The collective “West”, as this has evolved through European, North American, and South American history, has self-identified as “Christian.” What this designation may mean is open to a wide variety of interpretations, as this history shows. A major difficulty that human beings (of all religions) face involves the incommensurability between the finite and infinity. As the 15th century Catholic Cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, wrote: finite et infiniti nulla proportion. Most human beings cannot cope with this absolute incommensurability.
20th-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the concepts of religion were necessarily symbolic, that is, since “the Infinite” is not a thing, not finite, then it can only be related to through symbols. Symbols (for example, the cross), are concrete finite things on the one hand but point beyond themselves to the depths of reality on the other. At the same time, symbols lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. What is the “symbolism” of the cross in Christian history? There are a number of different interpretations.
These difficulties of our human situation make it easy for human religiosity to end up in idolatry: to worship something finite as ultimate. One thinks of the first four of the Ten Commandments, which are about the human relation to God (while the last six are about our relations with other humans). The first two: (1) no other gods before me and (2) no idolatry, may have a deeper meaning than most religious people discern. These commandments point to our dilemma of having to use concrete, finite symbols to relate to the Infinite groundless ground of Being. Most people confuse the finite symbol with the depths to which it points. In the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, religious wars ravaged the continent: people used deadly force to impose their own interpretations of the Christian symbols on those who disagreed.
Recent statements by the Southern Baptist Convention leadership in the United States explain why women are not allowed to be ministers or deacons, or elders in their churches. It is not that women are inferior. We are told that God in the Bible reserves these roles for men. All forms of religious fundamentalism (whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or Hindu) fall into this trap. Many Southern Baptists worship the Bible rather than the infinite living God. They take as ultimate what is not truly ultimate: idolatry.
This is one thing when idolatry is used to justify social oppression (as it clearly does in the oppression of women within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam or the oppression of the lower castes in India), but it is even worse when it means deadly military force in the name of the idolatrous concept. Mahatma Gandhi understood what I was trying to express. He wrote of the history of Christian Europe that “Europe has disapproved Christ. Through ignorance, it has disregarded Christ’s pure way of life” (1998, 303). At a bare minimum, any honest reader of the four Gospels would come to this same conclusion. The teachings of Jesus cannot be legitimately used to justify wars and violence.
But the biblical God is supposed to be working within history, the Infinite working within the finite to bring about “a new heaven and a new earth,” to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth. And here is where the idolaters have always had a field day. Whatever their lusts for power and domination crave can be interpreted as God’s work within history. The militarized nation-state becomes idolatrized, whether Japan under the divinely appointed Emperor, England under the Queen, or America under “manifest destiny.” The lust for empire is idolatrously justified as God’s work.
America’s founding father, George Washington, spoke of “the Invisible Hand” and the “providential agency” behind the founding of the United States. These religious sentiments have been repeated by nearly every US president and administration since 1787. President Ronald Reagan, 40 years ago, spoke of “some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans.” President George W. Bush, 20 years ago, declared that “we have a calling from beyond the stars.” Throughout its history, America was referred to as “God’s New Israel”, as the “Redeemer Nation”, as having a divinely given “manifest destiny”, or as “the indispensable nation” (all found in Griffin 2018).
Within this framework, unspeakably brutal crimes against humanity were committed, but none of this stained the unsullied “moral goodness” of the American project of global domination. Examples: America conducted the largest genocide in human history against the indigenous population of North America. It conducted brutal extermination of the civilian population in the conquest of the Philippines (1899-1902), as well as the massive saturation bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and 70s. America’s historical missions of domination and destruction of foreigners (within and without North America) never sullied this moral purity because these aspects of “manifest destiny” were ordained by God.
This is what is meant by “American exceptionalism.” The US regularly accuses other nations of violating human rights or committing “crimes of aggression,” etc., but its own behavior is exempt from these charges because its mission comes from God. In a speech at West Point in 2013, President Obama declared, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” In the Iraq invasion of 2003, a stable nation was destroyed, breeding chaos and misery for millions that continues to this day. In Libya under President Obama, destroyed by NATO in 2011, the same chaos and misery for millions. In Ukraine today, the unspeakable suffering and displacement of millions from their homes and livelihoods means nothing to the manipulator of “the Grand Chessboard”, in which US domination over the planet must be secured, protected, and implemented at all costs.
One historian, Michael Ignatieff, wrote of the US Empire in 2003: “America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on…conquest….[It] is a new invention….an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy….It is the imperialism of…good intentions” (Griffin, 23). Here, we have a clearly religious view of an earthly, finite nation-state. The “grace notes” of US rhetoric and propaganda are used to justify and cover up the unspeakably brutal history that is there for all to see.
In reality, writes David Ray Griffin, “agents of American foreign policy have acted so as to deprive people in other countries of basic rights, such as food, health care, and an adequate income; they have stolen their resources; they have supported systems of torture and terror; they have supported the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians; and they have engaged in massive deceit, claiming to protect freedom and democracy while doing the exact opposite” (ibid., 381). As Tom Englehardt put this, “most of the places where the US has let its military and air power loose—Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria—are now either failed or failing states” (ibid., 399).
Manichaeism was an idolatrous version of early Christianity that saw the world as a struggle between a good god and an evil god. American idolatry has most often been of this nature. It struggled against the pure evil of “godless Communism” as part of its justification for committing endless atrocities. Today, the rhetoric relentlessly repeats, “Putin is a monster,” contrasting the pure evil against which it struggles with its exceptionalist, morally pure mission to protect “freedom and democracy” within the plainly neo-fascist country it is helping to destroy.
Those who speak out against this demonization are confronted with the accusation, “Why do you hate America?” Of course, mature, thoughtful people do not “hate Putin” any more than they “love America” in this idolatrously religious sense. The question is an accusation, a religious claim against those it perceives as falling away from the faith. Like all idolatrous faith, it is blind and demands blind obedience from others. America is blessed by God and can do no wrong, and critics are those who have fallen away from the true faith. We need MAGA—Make America Great Again. Critics are seen to have adopted the side of evil, of the “Putins” of the world; they “hate America.”
It is the idolatrously religious nature of its mission that makes the US so dangerous to the fate of the Earth, as it risks a nuclear war that will likely wipe out humanity. When those in power are religious fanatics, a possible apocalypse is not a problem for them. God’s divinely given mission of global empire cannot be allowed to be thwarted by a multipolar world, nor by the threat of nuclear holocaust. There is no room for compromise or failure. The mission must be accomplished even at the risk of annihilation.
That is the message of this article: Beware of religious idolatry! It is the world’s most dangerous obsession. It is willing to destroy us all.
Gandhi, Mahatma (1998). “On Satyagraha” in James P. Sterba, ed. Social and Political Philosophy. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Griffin, David Ray (2018). The American Trajectory: Divine or Demonic? Atlanta: Clarity Press.
Tillich, Paul (1987). The Essential Tillich. Ed. F. Forrester Church. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.