Academic journal article Humanitas

Savior Nation: Woodrow Wilson and the Gospel of Service

Academic journal article Humanitas

Savior Nation: Woodrow Wilson and the Gospel of Service

Article excerpt

Augustine's City of God identifies pride and humility as the founding principles of the City of Man and the City of God. (1) Leaving no mystery as to the identity of the most recent embodiment of the arrogant City of Man in his own day, Augustine quotes two significant lines from Virgil's Aeneid. The famous passage from Virgil's epic concerns Rome's perfection of the "imperial arts" and its boast of its unique, divinely appointed mission to "beat down the proud." Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil reinforces Rome's historical mission. Father Jupiter himself had appointed Rome to found a universal, everlasting kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness, leading history to its final destination, a new Age of Saturn in which the temple of war would be shut and law and order prevail throughout the inhabited world. (2) In The City of God, however, Augustine seeks to undermine these pretensions. Humbling the proud is God's prerogative, not Rome's. It is a mission that Rome has falsely" claimed as its own." (3) Such gr andiose aspirations made Rome nothing less than an impostor City of God, a sham Eternal City, appropriating to itself the mission that belongs exclusively to Christ's kingdom, whose founder is not Aeneas but God himself. To invest imperial Rome with the love and honor and worship due to God alone is, in Augustine's profound theological analysis, nothing less than idolatry.

Rome, of course, has not been the only nation to succumb to the idolatry of empire, nor is the idea of national mission unique to its successor empires in the West. Civilizations from the ancient world to the modern, whether European or Asian or American, Christian and non-Christian alike, have possessed a conviction of divine calling and destiny. Variations on this impulse have been evident in cultures as diverse as Confucian China, Hellenistic Greece, Augustan Rome, Ottoman Turkey, Romanov Russia, Victorian Britain, and Wilsonian America. America's own idea of mission is an amalgam of Roman, Puritan, Enlightenment, Romantic nationalist, social gospel, and modern imperialist elements, and the precise sources of its images, symbols, metaphors, and vocabulary are therefore often difficult to untangle. Moreover, it has been shaped not only by its own historical experience, theological roots, and political ideology, but also by the expectations of outsiders, like the radicals of the French and English Enlightenm ent who projected their hopes for universal redemption onto the emerging United States in the 1770s and 1780s. To the mind of Richard Price, for example, the American Revolution ranked second only to the incarnation of Christ and was perhaps "the most important step in the progressive course of human improvement." (4)

America has wrestled throughout its history with a particularly robust and complex sense of divine appointment and of "Manifest Destiny." From the holy community of New England Puritanism, to the exceptionalism of the Founders, to the outward-directed millennial fervor of Abolitionism before and during the Civil War, the American redemptive myth has been woven together out of many strands. This habit of mind has been examined by intellectual, literary, and diplomatic historians who have traced an ongoing sell-consciousness among Americans of being an Adam in a "New Eden" or a covenantal people in a "New Israel." (5) Drawing from Puritan, Enlightenment, and Romantic ideology, American literature and political discourse from Colonial times to the present has been permeated by themes of renewal and redemption, of covenantal duty, of deliverance from Europe and the past, of America as the embodiment of an "idea" more than as a place or a political community.

Not least among significant American leaders who inherited but also helped transform the the American ideal of mission and Manifest Destiny was Woodrow Wilson. He was transfixed by the notion of a national mission, and variations on this theme dominate his speeches. …

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