I am grateful to Paul D. Miller for his recent review of Between Babel and Beast. It’s gratifying to know he considered the book worth engaging several years after its publication, and I’m thankful too for the unsparing honesty of Prof. Miller’s criticisms.
Some of Miller’s criticisms hit home, some miss the mark. I respond to a few of them below.
Miller lodges a few general criticisms of my book. First, he criticizes my use of the concept of “Americanism,” my term for “American civil religion,” which conflates Christianity and patriotism to produce a heretical reading of scripture, eschatology, and, especially, ecclesiology.
According to Miller, my claim that Americanism is “the de facto political theology for most American Christians” is overstated. He’s right on that point; I would amend the sentence to say that it’s the de facto political theology for many American Christians, especially evangelical Protestants.
Miller’s complaint about “Americanism” is more basic. In his view, I’ve constructed the concept and then ascribed “every bad thing in US history to it.” As for construction: I acknowledge that “Americanism” is an ideal type and, in the nature of the case, simplified. But I go to some length to cite American leaders who express a form of Americanism and to show how it has affected and continues to affect American action in the world. I don’t claim it explains everything in American history. Besides, I’m hardly the first to notice that America is a “nation with the soul of a church” (G.K. Chesterton) or to suggest that religious nationalism drives American policy. “Americanism” is roughly equivalent to the “civil religion” Walter McDougall writes about in his Tragedy of American Foreign Policy.
If Miller needs evidence for the existence and power of this fusion of patriotism and Christianity, I can simply point to the visceral support of many evangelicals for Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda. Trump is a quasi-messianic figure in some sectors of America. When leading Christians write books with titles like In Trump We Trust (Ann Coulter) and Render to God and Trump (reportedly the original title of Ralph Reed’s forthcoming volume), we’re in seriously unbalanced theological territory. Americanism is largely the fault of the church’s privatization of Christian faith. Absent a strong political ecclesiology, a developed public role for the church, American churches naturally fill the void with the nation.
Miller argues my critique of US foreign policy is “schizophrenic.” On the one hand, I complain about democratic adventurism, yet, on the other, I argue that the US should “do more to support religious freedom around the world.” He wonders how my proposal differs from a “quasi-imperialistic crusade.”
My argument has little to do with “more” or “less” activism. As my book makes clear, I endorse certain forms of empire. My argument has to do with the principles and ends that guide American action. Miller’s criticism shows that he’s missed the thrust of the first part of my book. The hinge of the distinction between different forms of biblical empire is how they regard and treat the church. A Bestial empire attacks the bride of Christ; a Cyrian (named for the Persian emperor Cyrus) protects the church. My complaint isn’t that the US is “insufficiently committed to global freedom.” My complaint is that it’s insufficiently Christian. I oppose US alliances with Beasts (like Saudi Arabia), and advocate Cyrian policy that would subordinate national interests to the interests of the kingdom of God. The US, and all nations, should conduct foreign affairs under the global authority of the world Emperor, Jesus, and that means deference to the world Empress, the church. (None of this, by the way, justifies every possible crusade on behalf of the church. Hard power is always limited, and prudence may dictate a restrained use of soft power.)
Miller shows the same misunderstanding when he chides me for including Pakistan among the “most repressive” nations, citing Freedom House’s “partly free” rating for Pakistan. My use of “most repressive” may have been confusing, but the context makes it obvious I wasn’t using Freedom House’s rating system. Again, my standard is a theological one: Does Pakistan acknowledge and honor Christ, by acknowledging and honoring the church?
Persecuted and Forgotten?, a recent report on persecution from Aid to the Church in Need, reports, “In Pakistan, the threat to Christians and other minorities came from both the state and non-state actors, many of them influenced by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. The Human Rights Monitor 2018 report, a publication of the Pakistan Catholic bishops, described an ‘alarming increase in incidents of violence based on faith and the discriminatory attitudes of police and administration.’” Happily, the Trump administration designated Pakistan as “a country of particular concern” in 2018.
Miller also simplifies and so misrepresents my notion of “Babelic empire.” He dismisses the charge that the US is Babelic by saying “the United States does not coerce any nation into speaking English, adopting Christianity or democracy.” As I point out, the builders of Babel were united by religious confession (“lip”) as well as language (“tongue”). A Babel empire may be polyglot and yet require subjects to conform to an imperial ideology. And this the US has done, though admittedly not “coercively.” For instance, the Obama administration used various tools to entice and bully other nations to conform to progressive liberalism by loosening restrictions on abortion and gay rights. Those are the actions of a Babelic power. As for Miller’s claim that the US does not “coerce any nation into … adopting … democracy,” I admit I’m dumbfounded. President George W. Bush spoke freely about invading Iraq to “free” the people and to establish democracy in the Middle East.
Let me also address a few of Miller’s specific criticisms. First, he counters my statement that “Americans invented total war” with “Napoleon Bonaparte did.” Given the controversy over definition and history, both statements are simplistic. Jeremy Black at least begins his history of “the age of total war” in 1860. I should have avoided the phrase entirely, because I didn’t need it to stress the appalling and religiously energized mayhem of the American Civil War.
Second, Miller says that I cite the Barbary Wars to illustrate how American foreign policy advances “corporate interests.” There’s a sleight of hand here. I do use the phrase “corporate interests” (p. 124) and talk about the Barbary Wars (pp. 97–100), but I don’t connect the two. My summary of the Barbary Wars is part of a section dispelling the myth that American was peacefully “isolationist” prior to World War I, and I conclude rather neutrally with the observation that US deployed its navy to “protect business, the freedom of commerce on the seas.”
So, yes, as Miller says, the US uses power for “macroeconomic” reasons, and these can be perfectly just wars in defense of Americans and American interests. But I confess I’m far more cynical about American power than Miller. America’s global military reach does have the benign effect of protecting commerce, but policymakers surely know they affect who wins and loses. Are our leaders so angelic that these outcomes never enter their calculations?
Third, Miller to the contrary, I do not “imply the Allies were the first to bomb civilians.” On the contrary, I explicitly say “Churchill responded” to German attacks by bombing Berlin (p. 128). Further, my statement that the Allies were “all but indistinguishable” from the Axis wasn’t a general claim of moral equivalence, but had specifically to do with bombing non-combatants. Of course, the Allies weren’t morally equivalent to Hitler’s Germany. I never said so. On the narrow but important question of attacking civilians—which was the context of my remark—the Allies and Axis used indistinguishable methods.
I write on p. 127, “The U.S. military has been deployed in humanitarian actions and spends enormous resources building rather than breaking things. The U.S. military regularly reviews tactics and improves technologies in an effort to minimize ‘collateral damage.’” Yet, Miller is right that I should have given more attention to post-war changes in American policy regarding non-combatants and the development of precision bombing. The US military is perhaps the most humane fighting force in the history of the world. Yet, though Miller is offended, he doesn’t refute my claim that the US deliberately attacked civilian populations in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. And, cynic that I am, I’m not confident the humane limits that have been placed on the military will hold if we find ourselves desperate to win a war against an equal adversary.
Miller’s final comments are disturbing for their apparent amorality. He seems to imply that Allied slaughter of civilians was permissible because we were fighting to liberate prisoners from concentration camps. But strategic ends don’t justify tactical means. A just war must be just not only ad bellum but in bello. A Christian assessment of US foreign policy has to apply the standards of justice as least as stringently to ourselves as to others.