Trevin Wax: You affirm a type of American exceptionalism, but it differs from the street-level view among many conservatives. Can you explain the difference and why this distinction is important?
Peter Leithart: America is exceptional in all sorts of ways:
What I criticize in the book is “Americanism,” which is, as David Gelernter has said, one of the world’s great biblical religions. Americanism rarely exists in a pure form; most American Christians are Christians and Americanists at the same time.
- It had a unique founding;
- it is one of the most deeply Christian nations that has ever existed;
- it is of course fabulously wealthy and powerful;
- its political and economic system have enabled human creativity and ingenuity to be unleashed as never before in human history.
- I am grateful for America’s tradition of hospitality to aliens from all over the world, and our real assistance to the poor and oppressed.
Americanism has a way of reading the Bible (with America sometimes playing a prominent role in the biblical story as the “new Israel”), an eschatology (America is the “new order of the ages” and the “last best hope of mankind”), a doctrine of political salvation (everyone becomes like us, and all will be well), and, since the civil war, a view of sacrifice (American soldiers give their lives, and take the lives of enemies, to make the world peaceful and free).
For many American Christians, American exceptionalism involves some degree of adherence to Americanism. Americanism is a heresy; in certain respects it is simply idolatrous. Jesus, not James Madison, brought in the “new order of the ages.”
The practical effect of Americanism is that it blinds Christians to the real evils that America has perpetrated and also obscures the central importance of the church as God’s empire on earth. Americanism encourages Christians to support the American cause no matter what, because the future of the world depends on America. Even when we’re bombing civilians or sending billions of dollars in military aid to Muslim dictators, Christians still wave the flag and sing America’s praises. And for some Christians, criticism of America is almost tantamount to apostasy.