Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Andrew Sullivan Touches On Among Other Things America's Civil Religion & Mormonism

Here. A taste:

It's easy to see where Romney, for example, gets his belief. Mormonism is the only all-American religion, placing Jesus in America itself ("I just got crucified, you guys"). But for Christians, the notion of God preferring one land-mass or population, apart from the Jewish people from whom the Messiah came, is obviously heretical. As a Catholic, I see no divine blessing for any country, and the notion that God would make such worldly distinctions strikes me as surreal as it did when I first wrapped my head around the phrase "Church of England". If God is God, one island on one planet in a minor galaxy is surely the same as any other, and the truth about our universe surely cannot be reduced to one country's patriotism. Yes, we can ask, as Lincoln did, for God's blessing. But seeking God's blessing is not the same as being God's country - with all the hubristic aggression that can lead to.

Some Straussians see Lincoln as the Second Founder and the abolition of slavery as the return of the West to natural rights. And it certainly seems true that in Lincoln's words and America's example, key ideas about human equality and dignity gained momentum - and you can hear those ideas today in the mouths of a new Arab generation, in a culture so alien to our own it is close to impossible to understand in its complexity. What deeper proof that these ideas are universal and true?

But this also reveals the limits of American exceptionalism. If America's ideals are universal, they cannot be reduced to the ownership of one country. And that country's actual history - as opposed to Bachmannite mythology - is as flawed as many others. Why, after all, did America need a Second Founding under Lincoln - almost a century after it was born? Which other advanced country remained so devoted to slavery until the late nineteenth century? Which other one subsequently replaced slavery with a form of grinding apartheid for another century? Besides, much of the thought that gave us the American constitution can be traced back to European thinkers, whether in Locke or Montesquieu or the Enlightenment in general. Seeing America as the sole pioneer of human freedom is to erase Britain's unique history, without which America would not exist. It is to erase the revolutionary ideas of the French republics. It's historically false.

But was the discovery of America some kind of divine Providence? The Puritans certainly thought so. And the blessing of a vast continental land mass with huge resources is certainly rare in human history. But, of course, that land mass was available so easily because of the intended and unintended genocide of those who already lived there - which takes the edge off the divine bit, don't you think? Call me crazy (and they do) but my concept of God does not allow for God's blessing of genocide as a means for one country's hegemony over the earth.

This is not to say that America doesn't remain, by virtue of its astonishing Constitution, a unique sanctuary for human freedom. ...


Sullivan took his PhD from Harvard in Political Science under Harvey Mansfield.

22 comments:

Brad Hart said...

But for Christians, the notion of God preferring one land-mass or population, apart from the Jewish people from whom the Messiah came, is obviously heretical. As a Catholic, I see no divine blessing for any country, and the notion that God would make such worldly distinctions strikes me as surreal as it did when I first wrapped my head around the phrase "Church of England". If God is God, one island on one planet in a minor galaxy is surely the same as any other, and the truth about our universe surely cannot be reduced to one country's patriotism. Yes, we can ask, as Lincoln did, for God's blessing. But seeking God's blessing is not the same as being God's country - with all the hubristic aggression that can lead to.

Perhaps Mr. Sullivan, a self-proclaimed Catholic, should recall the words of his former Pope, John Paul II, who said "Know what you are talking about." I don't mean to attack Mr. Sullivan personally but he is wrong on this. The concept of American providentialism from the Mormon perspective DOES NOT teach that America/Americans are inherently superior to all others. Yes, the Book of Mormon does state that the American continents (no reference to the United States specifically mind you) are a "choice" land which God had "set apart." But it is a big jump for Mr. Sullivan to say that this signifies America's superiority in the eyes of God.

I think that a brief overview of the Mormon doctrine of restoration is probably in order here. As most already kmow, Mormons believe that J. Smith restored the lost truths and authority of God to the earth, and that only in America could such a restoration take place, due to the simple fact that other nations lacked the freedom of religion already present in the infant republic. And even then Mormons were still attacked, ordered to leave entire states, and Smith was eventually murdered. The "choice land" wasn't exactly all that great for those early Mormons.

I will see if I can put together a little piece on the Mormon perspective of American providentialism, including a brief synopsis of the doctrine of restoration. I think this would help to explain things a bit. For now, I would simply caution Mr. Sullivan to not paint Mormon American providentialism with too wide of a brush.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Good stuff Brad. I wonder what you think of Parker and Stone's new musical on the Book of Mormon?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sullivan should be attacking the Founding Fathers, who believed the USA was the product of Divine Providence, instead of contemporary partisan figures like Michelle Bachmann.

First World Net Daily now Andrew Sullivan. You sure do scrape the bottom of the barrel, Mr. Rowe.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Sullivan should be attacking the Founding Fathers, who believed the USA was the product of Divine Providence,..."

Wouldn't surprise me if he did; he is a British Tory after all.

Dude has a PhD from Harvard and IS the former editor of the New Republic. I think that guarantees him lifetime status as something above the bottom of the barrel.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not atall, Jon. Many PhDs are absolute nutburgers when it comes to contemporary issues.

Further, Sullivan's doctorate is in government, not history. And further, he repeats the canard that the Constitution is owed to Enlightenment thought, when it owes more to practical reason in America milieu, the ancients [like the senates of Rome and Carthage], and of course the underpinning of natural law, "the right to have rights," as Hannah Arendt calls it.

And if you read Excitable Andy's repeated U-turns on Libya over at the League, he has lost all credibility on government as well. He's not even as astute as Rush Limbaugh or fellow PhD [in history!] Newt Gingrich, both of whom would be equally inappropriate as a source here at AC.

Yes, I'd like to see Andy go after the Founders, instead of his usual mealymouthed partisan sentimentality.

As for Andy speaking on behalf of Catholicism, I for one would rather the pope do it:

"From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the "self-evident truth" that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations."---Benedictus XVI, 2008

Jonathan Rowe said...

Again, I see AC's mission as interdisciplinary combining history, politics, theology, philosophy and law. If all of the non-historically minded disciplines make errors from an historical perspective because they play by a different set of rules you are free to clarify (by way of analogy, arguments from authority are fallacious in philosophy but not law; a philosopher arguing with a lawyer and so clarifying is perfectly fair). But if Limbaugh or Gingrich speak on the American Founding it's perfectly fair to cite them here either positively or critically (or something in between).

"And further, he repeats the canard that the Constitution is owed to Enlightenment thought,..."

It's not a canard for the simple reason that they operated smack in the period of "the Enlightenment." You can't argue around that. As DPM said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts. If you define the Enlightenment strictly only through the lens of those more radical philosophers with whom you disagree, of course you can knock down the Enlightenment strawman. You are also free to point out how you think prior sources anticipated the ideas that the Enlightenment philosophers that America's Founders championed -- Locke, Newton, Montesquieu, Priestley -- so articulated.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Priestly? What did he do?

As for the rest, it's just Andy reciting the Conventional Wisdom about the US being founded on the Enlightenment.

Now, if Revolutionary France was founded on the Enlightenment---and it was---something's got to give.

"What a wonderful thing is the Christian religion! it seems to aim only at happiness in a future life, and yet it secures our happiness in this life also."

"I have never claimed that the interests of religion should give way to those of the State, but that they should go hand in hand."


---Montesquieu

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Priestly? What did he do?"

Mentored among others Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin, in addition to making scientific breakthroughs that profoundly influenced America and the rest of the world.

America was founded on the Enlightenment and Montesquieu was an Enlightenment thinker. If you want to argue for the different kinds of Enlightenments how one was good one bad one more compatible with traditional Christianity, be my guest, but the label stands.

jimmiraybob said...

Further, Sullivan's doctorate is in government, not history.

And the Pope's doctorate is in.....?

Jason_Pappas said...

Let me pick the one worthy point in Sullivan’s absurd rant. The American achievement is built on the best British tradition ... I guess I just exposed my radical Whig colors or colours if you’re a Tory!

As for the Founders view of America’s place in history, they believed that the viability of Republican government rested on the success of the American experiment in establishing a “new order for the ages.” All previous attempts at Republican government ultimately failed. By that criteria I'd call it a success.

Brad Hart said...

@ Jon:

To be honest I don't know much about Parker and Stone's new Broadway musical. I'm assuming that it is probably on par with the rest of their work. If I am being honest, I used to be a big fan of South Park, but got tired of it after a few seasons. I don't really take any offense to what they do, but I can see why others might.

It's all shock value comedy in the end.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It's certainly transgressive. I like it though. However I see how others could take offense. I like Family Guy, Howard Stern, South Park, etc., but oft-am glad they are making those jokes not me. (Sometimes I feel guilty for laughing.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Pope Ratzinger's doctorate is in theology from the University of Munich, 1953.

But that was quite unfair, JRB. Benedict was cited for the reasonable reason that he's more qualified to speak for the Roman Catholic Church than Dr. Sullivan.

When Excitable Andy starts with "Speaking as a Catholic..." run, do not walk.

Michael Heath said...

As a daily reader of Andrew Sullivan I'm compelled to note that Andrew Sullivan doesn't claim to speak for the Catholic hierarchy or a monolithic perspective of Catholicism which of course doesn't exist. Instead his posts are either:
1) deeply personal perspectives coming from someone raised in a Catholic background and culture who openly self-identifies as a lapsed Catholic given the hierarchy's antipathy towards gays or,
2) extend to the portion of the laity, priests, and nuns committed to the long-term success of the Catholic faith and culture while simultaneously disenchanted with the hierarchy.

While I'm not Catholic I have no problem understanding the descriptive parsing between the various Catholic groups when reading Mr. Sullivan's posts and their competing positions. I do not perceive him systemically and falsely conflating his own perspective with other Catholics, quite the opposite in fact. Mr. Sullivan has helped me to better understand the efforts and arguably laudable commitment within the laity and lower-level pastoral groups to fight for Catholicism's survival in a manner which differs from Mr. Ratzinger's approach.

jimmiraybob said...

Tom,

My question wasn't meant to be unfair. You'd made a distinction about Sullivan's PhD status relative to his commenting about history and then you cited the Pope, not just as a spokesman for Catholicism but in the context of a historical judgment.

If Sully does not have an appropriate PhD to comment on American history then I would think that is a universal constant and should be applied across the board. Of course, I don't believe that his PhD disqualifies him or detracts from him expressing his opinions. The inanity or non-inanity are in the words.

As to who speaks for Catholicism, that's a real humdinger. As far as I can tell, having grown up in a Catholic-drenched, midwest environment, everyone who is a Catholic speaks as a Catholic - and it doesn't all jive with central command.

That having been said, I agree that the Pope's opinion on American history is probably representative of the Vatican position and is probably shared by many of the faithful. Personally, I think that the passage that you quote is a bit problematic; for instance citing "religious beliefs" as "a constant inspiration and driving force...in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement." These same religious beliefs played as a strong inspirational and driving force on both sides of the issue. Not an insignificant consideration.

jimmiraybob said...

My last comment seems to have disappeared so I'll do a do over and see what happens.

It's slightly off the post topic but goes to who speaks for Catholicism, separation of church and state, and somewhat to American exceptionalism.

Recently, the Catholic Bishops of Pakistan took a stand on the separation issue (here - CathNews):

"We support the political process without any armed or religious interference. It is imperative to separate religion from state matters,” said the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s National Commission for Justice and Peace."

Why? Because it works, which the American experiment showed early on. I don't know if this is the official position of the Pope/Vatican but it does express at least a local Catholic response to specific local conditions. And, it was American Catholics who often took the lead in 19th century toward a separation position to break the Protestant stranglehold on public education.

In this sense, embodying a universal right of conscious and religious freedom in our founding Constitution, not necessarily in a land-mass or population sense, I see America as historically exceptional but not today unique.

Today in American there is a growing voice to turn that separation back. But as can be seen both in our history and in the violent struggle to wrestle Afghanistan from ancient religious bigotries, separation is not just an archaic Virginia or Baptist position, it's how we became what we are.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If Sully does not have an appropriate PhD to comment on American history...

Not atall. My objection is that his PhD gives Excitable Andy's nonsense no enhanced standing.

As far as I can tell, having grown up in a Catholic-drenched, midwest environment, everyone who is a Catholic speaks as a Catholic - and it doesn't all jive with central command.

If it doesn't jibe with "central command," then one is not speaking "as a Catholic," but "speaking for myself." Dr. Sullivan, this means you!

As for normative [Vatican] views of liberty, tolerance, separation of church and state and human rights, we must hit the books. I think you'd approve. Religious conscience informing the individual's politics is not the same as church ruling the state.

jimmiraybob said...

My objection is that his PhD gives Excitable Andy's nonsense no enhanced standing.

On that point I do agree. While a PhD might indicate that someone has a more enhanced knowledge of a subject (and hopefully for how one gathers, sorts and evaluates knowledge) it is no guarantee.

If it doesn't jibe with "central command," then one is not speaking "as a Catholic," but "speaking for myself."

Can't one speak as a practicing lay Catholic but at the same time not speak for all Catholics or Catholicism or the Pope? Can't there be a distinction?

Religious conscience informing the individual's politics is not the same as church ruling the state.

I agree. At least to the extent that religious conscience does not mean an exclusionary Biblical (or insert other holy book here) exceptionalism that automatically assumes the need for marginalization or elimination of non-religious or other religious or wrong-sectarian voices.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As speaks as a Catholic heretic much like Hans Kung and Martin Luther.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Can't one speak as a practicing lay Catholic but at the same time not speak for all Catholics or Catholicism or the Pope? Can't there be a distinction?

Well, by using "Speaking as a Catholic" or some variant, I'd say the speaker is being misleading to non-Catholics and ill-informed Catholics, that he speaks for normative Catholicism.

"Speaking as a Catholic, I think the normative church teaching on x is wrong because..." is a necessary formulation.

Or put another way, if for the sake of argument most American Catholics are OK with the morning-after pill, it would still be misleading to use the formulation "As an American Catholic, I'm in favor of RU-486."

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Speaking as a Catholic heretic..." would be more accurate here, Jon.

;-)

jimmiraybob said...

"Speaking as a Catholic heretic..."

Sure, why not. :)

Therefore, I amend my previous comment to "...having grown up in a Catholic heresy-drenched, midwest environment..."