Crisis of Christian Identity,

Putting On Our Democratic Armour

excerpted from the book

Democracy Matters

Winning the Fight Against Imperialism

by Cornell West

Penguin Books, 2004, paper


The religious threats to democratic practices abroad are much easier to talk about than those at home. Just as demagogic and antidemocratic fundamentalisms have gained too much prominence in both Israel and the Islamic world, so too has a fundamentalist strain of Christianity gained far too much power in our political system, and in the hearts and minds of citizens. This Christian fundamentalism is exercising an undue influence over our government policies, both in the Middle East crisis and in the domestic sphere, and is violating fundamental principles enshrined in the Constitution; it is also providing support and "cover" for the imperialist aims of empire. The three dogmas that are leading to the imperial devouring of democracy in America-freemarket fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism-are often justified by the religious rhetoric of this Christian fundamentalism. And perhaps most ironically-and sadly-this fundamentalism is subverting the most profound, seminal teachings of Christianity, those being that we should live with humility, love our neighbors, and do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Therefore, even as we turn a critical eye on the fundamentalisms at play in the Middle East, the genuine democrats and democratic Christians among us must unite in opposition to this hypocritical, antidemocratic fundamentalism at home. The battle for the soul of American democracy is, in large part, a battle for the soul of American Christianity, because the dominant forms of Christian fundamentalism are a threat to the tolerance and openness necessary for sustaining any democracy.

Surveys have shown that 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians, 7 percent expect the Second Coming of Christ, and 40 percent say they speak to the Christian God on intimate terms at least twice a week.

As the Christian church became increasingly corrupted by state power, religious rhetoric was often used to justify imperial aims and conceal the prophetic heritage of Christianity. Immediately after his conversion, Constantine targeted numerous Christian sects for annihilation-such as the Gnostics and other groups that questioned the books of the Old Testament-as he consolidated power by creating one imperial version of Christianity. The corruption of a faith fundamentally based on tolerance and compassion by the strong arm of imperial authoritarianism invested Christianity with an insidious schizophrenia with which it has been battling ever since. This terrible merger of church and state has been behind so many of the church's worst violations of Christian love and justice-from the barbaric crusades against Jews and Muslims, to the horrors of the Inquisition and the ugly bigotry against women, people of color, and gays and lesbians.

This same religious schizophrenia has been a constant feature of American Christianity. The early American branch of the Christian movement-the Puritans-consisted of persecuted victims of the British empire in search of liberty and security. On the one hand, they laid the foundations for America's noble antiimperialist struggle against the British empire. On the other hand, they enacted the imperialist subordination of Amerindians. Their democratic sensibilities were intertwined with their authoritarian sentiments. The American democratic experiment would have been inconceivable without the fervor of Christians, yet strains of Constantinianism were woven into the fabric of America's Christian identity from the start. Constantinian strains of American Christianity have been on the wrong side of so many of our social troubles, such as the dogmatic justification of slavery and the parochial defense of women's inequality. It has been the prophetic Christian tradition, by contrast, that has so often pushed for social justice.

When conservative Christians argue today for state-sponsored religious schools, when they throw their tacit or more overt support behind antiabortion zealots or homophobic crusaders who preach hatred (a few have even killed in the name of their belief), they are being Constantinian Christians. These Constantinian Christians fail to appreciate their violation of Christian love and justice because Constantinian Christianity in America places such a strong emphasis on personal conversion, individual piety, and philanthropic service and has lost its fervor for the suspicion of worldly authorities and for doing justice in the service of the most vulnerable among us, which are central to the faith. These energies are rendered marginal to their Christian identity.

Most American Constantinian Christians are unaware of their imperialistic identity because they do not see the parallel between the Roman empire that put Jesus to death and the American empire that they celebrate. As long as they can worship freely and pursue the American dream, they see the American government as a force for good and American imperialism as a desirable force for spreading that good. They proudly profess their allegiance to the flag and the cross not realizing that just as the cross was a bloody indictment of the Roman empire, it is a powerful critique of the American empire, and they fail to acknowledge that the cozy relation between their Christian leaders and imperial American rulers may mirror the intimate ties between the religious leaders and imperial Roman rulers who crucified their Savior.

I have no doubt that most of these American Constantinian Christians are sincere in their faith and pious in their actions. But they are relatively ignorant of the crucial role they play in sponsoring American imperial ends. Their understanding of American history is thin and their grasp of Christian history is spotty, which leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by Christian leaders and misinformation by imperial rulers. The Constantinian Christian support of the pervasive disinvestment in urban centers and cutbacks in public education and health care, as well as their emphatic defense of the hard-line policies of the Israeli government, has much to do with the cozy alliance of Constantinian Christian leaders with the political elites beholden to corporate interests who provide shelter for cronyism. In short, they sell their precious souls for a mess of imperial pottage based on the false belief that they are simply being true to the flag and the cross. The very notion that the prophetic legacy of the grand victim of the Roman empire-Jesus Christ-requires critique of and resistance to American imperial power hardly occurs to them.

Some ... prophetic Christians have been branded radicals and faced criminal prosecution. During the national trauma of the Vietnam War, the Jesuit priests and brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan led antiwar activities, with Daniel founding the group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. The brothers organized sit-ins and teach-ins against the war and led many protests, notoriously breaking into Selective Service offices twice to remove draft records, the second time dowsing them with napalm and lighting them on fire. "The burning of paper, instead of children," Daniel wrote in explanation of their action, "when will you say no to this war?" Both brothers served time in prison for those break-ins but went on to engage in civil disobedience protests against later U.S. military interventions and the nuclear arms race.

After a lifetime of eloquent Christian activism, the Reverend William Sloan Coffin should be better known to Americans today. Chaplain of Yale University during the Vietnam War, he spoke out strongly and early against the injustice of that incursion and went on to become president of SANE/FREEZE, the largest peace and justice organization in the United States, and minister of Riverside Church in Manhattan. The author of many powerful books, including The Courage to Love and A Passion for the Possible, he once said in an interview:

I wonder if we Americans don't also have something that we should contribute, as it were, to the burial grounds of the world, something that would make the world a safer place. I think there is something in us. It is an attitude more than an idea. It lives less in the American mind than under the American skin. That is the notion that we are not only the most powerful nation in the world, which we certainly are, but that we are also the most virtuous. I think this pride is our bane and I think it is so deep-seated that it is going to take the sword of Christ's truth to do the surgical operation.

He also presciently said, "No nation, ours or any other, is well served by illusions of righteousness. All nations make decisions based on self-interest and then defend them in the name of morality."

When African slaves creatively appropriated] the Christian movement under circumstances in which it was illegal to read, write, or worship freely, the schizophrenia of American Christianity was intensified. Some prophetic white Christians be came founders of the abolitionist movement in partnership with ex-slaves, while other white Christians resorted to a Constantinian justification of the perpetuation of slavery. One's stand on slavery became a crucial litmus test to measure prophetic and Constantinian Christianity in America. The sad fact is that on this most glaring hypocrisy within American Christianity and democracy, most white Christians-and their beloved churches-were colossal failures based on prophetic criteria.

The vast majority of white American Christians supported the evil of slavery-and they did so often in the name of Jesus. When Abraham Lincoln declared in his profound Second Inaugural Address that both sides in the Civil War prayed to the same God - "Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained .... Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other"-he captured the horrible irony of this religious schizophrenia for the nation.

Black prophetic Christians-from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr.-have eloquently reminded us of the radical fissure between prophetic and Constantinian Christianity, and King's stirring Christian conviction and prophetic rhetoric fueled the democratizing movement that at last confronted the insidious intransigence of the color line. In fact, much of prophetic Christianity in America stems from the prophetic black church tradition. The Socratic questioning of the dogma of white supremacy, the prophetic witness of love and justice, and the hard-earned hope that sustains long-term commitment to the freedom struggle are the rich legacy of the prophetic black church. Yet Constantinian Christianity is so forceful that it is even making inroads into this fervent black prophetic Christianity. The sad truth is that the black church is losing its prophetic fervor in the age of the American empire. The power of the Constantinian Christian coalition must be underestimated.

... the Republican Party's realignment of American politics-with their use of racially coded issues (busing, crime, affirmative action, welfare) to appeal to southern conservatives and urban white centrists. This political shift coincided with appeals to influential Jewish neoconservatives primarily concerned with the fragile security and international isolation of the state of Israel. In particular, the sense of Jewish desperation during the Yom Kippur War of 1973-fully understandable given the threat of Jewish annihilation only thirty years after the vicious holocaust in Europe drove the unholy alliance of American Republicans, Christian evangelicals, and Jewish neoconservatives.

On the domestic front, the fierce battle over admissions and employment slots produced a formidable backlash led by Jewish neoconservatives and white conservatives against affirmative action. The right-wing coalition of Constantinian Christians and Jewish neoconservatives helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. The fact that 35 percent of the most liberal nonwhite group-American Jews-voted for Reagan was a prescient sign of what was to come. When the Reverend Jerry Faiwell of the Moral Majority received the Jabotinsky Award in 1981 in Israel, Constantinian Christianity had arrived on the international stage, with Jewish conservatism as its supporter. Imperial elites-including corporate ones with huge financial resources-here and abroad recognized just how useful organized Constantinian Christians could be for their nihilistic aims.

The rise of Constantinian Christian power in our democracy has progressed in stages. First, ecumenical groups like the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and liberal mainline denominations (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Congregationalists)-who spoke out in defense of the rights of people of color, workers, women, gays, and lesbians-were targeted. The Christian fundamentalists (with big money behind them) lashed out with vicious attacks against the prophetic Christian voices, who were branded "liberal," and worked to discredit the voices of moderation. In McCarthyist fashion, they equated the liberation theology movement, which put a limelight on the plight of the poor, with Soviet Communism. They cast liberal seminaries (especially my beloved Union Theological Seminary in New York City) as sinful havens of freaks, gays, lesbians, black radicals, and guilty white wimps. Such slanderous tactics have largely cowed the Christian Left, nearly erasing it off the public map.

The Christian fundamentalists have also tried to recruit Constantinian Christians of color in order to present a more diverse menagerie of faces to the imperial elites in the White House, Congress, state houses, and city halls, and on TV. The manipulative elites of the movement knew that this integrated alliance would attract even more financial support from big business to sustain a grassroots organizing campaign in imperial churches across the country. The veneer of diversity is required for the legitimacy of imperial rule today.

The last stage in the rise of the Constantinians was their consolidation of power by throwing their weight around with well-organized political action groups, most notably the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority. With this political coordination they gained clout, power, legitimacy, and respectability within the golden gates of the American empire-they were acknowledged as mighty movers, shakers, and brokers who had to be reckoned with in the private meetings of the plutocrats and their politicians. Imperial elites recognized just how useful the Constantinian Christians could be for their nihilistic aims. The journey for Constantinian Christians from Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 to George W. Bush's selection in 2000 has been a roaring success based on the world's nihilistic standards.

Never before in the history of the American Republic has a group of organized Christians risen to such prominence in the American empire. And this worldly success-a bit odd for a fundamentalist group with such otherworldly aspirations-has sent huge ripples across American Christendom. Power, might, size, status, and material possessions-all paraphernalia of the nihilism of the American empire-became major themes of American Christianity. It now sometimes seems that all Christians speak in one voice when in fact it is only that the loudness of the Constantinian element of American Christianity has so totally drowned out the prophetic voices. Imperial Christianity, market spirituality, money- obsessed churches, gospels of prosperity, prayers of let's- make -a- deal with God or help me turn my wheel of fortune have become the prevailing voice of American Christianity.

Philanthropy is fine, but what of justice, institutional fairness, and structural accountability?

... one of the most effective strategies of corporate marketeers has been to target the youth market with distractive amusement and saturate them with pleasurable sedatives that steer them away from engagement with issues of peace and justice. The incessant media bombardment of images (of salacious bodies and mindless violence) on TV and in movies and music convinces many young people that the culture of gratification-a quest for insatiable pleasure, endless titillation, and sexual stimulation-is the only way of being human. Hedonistic values and narcissistic identities produce emotionally stunted young people unable to grow up and unwilling to be responsible democratic citizens. The market-driven media lead many young people to think that life is basically about material toys and social status. Democratic ideas of making the world more just, or striving to be a decent and compassionate person, are easily lost or overlooked.

All systems set up to enact democracy are subject to corrupt manipulations, and that is why the public commitment to democratic involvement is so vital. Genuine, robust democracy must be brought to life through democratic individuality, democratic community, and democratic society.

From the time of that first Athenian democratic experiment in the fifth century BC to the birth of the American democratic experiment in the eighteenth century, the consolidation of elite power was the primary object of democratic revolt. This will to transform corrupted forms of elite rule into more democratic ways of life is an extraordinary force ...

The historic emergence of Athenian democracy and the Greek invention of Socratic dialogue must instruct and inspire our practice of democratic citizenship in present-day America. Athenian democracy was created by the revolt of organized peasants against the abusive power of oligarchic rulers. These peasants refused to be passive victims in the face of plutocratic policies that redistributed wealth upward-from the vast majority to the privileged few. The Greek conception of democracy elevated abused peasants into active citizens who demanded public accountability of their elected officials. Their democratic calls for land reform and the cancellation of debts to greedy elites produced an unprecedented experiment in self-government.

Democracy Matters

Home Page