America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are any number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance and belligerent nationalism. These few simple precautions would also make it more attractive to the growing numbers among our people who have begun to reject it as ignorant, intolerant and belligerently nationalistic, as they might reasonably conclude that it is, if they hear only the loudest voices.
There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts. First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in Him history will finally be resolved. These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made . . . The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians, we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.
We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline—as in fact there always is—the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? I propose attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of our culture at present as one way of dealing with the problem. In the 26th chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God. “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.” Now, of course, there are numbers among us who have weapons that would blast that leaf to atoms, and feel brave as they did it, confirmed in their alarm by the fact that there are so very many leaves. But the point is the same. Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety however that word may be defined, can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears. The text specifies the very real threat that fear itself poses—“you shall have no power to stand before your enemies.” There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. It is clear enough, to an objective viewer at least, with whom one would choose to share a crisis, whose judgment should be trusted when sound judgment is most needed. Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, unchristian as it surely is.
We who are students of Calvin’s tradition know that our ancestors in the tradition did not spare their lives or their fortunes. They were loyal to the will of God as they understood it at the most extreme cost to themselves—in worldly terms, that is. They also defended their faith militarily, with intelligence and great courage, but without ultimate success, except in the Low Countries. Therefore the migration of Pilgrims and Puritans, and Huguenots as well, and the great flourishing of Calvinist civilization in the New World. We might say that the oppressors meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, except this might lead us to forget a crucial thing, a factor not present in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Those oppressors were motivated by fear of us. We were heretics by their lights, and therefore a threat to the Church, to Christian civilization, to every soul who felt our influence. We filled more or less the same place in the European imagination that Islam does now, one difference being that the Christianity now assumed to be under threat on that most secular continent is merely sociological and cultural, in effect racial, and another difference being that there was no ideal of tolerance and little concept of due process to mitigate the violence the presence of our ancestors inspired. Quite the opposite. To suppress our tradition however viciously was a pious act.
The terrible massacres of Protestants in France in the 16th century, whether official or popular in their origins, reflect the fear that is engendered by the thought that someone really might destroy one’s soul, plunge one into eternal fire by corrupting true belief even inadvertently. If someone had asked a citizen of Lyon, on his way to help exterminate the Calvinists, to explain what he and his friends were doing, he would no doubt have said that he was taking back his city, taking back his culture, taking back his country, fighting for the soul of France. This kind of language was not invented in order to be used against Calvinists – Europe had been purging itself of heretics since the 13th century, so the pattern was already well established. These same terms had been used centuries before by the Roman emperor Julian, called the Apostate, when he tried to return Rome from its emerging Christianity to the old classical paganism. But it was applied to our case with notable rigor and persistence, and with great effect. I spoke not long ago at a homiletics conference in Wittenberg. There were people there from many distant parts of the world, and not a soul from France. I asked why there were no French people there, and was told that Catholics were not as focused on preaching as Protestants. I told them there are in fact Protestants in France. I told them how to find the église Réformée on the Internet, preaching and music and all. I am aware of them myself because no Christian population anywhere has ever defended its beliefs with more courage against more entrenched persecution than the Protestants of France. These cultural erasures are almost always more apparent than real, and still they matter, because they assert the unique legitimacy of one descriptor, narrowly defined – Roman, or French, or Aryan, or Catholic, or Christian, or American.
It is difficult for any number of reasons to define a religion, to establish an essence and a circumference, and this is true not least because it always has its supernumeraries, often legions of them. I saw a cinema spectacular when I was growing up, Demetrius and the Gladiators. Demetrius, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Victor Mature, was a Christian convert, obliged therefore to turn the other cheek when taunted by a bully. A gladiator acquaintance of his, an enormous Nubian man, walloped the bully with a plated forearm, sending him sprawling, then growled after him, exultingly, “I am no Christian!” Needless to say, the theater audience erupted in cheers. There was popcorn all over the place. (Parenthetically: I watched this film and The Robe to see if I had been fair to Cecil B. DeMille and Delmer Daves, and I had not. Both represent the Christian community as gentle and serene, startlingly so by our standards. But then, in those early days Christians had only Caligula to worry about.)
Calvin had his supernumeraries, great French lords who were more than ready to take up arms in his cause, which was under severe persecution. He managed to restrain them while he lived, saying that the first drop of blood they shed would become a torrent that drowned Europe. And, after he died, Europe was indeed drenched in blood. So there is every reason to suppose that Calvin would have thought his movement had lost at least as much as it gained in these efforts to defend it, as he anticipated it would. Specifically, in some degree it lost its Christian character, as Christianity, or any branch of it, always does when its self-proclaimed supporters outnumber and outshout its actual adherents. What is true when there is warfare is just as true when the bonding around religious identity is militantly cultural or political.
At the core of all this is fear, real or pretended. What if these dissenters in our midst really are a threat to all we hold dear? Better to deal with the problem before their evil schemes are irreversible, before our country has lost its soul and the United Nations has invaded Texas. We might step back and say that there are hundreds of millions of people who love this nation’s soul, who in fact are its soul, and patriotism should begin by acknowledging this fact. But there is not much fear to be enjoyed from this view of things. Why stockpile ammunition if the people over the horizon are no threat? If they would in fact grieve with your sorrows and help you through your troubles? At a lunch recently Lord Jonathan Sacks, then chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, said that the United States is the world’s only covenant nation, that the phrase “We the People” has no equivalent in the political language of other nations, and that the State of the Union address should be called the renewal of the covenant. I have read that Americans are now buying Kalashnikovs in numbers sufficient to help subsidize Russian rearmament, to help their manufacturers achieve economies of scale. In the old days these famous weapons were made with the thought that they would be used in a land war between great powers, that is, that they would kill Americans. Now, since they are being brought into this country, the odds are great that they will indeed kill Americans. But only those scary ones who want to destroy all we hold dear. Or, more likely, assorted adolescents in a classroom or a movie theater.
I know there are any number of people who collect guns as sculpture, marvels of engineering. When we mount a cross on a wall, we don’t do it with the thought that, in a pinch, we might crucify someone. This seems to be a little different when the icon in question is a gun. A “civilian” Kalashnikov can easily be modified into a weapon that would blast a deer to smithereens. That’s illegal, of course, and unsportsmanlike. I have heard the asymmetry rationalized thus: deer can’t shoot back. Neither can adolescents in a movie theater, of course. Neither can anyone not prepared for mayhem to break loose anywhere, at any time. And, imagining an extremely improbable best case, it is very hard to threaten or deter someone who is suicidal, as most of these assailants are. Gun sales stimulate gun sales—a splendid business model, no doubt about that. Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.
I know that hunting is sacrosanct in this country. This is beside the point, since hunting rifles are not the problem. And the conversation around this issue never stays long with hunting. It goes instead to the Second Amendment. Any literalist reading would notice the founders’ words “well-regulated” on one hand, and on the other the alarm that arises among the pro-gun people at the slightest mention of anything that resembles regulation, and their constant efforts to erode what little regulation there is. The supposed neglect or abuse of this revered document, and the supposed “defense of the Second Amendment,” is leveraged on that other fear, the fear that those bland blue helmets might be gathering even now, maybe in Canada, to commence their internationalist march into the heart of Texas. Will we wake to find ourselves betrayed by our own government? Maybe nothing has deterred them to this point but those Kalashnikovs. How fortunate that the factory in Russia is up and running. And how hard those Russians must be laughing, all the way to the bank. And all those homicidal insurgents and oppressors in the turbulent parts of the world, how pleased they must be that we cheapen these marvelous weapons for them. Oh, I know there are all sorts of reliable gun manufacturers, in Austria, for example. Our appetite for weapons is one of those vacuums nature hates, that is to say, fills.
The Second Amendment argument is brilliant in its way, because the Constitution is central to everything American. The president takes an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution – nothing more, nothing other. I took a rather similar oath myself once, when I accepted a generous fellowship of a kind established under President Eisenhower and continued under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. But of course J. Edgar Hoover identified Dwight Eisenhower as a communist sympathizer. I guess he would cite me as proof, since I did indeed study Shakespeare with the sponsorship of the federal government, on a National Defense Education Act fellowship. I flatter myself that we are no worse for it. The government at that time felt that humanists also contributed to the well-being of the United States. How times change. I have in fact a number of credentials that would make me a driven leaf, as things are reckoned now. I have lived in Massachusetts and other foreign countries. My command of French is not absolutely minimal. I have degrees from elite institutions. I am a professor in a secular university. All in all I am a pretty good example of the sort who inspire fight-or-flight responses in certain segments of the population. I find myself musing over this from time to time.
Be that as it may. Our first loyalty in this country is to the Constitution, so if the case can be made that any part of the Bill of Rights, for heaven’s sake, is under threat, then the whole edifice is imperiled. And what is a patriot to do in the face of such peril? Carry, as they say, just to assert the right. In the old movies a concealed weapon was the unfailing mark of a coward, but Clint Eastwood came along to rescue us from our scruples about such things. And besides, a visible weapon would not only spoil the lines of a business suit, it would also alarm and no doubt alienate anyone who watches the news. By pure coincidence, as I was writing these thoughts, sitting on my back porch in my quiet, crime-free neighborhood, I heard one man loudly lecturing another on the inappropriateness of going armed into a grocery store, telling him that if he did he could expect the manager to call the police, and that when the police ordered him to leave, he was indeed obliged to leave. Do I feel safer in my neighborhood because this unknown man is wandering around with a gun, licensed though it seems to be? No, I don’t. Since everything is economics these days, what would it cost a store in terms of trade if word got out that he frequented it, with his loyalty to the Second Amendment on display? Or possibly concealed? I’m betting he could put them out of business, because when people see weapons, they have every reason on earth to fear the worst. And what does it cost to police this sort of thing, in this time of budget cuts? If there is any argument for weapons from a public safety point of view, there is a much stronger argument for sparing the police the problem of dealing with such distractions, and for minimizing the risk of their killing or being killed by someone they must assume to be armed.
So, concealed carry. The gun lobby has made its product socially acceptable by putting it out of sight, issues of cowardice notwithstanding.
The next thing to do is to stockpile weapons. Buy gold from that man on TV, maybe some of that dried food, too. Prowl around in the woods with like-minded people. Some pretty intense bonding goes on, swapping fears around a campfire, as any Girl Scout can testify. And keep an eye out for traitors, active or passive, intentional or not. Who can say, after all, that the Christians did not turn the gods against Rome, that the Cathars did not kill souls, that witches did not cast spells, that Jews did not poison wells, that Gypsies did not steal infants, that a Republican president did not send English majors to graduate school as part of a scheme to soften the national resolve? It is notoriously impossible to prove a negative. I think the army of the United Nations is invoked in these contexts as a small and rare concession to standards of plausibility. No one would imagine such a thing of the United States Army. Other plausibility issues arise, of course. To the best of my knowledge, the forces of the United Nations exist primarily to be ineffectual in hopeless situations. Never mind. They are an ominous threat. We might need to shoot at them.
This is the point at which that supernumerary phenomenon I mentioned becomes a factor. There is a First Amendment, too, and it is directed toward, among other things, forbidding an establishment of religion. Yet among the self-declared constitutionalists, the word “Christian” has become the kind of test for electoral eligibility that the founders specifically meant to forbid. Is Mitt Romney a Christian? Mormonism has a pretty exotic theology, after all. Is Barack Obama a Christian? He joined a church as an adult and was unaffiliated with institutional religion before then. There was a time when we Calvinists felt the force of the terror and antagonism that can be raised against those who are not Christian in a sense other people are willing to accept. This doleful trait is being played upon in our current politics. Supernumeraries who strike out against the free exercise of religion might say, “I am no Christian.” With equal truth they might also say, “I am no American.” And a pretty large part of the crowd would probably cheer.
I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them. I have tried to live up to my association with them. And I take very seriously Jesus’ teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword. Something called Christianity has become entangled in exactly the strain of nationalism that is militaristic, ready to spend away the lives of our young, and that can only understand dissent from its views as a threat or a defection, a heresy in the most alienating and stigmatizing sense of the word. We are not the first country where this has happened. The fact that it was the usual thing in Europe, and had been for many centuries, was one great reason for attempting to separate Church and State here. Jesus’ aphorism may be taken to mean simply that those who deal in violence are especially liable to suffer violence. True enough. But death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits He shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death He can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like “everlasting.”
American exceptionalism is more imperiled in these moments than in any others, and so is organized religion. Try to persuade a skeptic of the value of religion, and he or she will mention some horror of European history carried out under the sign of the cross. They are innumerable. I have mentioned St. Bartholomew’s Day. One hears of the secularization of Europe, often in the context of socialist economics, rarely in the context of a frankly terrifying history. We must be very careful not to defeat the safeguards our laws and traditions have put in place. Christian “establishment,” the making of Christianity in effect the official religion, is the first thing its supernumeraries would try for, and the last thing its faithful should condone. As for America, the way we have of plunging into wars we weary of and abandon after a few years and a few thousand casualties, having forgotten what our object was, these wars demonstrate an overwhelming power to destroy without any comparable regard to life and liberty, to the responsibilities of power, that would be consistent with maintaining our good name. We throw away our status in the world at the urging of those who think it has nothing to do with our laws and institutions, impressed by the zeal of those supernumeraries who are convinced that it all comes down to shock and awe and boots on the ground. This notion of glory explains, I suppose, some part of the fantasizing, the make-believe wars against make-believe enemies, and a great many of the very real Kalashnikovs.
But to return to the problems of establishing the fact of decline and measuring the nature and degree of it. Astronomers use what they call “standard candles,” celestial objects of known luminosity, to calculate celestial distances. Making estimates of the relative distances between phenomena afloat in time poses similar difficulties. Cultural history has its own version of the three-body problem, since it is composed of forces and influences that interact continuously in ways that can be neither predicted nor reconstructed. It occurred to me as I was looking again at those old movies on biblical subjects, notably The Robe and Ben-Hur, that they could function as standard candles for the purposes of this discussion. They date from a time many consider the golden age of religion in America. They are utterly Christian, and addressed to a very broad public they clearly take to be both receptive to the material and very knowledgeable about it. And they were successful, critically as well as commercially. So we may take them to be fairly reliable records of the religious sensibility they spoke from and to.
The first thing to be noted is that they are in no degree, in no smallest detail, anti-Semitic. Imperial Rome is the villain, the crucifier. It is striking, considering the overwhelming potency of its presence in the Mediterranean world of the first century, how Rome has dropped out of our contemporary conversation, scholarly and other, about the events of Jesus’ life and death. The thought seems to be general now that the Passion and the Gospels as a whole are inevitably to be read as anti-Semitic, and that the Romans were, so to speak, mere spear-carriers. There is no need to consider this earlier interpretation to be revisionism brought on by postwar sensitivities, because the film genre of the Bible epic began in movie adaptations of the novel Ben-Hur, written by the former Union general and proud son of Indiana Lew Wallace, and published in 1880. Ben-Hur was the best-selling book after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and before Gone With the Wind. Its Jewish title character is as robust a heroic figure as is to be found in literature, a man who is tenderly obsessive in his love for his mother and sister and utterly loyal to his people and his faith. The film versions are faithful to this vision of him. Furthermore, they are consistent in avoiding any suggestion that he undergoes anything like a conversion experience. In the films, he encounters Jesus twice, once when he is being conveyed to the coast to be enslaved in the galleys and a young stranger gives him a drink of water, and a second time at the Crucifixion. His mother and sister are healed of leprosy by Christ but without direct contact with him. Christ brings an experience of sacred presence in the world that is perfectly consistent with the holiness to which Ben-Hur is devoted as a Jew. The princely Judah Ben-Hur is a gracious, pacific and virtuous man at the beginning of the tale and, at the end, under the influence of Christ, he is once again a gracious, pacific, and virtuous man.
This is an instance of the cultural three-body problem. Beginning even with John Chrysostom there has been cultivated an antagonism against the Jews. I need hardly say it raged through the Middle Ages and into the modern period. So, is it inevitably part of Christianity, or did the universalistic impulses of a period in American religious culture actually allow us to escape it for a blessed while? Mel Gibson’s work is not in this line of descent. In the truly miserable last movie of this line of Christian spectaculars, King of Kings, whose costume designer must have been Dr. Seuss with an enormous budget, and whose embroiderings on Scripture bring a blush to the cheek, there is nevertheless an exculpation of the crowds that shout, “Give us Barabbas.” In this telling, Barabbas is a bold and effective resistance leader, whose life they value for good reason. He is also a foil for the figure of Christ, whose intervention in history is always treated as if it meant the fall of Rome in the relatively proximate future.
If the point of American yearnings for our past is to recover a religious culture that was uniquely ours, how do we deal with the many pasts that have come with immigration or that we have accepted as our share in a part of Western history? Must we not be a little careful about proceeding without inquiring into the emergence of our highly particular religious culture? It is a theological position no longer widely held that allows the narrative of Ben-Hur to be what it is. These days people read the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, to condemn them, if they read them at all. This is a change from the days of Lew Wallace, and a return to the Middle Ages, in effect. A vast labor of scholarship and preaching, carried on over many generations, lay behind the reverence with which Americans in the 19th century regarded the Old Testament. All that has been put aside and forgotten. So the argument implicit in the novel and the films, that the Testaments are all one fabric, is no longer sustainable or even of much interest. These Christian artifacts, given to and received by a Christian culture, erase distinctions of a kind that many people now insist on, as if piety were a matter of delineation and exclusion. Once these delineations begin, there is no end to them. They spill over into anxieties about who is really Christian, who is Christian enough, tests that, as I have said, the Reformed traditions failed persistently and catastrophically in most of Europe. For Lew Wallace and his immense readership on the other hand, and for his filmmaking heirs and successors, it would appear that a Jew is Christian enough. In 19th-century America and after, there was a strong strain of what was called even then Christian liberalism. In our day the very phrase is a driven leaf. All in all, with the loss of interest in our own actual past, the loss of interest in antiquity as well as in Scripture, nostalgia is most certainly a doomed enterprise. We can’t get there from here. Any real attempt at return would mean more rigour in the seminaries, more depth and learning in the pulpits, and more meditation in the pews on the fact that God loves the world, not just the little islets of right thought we might hope he favours.
One more aspect of Lew Wallace’s novel and the films is worth considering. The fascinations of Rome, its power and wealth, its self-worship and self-confidence, its discipline, are set over against the life and death of an obscure and powerless man in an occupied province. Power is brutal in this world, and the question is, What can stand against it? Since they are Christian films, the answer is familiar to us—gentleness, generosity, love, restraint, and, of course, the vision and faith that make these things possible. Under the new regime of Christ, an army of resistance is disbanded though Rome still rules. The Roman tribune who is known to have been in charge at the Crucifixion is welcomed into the Christian community even before he acknowledges his role. Justifiable homicide is confessed as a sin. Vengeance is forgotten, and courage is expressed in the refusal to press advantage or to have recourse to violence.
All the weakness of Christ is to be understood as a great act of divine restraint, of course. If the reality of the moment were known, glorious Rome would be seen to flaunt mortal and trivial threats in the face of God Almighty. So do we all, insofar as any power we have as human beings transgresses the will of God. This great restraint has a lovelier name – grace. It is not the will of God that anyone should be lost. And if God loves those who hate him and despitefully use him – Jesus says we are to be like God in this – then we also had better be careful to show them the patience, the restraint, the grace that he wills for them. This is an instance in which, for us, the fear of God should cast out every other fear.
It is a moving thing to watch these vivid ghosts of iconic actors, most of whom we have seen to their graves long since. There they are, vivid with the beauty of youth, agile and deft and light on their feet. The lissome Jean Simmons dead at 80, Charlton Heston at 85. For all the art that lets us keep their images, it is as true as it ever was that “golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” At almost any earlier moment we would have taken a moral to heart from all this, that in good time absolutely everything will be pried from our cold, dead hands. And then, in the words of the parable, whose will it be? There is a little taunt in the fact that so much outlives us. Our very ignorance and neglect is carried on through time to impoverish later generations. Let us imagine that the most responsible gun owner on earth has a collection of beautiful weapons under lock and key, there only to be admired. He will die in due course, and his guns will be immune to time and change, on any future day brought to a high gleam with just a little polishing. And whose will they be? Let us imagine an estate sale. I’ve seen my neighbors’ cherished souvenirs pass into the roadside economy of trinkets and oddments. Presumably by such routes guns show up at gun shows. Or let us imagine a nephew or grandson whose delusions might otherwise have been only his and his family’s sorrow, but which become a disaster because one of those beautiful weapons comes into his hands. Whose will they be? In the nature of the case, because of the mortality of human beings and the immortality of these weapons, this same question will come down through generations. “Posterity” is a word we no longer use, though, according to the preamble, the Constitution was written with it in mind. And in fact America itself, and Christianity insofar as it is sustained by our mortal love and loyalty, can only be thought of as living if it can be passed on to other generations. We owe it to them to be calm and clear, to hold fast to what is good, and to hate the thought that we may leave behind an impoverished or a lethal heritage.