquieting Portrait of American Christianity

Telford Work, Westmont College
UCSB Front Porch
October 8, 2004
from Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Theology through the Lord's Prayer (in progress)

The Myth of American Foreign Policy
America begins in an age of naive isolationist innocence.
Circumstances after World War I force America into Continental European-style Realpolitik and "entangling alliances."
The Constantinian triumph (or fall) of the Church resembles this paradigm.

The Reality of American Foreign Policy
Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American foreign policy has always been aggressive, bellicose, complex, and sophisticated.
Mead personifies four persistent strands in American foreign policy:

Hamiltonians: pursue businesslike American integration into international affairs on the terms that best serve American interests and particularly American commerce.
Wilsonians: concentrate on diplomacy to propagate American ideals across the world – democracy, human rights, and so on – and unapologetically seek to influence other states’ domestic affairs in order to advance them.
Jeffersonians: fear the threat foreign entanglements pose to fragile democracy at home, making them protective and diplomatically cautious and sometimes even isolationist.
Jacksonians: populistically defend American honor and life when provoked, are proud of military strength, and are unembarrassed about their lower regard for the well-being of America ’s rivals and enemies.

These rise, fall, and interact in response to changing circumstances making for an incoherent, easily misunderstood, but surprisingly successful foreign policy.
This typology makes sense of, for instance, the dynamics of both pro- and anti-Iraq War opinion.

Hamiltonian America and Its Hamiltonian Christianity
Origins in the Anglican establishment.
Power is less important than prosperity (British Empire).
Business is the highest form of philanthropy.
International peace comes through commerce and trade.
Churches' staff and budgets mainly serve the interests of constituents.
Philanthropy is the highest form of business!
Many Christian institutions' agendas are Hamiltonian: Get a marketable degree! Get out of debt! Make your family thrive! God helps those who help themselves!
The Dying of the Light: do Christian schools drift from their real missions?

Wilsonian America and Its Wilsonian Christianity
Protestant Nonconformism creates ideals of equality, democracy, toleration, and peace.
The missionary movement in these camps takes the ideals as fitting for the whole world.
Churches and missions boards bypass traditional diplomatic/journalistic channels to foster a new global consciousness here and abroad.
Yet reformists and missionaries have relied on American power won by other means.
Wilsonians and Hamiltonians look after each other in America and overseas (example: MKs in the foreign service, Mormon business networks).
Wilsonianism appears idealistic, but it is ideological, promoting modern liberalism, cultural self-replication, and refusal of self-criticism.
Disillusionment with Wilsonianism leads to bland multiculturalism and relativism, illiberal fascism and socialism, or bitter nihilism, all of which preserve liberalism's key features and evangelistic habits.
Wilsonian Christianity includes church as cultural vehicle, interreligious dialogue, and recovery group: "we embody the knowledge you must embody too."

Jeffersonian America and Its Jeffersonian Christianity
English and Scottish Dissenters find a respite from Europe's wars and oppressions, and hierarchies.
Jeffersonians see America as exceptional, "uniquely precious but achingly vulnerable," and above all needing its structures to be defended against threats at home and abroad.
Liberty, not commerce, is what is precious - and it is fragile.
Thus balance of power, weak central government, small-is-beautiful, Bill of Rights, postwar demilitarization, low-budget diplomacy, etc.
Jeffersonians can be activist: Louisiana Purchase and the Monroe Doctrine.
However, they also become isolationist and passive in the face of grave threats, and irrelevant/invisible to the wider culture (which then can turn to unopposed utilitarianism).
Jeffersonian entrepreneurs created libertarian, countercultural, congregationalist Silicon Valley.
Jeffersonian Christians tenaciously and brilliantly home-school their children, create decentralized (even nondenominational) and purist institutions and networks, insist on personal faith, weave anti-Catholic conspiracy theories, write eschatological paranoid fantasies, and long for the good old days of agrarian Christian America (minus racism?).
Jeffersonian Christian movements include fundamentalism, postliberalism, Q-centric "historical Jesus" scholarship.
Jeffersonian is an unstable balancing act for survival, not a consistent commitment that willingly goes to the cross.
Jeffersonian is a cover for failed Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian projects (post-Vietnam).

Jacksonian America and Its Jacksonian Christianity
Populism originates in the honor codes of Scotch-Irish-Anglo folk culture.
Collective self-interest: "the folk ideology of the United States."
Southern political dynasties, northern political machines, midwestern farm communities, westerners suspicious of the federal government, ethnic voting blocs, suburban lobbies for middle-class welfare, military and sports cultures, and even inner-city gangs follow Jacksonian dynamics.
Warrior culture, renewed generationally esp. through military revivals.
Its communal honor codes are those of the American frontier:

self-reliance (though with a side order of entitlement to the deserving) rather than inheritance, welfare, or affirmative action;
respect for rights and dignity rather than condescension or humiliation;
prosperity through equality of opportunity and self-improvement rather than aristocracy or equality of result;
independence for youth and reverence (and political muscle) for elders;
individualism governed by deference to the tribe;
freedom of conscience and self-expression (taking economic form as consumerism rather than thriftiness) rather than theological and economic discipline;
honesty to one’s own community;
loyalty to family;
sexual decency (tolerating premarital sexual activity but not homosexuality);
courage and militarism rather than negotiation or pacifism.

Dishonorers are disciplined or exiled; outsiders or violators are unprotected (e.g., foreign civilian casualties; parallels with Qurayshi tribe).
Pop-culture Jacksonians are folk heroes at home and abroad: action movies, reality television, Howard Stern/Rush Limbaugh.
Jacksonian Christians are folk Christians (and most Christians are folk Christians). They subordinate Christian loyalties to tribal loyalties and values.
Jacksonian Christianity dilutes distinctives into a bland, inoffensive popular mainline, and now evangelical, consumer Christianity.
This also breaks down "dividing walls" of race, class, denomination, etc.
Jacksonian Christianity ultimately defers to the tribe, not Christ.
The Prodigal Son becomes a parable of restoration to the tribal honor code.
Justification by grace through faith becomes peer pressure, not true liberty.

Patron saints: Solomon, Saul, Josiah, and David.
American Christians, and even a place like Westmont College, draw on all four strands.
All four have helped sustain Christianity in the Industrial and Post-Industrial Age, yet distort it in the process.
All four are at least tempted to, if not grounded in, self-centeredness:
Self-advancement, self-realization, self-protection, and self-assertion.

What Is the Alternative?
"Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven": the Holy Spirit's indwelling is the will of the Father.