by Douglas Wilson
This essay was originally published in the June 2005 issue of Chronicles, a paleoconservative magazine of American culture published by the Rockford Institute.
Let us begin by assuming that we agree that Islam is inherently militant. The words Muslim and Islam are derived from the Arabic word for “submission.” Submission to the absolute authority of Allah is essential. The heart of Islam is submission to the central credo that there is only one god, Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. At the center of all Islamic thought is the driving necessity of submission to power. Christians should understand that the Koran is a revelation of Allah’s will and not a giving of Allah himself. Allah is unknowable by creatures. He may be obeyed, but he cannot be known. This is in radical distinction to the Christian Faith, where the central act of obedience is to know God by faith in His revealed Son.
This religion of total submission is very different from the emerging (and polytheistic) American empire that is currently in conflict with radical Islam. It seems strange to most Americans to speak of an American empire, but an acknowledgement of the facts is long overdue. Americans are willing to admit that our nation is a superpower, and, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it happens that we are the sole remaining superpower. But, for all that, we still think of ourselves as a reluctant superpower. For numerous reasons, this is not quite true. As Charles Beard once noted, empires are not built in fits of absent-mindedness. In American Empire, his compelling treatment of this subject, Andrew Bacevich notes that nothing is served by denying the facts. And facts they are, stubborn as usual. America has entered her imperium.
There are two different kinds of empire, however. The first kind is ideological, as the attempt at Marxist empire was. The god of such systems is overtly solitary. Things are run by the Party, the Party line is put out by the Newspaper, and ideological lockstep is the order of the day. The grand idea, whatever it is, is necessarily “unitarian.”
The second kind of empire is an economic empire, as ancient Rome was. America is becoming such an economic, pragmatic empire, only without the formalization of proconsuls and tributary states. In other words, American hegemony is being exerted with a great deal more finesse than was seen with the old-fashioned empires, but our cultural influence, economic domination, and military presence are not any less real for all that. We may call it “global leadership,” but this does not alter what is actually happening on the ground. You can still get a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt from just about anywhere, and the U.S. Marines will help to keep it that way.
In many ways, economic empires can be far more benign than the empires built and run by ideologues. The commies wanted to haul us off to the Gulag and take all our stuff. The Americans just want the opportunity to sell us a Windows upgrade. Rightly understood, free trade can be a great blessing and benefit. Empires built by merchants are generally not the world-class human-rights disasters that ideological empires are. At the same time, they are empires, and this means the use of force to protect future sales. Establishing democracies may be the stated goal, but establishing markets is a close corollary. Nevertheless, by God’s common grace, empires of this kind can provide the Church with multiple opportunities. The Apostle Paul was not at all hesitant to use the perks of empire — from roads to citizenship — as he sought to establish churches upon the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Neither should we be shy about it.
With such opportunities, however, come many temptations. What does it profit a man, Jesus asked, if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul? Gaining the whole world is what empire is all about. Seeking first the Kingdom of God is what the Christian Faith is all about. The early returns do not indicate that American Christians are preparing themselves to see the discrepancy.
The public worship of such economic empires always includes an affinity for the pantheon. Many gods are necessary to keep all of the customers happy. A good example of this kind of thing was the interfaith deism on display at the National Cathedral after the September 11 attack. The worship was self-consciously polytheistic, and, consequently, participating Muslims and Christians were both compromised. The real god of this worship service was the god called America, the guarantor of economic stability.
There was no real commitment to any of the gods honored or invoked, but only a commitment to the bottom line. While ideological empire is overtly unitarian, economic empires have a unifying principle, too, though it is less obvious. Think of them as gigantic yard sales, with everything imaginable laid out for the shoppers. The most apparent thing about the yard sale is the incredible diversity. “Look!” one might say, getting out of the car, “Pluralism!” The avid yard saler can buy canning jars, water skis, jigsaw puzzles, tablecloths, and so on. Even here, however, there is a unifying principle — there is only one cash box.
In economic empires, the unifying principle is the economic vitality of the empire itself — the cash box. This is the implicit unitarian god of the system, the god that will be defended against blasphemy. The diversity and tolerance are only apparent in those things that are for sale; the right to sell anything is a right that will be defended to the death.
This also reveals why the theological currents within the Church have been running the way they have throughout the course of the last century. Despite all Her problems, the Church in America is still a thriving force in our public life. It is therefore important to do something that will prepare our nation’s millions of Christians for their assigned role in the empire. That “something” is to neutralize the Faith by making it just one more item in the yard sale. What is the unifying principle behind our current theological battles? What do openness theology, seeker-sensitive worship, and dumb evangelical T-shirts all have in common? All of them represent a shift from the worship of Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords, to Jesus, competitor for market share. Modern evangelicals want the shoppers to buy Jesus instead of the old lampshade, and they do not care who runs the cash box.
The American commitment to the bottom line is real and abiding. It would, therefore, be a great error to suppose that America’s conflict with Iraq has been a conflict tantamount to a war between the Christian Faith and Islam. This is not a second Battle of Tours. Something far more complicated is going on. In recent years, the United States has armed and/or tacitly supported Muslims in their conflicts with Christians in Indonesia, the Sudan, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc. We have also supported Jews against Muslims (and Christians) in Israel. We have also supported Muslim against Muslim. The reason for all of this is ultimately the bottom line, Mammon, America’s great idol. This includes obtaining resources, such as oil, and establishing markets in which we may compete — otherwise known as “spreading democracy.” Because Money is our great idol, we want all the customers to stay contented, and one good way to do this is by honoring their household deities — the kind of gods that can be kept on a shelf.
The one rule is that all the customers must go along with this and not complain when the economic empire honors the tiny gods of the other customers. If we agree to have our God demoted, the merchants of empire will see to it that all the other traditional gods are demoted, too. The empire’s name for this kind of unctuous flattery is pluralism.
Think of the empire as a huge Wal-Mart that sets aside Mondays as Christianity Day; Tuesday, as Hindu Day; Wednesday, as Buddhism Day; and so forth. But every day is Money Day.
Of course, America is largely despised throughout the Muslim world for her residual Christianity, and this places Americans who want to be consistent Christians in an awkward position. We defend our civilization from this Islamic attack from outside because we are a Christian people. We critique our civilization from within because we are not a Christian people. Combining these two, we see that we must call our people back to our earlier covenants, the covenants we have broken. We are like ancient Israel just before the book of the Law was found in the days of Josiah. The Gospel message is constant: Repent and believe.
This means that consistent American Christians must refuse to worship any god within the pantheon, including our own. Within the pantheon, our own God retains His name but has become an idol. This demand places consistent Christians at complete odds with pluralism, our civic polytheism. Christians may certainly accept the pluralistic society around them as a fact, just as Saint Paul knew that Athens was full of idols. By contrast, the pluralist push is for American Christians to accept this state of affairs as principled and desirable.
It is certainly lawful for Christians to occupy various positions within idolatrous empires. Daniel was the chancellor of the University of Babylon; Joseph was Pharaoh’s chief of staff; and the centurion that Jesus praised beyond all the men of Israel was a military man in a pagan military machine. Such participation is possible, but it presents great challenges. One is the need to refuse to worship any of the other gods in the pantheon or to accept that it is legitimate for others to worship them. The stopping point is always on the question of worship, a point that was quite clear to Daniel’s three friends. They cooperated with their enforced scholarships to the University of Babylon, but they would not bow down and worship. It is lawful for a Christian to be in President Bush’s Cabinet, but he must refuse to participate in any way in the jumbled and corrupting world of syncretism.
In order to honor God’s name in such civil settings, Christians need to recover a right approach to Christian worship. We will not get out of this mess by seeking to “recover” the Constitution. We should not idolize the Constitution but should regard it as an exemplary document, now deceased. As one writer has observed, our current rulers treat the Constitution as the Queen Mum of American politics. She gets trundled out on the balcony periodically to wave at the crowds, but she has no real power. Case in point: We went into Iraq to topple the regime of another country. This was an old-fashioned war, pure and simple. The Constitution says that Congress, not the President, declares such wars. The Constitution, for all intents and purposes, is a dead letter, although certain parts of it are still arbitrarily observed because they are part of our unwritten constitution. The best thing would be to quit pretending.
Still, to acknowledge the development of an American empire, even a polytheistic one, is not to say that everything that comes out of it has to be bad. God extends His common grace in all sorts of ways. Such an empire is not necessarily wicked in everything it does, but a consistent Christian cannot give any fundamental religious allegiance to it. And, as American Christians participate (necessarily) in the growing fight between the open markets desired by our government and the closed minds desired by Islam, we must not see this battle as one between light and darkness. This is not a religious war, except in the sense that it is a war between two idols, Mammon and Allah. Christians may be present in the fray — there are many believers in the American military — but all Christians everywhere must not give way to the pressure to conform to the prevailing idolatry.
Neither may Americans on the home front give way to a quasireligious patriotic fervor whenever the shooting starts. I have seen more than one red-white-and-blue example of blasphemy in a Christian bookstore. One was a clever rendition of the ubiquitous “Jesus Saves,” but with the letters run together in a string of nine — Jesusaves. The middle three letters — usa — were inappropriately done up in red, white, and blue. But the worst image I have seen in this respect was one with Jesus holding a shepherd’s hook and extending His left hand in a compassionate gesture. Draped over His head, like a prayer shawl or something, was an American flag. What is to be done with people who think up things like this? One of the reforms that Christendom desperately needs is a return to stocks in the town square, with a ready supply of ripened vegetables and dead cats.
An important word of commendation is needed here. One thing that radical Muslims can do is follow an argument. If Allah is god, then other gods are not. It is precisely this ability to follow an argument that brings them into conflict with Christians who also can follow an argument. If the Triune God of Scripture is God, then Allah is not.
Radical Islam has not succumbed to the Hellenistic dualism that relegates faith to an internal compartment of the heart and therefore allows secularism to reign elsewhere. There was a time when Christians (considered generally) understood this as well, and the results of that understanding were called Christendom. The Christian Faith was thought of as a package deal. It was a different package from Islam, but they had this in common — they were both packages. Because of this common understanding of the total nature of all religious claims, and because Christendom and the realm of Islam bordered each other, the result was conflict and war over the course of many centuries.
If a Muslim who accepts the relegation of Allah to one option among many in our pluralistic marketplace is a compromised Muslim, then it follows that a Christian who accepts the same thing is a compromised Christian. A consistent Christian and a consistent Muslim are, in a strange way, in a state of agreement when they are at war. And when they agree to serve the idol of Mammon together, each is at war with his own foundational assumptions. Religious claims are total. If the Triune God is God, then serve Him. If Allah is god, serve him. If Mammon is god, then get ye to the mall.
Christianity proclaims the crown rights of Jesus Christ over all creation. There is no realm where His authority and glory are not felt. Jesus Himself declared this in the Great Commission, when He told His disciples that all authority in Heaven and on Earth had been given to Him (Matthew 28: 18-20). A key word in this commission is the word therefore. It is not enough for Christians to go: They must “therefore go.” The basis for the task is the fact that universal authority has been given to Jesus Christ, declared with power to be the Son of God by His Resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). In the second Psalm, God promised the Son that all He had to do was ask, and God would make the nations His inheritance, the ends of the earth His possession.
Because this is true, and only because this is true, the nations belong to Him. He purchased Saudi Arabia with His Blood, as well as Iraq, Libya, and Iran. He requires us to be disciples to these nations, baptizing them and teaching them what it means to be a Christian nation. Of course, we cannot teach them that until we know what it means ourselves. And this means that we have some idols to topple at home before taking the show on the road. •
Douglas Wilson is pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, senior fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College, and the author of several books, including Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth, which he coauthored with Douglas Jones.
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