Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal
Robert Jewett. Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Robert Jewett has written a timely, thoughtful, and informative examination of the way American religion—and especially Protestant evangelicalism—has shaped America’s political thought, domestic and foreign policies, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the way Americans and much of the world understand what America or being American means. This is a work intended for general readers; it is not an historical or theological monograph; neither does it intend to replace or challenge the best scholarly works of synthesis on this subject such as Mark Noll’s America’s God, Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America, or the essays in God’s New Israel edited by Conrad Cherry. Rather, this work, which emerged from three years of lectures and seminars at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, offers an accessible analysis of ideas such as Robert Bellah’s “civil religion” and of the ways in which republican thought and Christian theology have been in dynamic tension throughout American history. Jewett, however, goes beyond merely rehashing these ideas; he looks at the subject from a disciplinary background in Biblical Studies that offers a provocative vantage point for viewing these tensions as he stresses the way biblical interpretation has affected American intellectual trajectories. By the end of the work, Jewett waxes prophetic as he touches on what seems to be the real force driving the book: a biblically-based, theological denunciation of American foreign policy decisions since Vietnam that have culminated in the Iraq War.
Jewett’s analysis and narrative are organized around a single, focused question: why has America historically, and especially in the past fifty years, had a crusading mentality in its quest for domestic tranquility and international peace, or, put differently, why have America’s missions for peace at home and abroad been militarized figuratively or literally. For Jewett, the answer is found in the merger of religion and nationalism. This merger was inaugurated by the Puritans in New England, confirmed in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and extended to foreign policy after the Spanish-American war of 1898 and again in the World Wars, Cold War, and present war in Iraq. It provided a basis for a crusading moralism in domestic policy and helped to forge an individualistic, vigilant, and militarized foreign policy that leads many Americans to oppose the United Nations and International Tribunals and to support military action in the name of peace and democracy.
In Jewett’s telling, this merger of religion and nationalism has exhibited two antagonistic outlooks, both of which are derived from reformation theology and especially reformation understandings of certain critical biblical passages. The first, which is currently in the ascendency, he calls “zealous nationalism,” in which America is seen as God’s chosen nation and the key player in God’s plan to bring millennial peace to the world. Zealous nationalism, first found in John Winthrop’s reckoning of New England as a City on Hill and celebrated in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, divides people or nations into agents of absolute good and evil, and because it places felicity to absolute truth above the rule of law, advocates any means, including violence, to support the forces of good and vanquish those of evil. For Jewett, this stress on individual, vigilant adherence to truth provided the ethos and worldview that has prompted actions such as the Puritan war against the Pequots, the Revolutionary War, John Brown’s anti-slavery vigilance, the aims of both North and South in the Civil War, and, most convincingly, the string of military operations and foreign policy decisions from the Spanish American War to Iraq. In describing zealous nationalism, Jewett emphasizes its connection to biblically-derived millennialism in its many forms, though with special attention to the premillennial dispensationalism that has influenced evangelicalism since the late nineteenth century. Zealous nationalism’s chief advocates have been the ministers of the First and Second Great Awakenings, militant idealists in the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, twentieth-century Protestant Fundamentalists, Douglas MacArthur, Robert McNamara, and the present Bush administration.
In tension with “zealous nationalism” is “prophetic realism,” which has been in decline especially since the middle of the 1960s. While many scholars have noted the millenarian tendencies Jewett identifies as “zealous nationalism,” Jewett’s concept of “prophetic realism” is novel and worth considering. Where zealous nationalism declares some humans good and others evil, prophetic realism emphasizes human imperfectability and therefore the necessary submission by these imperfect humans to the rule of law. Imperfect people, in other words, need each other to resolve issues of justice and to adjudicate the messy moral questions bound up in human communities. Prophetic realism therefore emphasizes the limits to centralized authority found in democratic ideals, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Jewett finds prophetic realism displayed first in the Puritan ideal of covenant, then in the Declaration of Independence and especially the US Constitution in their elevation of natural rights, and more recently in the early stages of Cold War containment policy, which he reads as multilateral and aimed at tenuous and sustainable peace rather than the martial conquest of evil. Its champions have been John Witherspoon, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln (his second inaugural being perhaps its most vivid expression), George Kennan, Harry Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., and especially Reinhold Niebuhr.
There is much here to commend—especially for readers who want insight into the way many religious conservatives think about domestic and foreign policy and why they adhere to policies that seem opposed either to certain Christian tenets of faith or to larger aims of peace. But while Jewett’s strength is identifying and elaborating this strain of thought, he is less successful in demonstrating its centrality to the story he tells or in explaining the complex relationship religious ideas have had with social, economic, and other intellectual factors shaping American identity. For example, like many histories of America—secular or sacred—Jewett’s work starts with New England, a choice that makes sense if tracing American history means tracking its literary or imaginative output. Nevertheless, to do so assumes the motivations behind the English settlements in Jamestown and the Caribbean, not to mention those of the Spanish, French, and Dutch, are cursory to the development of the American society or even the American mind. I would like to see how Jewett connects these other motivations to the intellectual and theological ideas that emerged from New England and more broadly how other social and economic issues—from Jamestown to Silicon Valley—shaped the intellectual narrative he proposes. In doing so, we could get a better sense of the relative importance theology has played in this connection between religion and national identity.
Moreover, central ideas like democracy or human rights were far more complex on their own terms or especially in relation to Christianity than Jewett elaborates here. Terms like “Democracy” or “Freedom” have been fluid concepts that have meant different things to slaves, slave-holders, Puritans, backwoods Scots-Irish or German settlers, or twentieth-century Fundamentalists. Certainly Jewett understands this, but the terms seem static in his narrative. Furthermore, as Mark Noll has shown in America’s God, religion in America, even where it merged with nationalism, was often in conflict with those very ideals like freedom or democracy most central to the American worldview and ethos. All this is to say that, with Jewett’s narrative, we observe the main ideas—packaged as formal theory, literature, or worldviews—as somehow floating above the grit and grime of history. We rarely understand historical contingencies that complicate adhering to or transmitting these ideas. Such concerns, however, only moderately detract from Jewett’s primary aim, which is to call our attention to and adroitly describe a strain of thought often ignored by mainstream commentators that has undoubtedly shaped our past and current American foreign and domestic policies.