Are Americans God’s Chosen People?
Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Prothero explore question
In the video above, watch a discussion between Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Prothero about religion’s role in American politics, held at the GSU on October 27, 2010.
The question in our headline is intentionally provocative. And while the dictum holds that you should never discuss religion and politics in polite company, that’s the topic two nationally prominent BU professors—one of religion, the other of international relations and military policy—tackled October 27 in their first public conversation.
Andrew Bacevich, who describes himself as a Catholic conservative, and Stephen Prothero, who dubs his religious outlook “confused,” teach, respectively, in the College of Arts & Sciences international relations and religion departments. Both published books this year challenging status-quo thinking. Bacevich’s Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books) is a call by this former Army colonel and West Point graduate for downsizing our military ambitions and spending. Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World (HarperOne) is a primer on major religious traditions and challenges the feel-good notion that all are benignly similar.
In their Live Chat, moderated last month by Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, they pondered the role of religious impulses in American foreign policy. Is it a salutary role? In a pre-Chat interview, Prothero cites two examples of presidents making policy as if Americans were God’s chosen: Woodrow Wilson, who said the United States should enter World War I to make the world “safe for democracy,” and George W. Bush, who considered Afghanistan and Iraq the vanguard of an American-led democratization of people around the world.
“Why is that up to us?” Prothero wonders, echoing Bacevich’s call in his book and in other writing for a more humble foreign policy.
In interviews, both men have said religious assumptions will always inform our thinking to some extent. “Religion is pervasive—part of the human experience,” says Bacevich. While disclaiming expertise in religious matters, he says that when it comes to making policy, “we should exercise great care to avoid distorting or overstating religion’s role.”
But by Prothero’s reckoning, it would be hard to overstate religion’s role in U.S. foreign policy, which “has for some time been informed by the view that Americans are God’s chosen people.” That’s not entirely a bad thing, he says, as the idea of “American exceptionalism” pushed the country at times toward justice. “But in recent times, this notion of a covenant between God and America has led us to imagine that God is on our side, no matter what we do.”
At least one deeply spiritual American, Abraham Lincoln, took a humbler tack. Amid the slaughter of the Civil War, in his second inaugural address he famously noted that while both North and South “read the same Bible and pray to the same God … the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.