The American God and His Disciples: Reflections on a Theological Americanism

One of the final moments of the 2016 Republican debates that sent twitter into a frenzy was Megyn Kelly’s “dramatic,” cliff-hanging, pre-commercial statement saying, “We have to stand you by, because after the break, we’re going to let the candidates make their closing statements, their final thoughts, and . . . God.” This caused in an outraged as people poured out their 140 character hearts about the GOP’s public conversation about their private, “Christian” faith in a country that claims to have a separation of church and state. When Fox returned from the commercial break the question surfaced to the candidates [paraphrased], “Have any of you received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first when elected in office?” To the “secular progressives,” that Hillary Clinton apparently epitomizes, to the people of a different religious/spiritual persuasion than Christianity and liberal, progressive Christians alike, this question seemed irrelevant or nonsensical in any serious political setting, especially after the conversation on the #BlackLivesMatter movement was cut ridiculously short. However, this final question is enormously significant, to the nation and to this forthcoming progressive movements emerging within it, and cannot simply be pronounced as irrelevant, because it speaks so much to America’s understanding of itself.

This question shines a light on the American civil religion. Talking about the American civil religion, Robert Bellah writes:

“Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity . . . The God of the civil religion is not only rather, ‘unitarian,’ he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love. Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God. He is actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America.” [1]

This austere, law-minded Unitarian God of the American civil religion has more than just a special concern for America. He ordained and prophesied America’s divine mission for the rest of the world. He sees America as more than just a nation of liberty and justice for all, but additionally, a nation of promise – a holy land. Therefore, “The will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong. The president’s obligation extends to the higher criterion.” [1] It’s seemingly a democratic theocracy wherein the people may elect, but only God justifies. Therefore, being the leader of America goes far beyond being commander and chief, it’s essentially being a prophet of a divine Americanism. This prophetic responsibility is no minor ordeal to a society totally devoted to this American God. The enormity of the ordeal lies in the Supreme Being who without him, “there could be no American form of government, nor an American way of life,” for, “Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, the most basic, expression of Americanism. Thus, the founding fathers of America saw it, and thus with God’s help, it will continue to be.”[2] For, “God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations.” [1] Sounds biblical right? Bellah thinks the God of the American civil religion only has, “selectively derived from Christianity,” but it isn’t necessarily Christianity. But I’d disagree.

The Unitarian focus of the American God is a poor attempt at inclusiveness, and without a doubt, most Americans understand the evoked God as the Judeo-Christian God (hence, the twitter outrage).  Politicians openly identify as Christians, and mention the name of God, making it safe to imply that they’re talking about the God of the Judeo-Christian sort. Robert’s tone, which insinuates a minuscule amount of Christian influence (selectively derived vs clearly), most certainly doesn’t align with Ted Cruz’s response to the debate question when he remarks, “I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures. And God speaks through the bible.” This response, coupled by an applause, solidifies the American God in the Judeo-Christian faith. Bellah mentions the influence himself when he says, “The equation of America with Israel is not infrequent . . . [Hence, the American unquestionable alliance with Israel].” Bellah’s insistence that there is a clear distinct division between the civil religion and the Judeo-Christian God is an insistence that there must be state established religion in order for the civil religion to be Christian.  However, this thinking undermines the importance of ideology and culture in the formation of a country. The American God is not a substitute for Christianity, but instead it is acculturated Christianity whose Unitarianism is only adopted for the sake of a patriotic, unified American front. This God, Christian in its foundation, is tied distinctly to a theological Americanism. Christianity is the religion; American Christianity its theology. This theology mimics the distinction between religion and theology made by Pan-African Christian theologians like Edward Blyde and Josiah Young. Christianity is the inculturated religion; Americanism is the acculturated theology. Lewis Gordon writes of the Pan-African theologians distinction when he says, “The task of a good theology, Young argues, is acculturation—to draw upon, that is, the cultural formation that is already present.”[3] If this is true, then what social order is it that God has called America to shine upon all nations? What does this theology teach? What are characteristics of this American God? And what are its potential biblical foundations? And what about Him makes Him so appealing to right-wingers?

The American God is the God of American Exceptionalism. This God blesses America disproportionately to the blessings of other countries. For this nation, even in its disregard for the least of these in terms of healthcare, education, and incarceration rates, still remains the good and perfect gift from above mentioned in James 1:17. This God has placed divine providence on America to take on the white man’s burden, and this burden of capital imperialism, is assuredly similar to that burden which led Paul to be beaten, pelted, and shipwrecked. For when the Wall-Street elites and their political apologist boast of their capital gains and personal wealth increases, they boast in harmony with the boasting of Paul in suffering. This God has supported the increase in military war-hawking. For this nation’s destiny lies in fulfilling its prophetic role of guardian of the globe. This God does not consider the deceptive language that justifies every war under the guise of, “liberty and democracy,” to be deceptive. For the demagoguery is nothing more than the following of the sacred prophesy bestowed upon it from He who watches from above. This God has declared America to be a nation of moral righteousness. Its slavery redeemed; its dehumanization of its poor and working class persons excusable; its murder of black persons acceptable; its hatred of people of color justifiable; its voice an echo of the divine. This God has maintained, “Whosoever challenges the greatness of this nation faces damned excommunication! And they shall find themselves one among the ranks of demons with titles such as: communist, nigger, terrorist, savage, thug, or Muslim.” His cross is a sacred Star – Spangled Banner. His holy land is these United States and his brother-nation is Israel. His Pharisees are those begging for him to follow the remarks given by that love struck, homeless, Palestinian Jews that called for his people to stop their murdering, settle matters quickly before the law must be involved, turn the other cheek in the face of violence, love your enemies, give to the needy, and never store your treasures. And His salvation is given to anyone who believes in him, puts in the work, follows the law, and is afforded the proper institutional privileges and biases to successfully accrue wealth, prestige, and status.

The fact that this God “exist” and this God is the God of this nation – anything that goes against this establishment, anything that questions the holiness of the dominant narrative of this establishment, anything that reminds America that it is not exceptional, goes against this God. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is fighting against this God and his militarized holy “guardsmen of grace.” The feminist movement is fighting against this God and his disciples’ attempts to disregard the importance of affordable healthcare options for women, demean the lived experience of rape survivors, and belittle women’s request for equal pay across the country. The LGBTQ+ movement is fighting against this God and his disciples’ commandments that they harbor hatred and phobia of these persons. The labor movement is fighting against this God and his disciples’ sanctified positioning of capitalist elites as beacons of American individualism. The anti-neoliberal globalization movement is fighting against this God and his disciples’ permissibility of the exploitation of the poor persons of the world.  America is a country wholeheartedly devoted to the concept that their mission is a transcendent one, greater than themselves. A mission that goes beyond constitutional, democratic elements and enters into the divine. Any wrongdoing is not a wrongdoing. Everything American is righteous. This question asked on the GOP debate stage is important for today’s activist because it’s not just an irrelevant utterance of religion maneuvering its way into the political sphere. It’s an indication that we are not up only up against the white supremacist, homophobic, anti-black, capitalist, patriarchy power structure so duly noted in our leftist progressive conversations. We are up against the acculturated American God himself.

[1] Bellah, Robert. Civil Religion in America. Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, from the issue entitled, “Religion in America,” Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1-21. http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm

[2] Einsehower, Dwight. Remarks Recorded for the “Back-to-God”Program of the American Legion.

http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov

[3] Gordon, Lewis. Africana Existentia: Understanding Existential Thought.

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