American Providence PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 30 September 2011 13:14

Stephen H. Webb’s 2004 American Providence: A Nation With a Mission, is a frustrating book.

On the plus side, Webb takes up Reinhold Niebuhr’s task of trying to make theological sense of America and offers a refreshing, even courageous defense of things few theologians defend these days – providence and America, and the link between the two. On providence, he observes that in Scripture God chooses nations and rulers (e.g., Cyrus) to play a role in His providential direction of history toward its end. Webb knows that no modern nation is chosen in the unique sense that Israel was chosen, but he argues, rightly, that God hasn’t stopped choosing and directing, hasn’t stopped working through nations as well as individuals to achieve His purposes. Webb even has the chutzpah to suggest that Bush might actually be right in his belief that God chose him to lead America through the crisis of 9/11.

He demonstrates that consciousness of a historic mission has been virtually definitive of the American experiment. Early Americans understood that the blessings they enjoyed were gifts from God that demanded faithful stewardship, and knew too that God would judge them for their failures. Even when American conceptions of providence became secularized, detached from demands (as in the theory of Manifest Destiny), even when “racism and the lust for land” were more fundamental motivations than the spread of God’s kingdom or of liberty, Americans could not shed the habit of thinking in providential terms.

Webb’s understanding of providence is forceful: “God is in charge of both history and nature, and God’s governance is complete and final.” Following Oliver O’Donovan’s lead, he insists that providence has political results, finally emerging in “the ultimate political triumph of Jesus Christ.” “All civilizations,” he pithily summarizes, “are overtures to the eventual triumph of the church.” His analysis of globalization has many strengths, emphasizing that the church is a truly global alternative to consumerist globalization, and putting flesh on this fuzzy hope with the claim that Pentecostalism might “give voice to a truly global Christianity” (p. 122).

Webb even has a balanced take on Constantine. What’s not to like?

For starters, on several points Webb criticizes other theologians for taking positions that seem to me all but indistinguishable from his own. He quotes Stanley Hauerwas to the effect that Christians cannot sing “God bless America” without also understanding that “God’s blessings involve an element of judgment” (p. 77). The “nub” of Webb’s problem is that Hauerwas only grants “some aspect of the providential tradition” but “only on the condition that judgment be included.” But this seems to be precisely Webb’s view of that very providential tradition: “the dialectic between blessing and judgment needs to be carefully held together for providence to make good theological sense” (p. 25). Elsewhere, he claims that John Milbank’s theology implies “one-world government” (p. 79), but then Webb himself repeatedly urges the need either for a global religion or a global political power to direct globalization: “the global economy cannot be left to function without some kind of governance. A world economy requires world order” (p. 109).

Along similar lines, he brands Hauerwas and other theologians as “anti-American,” going to far as to suggest that “the key to [Hauerwas’s] entire theology is his anti-Americanism” (p. 70). Even on the evidence that Webb himself offers, a more charitable reading is possible. If Hauerwas treats the U.S. as more Sodom than Jerusalem, he has good precedent in Israel’s own prophets (Isaiah 1). Why can’t Hauerwas’s searing attacks on American greed, violence, and narcissism be part of the jeremiad tradition that Webb says is inherent in the theory of Providential American? Why does Jerry Falwell’s claim that 9/11 was God’s judgment for abortion and sodomy get a pass that Hauerwas doesn’t?

This raises a larger problem with Webb’s analysis. He rightly emphasizes that God’s orchestration of history is comprehensive and particular. We ought, as he urges, study Scripture so as to learn the skills to read history providentially, to steady our gaze to see what God might be doing around us. Yet Webb offers very little assistance for knowing how exactly to do that. He notes that “anti-American” theologians after 9/11 are working with a providential theology just as much as Jerry Falwell. Granted; but then, So what? Both use theories of providence, but they cannot both be right. How does Webb know which is right, or whether either one is?

Webb’s answer is circular. American Christians “should be responsible advocates of the American project of freedom – precisely because the idea of America is so dependent on a flexible doctrine of providence” (p. 75). On the face of it, that isn’t much of an argument: A nation founded with a strong sense of providence might actually use it as a cover for terror. Nazis and Stalinists had a sense of destiny too. In practice Webb makes support of the American project of freedom the standard for judging between good guys and bad. The argument, put more baldly than Webb ever does, is: America has a providential sense of itself; America is chosen by God to fulfill a mission in the world; therefore, those who support America are supporting providence, those who attack America are resisting God.

Much of my frustration with the book boils down to my very different assessment of contemporary America. He acknowledges that someday the “trajectories” of Christianity and America might diverge and compete, but not today: “There is no immediate need to choose between these two globalisms” (p. 145). This is rooted in a far too sanguine evaluation of America, 2011. Webb acknowledges America’s sins and flaws, but he still finds very little that is disquieting in a nation whose aim is to “amuse and feed the rest of the world” (p. 111), but he never asks what we’re sending out for the world’s amusement. Maybe it was true in 1900, but is it still the case that America has a “dual commitment to exporting Christianity and democracy”? Is it really the case today that “the American governance of global capitalism” is “within the sphere of Christian influence”? How? Modernity marginalizes religion, Webb knows, but America seems somehow to have escaped the corrosions of modernity. Webb thinks Hauerwas is wrong to say that America is “godless,” but I think Hauerwas has grounds for his opinion: We’ve been killing babies for nearly forty years, with the full support of the American justice system. And how much more progress does the gay lobby have to make before we are allowed to call America a Sodom?

Webb makes some gains in giving a theological account of America, and given the knee-jerk leftism of theology he is to be commended for his attempt. In the end, though, he left me more dissatisfied than satisfied, still waiting for today’s Niebuhr.

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