Page 1 of 2 US exceptionalism meets Team Jesus
Interview by Tom Engelhardt
He's a man who knows something about the dangers of mixing religious fervor,
war, and the crusading spirit, a subject he dealt with eloquently in his book Constantine's
Sword: The Church and the Jews. A former Catholic priest turned
anti-war activist in the Vietnam era, Carroll also wrote a moving memoir about
his relationship to his father, the founding director of the Pentagon's Defense
Carroll in essence grew up in that five-sided monument to US imperial power.
For him, as a boy, the Pentagon was "the largest
playhouse in the world", and he can still remember sliding down its ramps in
his socks, as he has written in the introduction to his recent magisterial
history of that building and the institution it holds, House of War.
As a weekly columnist for the Boston Globe, he was perhaps the first media
figure to notice - and warn against - a presidential "slip of the tongue" just
after the assaults of September 11, 2001, when US President George W Bush
referred briefly to his new "global war on terror" as a "crusade". Carroll was
possibly the first mainstream columnist in the United States to warn against
the consequences of launching a war against Afghanistan in response to those
attacks - now just another of Bush's missions unaccomplished; and, in September
2003, he was possibly the first to pronounce the Iraq war "lost" in print.
("The war in Iraq is lost. What will it take to face that truth this time?")
His stirring columns on the early years of Bush's attempt to bring "freedom" to
the world at the point of a cruise missile were collected in Crusade: Chronicles
of an Unjust War. In those years, Carroll was a powerful moral voice
from - to use a very American phrase - the (media) wilderness until much of the
American world finally caught up with him.
He has most recently completed, with director Oren Jacoby, a stirring
documentary film, also titled Constantine's Sword, in which he explores
the roots of religiously inspired violence in our present world. He submitted
to a Tomdispatch interview in August 2005 and when, this summer, I suggested
that we meet again, he agreed to discuss "American fundamentalisms", a subject
that receives remarkably less coverage and consideration than other
fundamentalisms of the world.
We met on a warm day, just after a rare downpour in a dry summer, in the study
of his house in the state of Massachusetts. His many books dot the bookshelves.
Out the window is a piney landscape, not quite the one the Puritans first saw
when they arrived from England early in the 17th century, but beautiful
nonetheless. Carroll, his hair graying, has not so much a worn as a
well-inhabited face. You can see him thinking as he speaks - not so common a
trait as you might imagine. As he warms up to the subject of American
fundamentalisms, his voice gains the quiet yet powerful passion that any reader
of his weekly columns has come to expect, a passion that nonetheless leaves
room for reason and criticism, for further thought.
I put my two small tape recorders on a modest coffee table, turned them on,
asked my first question, and discovered that this was an interview in name
only. It was more like being back in the most riveting classroom of my life. A
single lecture, an hour's genuine education, stretching from America's first
Puritan moments to Bush's Iraq, with hardly an interpolation needed on my part.
Tom Engelhardt: I recently heard this joke: How many neo-cons
does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer: Neo-cons don't believe in
light bulbs, they declare war on evil and set the house on fire.
TE: That's my introduction to a discussion of American
fundamentalism. Any comments?
James Carroll: Well, embedded in that joke is a central idea:
that what matters is not outcome, but purity of intent. A mark of a
fundamentalist mindset is that one's own personal virtue is the ultimate value.
The American fundamentalist ethos of the Cold War prepared us to destroy the
world. In other words, a world absolutely devastated through nuclear war was
acceptable as an outcome because it reflected the virtue of our opposition to
the evil of communism. Better dead than red.
TE: A phrase I hadn't thought about in a long time ...
JC: Better the world destroyed than taken over by communism. It's
profoundly nihilistic, which is also one of the marks of the fundamentalist
mindset. An irony, of course, is that so much, then and now, is done in the
name of realism, but this is such a profoundly unrealistic way of thinking.
TE: It's in this sense, I suppose, that our president has been
unable to learn. So give me the basics on American fundamentalisms, as you see
JC: First of all, what is fundamentalism? The word itself was
coined in the early 20th century and applied to a particular brand of
Protestantism. It comes from a determination to protect what were called, in
foundational manifestos, the five fundamentals of Christian belief,
particularly the inerrancy of scripture. Scripture can't make a mistake, right?
It has to be read literally.
This was a counterattack against so-called liberal religion's embrace of the
insights of the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Can you apply normal
standards of historical criticism to religious belief? The fundamentalists said
no, because normal standards might lead you to understand texts as having been
composed in normal human circumstances, instead of inspired by God. So when you
read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus through the lens of historical
critical method, you may conclude that the three kings never actually traveled
to Bethlehem, that it's a mythical story created to make a point - a genre that
the people who wrote it were comfortable with.
Fundamentalists reacted against any mitigating of the literal fact of the three
kings. To read texts for their theological meaning rather than for their
historical literalness would undercut the whole affirmation of the religion.
The next thing, you'd be saying that Jesus didn't rise from the dead on the
third day. And if that didn't happen, where are you?
That was then. Today, fundamentalism remains a useful point of reference in
understanding the human panic that can be engendered by the uncertainties
attached to Enlightenment thinking - when the world view of science tells you
that nothing is dependable, that everything has to be submitted to the test of
My argument is that religious belief can mature, can be moved to a new level of
sophistication by historical, critical, enlightened thinking, but a lot of
people are completely threatened by it. Not to denigrate them. Human beings all
over the world are dislocated - all of us are - by so many things we don't
control, the various revolutions sweeping the globe, the degradation of the
environment, the challenge to the very integrity of communities.
The 'city on a hill'
For our conversation, fundamentalist Christianity is a perfect paradigm within
which to understand what has been happening in America, a profoundly Christian
super-culture. America is also a secular nation, of course. The separation of
church and state was a critical innovation, giving us this special standing as
a people. The separation's purpose was to protect the conscientious freedom of
every individual by making the state neutral on questions of religious
conscience. An absolutely ingenious insight.
It's important, however, to understand the profoundly American origins of this
insight. The argument began in the first generation. John Cotton, a Puritan
preacher, embodied the first idea America had of itself, captured in the image
his colleague John Winthrop used in defining the new settlement as "the city on
a hill", a phrase that's fodder for political speeches every four years.
Americans don't generally like to think this way, but the United States of
America is more descended from Massachusetts than Virginia - an important
distinction, because the people who settled Virginia were adventurers and
entrepreneurs. The people who settled Massachusetts were religious zealots who
had left England as an act of dissent against the Church of England, which they
considered too popish. Their dissent was against a certain kind of religion,
but not in favor of religious freedom. They came to America assuming the power
of the state over the religious convictions of the civic body.
TE: : They just wanted a different religion to do the coercing?
JC: Exactly. Of course, these folks thought of themselves as
re-enacting the journey of Exodus. What was the city on a hill? Jerusalem, of
course - a biblical reference. They had been brought out of the slave condition
of a popish church. They were now across the water - think of "the Jordan
River" as the Atlantic Ocean - in the promised land, the land flowing with milk
and honey. Hello, there are Canaanites here.
Finally, after 1,600 years, the true vision of Jesus Christ was going to be
realized - and there was no room for another way of looking at it, no room for
what we would call dissent, and certainly no room for any tolerance of the
"paganism" of the native Americans. One of the first manifestations of the
settlers' zealotry was the religious coercion that began to mark their
relationships with the native Americans they met right here in this very place
where we're now talking. They felt empowered to offer the ancient choice of
conversion or death to the people they called the Indians.
One of the members of this early party objected. His name was Roger Williams,
and he rejected the coercive violence he saw wielded against native peoples. He
rejected the whole idea that the magistrate should be in charge of the
religious impulse of the citizen. As a result, he was banished from Boston,
exiled to Salem, then banished from Salem. Finally, he started his own
foundation in what we call Rhode Island and organized a new kind of state in
which the magistrate would have no power over the religious practice of the
citizens. This is all within the first generation.
Roger Williams lost the argument in his own day, but he planted the seed of
something. He was the first person to use the phrase "wall of separation"
between the magistrate and the religion. One hundred eighty years later, Thomas
Jefferson picks up that phrase to describe the distinction between the church
and the state.
The point here is that the initial city-on-a-hill impulse has never stopped
being part of our self-understanding - the idea of America as having a mission
to the world or, in biblical terms, a mission to the gentiles. "Go forth and
teach all nations," Jesus commands. This commission is implicit in George
Bush's war to establish democracy - or "freedom" - everywhere. When Americans
talk about freedom, it's our secular code word for salvation. There's no
salvation outside the church; there's no freedom outside the American way of
life. Notice how, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of
the Soviet system, there is still something called the "Free World". As opposed
A special mission to Iraq - and the world
This missionizing in the name of freedom is a basic American impulse.
[President Abraham] Lincoln was the high priest of this rhetoric, "the last
best hope of mankind". The United States of America is justified by the virtue
of its mission. The entire movement of American power across the continent of
North America was a movement to fulfill the "manifest destiny" of a free people
extending freedom. Because this is understood as a profoundly virtuous impulse,
we've seldom criticized it. As a nation, we have begun to reckon with the crime
of slavery, but we haven't begun to reckon with the crime of genocide against
the native American peoples. That's because we haven't really acknowledged what
was wrong with it.
Think of that phrase - "manifest destiny". A key doctrine in what I am calling
American fundamentalism. It remains an inch below the surface of the American
belief system. What's interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts
across the spectrum - right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives - because
generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II
is that our wars - Vietnam then, Iraq now - represent an egregious failure to
live up to America's true calling. We're better than this. Even anti-war
critics, who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional
American missionizing impulse. You don't get the sense, even from most
liberals, that - no, America is a nation like other nations and we're going to
screw things up the way other nations do.
TE: That kind of realism is in short supply here.
JC: It hardly exists even now.
Let me make one final point about that missionizing impulse, and the way it
transcends right and left. One reason we're in Iraq today is because, in the
1990s, the left was split on the question of American violence, the proper use
of American power. It was split over the issue of what was called "humanitarian
intervention". There are times, it was argued, when the forceful exercise of
American power is necessary for the sake of humanitarian causes. Human rights,
beginning in [president] Jimmy Carter's day, became a new form of American
religion. If conservatives go abroad speaking the language of freedom, liberals
go abroad speaking the language of human rights. And if we have to destroy a
nation so that it can exercise human rights, so be it. That's why, in the early
days of the Iraq war, so many surprising people supported it.
The liberal embrace of humanitarian intervention is part of what set loose this
new phenomenon of the Bush moment - an explicit appeal to religious motivation
in the exercise of American power. Since George W Bush came to power, the
religious right has been set free to use overt religious language, missionizing
language that actually moves from "freedom" to "salvation", as a justification
for American power. We cast ourselves against Saddam Hussein entirely in terms
of a binary evil-versus-good contest. Bush's appeals to evil were a staple of
his speechmaking from the earliest days of this war. The purpose of his war
was, he told us, not just to spread democracy, but to end evil. You see what's
happening. We've moved into specifically religious categories, and that was all
right in America.
Tom, here's the thing that's important to acknowledge: if Americans are upset
with the war in Iraq today, it's mainly because it failed. If we could have
"ended evil" with this war, it would have been a good thing. It goes back to
the joke you began with: if we have to destroy the world in order to purify it
of evil, that's all right. It's the key to the apocalyptic mindset that Robert
J Lifton has written about so eloquently, in which the destruction of the Earth
can be an act of purification. The destruction of Iraq was an act of
purification. Even today, look at the rhetoric that's unfolding as we begin to
talk about ending the war in Iraq. It's the Iraqis who have failed. They
wouldn't yield on their "sectarian" agendas. These people won't get together
and form a cohesive government. Now, we're going to let them stew in their own
mess. We're going to withdraw from this war because they're not worthy of us.
That's the mainstream Democratic anti-war position! America is a city on a
hill, exceptional; so, if we do it, by definition it must be virtuous. If we've
gone to Iraq and all hell's broken loose, it may be a fiasco, but in origin it
can't be our fault because we were motivated by good intentions.
Now, put all of that in the context of this astounding religious resurgence ...
TE: It's the surge ...
JC [laughs]: Yes, the surge of overt religious claims within the
United States government, people who understand themselves as fulfilling their
sworn oaths to uphold the United States constitution in the name of religion. I
interviewed the chief chaplain of the US Air Force, who said to me: "I have two
commissions. One commission is to uphold the US constitution and the other is
to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they go hand in hand with each
I grew up in the air force. I gotta tell ya, there was no chaplain in the air
force in my day who would have said that. In fact, the chaplains I knew didn't
see themselves as having a commission to preach the Gospel at all. You bent
over backward not to do that when you were dealing with soldiers outside
of the chapel.
A Christian defense of the nation
TE: You have a new film, based on your book Constantine's Sword,
in which you explore this change at, among other places, the Air Force Academy,