[must] be tempered by a realism about the mysteries of providence and the limits of human perfectibility” (250). Christian orthodoxy makes room for particular
loves “but not for myths of national innocence or fantasies about building the kingdom of heaven on earth” (250). It is alright to love one’s country but when this love is equated with God’s favor, blessing or revealed purpose it is quite another matter.
I could suggest a number of ways that this is done routinely. Consider, as just one example, the place of the American flag in most of our churches. If you travel to other countries this symbol of the nation is almost never present in a church. From childhood I have wondered why so few want to discuss this nagging question. (Woe to the church that has the flag displayed and a pastor, or group of leaders, tries to remove it!)
I believe Douthat gets it right when he suggests that no president more accurately understood the proper role of religion in public life than Abraham Lincoln. On the one hand Lincoln equated the horrors of America’s darkest hour with the bloody biblical conflicts of the Old Testament. On the other hand he treated the war itself as divine chastisement as can be seen in his famous Second Inaugural speech, given just weeks before his death. In this context we have one of the most famous lines in all of American history:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.
Simply put, Lincoln framed a healthy view of providentialism, one which I believe is ultimately right. He could do this because he understood how to use “the language of humility and mystery” (253). It is this aspect that is missing in most modern campaigns and crusades for morality and faith in Americanism. A healthy union of pietism and patriotism may work but in our present context, especially in our current evangelical context, there is a “dangerous theological temptation” here that it seems we routinely miss. One such temptation, especially on the political left, is messianism. The other great danger, especially on the conservative right, is doom-laden apocalypticism. We are not just an “almost chosen nation” but a truly chosen nation! The first temptation fits progressive tendencies while the second fits the more conservative bent of mind and politics. The second is ascendant right now since it is built on the reactionary inclination of conservatives to frame the present by the dark clouds of gloom and doom that hang over a people led by the present occupant of the White House. From Woodrow Wilson’s progressivist use of this paradigm to the modern Christian Right, which argues from the other end of the spectrum than Wilsonianism, this tendency to embrace nationalism has hindered the church from her real mission in America.
I am very concerned personally. I believe the apocalyptic warnings of many conservative Catholics and evangelicals have crossed a dangerous line over the past three years. This is more than revisionist history. But the left has employed its own revisionism as well. Both sides tend to frame our Christian mission in the language of culture wars that threaten both the nation and the church. The greatest loser, in this reaction, will be the church. We might say the greatest loser will be the mission of Jesus Christ, which has been entrusted to the church. This is why I believe Bad Religion is such an important book for missional-ecumenism. Douthat is clearly more politically conservative than liberal. Yet I think he gets the balance correctly when he concludes:
With the example of the Bush presidency, we come to what’s distinctive about religion and politics in our own era. It isn’t the presence of the heresy of nationalism in both its apocalyptic and messianic aspects; that’s been a constant throughout American history. Rather, it’s the coexistence of both aspects within both of the country’s political coalitions. Instead of the normal pattern of American history, in which conservatives are tempted by the reactionary pessimism of the apocalyptic style, and liberals by the seductions of utopianism now messianism and apocalypticism have increasingly become bipartisan afflictions. The right has become more Wilsonian, the left steadily more apocalyptic, and the two forms of the nationalist heresy have intertwined within the Republican and Democratic parties alike (Bad Religion, 264-5).