The Faith that Supports US Violence
In the second year of the U.S. occupation of Iraq many people in the U.S. still tend to think of the United States not as the imperial empire that it is, but as the Promised Land, the embodiment of Western virtue, the incarnation of “freedom and democracy.” Therefore in pursuit of a presidential “war on terrorism,” everything is permitted. From starting a war to setting aside the rules of warfare, the U.S. is entitled to do what it wants when it wants, provided the action can be justified in terms of saving U.S. lives.
Whether we call this outlook superpower or chosenness syndrome, national essentialism or millennialism, at its root lies “the belief that [U.S.] history, under divine guidance, will bring about the triumph of Christian principles” and eventually the emergence of “a holy utopia.” Such belief in the unique moral destiny of the U.S. may be held independent of Christian principles. Its historical origins, however, trace back to colonial New England, and even further to the Bible. It is omnipresent in every part of the country, though its strongest regional base lies in the South and West.
Long before the birth of the Republic, ideas of “chosenness” have been at the heart of a complex ideology of rule that has resonated powerfully in U.S. society. Both Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans and early 19th century Protestant millenarians conceived of the United States as an exceptional nation, chosen by God to be the acme of freedom and to redeem humankind. As historian Ernest Tuveson observed during the Vietnam War-era, the idea of the “redeemer nation” through which God operates is also the foundation of the notion of continuous warfare between “good” and “evil” people. Virtually every politician who exploits the religious emotions of people in the U.S. for the purpose of waging war consistently draws on these ideas and images, embodied in religious and secular texts.
Today no single millenarian ideology exists but rather a complex religious spectrum in which ideas of chosen people and visions of the United States as God’s model of the world’s future figure prominently. But just as in the past, these ideas link directly to the apocalyptic “defining moment,” in which the leaders at the top of society summon the people to fulfill some sacred mission of redemption, or to play some new role of universal significance for the sake of humanity. Usually, the key moments occur when the president, for his own political purposes, declares them. In periods of great economic or political change or national crises, when the community is beset with fear, presidents have been instrumental in situating the crisis, establishing its conditions, and pointing toward solutions. At such times, too, millenarianism can generate support for policies of imperialism and war or for advancing democratic ideals in the process of overcoming enemies.