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To ascribe a special grace to America is outrageous, as outrageous as the idea of special grace itself. Why shouldn’t everyone be saved? Why aren’t all individuals, nations, peoples and cultures equally deserving? History seems awfully unfair: half or more of the world’s 7,000 or so languages will be lost by 2100, linguists warn, and at present fertility rates Italian, German, Ukrainian, Hungarian and a dozen other major languages will die a century or so later. The agony of dying nations rises in reproach to America’s unheeding prosperity.
An old joke divides the world into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. America is one of the things that sorts the world into polar opposites. To much of the world, America is the Great Satan, the source of the plague of globalization, the bane of the environment, the Grim Reaper of indigenous cultures, the carrier of soulless industrialism, and the perpetrator of imperial adventures. To hundreds of millions of others it is an object of special grace. Whether one subscribes to the concept or not, America’s grace defines one of the world’s great dividing lines, perhaps its most important.
Violent antipathy to America measures the triumph of the American principle, and the ascendance of America’s influence in the world. America’s enemies make more noise than her friends, but her friends are increasing faster than her enemies. America’s influence in the world leapt as result of her victory in three world wars, including the fall of communism in 1989. Arguably, America is ascending even faster today, despite the reverses in its economic position and the strains on its military resources.
There are nearly a billion more Christians in the world today than in 1970, including a hundred million Chinese, most of whom adhere to the House Church movement on the American evangelical model. Denominations of American origin, notably Pentecostals, led the evangelization of a quarter of a billion Africans in the past generation. There are nearly 100 million additional Latin American Christians, of whom perhaps 40 million belong to Pentecostal or other Protestant denominations centered in the United States. Philip Jenkins has chronicled the spiritual transformation of the Global South, I reviewed his most recent book (A new Jerusalem in sub-Saharan Africa Asia Times Online, Dec 12, 2006.)
It may be outrageous, but it is not far-fetched, to speak of a special grace for America, because hundreds of millions of people around the world look toward such a special grace, in the precise sense of the word.
No one is more keenly aware that all will not be saved than the fragile peoples of the Global South. Christianity, it might be argued, is garnering in a greater proportion of the world’s population than at any time since late antiquity precisely because conditions in so many parts of the world resemble late antiquity. China alone is subject to the greatest migrations in human history, adding to its cities 10 or 15 million people each year. The Great Extinction of the peoples makes short work of the hope that all shall be saved, for those who cling to blood, soil, ethnicity and hearth-gods will perish.
“Special grace is the grace by which God redeems, sanctifies, and glorifies his people,” in the Wikipedia definition. The fate of individuals cannot be abstracted from the fate of nations. We derive our notion of salvation from the concept of Israel’s special grace, God’s eruption into human history to redeem his people from Egyptian bondage. From the Jewish idea of national redemption comes the Judeo-Christian hope of resurrection, as Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson explained in their recent book (Life and death in the Bible Asia Times Online, May 28, 2008). Individual salvation means to participate in the salvation of the People of God, as Benedict XVI emphasized in his last encyclical, Spe Salvi.
What is this special grace for America that, if it is not the Desire of the Nations of which Isaiah wrote, nonetheless has become the desire of so many nations?
Abraham Lincoln, the next best thing to an American prophet, called his countrymen “this almost chosen people.” Most Americans still would agree with him. Americans may not love their country more than other peoples, but they love it in a different way. This love is visible at any small-town celebration of Independence Day, in the tearful eyes of older people. They have not forgotten the humiliations that drove their antecedents out of their countries of origin European states always have been the instruments of an elite; Americans believe their government, is there to defend them against the predation of the powerful.
For all its flaws and fecklessness, America remains in the eyes of its people an attempt to order a nation according to divine law rather than human custom, such that all who wish to live under divine law may abandon their ethnicity and make themselves Americans. The rights of Americans are held to be inalienable precisely because they are a grant from God, not the consensus of the sociologists or the shifting custom of a particular historical period. Ridiculous as this appears to the secular world, it is embraced by Americans as fervently as it was during the Founding. Even worse for the secularists, it has raised a following in the hundreds of millions in the Global South among people who also would rather be ruled by the divine law that holds their dignity to be sacred, than by the inherited tyranny of traditional society.
If America has been given a special grace, it is because its founders as well as every generation of its people have taken as the basis of America’s legitimacy the Judeo-Christian belief that God loves every individual, and most of all the humblest. Rights under law, from the American vantage point, are sacred, not utilitarian, convenient or consensual. America does not of course honor the sanctity of individual rights at all times and in all circumstances, but the belief that rights are sacred rather than customary or constructed never has been abandoned.
America’s founders did not anticipate that all would be saved. On the contrary: when the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from Delft in 1620, they fled a Europe already two years into a war that would last for thirty years and kill off nearly half the population of central Europe. America was at its first settlement and is today a refuge and a beacon for those who seek special grace, that is, to place God’s law above custom. America is not a new Promised Land and her inhabitants are not a Chosen People – “almost chosen,” perhaps, as Lincoln said.
To those who despise religion and worship science, the idea of special grace is an outrage, for science is neutral with respect to all peoples and all times. Since Immanuel Kant’s boast that he could devise a constitution for “a race of devils, if only they be rational,” the professors of political science and sociology have wanted the authority to order the world’s problems according to their image of man: economic man, political man, anything but man in the image of God.
From a secular viewpoint, moreover, the notion of special grace is doubly horrible, for if only those who obtain it will be saved, all those who do not will be lost. What of the soon-to-be-lost peoples of the world? Shouldn’t the application of scientific principles set them straight and make the world into a neat row of little imitations of Belgium? There is nothing in the cookbook to prevent the majority of the world’s peoples from wishing themselves out of existence. Political science stands mute before the disappearance of the desire to live of cultures that have crashed against the modern world.
It is an irony that globalization itself has provided the means to a handful of endangered ethnicities to assert themselves, sometimes in the most grotesque fashion. Forty million Latin Americans have joined Christian denominations of American origin. Perhaps a tenth that number adhere to indigenous movements seeking to revive the loyalties of the pre-Colombian past.
Bolivia, one of Latin America’s poorest nations, in 2005 elected as president an Aymara Indian named Evo Morales. National Geographic magazine portrays President Morales in its July 2008 issue, telling a crowd in a remote village, “We are Aymara, Quechua, Guarani – the legitimate proprietors of this noble Bolivian land!” Without the slightest sense of irony, the magazine adds that Morales came to politics via the coca growers’ association, that is, fighting the American war on drugs. The indigenous peoples led by Morales demand not the right to grow potatoes undisturbed in their native lands, but rather for the privilege of exporting illegal drugs to the United States.
There exists a struggle for indigenous rights, in short, precisely because the indigenous have found something specific to fight for, namely the drug trade. Indefensible as the mistreatment of the indigenous might have been by the Spanish conquerors and their successors, the indigenous movement in Latin America is an excrescence of globalization, rather than its enemy. We hardly need talk in this context of radical Islam, whose existence in the absence of the global oil market is unimaginable. Without America’s global success, the undead of traditional society could not give voice to their rancor – much less finance it.
To love America is to acknowledge its special grace, namely that a nation founded not on ethnicity, language, or culture but rather upon the sanctity of individual rights will prevail, while the remains of traditional society are borne away by the current. Those who love America and seek to emulate her, including hundreds of millions of new Christians in the Global South, well understand her uniqueness. To demand success of every leftover of traditional society must succeed is an expression of envy against America’s special grace.
That is what I meant by asserting last February that Barack Obama hates America (Obama’s women reveal his secret Asia Times Online, Feb 26, 2008) . Recently, blogger Steve Sailer called attention to a passage in Obama’s book Dreams of My Father that explains the source of this hatred:
… As we walked back to the car, we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly colored sweaters, two aging white mannequins now painted black in the window. The store was poorly lit, but toward the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her.
The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betel nut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms … I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld [the Chicago housing project where Obama engaged in community organizing]. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself.
The coherence of traditional society imposes a structure on life, a structure so rigid that such societies cannot adapt to change and must crumble before encroaching empire. In return for the sanctity of individual rights, Americans are freed from the constraints of traditional society and made responsible for their own actions. For an American presidential candidate to refer to traditional society as the model for the solution to American problems has no precedent. It is one thing to denounce American errors while upholding American principles. Never before has America considered electing a president who prefers the alternative, and that might just be the most dangerous thing to happen to the United States since its Civil War.