Sunday, September 7, 2008

John McCain's Henotheism

“My country saved me.”

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.


Perpetua said...

Thank you so much for looking at this. I was surprised by that statement and I didn't understand it.

I guess he was saying that his faith in, belief in, the goodness of his country kept him from giving up hope. When he did break, he lost faith in himself as an individual. Then when he returned to his cell and received the encouraging words (in code)from others, he found a new faith. He transferred his faith in himself, his own goodness (which had been broken), to a faith in the community of POW's, and their shared loyalty to the USA.

The problem with this is that it could happen to anyone from any country. It just seems like a psychological reaction to specific events. There is nothing in it that explains what is uniquely deserving of loyalty about the USA. It seems more like a way to justify the lost years and damaged body.

It makes me sad to write this because I do admire John McCain very much for his service to his country through the years and his willingness to "reach across the aisle" to get things done for the good of the country. As a US citizen, I am certainly glad he devoted himself to the good of the USA.

But I actually prefer knowing that Sarah Palin prays that what the USA does is within God's plan. And McCain picked her for VP.

So, he may be a Henotheist, but she seems to have a real God centered belief system.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your reflections and comments, Perpetua.

It seems to me that the role of religion in our politics these days illustrates rather well Fr. Schmemann's argument that for most Americans, our understanding and practice of religion is rooted in a secularist world view rather than vice versa. Given McCain's henotheism, his choice for VP seems to bear that out insofar as it truly 'helps' to have religion on the ticket.

Chris+ said...

A little joke: Jesus was a community organizer. Pilate was a Governor.

Joe Rawls said...

Ah, yes, McCain, the unbaptized Episcopalian who goes to a Baptist church. I guess when you're a maverick you get cut some slack.
At any rate, thanks for the excellent and spot-on Schmemann quote and also to Chris+ for his insight into the relationship between religion and politics.

Bryan Owen said...

Is it true that McCain has never been baptized? I knew that he had never been baptized to become a member of the Baptist Church (they would require re-baptism by full immersion if you had received infant baptism in another church). But I thought that although McCain has been attending the Baptist church, he is still a baptized member of The Episcopal Church.

BillyD said...

I think you're putting too strict a construction on one phrase in McCain's speech. After all, a few sentences above the one you've picked, he says, "The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me." Does that mean that he thinks that Bob Craner is God, too?

McCain is uncomfortable speaking about his faith because he's from a time and culture that puts religion in the private sphere. I wish Obama would follow suit; every time I hear him assure us that he "praises Jesus every Sunday" I get a little queasy.

Full disclosure: I admire John McCain, and have tried to find a way to vote for him in good conscience because I think he's a better man, and a better American, than Sen. Obama. But I think he's lost his mind since 2004 in sucking up to President Bush and the likes of Jerry Falwell, and I'll be holding my nose and voting Democratic this November.

Bryan Owen said...

BillyD, I don't think that McCain's comment about his comrade-in-arms detracts at all from my point, but rather reinforces it. Mr. Craner helped to "save" McCain by directing his loyalty away from self to the wholehearted service of the nation. His role in McCain's conversion from selfishness to service was a pivotal moment in McCain's embrace of a henotheistic form of nationalism.

It's as if McCain were saying, "My friend Bob Craner saved me by showing me what's truly worth serving - what's truly worth living and dying for." And that object of ultimate devotion is not Bob Craner, but the nation.

I think you're right about the generational issue regarding the privacy of "religion" in McCain's case. On the other hand, he is quite passionate and zealous in talking about loyalty to the cause that transcends all other causes - giving one's self in service and devotion to our country. While I do not doubt that McCain believes in the God we read about in the Bible and in Jesus, it's precisely in those moments when he's talking about our nation that we most clearly hear the heart of McCain's henotheistic piety. And the words I've singled out from his acceptance speech sum that piety up very well, indeed.

BillyD said...

"On the other hand, he is quite passionate and zealous in talking about loyalty to the cause that transcends all other causes - giving one's self in service and devotion to our country."

I think that's because, in the model under discussion, patriotism and service to the nation fall under the heading of Public or Common Matters, whereas religion is a Private Matter. A minor example: people (lots of people, where I'm from, and not just politicians) used to wear American flag pins on their lapels, but would never think of displaying a religious emblem in the same way. Why? Americans differ widely in their approach to God, and are notoriously touchy about the subject; displaying a cross on one's lapel might be seen as pushing one's religion on others. Devotion to country, on their other hand, was a uniting factor, since citizenship was one of the few things people held in common, and was almost always viewed in a positive light. It's not so much that devotion to country transcends all other causes, but that some causes are so holy and deeply held that they are not, under this model, paraded for private view.

Good old fashioned mainstream Protestantism probably plays a large role in all this. To paraphrase the Articles, religion was not ordained to be gazed upon, or to be carried about...

On the other hand, I may be a bit of a henotheist myself in your eyes. I would defend my country in time of need, even if that meant the invading troops I'd be killing were Christians (even Anglicans :-0 )

Anonymous said...

sure, let's applaud his honesty. but there is a deeper problem: worship of country is idolatrous and it is not at all clear to me that christians have any business getting involved with such things.

it is for this reason that my facebook page describes my political views as "
Luke 4.6-8; Revelation 13.7b; 1 Samuel 8.10-18".

Bryan Owen said...

I'm with you, Thomas. And in fact, it's precisely because I accept that henotheism is, by definition, heretical (even if the henotheist in question is a good, decent, and honorable person) that I was prompted to write this piece.

In the meantime, check out this piece on Sarah Palin and "the Third Wave". According to the YouTube video that links from this site, "Palin's churches are actively involved in a resurgent movement that was declared heretical by the Assemblies of God in 1949. Known as the 'Third Wave,' this movement sees the Earth as largely under the influence of demon powers." And that's just the beginning.

I think it's important that someone with real credentials confirm whether or not this is true.

Perpetua said...

It is my understanding that the term "Second Wave" includes the charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church in the late 1960's and "Third Wave" refers to the Vineyard Movement. See Wikipedia on this here.

Jendi said...

Excellent analysis. I would just disagree that henotheism is an asset for a president. Making the nation your god means that you are blind to its flaws (torture, violation of civil liberties, economic inequality), or at least judge them by a different standard than other countries that do the same things. A true Christian would have to realize that all nations are on an equal footing before God, and all have sinned. Unfortunately I think a lot of American Christians are closet henotheists, routinely cheering "for God and country" without remembering that those two don't always go together. Perhaps that's why McCain has risen in the polls since his RNC speech.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, Jendi. I think you're quite right to point out the blind spots of a nationalistic form of henotheism. The things you cite - torture, violation of civil liberties, and economic inequality - are (to my mind, at least) perfectly compatible with nationalistic loyalty (at least in some cases) but also deeply incompatible with the social vision of the Christian faith. Should that give committed Christians pause in giving their wholehearted supported to politicians who espouse such policies and claim to be Christians? I certainly think so.

Note that in this piece, I did not say that embracing the henotheism of nationalism is necessarily an asset for a President, but rather that "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" because, after all, "The nation simply has to be the first priority in all things if you are the Commander-in-Chief."

Part of the issue here is whether or not it is possible to simultaneously have both Jesus and country as one's ultimate loyalty. I'm not sure that it is. I struggle with the tension.

If it is not possible to have both Jesus and country as one's ultimate loyalty, does that mean that (rhetoric and/or running mates notwithstanding) one cannot really be a committed Christian and take the oath of office as President of the United States?

I think that part of the problem is the assumption that being a good Christian and a patriotic American are necessarily one and the same thing. Are they really? Why or why not?

BTW, I love the term "closet henotheists."

BillyD said...

"If it is not possible to have both Jesus and country as one's ultimate loyalty, does that mean that (rhetoric and/or running mates notwithstanding) one cannot really be a committed Christian and take the oath of office as President of the United States?"

You seem to imply that the presidential oath is different in kind from other oaths of office, including the enlistment oath of the armed services. I don't think that's the case. If Christians can't serve as president, it would seem logical that they can't serve in any governmental capacity.

Bryan Owen said...

Good point, BillyD. The tension between objects of loyalty can surface in many, many areas of life in which we typically take it for granted that there is or can be no conflict of loyalties (such as: being a patriotic American and being a committed Christian are really one and the same thing).

My concern remains the same in all cases: that where there is conflict with the ultimate loyalty expressed in the confession "Jesus is Lord," most of us often side with other objects of loyalty and we see no problem with doing so.