During election season you can count on candidates to vie for the “loves America most” moniker. Being perceived as down on America, at home or abroad, is a path to a lost election. We saw this in 2004, when the release of John Kerry’s testimony on the supposed atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers in Vietnam hurt him significantly in the polls. We are seeing it again now. In Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney again accused President Obama of going on an “apology tour”, where the President supposedly took it upon himself to apologize for most of America’s foreign policy over the past decade (while slighting our closest ally, Israel). The telling aspect of this exchange was not Governor Romney’s accusation, but President Obama’s response. Rather than explaining his opposition to an American foreign policy that “dictates to other nations”, or talking about the evils of unjustified foreign wars or neo-colonialism, President Obama denied that he apologized for anything and affirmed his belief that America is absolutely indispensible as a force for good in the world. Mr. Romney, for his part, said that America is the hope of the earth.
The rhetoric on both sides is strong here, and conservatives need to accept most of the blame for how indiscriminate and apparently inevitable this rhetoric is. We are fond of pointing out the “anti-American” rhetoric of many on the Left, yet we often seem unwilling to acknowledge that there is an opposite extreme. I am certainly guilty of this.
John Piper and Doug Wilson have already pointed out that this language amounts to a kind of soft idolatry, ascribing to American military and political power a role that once belonged to the Gospel. Now instead of sending missionaries into foreign lands to convert the “heathen” to Christ, we send political pressure in its many forms to ensure that the heathen (whose own religious beliefs we refuse to interfere with in the name of pluralism) does what is in the American state’s best interests.
Now of course I have to clarify. I am not speaking about the use of government per se. America is no Theocracy, and the role of the state is not to spread the Gospel. I am speaking to individual Conservative Christians and the policies they support most vocally. Favoring a strong military to help ensure international harmony (or “peace through strength”) is not bad in itself. But we need to be measured in our rhetoric. We should push back when a Presidential candidate talks about America in unmistakably Christological terms. At the risk of sounding utopian, our hope of world peace and universal redemption should be grounded in the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. This means we should be more concerned with saving souls under condemnation, not creating societies where “moderate” Muslims and Hindus will build McDonald’s and Starbucks. Energies and resources should be spent putting a Bible in every hand, not an iPhone.
Lest I sound down on America, let me add an encouraging caveat. First, it must be admitted that both candidates were only speaking in political terms, and there is no doubt that America has been, on the whole, a force for good in the world. I only want to caution how we speak about America’s role in the world and what aspects of our foreign influence we choose to emphasize. Our nation was once the greatest launching pad for missionaries before it was the greatest launching pad for F-22 fighters.
Second, the increase of America’s military and economic influence, while not the primary “hope of the earth”, should not be totally disparaged toward that end. A strong American military presence throughout the world would aid the church’s missionary work, not to force conversions, but to protect missionaries from the retaliation and violence of intolerant states. Moreover, the spread of some non-religious aspects of American society and influence is not all bad. Putting an iPhone in the hand of every non-Westerner should not be confused with cultural salvation, but an iPhone would connect a new believer in Pakistan or China with a entire world’s worth of evangelistic and educational resources.
In short, America can indeed be one hope of the earth in a very limited sense, only insofar as its influence is used to protect and aid those who go forth and proclaim the true hope of the earth.