James K.A. Smith: The God of Americanism

A lot can hang on a preposition. Mitt Romney first promised a speech about his faith, then backed off to offer a broader take on America’s religious landscape and its heritage of religious freedom. So rather than offering an apologetic for his own faith, Romney instead offered an account of “Faith in America.” But the speech has me wondering whether there’s a difference; more specifically, I wonder what’s at stake in that “in.” From where I sit, it looks like Romney’s “own” faith is faith in America. Americans needn’t worry about Romney’s Mormonism because, at the end of the day, the faith that trumps all others is “Americanism.”

Don’t get me wrong: this religion has a long and illustrious history (documented in David Gelertner’s recent book, AMERICANISM: THE FOURTH GREAT WESTERN RELIGION). It is a noble faith that feeds off the blood of its martyrs – in particular “the greatest generation” to which Romney first appeals — who made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of the religion’s highest value: freedom (understood, I should note, in largely negative terms as freedom of choice). Indeed, “freedom” and “liberty” are the mantras of this faith, and Romney’s speech invokes these shibboleths no less than thirty times (God or “the Creator” or “divine author” comes in at a close second with 21 references). And Romney doesn’t fail to allude to the great artifacts of this religion. Americanism has its own sacred documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), its own saints (the Founding Fathers), and has even birthed its own cathedrals and grottos (just stroll the National Mall).

So if Mitt Romney was looking to quell concerns about his religion, I think he’s performed admirably! He has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that he is an “Americanist” like almost every other presidential candidate (from I don’t care which side of the aisle). He is an American before he is a Mormon. He is primarily interested in conserving America’s role as a hegemon (“preserving American leadership” is the guise under which he segues to talk about religion). And he enthusiastically adopts Sam Adams’s axiom that it’s not the specifics of piety that matters, but rather whether one is a “patriot.”

If conservatives were worried about his Mormonism, I think Romney has laid his cards on the table and said to them: “Look, don’t worry. Mormonism doesn’t prevent me from being an Americanist.  We’re brothers in that cause.”

In a way, this is refreshingly honest theology. In fact, if one pays close attention to the actual theology at work here — that is, if one starts asking just which God is being invoked — one finds that it is a particular deity: “the divine ‘author of liberty.’” The god of the culture warriors has always been a generic god of theism (precisely like the god of the Founding Fathers): a “God who gave us liberty” (to do what we want). The “Creator” is a granter of inalienable rights and unregulated freedoms, a god who shares and ordains “American values.” If evangelical culture warriors had worries about Romney’s faith, his jeremiad today should confirm that he pledges allegiance to the same “God of liberty” that they do. We’re all Americanists now.

But I hope Mr. Romney and his culture warrior friends (whether on the right or left) won’t be surprised if some of us find it hard to believe in Americanism and its God of liberty. Some of us just can’t muster faith in the generic theism that is preached on the campaign trail, whether from the right or left. Some of us Christians have a hard time reconciling the Almighty, all-powerful, law-giving God of liberty with the crucified suffering servant born in a barn and executed at the hands of the elite. Some of us are trying to figure out what it means to be a people who follow one who relinquished his rights rather than asserted them, who considered submission a higher value than freedom. We serve a God-man who wasn’t concerned with “preserving leadership” and the hegemony of the empire’s gospel of freedom, but rather was crushed by its machinations for proclaiming and embodying another gospel.

We’re not out to win a culture war; we’re just trying to be witnesses. We’re not out to “transform” culture by marshaling the engine of the state; we’re trying to carve out little foretastes of a coming kingdom. And so we can’t share Mr. Romney’s evangelistic zeal for the god of Americanism.

James K.A. Smith is an associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College and a fellow at Calvin’s Center for Social Research. His books include INTRODUCING RADICAL ORTHODOXY (Baker, 2004).