Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

American Apocalypse

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

American Apocalypse

Article excerpt

American Apocalypse AN ANGEL DIRECTS THE STORM: APOCALYPTIC RELIGION AND AMERICAN EMPIRE By MICHAEL NORTHCOTT LB. Tauns. 220pp. $35.

GOD'S POLITICS : WHY THE RIGHT GETS IT WRONG AND THE LEFT DOESN'T GET IT ByJiM WALLIS HarperSanFrandsco. 416pp. $24.95.

IN THE EYES of secular Europeans, Christianity is an American disease. And in the eyes of European Christians, secularism is an American disease, too. In reality, both Christianity and secularism came to America, like most other things, from Europe. The difference is that in America Christianity is vigorous enough to fight for its corner in the public square, whereas in Europe Christianity has largely been driven out of public life. The readiness with which invocations of the Almighty spring to the lips of American statesmen arouses cynicism and a kind of atavistic fear among those who attribute imperialist ambitions to the United States.

The one group of Europeans who might be expected to take a more balanced view of God's own country are those whose profession and vocation it is to know what can be known of God. I mean, of course, the theologians. Michael Northcott, who teaches Christian Ethics at Edinburgh University and has written books on environmentalism and global debt, is the very model of a modern theologian. He begins his latest, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire, by establishing his credentials as an informed and unprejudiced critic of the United States: "I first flew to JFK to join my family in Connecticut in the summer of 1969 when Americans first walked on the moon."

Northcott uses his American connections, however, to make common cause with American critics of the Bush administration, including not only Christians such as Stanley Hauerwas but also the anti-Christian Michael Moore and the neo-Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. But Northcott's critique of the United States from a European perspective goes far beyond its indigenous American counterparts. An Angel Directs the Storm does not merely caricature but demonizes the United States. The book depicts the American republic as an evil empire, driven to global conquest by an apocalyptic religion that has more in common with fundamentalist Islam than with biblical Christianity.

Northcott's political argument is based on the evolution of American eschatology: the perversion of the faith of the pilgrim fathers into the militant ideology of the Christian Right, which he characterizes as "premillennialist dispensationalism." On this account, the postmillennial American religion of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, which held that the idea of a promised land was already close to being realized in the United States, has been replaced by a rival premillennial form of evangelical Protestantism, based on apocalyptic expectation that the last days are imminent. Northcott claims that the original optimistic vision of America as a moral force in world affairs has given way to a grimly pessimistic fatalism, in which American self-interest is the only thing that matters. If the end of the world is nigh, all attempts to improve it are pointless. The "dispensation" granted by God to true believers means that they will be saved before the terrors of the apocalypse.

Northcott attributes even neoconservatism, an essentially secular strain of thought, to the fading of the messianic dream of a better world and its replacement by premillennial dispensationalism. He traces a line of descent from Locke's "theology of property," via Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Leo Strauss, to the market-driven imperialism of George W. Bush.

"The U.S. corporate elite," he claims, "increasingly see themselves as engaged in a planetary war for the maintenance of their own prosperity and way of life, and for the directing of all human history to American ends." Christian Zionism, too, driven by the belief that the Jews must return to Israel before the prophecies of Revelation can be fulfilled, fits into Northcott's scheme of an "American apocalypse. …

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