A few years ago Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, lamented at a gathering of bishops and other Catholic leaders, that in America even Catholics are "culturally Calvinist." By this Cardinal George acknowledged the simple fact that America cannot be analyzed apart from what Stephen H. Webb has called, "the way providential theology has shaped its understanding of foreign affairs" (American Providence: A Nation with a Mission, New York: T & T Clark, 2005). America’s power in the world, Webb maintains, cannot be understood unless you consider the role of providence in its historical self awareness.
The rise of evangelical interest in politics over the past three decades is not the beginning of this role. In some ways it is simply the continuation of a long historical tradition of mainstream American Protestantism. Webb believes that we can best frame the present debate as between providentialists and anti-providentialists, not between liberals and conservatives. I find this insight immensely helpful.
Let me put this another way. The question boils down to this: "Is God using America to do something special in the world?" The modern cultural elite will dismiss the question, much less serious answers to it. Those with faith, all sorts of faith really, remain deeply interested in both the question and the answers. President Bush represents the providentialist approach. Even President Clinton, the first postmodern boomer president, believed this way. In fact, every president in our history, and certainly our most famous presidents (e.g., Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, etc.) represented this latter view.
But how do we really know what God’s role is in our history? Can we sort out the events of the day and discern what God is actually saying to America? Such an approach has always been on the surface of American life. It lies behind the present interest in Armageddon that is based upon the Left Behind series of novels. But this is far too simplistic. It is very often a foolish scissors and paste approach to providence and clearly is not the one that has long guided serious Christian thinkers. Webb sums this up aptly: "Of all Christian doctrines, providence involves the exercise of a skill that can be easily overused or misapplied, but it can also be allowed to atrophy through fear of making mistakes or simple neglect." The atrophy and neglect of God’s role in our collective life, especially since the Vietnam War, is what gave rise to the present cultural tension over the providentialist view of history.
Stephen Webb is right to observe that "providence is not fate." And, he adds, "God’s will is given to us in a narrative that teaches us to read history according to a broad but concrete plan. This narrative is of a peculiar kind, in that it absorbs all other narratives into itself." Christians, says Professor Webb, can address the perplexities of history "without undue anxiety because they are confident about how it will all end."
In 1975 Richard John Neuhaus sought to place America’s past and future into a decidedly theological framework by writing that "When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American" and this means that "part of the American experience [will be] redeemed." Christians, Neuhaus was saying then and more powerfully says now via his journal First Things, cannot be apolitical. This does not mean that Christians should become simplistic ideologues for certain viewpoints. Quite the opposite. When we are at our best we understand that God is involved in our history and thus we must become involved in it. But we do not offer unqualified support to any party or platform. And we certainly do not form Christian political parties. (This has been tried and regularly fails.) What we do, at our very best, is seek to be on God’s side on important issues, all the time recognizing that we do not get this quite right and thus we need grace along the way. Our goal remains the kingdom of God and its just requirements. As Webb has put it, "Providence [understood in this proper way] asks Christians to get off the sidelines and into the game of history."
This approach is what Cardinal George called "cultural Calvinism." George’s designation is correct because only this approach adequately acknowledges the sovereignty of God over all events and nations. Simply put, it affirms that "God is king over the nations" (Psalm 47:8). It avoids the godless anti-providentialism of the secular left. It will also avoids the popular political bandwagons and litmus tests politics of the right. And it challenges the simple loyalty oath mentality that many have toward the Republican Party because it retains a healthy view of God’s kingdom and his providence. This is why I write many of the things I do about political issues. The gospel of the kingdom will never fit neatly into either political party since God is neither a Democrat or a Republican. This seems self-evident theologically. There can be no doubt, however, that it is missed by large numbers of passionate conservatives in our time.