Sorting by

Skip to main content

Rendering Unto God and Unto Caesar

“[The] values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society–and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.” This righteous call to arms was proclaimed in 2002 by President George W. Bush in The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Bush also decreed a “single sustainable model for success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” (187).

What are Christians to make of this claim? Wes Avram, the editor of Anxious About Empire, notes that it takes “the form of a classic Protestant confession of faith,” and serves as a “doctrinal guide” to the orthodox application of right-thinking American values (27). Anxious About Empire His book gathers thirteen essays, “Christian voices” from diverse denominational traditions and political viewpoints, to respond to President Bush and his National Security Strategy (9). This review will respond directly to four of them.

The majority of the contributors to the volume are critical of the president’s pronouncement, especially the unspoken idolatry in its political gospel, its naming of a holy community, and its summary of the law. For example, Eugene McCarraher of Villanova University calls Christian intellectuals to an “unyielding, uncivil, and corrosive” skepticism and a righteous defense of the faith against this heresy.

“There are idols to be desecrated, priests to be ridiculed, an unholy trinity of guns, machines, and money to be identified and blasphemed. With a harsh and dreadful love, we must disparage the martial and pecuniary faith that animates history’s richest, most well-armed, and parochial superpower” (103-104). Recalling Augustine, he asks, what have citizens of the City of God to do with the trinity of Caesar, Mammon, and Mars?

In addition to addressing the inevitable trauma and likely tragedy that twenty- first century wars for empire will bring, the Bush doctrine thus demands that American Christians reconsider their loyalties as citizens of the USA and the City of God. “The willingness of Christians to kill…on the orders of national authorities, is but one expression” of how being a patriotic citizen often has “trumped being a Christian as a primary allegiance and identity,” DePaul University’s Michael L. Budde notes in his essay (80). As much as always, and perhaps now more than ever, being a faithful Christian today requires theological and geo-political reflection. So too does being a good American citizen.

That such loyalties cannot be taken for granted is clear in the volume, as the differences between McCarraher and Stephen H. Webb (Wabash College) illustrate. Webb sees in George Bush and the American empire the hand of providence. Though he dismisses easy comparisons of America to Rome as unhistorical, he nonetheless appeals to them, implying that God may be using America today to spread the gospel, as God did two millennia ago during the formation of the early church. Indeed, Webb asserts that “God chose Constantine to save the church and conquer paganism” (124). Webb does not say so directly, but from his point of view one might conclude that if Rome was a means to create the church, and the British Empire to begin globalizing it (121), then God may be using America to complete the process of globalization, and bring the world to the end of history. In any case, given the Almighty’s providential hand, Webb advises us not to worry too much about the new American empire. Might not George W. Bush, our Caesar, be a postmodern Constantine?

There is much in such theological differences to consider, though Webb’s blithe “don’t worry” appeals to providence seem somewhat callow and complacent, compared to the more iconoclastic essays. Webb neglects the point that the gospels and the New Testament letters condemn Rome, even as God made providential use of it. Similarly, we today can trust providence and oppose the American empire. And we can ask what our responsibility is as followers of Christ when it comes to the prisoners, widows, orphans, blind, and lame that American wars of empire are producing.

Yet, we are also citizens of the USA, or other powers and principalities of this world, even as the apostle Paul and other Christians were in Rome. What are we to do as citizens of this world when we see oppression? What are we to do when our own communities or those of our allies, or any of the many vulnerable nations and communities around the world, are attacked or threatened by terrorists or foreign armies? Webb may be wrong in claiming that liberal Christians such as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, “have a willed blindness to the pervasive presence of evil in the world” (123). But critics are right in saying that “liberals,” Christian or otherwise, often have been better at criticizing the evil in American efforts to address problems in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan than at suggesting workable alternatives.

This last point is the burden of the essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago. Elshtain is an advocate of the just war tradition and what might be called “liberal imperialism.” Of all the voices in Anxious About Empire, hers is the most thoughtful on the actual use of power. What is necessary and, from Christian and American points of view, acceptable “to bring about political stability” and “minimal civic peace” (129) and thus create the conditions necessary for justice and freedom? Don’t people in other parts of the world have an “equal claim” to these things, and don’t we in the so-called First World have obligations to help people attain them? If this moral claim is legitimate–and it is a claim that liberal Christians and other “progressives” often make–then the question is what policies will get people there.

Liberal Christians and other progressives rightly can be criticized for taking moral positions but often sidestepping the complexity of political actions needed to achieve their goals. For example, some Christian and secular progressives condemned the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s for destroying the Iraqi social infrastructure and causing the deaths and suffering of millions of Iraqis over the decade. But, when faced with the likelihood of George Bush’s war in Iraq, many then appealed to those sanctions as effectively containing Saddam Hussein. Here Elshtain stands in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, who emphasized the necessity of political action, even war, and the inevitability of getting one’s hands dirty and committing some acts of injustice, in the name of a genuinely greater good.

My point here is not to justify the war in Iraq, the “war on terror,” or the American empire proclaimed by President Bush. Rather, it is to argue that if they are to have moral legitimacy and be politically effective in their opposition to the war in Iraq, Christians and other critics must address such questions.

The majority of the Christian voices in Anxious About Empire are hostile to the war and critical of the Bush “doctrine.” I agree with them in principle. But the voices of Webb and especially Elshtain are essential to the volume, too. Webb represents the lure of Christian empire, embodied first in Constantine and now in our own postmodern American Caesar. Bush’s reelection in 2004, and the aid and comfort provided by tens of millions of American Christians on his behalf, attest to its allure. This is the field–the mission field, if you will–to which Christian and American opponents of empire are called. Elshtain represents the moral voice of the practical policy maker and implementer, whether a legislator, executive, administrator, or general. If not liberal imperialism, then what?

People are dying, in the Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places. What should “we” do? Opposition to our Caesar is not enough. How and when and where are we wi
lling to get our hands dirty, or call on soldiers, peacekeepers, and relief workers to do the job for us?

William Katerberg is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.