The United States has organized much of its military posture since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks around the protection of oil fields, pipelines and sea lanes. But U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East has another dimension. In addition to its concerns with oil and terrorism, the White House is courting end-times theologians and electorates for whom the Holy Lands are a battleground of Christian destiny. Both pursuits—oil and biblical expectations—require a dissimulation in Washington that undercuts the U.S. tradition of commitment to the role of an informed electorate.
The political corollary—fascinating but appalling—is the recent transformation of the Republican presidential coalition. Since the election of 2000 and especially that of 2004, three pillars have become central: the oil-national security complex, with its pervasive interests; the religious right, with its doctrinal imperatives and massive electorate; and the debt-driven financial sector, which extends far beyond the old symbolism of Wall Street.
President Bush has promoted these alignments, interest groups and their underpinning values. His family, over multiple generations, has been linked to a politics that conjoined finance, national security and oil. In recent decades, the Bushes have added close ties to evangelical and fundamentalist power brokers of many persuasions.
The American heartland, from Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico to Ohio and the Appalachian coal states, has become (along with the onetime Confederacy) an electoral hydrocarbon coalition. It cherishes sport-utility vehicles and easy carbon dioxide emissions policy, and applauds preemptive U.S. airstrikes on uncooperative, terrorist-coddling Persian Gulf countries fortuitously blessed with huge reserves of oil.
A seventeenth-century Spaniard enthused: “Let London manufacture those fine fabrics, ... Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth; the Indies their beaver and vicuna; Milan her broaches; India and Flanders their linens ... so long as our capital can enjoy them. The only thing it proves is that all nations train journeymen for Madrid and that Madrid is the queen of parliaments, for all the world serves her, and she serves nobody.”
“The plains of North America and Russia are our cornfields; Chicago and Odessa are our granaries; Canada and the Baltic are our timber forests, Australia contains our sheep farms, and in Argentina and on the western prairies of North America are our herds of oxen; Peru sends her silver, and the gold of South Africa and Australia flows to London; the Hindus and the Chinese grow tea for us, and our coffee, sugar and spice plantations are all in the Indies, Spain and France are our vineyards, and the Mediterranean our fruit garden.”
In its recent practice, the radical side of U.S. religion has embraced cultural antimodernism, war hawkishness, Armageddon prophecy, and in the case of conservative fundamentalists, a demand for governments by literal biblical interpretation.
For centuries, Americans have believed themselves special, a people and nation chosen by God to play a unique and even redemptive role in the world. Elected leaders tend to proselytize and promote this exceptionalism—presidential inaugural addresses are a frequent venue—without appending the necessary historical cautions. Previous nations whose leaders and people believed much the same thing would end up deeply disillusioned, as when Spanish armadas were destroyed while flying holy banners at their mastheads, and when World War I German belt buckles proclaiming “Gott Mit Uns” became objects of derision in the Kaiser’s defeated army.
Millennial prophecies have fared no better. They conspicuously failed in the fourth century, at the millennium in 1000, amid the tumult of the medieval Crusades, during the savage seventeenth-century European religious wars, in prerevolutionary New England, in the U.S. Civil War period, during World War I, and in 2000. In consequence, believers have time and time again had to work out elaborate explanations for why Jesus did not appear, why premillennial claims had not been borne out. Books and videos detailing and amplifying these relentless embarrassments and disappointments—as far as I know, few such exist—might offer a useful counterpoint to the end-times and second-coming materials marketed in such profusion by current fundamentalist drummers.
“...every Sunday (at least) a cascade of rhetoric would wash down from the pulpit, invoking the destiny of the Hebrews as though the congregation were itself a tribe of Israel. Lines dividing history and scripture dissolved as the meaning of Dutch independence and power was attributed to the providential selection of a new people to be as a light unto the nations. In this Netherlandish addendum to the Old Testament, the United Provinces featured as the new Zion, Phillip II [who sent the Spanish Armada] as a king of Assyria and William the Silent [the Dutch liberator] as a godly captain of Judah.”
The reason for spotlighting history’s relative handful of covenanting cultures is the biblical attitudes their people invariably share: religious intensity, insecure history, and willingness to sign up with an Old Testament god of war for protection. To use a modern-day analogy, these are proud, driven peoples, not ones who would find it easy to get risk insurance.
“The great danger to our general government is the great southern and northern interests on the continent, being opposed to each other... [T]he states were divided into different interests [at the Constitutional Convention] not by their difference of size, but by other circumstances, the most material of which resulted partly from climate, but principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves.”
This interpretive combat raised the religious stakes in both regions. As we have seen, the United States of the mid-nineteenth century, from North to South, was arguably Christendom’s most churchgoing nation, bristling with exceptionalist faith and millennial conviction. Thus, doctrinal disagreements helped to define regional distinctiveness. This folk geography fed the separatism that eventually shouted for secession.
Historian Mitchell Snay parsed these events in his book The Gospel of Disunion:
The way Southern clerics understood the relationship between religion and politics is key to understanding the role of religion in the development of Southern separatism... They sanctified slavery with an elaborate scriptural justification of human bondage, a slave-holding ethic to guide the conduct of Christian masters, and a program to bring the Gospel to the slaves. They transformed the meaning of the sectional controversy into a larger struggle between orthodoxy and infidelity. Through clarifying the boundaries between religion and sectional politics, Southern clergymen essentially translated the political conflict into religious terms.