Afghanistan, the Reformation, and American Empire.

My bookshelf this week includes William Meade’s Reasons for Loving the Episcopal Church and D.G. Hart’s Still Protesting: Why the Reformation Matters. They’re both excellent. Professor Hart is a Presbyterian; Bishop Meade came from a long line of Virginia Episcopalians. There are plenty differences between Anglicans, Lutherans, and the Reformed but I want to mention an important unifying aspect of the Magisterial Reformation because it bears so much on our present moment. As I write, the United States’ ignominious evacuation of Afghanistan is being carried out. The hubris of the late American republic is well known, but it has rarely been broadcast so clearly via telemedia. I won’t link anything here, but images of men desperately clinging to aircraft landing gear, only to fall to their deaths, should sober anyone up who still thinks of Americans as a sort of special chosen people. We are not.

Americans are not God’s chosen people; American Christians are not special morally or spiritually. Americans are sinful humans just like the rest of humanity. Meade and Hart understand the Protestant truth that the Reformation addressed how humans–sinners all–could be made right with God. Hart explained that the Reformers addressed “the most basic question that confronts all human beings: How can a sinner be right with and worship in good conscience a righteous God who demands sinless perfection?” Bishop Meade noted that the “doctrine of the deep depravity of man, the continuance of indwelling sin, even in the regenerate, was in controversy between the Humanists and our Reformers.” Every major Reformer “took care to impress their own deep experience of sin upon every thing they wrote.” The bishop reminded his flock that “just-awakened sinner, as well as the humble saint, who sees more and more of his own sinfulness, can scarcely open the Prayer-book at any place without finding its language most descriptive of his case, and the very language which suits him in coming before God.” Even the oldest Episcopal saint came before God as a sinner.

There is something about American Protestantism that has always been hubristic. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, American liberal presumptions seemed drunk on millennialism and triumphalism to the point of believing that American progressive empire was inevitable. Even devout Christians fell into this presumptuous ideology. Naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, for example, was a devoted Episcopalian of the Old High Churchman stripe. Suzanne Geissler described him as “evangelical, albeit of the dignified stiff-upper-lip variety.” Mahan declared routinely that he trusted “in the completed work of Christ on the cross” without regards to human merit.

Mahan the Evangelical Anglican believed liberal empire’s victory was inevitable. “The great majority of cases where civilized and highly organized peoples have trespassed upon the technical rights of possession of the previous occupants of the land” led to the victory of the civilized and highly organized people. “Our own dealings with the American Indian” Mahan admitted, afforded “another example” of inevitability. Mahan’s fervor led him to question the very nature of individual rights. “The inalienable rights of the individual are entitled to a respect which they unfortunately do not always get,” but he also argued that “there is no inalienable right in any community to control the use of a region when it does so to the detriment of the world at large, of its neighbors in particular, or even at times of its own subjects.”

That the US decided at some time in the last 150 years that it would be the arbiter of what was detrimental to the world at large, neighboring countries, and the citizens of apparently any country around the globe seems obvious. And had the United States been honest about viewing empire as a civilizing, Westernizing, or even Christianizing mission we might have been excused for our honest foolhardiness although perhaps not our arrogance. But that’s not what happened. Americans have spent nearly seventy years lying to themselves about the necessity of bringing “universal” American values to the rest of the world. We have arrogantly assumed that all peoples everywhere must have our standard of living, what we call freedoms and liberties, and our sociological norms. If they did not have those they lived in a benighted medieval state and must be given freedoms by the hard hand of American imperial might, whether they wanted them or not.

We often hear that the United States is a Protestant country. We’re often told by earnest Evangelicals that the Gospel isn’t just about souls, but about shaping the world around us. David Bebbington after all identified Activism as one of his four pillars of Evangelicalism. There is, of course, a whole group of American Evangelicals who admit liberalism’s failures, and believe that if we can just create conservative Evangelical activism, we’ll finally get it right. I’m not convinced. If the United States’ Protestant identity rest on perpetual activism to save the world, we might consider rethinking modern Evangelicalism’s ties to historic Protestantism altogether and the United States’ ties to historic Protestantism as well.

On his deathbed, Bishop Meade told his successor that “all that has ever been said in commendation of me I loathe and abhor, as utterly inconsistent with my consciousness of sin.” Imagine liberal American society being self-effacing enough to abhor whatever it might have done right because of its historical and present sins. Can you imagine a society that humble being presumptuous enough to use commercial and military might to remake societies around the world? I can’t.


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