Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 5)

Just as God’s love establishes equality between individuals as the ideal, so too, Niebuhr says, does God demand equality and peace between nations. Falwell, Niebuhr would say, idolizes his own particular nation.[1] Patriotism, in and of itself, is fine, and a natural expression for the morally praiseworthy virtue of altruism. However, when patriotism and nationalism are distorted by pride, love of nation becomes a worship of one’s own nation and a desire to dominate others.[2] Niebuhr argues that the only defense against this idolatry is prophetic religion, that criticizes even the best nation by holding up the standard of perfect love. This is a recurring and important theme in Niebuhr’s thought, beyond the limited area Comey discusses: that Christian ethics is God’s perfect, unattainably high standard held up for us to strive towards, not a goal we can expect to fulfill. In An Interpetation of Christian Ethics, Niebuhr describes this in terms of the individual. I may feel pretty good about myself, if I only look at myself and what I’ve done. If I look at others, I may feel worse or better, depending on whom I look at. I feel pretty good about giving my spare change to a homeless person.   If I look around me, and see how many others only offer contempt, I may even feel pretty smug about my moral superiority. But if I look to the Gospel, and see what perfect neighbor-love would look like, I am humbled if not ashamed to realize how far I am from fulfilling God’s law of love. I do not give my sweater to the one who asks for my coat (Matt: 5:40); I don’t even give the coat. I don’t even give away my T-shirt collection (Luke 3:11). I allow practicalities and even fear to hold me back from fully loving others who need all the help they can get. And honestly, I’m going to keep doing so. But I can at least begin to grow morally when I stop measuring myself in comparison to any relative standard, and instead use God’s standard. This can lead me to repent, and to admit that my moral pride was undeserved; and knowing I still have some growing to do, I can strive to be better rather than bask in my self-satisfaction.

The same principle applies to nations. The “prophetic religion” which Niebuhr advocates holds up the ideal of the law of love. The Christian in politics should not judge his or her nation by looking at the others and feeling superior; rather, the Christian should look at the description of the Kingdom of God, where all are equal and love, not power, rules. No human nation, not even the best, will ever measure up to God’s perfect standard. This does not mean that all nations are equal or that one cannot judge between them; Niebuhr clearly and forcefully argued that the U.S. had a moral and religious duty to oppose Hitler with force, for example. But it does mean that the patriotic Christian must still admit that his or her nation needs to improve, and must call out the nation when it fails to uphold justice and protect the weak. Otherwise, the patriot will fall into idolatry, worshipping the State as if it were divine and attributing perfection to it as if it were God.

Falwell, too, would say that Christianity is a prophetic religion, and that the true Christian patriot must be a prophet. But “Falwell’s identification of America as Christian civilization and his belief in America as a new Christian Israel makes him a false prophet.”[3] Jerry Falwell claims that America is the best, most godly nation that has ever been. His evidence for this seems to be twofold. First, he would say, just look at us: founded by Christians as a shining city on a hill, preserving the Christian heritage better than any other, doing good for other nations, sharing our food, offering the protection of our military, establishing peace, promoting free trade and protecting trade routes so everyone can get richer as God intended, defending capitalism, which is the most godly economic system, and so on. Second, America’s wealth and power proves its righteousness: as “righteousness exalts a nation,” and the promise of the Bible is that God will bless the faithful nation, and God has clearly blessed America above all other nations, this must be the most faithful nation. * As Comey points out, this claim is subject to multiple objections. First, the biblical basis for this claim is not nearly as strong as Falwell asserts. There is no “direct warrant,” simply because the “United States of America” is never mentioned in the Bible. The indirect warrant from Scripture is also questionable, since it is not clear what “blessed” means or whether only faithful nations will ever be powerful. After all, at the time Falwell was writing, the “godless” USSR was considered an existential threat to the US, having quickly risen from the most backward of European nations to become a vast, powerful empire with worldwide trade and diplomatic influence; to any impartial judge, it would seem to be at least nearly as blessed as America. Falwell simply ignores apparent counterexamples to his argument, however, even asserting that part of the great righteousness of America is its opposition to the materialist, socialist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union; far from showing their blessedness, the Soviet strength only makes their evil worse. Falwell also ignores national sins of the U.S. such as segregation and racism. And more insidiously, Falwell fails to understand that spiritual pride can undermine even national virtues and turn them into vices, a process Niebuhr describes as “irony.”[4] Without a healthy skepticism born from a religious awareness of pride, American power easily becomes imperialism and oppression of other nations, American wealth and success can lead to the impoverishment of other nations, and American democracy is rejected by other nations as mere cover for the exploitation of the poor by rich capitalists and landowners. Falwell’s shock at the ingratitude of other nations towards America seems to incarnate the irony Niebuhr described years earlier. Here we are offering food, education, financial and military support to all these other nations, and they won’t even say “thank you”? But what Falwell never asks, and Niebuhr says the Christian must ask, is “Are we doing this for ourselves?” When we allow ourselves to become convinced that our nation has a unique divine mission, we all too easily cease to consider either the shortfalls and self-serving nature of many of our virtues, or the possible harm our nation and even our virtues may cause others. Furthermore, our pride can allow us to see our national actions as neither self-serving nor even simply good, but so superior that we deserve credit for going above and beyond the call of morality.

[1] Comey, pp. 75-89

[2] Comey, pp. 75-56

[3] Comey, p. 86

* Today we might say this is a sort of nationalized version of the Prosperity Gospel.

[4] Comey, p. 80

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