John McCain said that last Thursday night in his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for President of the United States.
I generally steer clear of politics on this blog. That’s not only because I believe that God is not a Republican or Democrat, but also because I have no desire to throw myself into the partisan mosh pit (the blogosphere can be brutal enough!). But I haven’t been able to get McCain’s statement out of my mind. I think it’s worth a look.
I’ll begin by saying that I’ve always admired John McCain. Sure, he’s not perfect. And I disagree with him on any number of issues. But his record of service to our country speaks volumes about his integrity. Flaws and all, he’s a fine American and a good public servant.
Listening to his speech last Thursday night, I thought that he did a powerful job of recounting his war service, his time as a POW, and his return home. That experience is hard for any rival to top! And in telling his story, he summarized his conversion from selfishness to service with the words that stick with me: “My country saved me.”
Given what we know about McCain's record and the way he consistently talks about serving our country, I don't think it’s stretching things to hear the statement “My country saved me” as an essentially religious statement. Because for McCain, there is no object worthy of higher loyalty than the nation.
“My country saved me.” This is a good example of what Reformed theologian H. Richard Niebuhr called “henotheism.” Lonnie Kliever (drawing on Niebuhr) describes henotheism as a form of faith in which “some social unit (family, nation, church, civilization, or even humanity) fulfills the function of god by conveying value to and requiring service of its members” [H. Richard Niebuhr (Hendrickson Publishers, 1977), p. 88]. In McCain’s case, that social unit is the United States of America.
In short, McCain’s acceptance speech revealed him to be a person whose faith takes the henotheistic form of nationalism.
Could this be one of the reasons why McCain “is uncomfortable — and some critics say unconvincing — while talking about his personal beliefs,” and in particular with talking about his personal Christian beliefs? After all, “Jesus is Lord” and “My country saved me” don’t fit together very well. The Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” relativizes all other loyalties – including loyalty to nation – by making them subservient to Jesus Christ as the only Lord and the only Savior. (As an evangelical maxim puts it: Jesus is either Lord of all, or he's not Lord at all.) But from what McCain says, the nation served that function for him.
Loyalty to the nation as the highest good and as a functional god: that could be McCain in a nutshell.
If that’s true, it could also be one of the reasons why he has been a politician with integrity and why he might make a good president. Indeed, one could argue that embracing the henotheism of nationalism is a necessary prerequisite for keeping the oath of office as president of the United States. The nation simply has to be the first priority in all things if you are the Commander-in-Chief.
Be that as it may, I think that all Christians should be wary of offering their uncritical support to any political candidate. And especially when candidates go out of their way to try and show the public how important religion is to them (and this applies to all politicians – Republicans, Democrats, Independents, etc.). Regardless of who we plan to vote for, perhaps we should do so with dovelike innocence and serpent wisdom.
Ironically, the henotheism of our politicians and their attempts to reassure voters of the sincerity of their Christian faith may be a sign that secularism rather than Christianity is the real driver behind the wheel (even when the candidates in question happen to be self-professed evangelicals).
I’m reminded of Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann’s insightful analysis in this regard. It’s a lengthy passage, but worth quoting (and reading) in full. Here’s what Schmemann says about secularism and religion:
[Secularism is] a world view and consequently a way of life in which the basic aspects of human existence—such as family, education, science, profession, art, etc.—not only are not rooted in or related to religious faith, but in which the very necessity or possibility of such a connection is denied. The secular areas of life are thought of as autonomous, i.e., governed by their own values, principles, and motivations, different from the religious ones. Secularism is more or less common to modern civilizations everywhere, but the particularity of its American brand, the one which concerns us here, is that in America secularism is not at all anti-religious or atheistic, but, on the contrary, implies as its almost necessary element a definite view of religion, can be indeed termed "religious." It is a 'philosophy of religion' as much as a 'philosophy of life.' An openly anti-religious society, such as Soviet Russia or Red China, cannot even be called 'secularistic'! Religion there is an enemy to be liquidated and all compromises with it may at best be temporary ones. But the characteristic feature of the American culture and 'way of life' is that they simultaneously accept religion as something essential to man and deny it as an integrated world view shaping the totality of human existence.
An American 'secularist' may be a very 'religious' man, attached to his Church, regular in attending services, generous in his contributions, punctual in prayer. He will have his marriage 'solemnized' in Church, his home blessed, his religious obligations fulfilled—all this in perfectly good faith. But all this does not in the least alter the plain fact that his understanding of all these aspects of his life—marriage and family, home and profession, and ultimately his religious obligations themselves—is derived not from the creed he confesses in Church, not from his professed belief in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God become Son of Man, but from 'philosophies of life,' that is, ideas and convictions having virtually nothing to do with that creed, if not directly opposed to it. One has only to enumerate some of the key 'values' of our culture—success, security, status, competition, profit, prestige, ambition—to realize that they are at the opposite pole from the entire ethos and inspiration of the Gospel. ...
But does this mean that this religious secularist is a cynic, a hypocrite, or a schizophrenic? Not at all. It means only that his understanding of religion is rooted in his secularistic world view and not vice versa. In a non-secularistic society—the only type of society Orthodoxy knew in the past—it is religion and its values that constitute the ultimate criterion of one's whole life, a supreme 'term of reference' by which man, society, and culture evaluate themselves, even if they constantly deviate from it. They may live by the same worldly motivations, but they are constantly challenged by religion, be it only by its passive presence. Thus the "way of life' may not be religious even though the 'philosophy of life' certainly is. In the secularistic society it is exactly the opposite: the 'way of life' includes religion; the 'philosophy of life' excludes it.
Acceptance of secularism means, of course, a radical transformation of religion itself. It may keep all its external and traditional forms, yet inside it is simply a different religion. Secularism, when it 'approves' of religion and gives it a place of honor in social life, does so only inasmuch as religion itself accepts becoming a part of the secularistic world view, a sanction of its values and a help in the process of attaining them. And indeed no word is used more often by secularism in its dealing with religion than the word help. 'It helps' to belong to a religious group, to be identified with a religious tradition, to be active in the Church, to pray; 'it helps,' in short, to 'have religion.' And since religion helps, since it is such a useful factor in the personal and social life, it must in turn be helped. Hence the remarkable success of religion in America, attested to by all statistics. Secularism accepts religion but on its own terms; it assigns religion a function, and, provided religion accepts and fulfills that function, it covers religion with wealth, honor and prestige. 'America,' writes W. Herberg, 'seems to be at once the most religious and the most secular of nations. . . . Every aspect of contemporary religious life reflects this paradox: pervasive secularism amid mounting religiosity . . .' [Great Lent: Journey to Pascha 2nd Edition (St. Vladmir's Seminary Press, 2003), pp 108-109; emphasis in text].
Read in light of Schmemann’s analysis of secularism and the “usefulness” of religion, John McCain’s confession that “My country saved me” is a refreshingly honest, non-pandering statement of where his ultimate loyalty lies. And for that, I applaud him.