American Providence: A Nation with a Mission

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Bloomsbury Academic, Oct 22, 2004 - Religion - 181 pages
The relationship between America and Christianity has never been so hotly contested as it is today. September 11, 2001 and the war on terror have had an almost schismatic impact on the Church. American Christians have been forced to ask the really hard questions about faith and politics. While some Christians would rather not ask these questions at all, they are unavoidable for a religion that seeks to speak to the whole world, with the expectation of nothing less than global transformation. Like it or not, Christians have to take a stand on the issue of America's alleged imperialism, not only because America is largely a product of the Christian imagination but also because the converse is true - the growth of Christianity worldwide is largely shaped by American values and ideals. American Providence makes the case that American Christianity is not an oxymoron. It also makes the case for a robust doctrine of providence - a doctrine that has been frequently neglected by American theologians due to their reluctance to claim any special status for the United States. Webb goes right to the heart of this reluctance, by defending the idea that American foreign policy should be seen as a vehicle of God's design for history.

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9/11 and its aftermath, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been exhaustively written about and subjected to more analysis than any single episode in American history since the Vietnam War. Their consequences will be with us for many decades to come, and it is important to understand how they fit into America's national narrative. One particularly dominant thread in that narrative is the theme of American providence - a special and unique place that America has in God's plan for the salvation of the World. Professor Webb, a distinguished theologian from Wabash College in Indiana, sets himself to the task of elucidating and enlightening the work of God's providence in the light of the events from the start of the 21st century. He examines the way that the idea of special divine providence in the history of America, and he is careful to distinguish it from political purposes to which it had often been used. In particular, he emphasizes the fact that God's providence should not be conflated with the concept of Manifest Destiny, even though the two are often portrayed as the same idea.
The writing in this book is very eloquent and scholarly, with many references to other works found at the end of each chapter. Webb's narrative is a constant dialogue with some of the most prominent theologians and scholars on the subject. This, however, is a double edged sword. The book is probably too scholarly for a general reader, and yet too patriotic and theological for a typical college professor. Nonetheless, it is a stimulating and intellectually enriching read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the role that God's providence plays in American politics.

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The idolatrous equation of God's will with the American Way is currently one of the most pernicious and distorting phenomena to affect world-wide Christianity, both within and without the USA. This book is well written and fairly generous to its opponents, but is all the more concerning for that. A sugar coating to what boils down to a seriously distasteful premise - that (politically conservative, middle-class evangelical) American Christianity is God's gift to history to bring democracy and capitalism to the world - by force if need be. Historically naive, what is particularly troubling is the Christian language that Stephen Webb uses to justify the rise of his nation's empire. In this, the book unwittingly shares with Christian nationalists from the past who used similar arguments and rhetoric to justify unbridled Spanish, Danish, English, French, German etc. expansion. Incredibly, Webb even devotes one sympathetic chapter to Carl Schmitt, a German political theorist who used christianised concepts to justify the sovereign and excepionalist status of his own Nazi party. The book is also theologically naive, consciously choosing (as he tells us in the introduction) to trust in the "common sense" of people like George Bush than in theologians or other thoughtful church practitioners. He does not like the counter-cultural Christianity of Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank for example. Yet the wisdom of people who have reflected on Christian tradition and on the Scriptures can only be ignored at the cost of authentic Christian existence in the world. When it comes to the hubris of nation-states and their versions of manifest destiny, we need less patriotic rhetoric and more prophetic witness.  

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About the author (2004)

Stephen H. Webb is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is the author of seven books, including The Divine Voice, Good Eating, On God and Dogs and The Gifting of God.

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