America, Gay Marriage, and the Never-Ending 19th Century

Pro "Traditional Marriage" advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

“Traditional Marriage” advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.

In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.

One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.

MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:

If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.

So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”

Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.

In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.

As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.

During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.

Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.

Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.

The Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." Seriously, was any family ever like this?!

The nuclear Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” No gays allowed!

Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*

Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?

* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.

* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.

The Enduring Popularity of Nazi Comparisons in American Politics

To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

A sign paid for by an Iowa Tea Party group. To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

Americans just love Nazis. Have I got your attention? Great, now let me explain. What I mean is that American politicians — and some of the public at large — often invoke the specter of Adolf Hitler and Nazism as the go-to example of political evil. Depending on their political preferences, some Americans like to accuse their political opponents of bringing on the Second Coming of the Third Reich in America. No matter that far too many people in the good ole’ U.S. of A know precious little about ACTUAL Nazism and the historical context from which in sprang in 1930s Germany; if they don’t like the other side, then the other side must be de-facto Nazis. Because Nazis are bad.

A recent case-in-point: two Republicans in Asheville, North Carolina recently compared the flying of the gay-rights rainbow flag at the city hall to Nazism. Former city councilman Carl Mumpower didn’t mince words when he stated that, “I am equating their methods with the Nazi movement…They are indifferent to the rule of law and indifferent to the vote of the people. And that’s Adolf Hitler all over again in a different disguise.” The “they” that Mumpower was referring to in his granite-headed statement was both the Asheville City Council and U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, who recently struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Mumpower’s equating of gay rights to Nazism is particularly galling since the Third Reich actively persecuted homosexuals in Germany. But not only is his statement galling, it’s also monumentally hypocritical. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the ‘vice’ of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle.” You got that? A pair of North Carolina Republicans, who fancy themselves moral crusaders in the fight to uphold “traditional marriage,” are accusing their opponents of being Nazis — the very-same Nazis who positioned themselves as moral crusaders against the so-called threat of homosexual influence in Germany. Pot, meet every single kettle EVER MADE.

But this is hardly the only instance in which one U.S. political faction has likened their opponents to Nazis. As Media Matters noted early this year, conservatives in particular just can’t stop describing those wily liberals as another Third Reich. An especially choice instance of this type of lame-brained demagoguery involved hyperbolic venture-capitalist/comical plutocrat Tom Perkins, who wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (natch) in which he called liberals’ criticisms of the so-called “one percent” a “progressive Kristallnacht.” Perkins was referring to the infamous November 1938 pogrom in which Germans attacked Jews, destroyed Jewish businesses, and sent many to concentration camps. Because criticizing the wealth of spoiled ass-hat billionaires is totally the same thing state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence.

No recent American political figure has received more Nazi comparisons than President Barack Obama. Yes, it’s true that lefty protesters had a tendency to equate President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. But the sporadic “Left” has little influence on the ostensibly “liberal” Democratic Party, as evidenced by, well, the party’s entire platform. By contrast, hyperbolic conservative activists exert a LOT of influence on the Republican Party, and boy do they like to equate Obama to Hitler. Beyond the super-rich doing it, grassroots conservative activists — especially the various factions of foaming-at-the-mouth goobers in the Tea Party — just love to claim that, “the comparison between Hitler and Obama is striking.” Other Tea Party groups have carried signs with Obama sporting the infamous Hitler ‘stash, because Obama is just like Hitler, of course.

Nazi references run rampant in American politics, and they’re a particularly favored target by those on the Right who want to tie all political threats to the supposed re-emergence of the Third Reich. But when Americans call someone Hitler, or invoke Nazism in general, they aren’t concerned with making any actual, historical connections; rather, Nazi comparisons serve as an all-purpose-catch-all for invocations of current or impending evils. When Americans call their political opponents Nazis, they’re using Nazism as a stand-in for generic evil, all of which the Third Reich represents in an easily recognizable package. Unmoored from its historical context as a sociopolitical movement that happened in mid-twentieth-century Germany, Nazism becomes a generic political boogeyman. In America, you call your political opponent a Nazi because you don’t want to address the actual substance of their ideas.

The United States' ownunique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal.

The United States’ own unique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal — and visceral.

So, yeah, Nazis are big in America. But the question remains: why Nazis? Why Hitler? After all, there have been plenty of really evil humans in the past and a good-many nasty political movements that Americans could reference as a political slur. Sure, for a while, Communism was big, and it wasn’t unheard of for conservatives to call anyone to the left of Ayn Rand or John Birch a commie pinko, but there just seems to be something about Hitler and his merry band of genocidal Übermenschen that jingles American political bells.

Nazi comparisons are potent in America because Nazism sheds light on the darkest aspects of modern nationalist culture and its accompanying characteristics of patriotism and group-think — characteristics from which Americans have not been immune. Nazism invokes, whether consciously or unconsciously, a shared cultural fear that recognizes the universal human capacity for evil while simultaneously trying to relegate that capacity to the past.

Let’s take a general view of the central tenants of Nazism. Above all, there was the idea of a unified, powerful nation-state underpinned by a core belief in Aryan racial superiority over all other supposedly “inferior” races. White supremacy led the Nazi-controlled German state to purge its population of Jews, homosexuals, eastern Europeans, Gypsies, and other groups whom the Nazis deemed of lesser value than supposed ethnic Teutons.

But the Third Reich didn’t stop at its own borders. The Nazis believed that a racially homogenous Germany had the right to forcefully expand and conquer the rest of Europe (and eventually, the world). The “superior” Aryan population — the Master Race — was destined to dominate over areas populated by racial inferiors. Indeed, among Nazism’s driving forces was its incessant militarism; its cultural belief that war and violence could purge the world of “undesirables” and claim Germany’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of humanity. This potent combination of militarism and white racial supremacy eventually resulted in the Holocaust, during which 6 million European Jews were summarily exterminated in what remains the worst instance of “ethnic cleansing” in modern history.

Of course, the long arc of U.S. history also involves its own themes of white supremacy, the vast territorial expansion of an increasingly powerful nation-state, and the violent conquest and subjugation of non-white peoples. The near two-centuries long forced removal and relocation of Native Americans onto federally designated and administered reservations was the most significant legacy of an American ideology of white supremacy merged with a Manifest Destiny to expand the (white) American empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

While there is heated debate among historians over whether the American treatment of its native peoples constituted a genocide, there is no disputing that Indian Removal was born of white supremacist nationalism. President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, spoke for millions of (though not all) white Americans in his famous speech to Congress in which he outlined how removing Indians would “place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” For Jackson, and for many Americans in the nineteenth century, “the waves of [white] population and civilization” were “rolling to the westward,” and “the benevolent policy of the Government…in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements” would soon come to “a happy consummation.”

Although genocide wasn’t the goal of American Indian Removal, the results where nonetheless violent and tragic. Hundreds-of-thousands of Indians died from exposure, starvation, and from outright warfare with the United States government. This mass death and relocation took place in the name of a racially unified, expansionist American nation-state. In the words of nineteenth century journalist John O’Sullivan, “we are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Among those earthly powers who couldn’t stop this “human progress” were America’s native peoples.

The United States also displayed its racialized nationalism via the enslavement of millions of African-Americans and the continued relegation of blacks to second-class citizenship for decades after slavery’s demise. The notion of a white “master race” who ruled over an inferior black slave race was codified at the highest levels of American government and embraced on an intimate, social level in the South. Even in the regions where slavery was illegal, white supremacy was a potent cultural force, and it remained so well-after the Civil War and into the twentieth century. During the Second World War, for example, critics as diverse as the NAACP and the Axis Powers pointed out the hypocrisy of an American nation that fought for freedom against the dictatorships while still maintaining a segregated armed forces and a system of domestic racial apartheid.

The U.S. has its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler's Teutonic ass.

The U.S. has had its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler’s Teutonic ass.

Americans with even a basic grasp of history understand how ugly shades of racial subjugation and expansionist nationalism influenced their own past. Some choose to look at history as, in part, an abject lesson in the human capacity for evil: even those who purport to represent freedom can fall prey to the darkest of human impulses that lead to violence and domination. For other Americans, however, the fact that some of Nazism’s ideological underpinnings have also influenced U.S. history leads them to embrace denial and oversimplification. For them, Nazism was evil incarnate, therefore, it is the antithesis of all-things America, as are their political opponents.

On the one hand, the continued use of Nazi comparisons in U.S. politics does highlight the American ability to (eventually) overcome the worst political ideas that the world has to offer. We know that the Nazis were bad and we don’t ever want to become just like them. The U.S. of the past was a white supremacist nation bent on, at times, violent national expansion, but it never became the kind of totalitarian one-party state that defined the European fascist powers. Heck, the United States fought — and won — a war against fascism even as it continued to struggle with the legacy of its own past, in which racism had a profound influence. Many Americans are aware of the uglier aspects of their history, and they want to continue to move beyond it, and that’s a good thing.

But while the presence of Nazis as all-encompassing political boogeymen in U.S. politics might serve as a useful reminder of the benefits of American freedom, more often than not, such comparisons are reduced to pointless, hyperbolic fear-mongering. So what’s say we lay off the Nazi comparisons. Barack Obama is not Hitler. George W. Bush is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. The sooner Americans recognize these points, the sooner they can reconcile the best and worst aspects of their own history and move forward to create a better (and fascist-free!) future.

Age of Anxiety: The Quest for Freedom from Fear in America

Norman Rockwell's  Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of Americans getting safley tucked in an night while London experienced the Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of American kids getting safely tucked in at night while England experienced The Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Be afraid, America, be very afraid. It’s a dangerous world out there, with a never-ending series of threats laying siege to the republic from every possible angle, each of them exposing the quivering globule of disquietude that is modern society. If Americans have wanted nothing else over the span of their history, they’ve wanted freedom from fear, but they never seem to get it. With each passing era, new fears arise in the form of internal and external threats that shake American society to its foundations. Sometimes these fears have been real and justified; other times they’ve been born of prejudice and paranoia, but the results have always struck terror into the American collective psyche. Indeed, it’s no stretch to say that U.S. history has been one long age of anxiety.

Let’s do a run down of the numerous threats currently invoking fear in American society, shall we? There’s Ebola, of course. Recently, news outlets confirmed the first documented U.S. case of the deadly virus via an unnamed patient now being quarantined in Dallas, Texas. Americans (nearly 40 percent, according to one poll) are pretty terrified of the virus that’s been ravaging West Africa, and their fear isn’t entirely unwarranted. Ebola is awful: it spreads through contact with bodily fluids and causes uncontrollable bleeding from multiple orifices, as well as bloody discharges (yeah, those kind of discharges), rashes, and all kinds of corporeal pains. But Ebola isn’t the only thing Americans fear. There’s also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest nutball incarnation of radical Islamic terrorism. ISIS fighters have been waging guerilla war in the middle-eastern crescent that’s already fertile with chaos, and they’ve taken barbarism to scarily casual new levels by beheading American journalists and making threats via their savvy PR machine.

But, of course, Ebola and ISIS aren’t the only things that Americans fear these days. Depending on their political inclinations and individual composure, Americans are afraid of economic recession; inflation; deflation; domestic mass shootings; gun control; terroristsvoter fraud; voter suppression; illegal immigration; drug gangs; black people; white peoplethe government; money in politics; Democrats; Republicans; environmental destruction; environmentalists; Obama the dictator; Obama the weakling; the Koch Brothers; George Soros; the End Times; war with Iran; war with Russia; war with North Korea; war with China; the Federal Reserve; Wall Street; FEMA internment camps; the New World Order, and, perhaps the most terrifying thing of all: Obamacare.

The fact that Americans are fearful of, well, A LOT of things makes sense given that most of U.S. history is littered with events and happenings that scared the hell out of people at any given historical moment. American identity is, in part, defined by the fear of losing American freedoms.

During the colonial era for example, white settlers on British America’s frontier regions lived in a constant, paralyzing fear of ambush-style Indian attacks. As historian Peter Silver notes in his excellent book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, “the violence that provincial Americans found themselves first dreading and then experiencing was, in the most literal sense, terroristic. It had been carefully planned and carried out by the Indians with whom they were at war to induce the greatest fright possible.”* For white frontier settlers, the fear of violent Indians who killed men, women, and children alike; who struck without warning, and who refused to recognize the rules of “civilized warfare” was the greatest possible threat to (white) American freedom. On the British American frontier, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could literally be taken away by the swipe of a tomahawk.

The threat of Inidan attacks permetaed everyday life for white colonial settlers.

The fear of Indian attacks permeated everyday life for white colonial settlers.

Indian attacks provided the quintessential example of how a determined, violent “other” seemingly threatened American freedom, and so powerful was this example that Americans applied a variation of it to most major events in their history. Fear of British tyranny fueled the Revolutionary War and its sequel, the War of 1812. The buildup to the Civil War pitted southerners who feared slave-stealing abolitionists against northern factions who feared the excessive influence of the “Slave Power” in the national government. The terrors of Reconstruction came from fears that former slaves would achieve theretofore unheard-of levels of political and social power. The late nineteenth and early twentieth-century reforms of the Populists and the Progressives were inspired by fears of the excessive power of Big Business. The fear of the social and moral detriments of alcohol inspired Prohibition. And conflicts in Europe, Japan, Latin America, Russia, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all variously fueled by fears that fascists, Nazis, communists, “Japs,” socialists, rogue dictators, and Islamic terrorists all threatened American freedoms.

Fear, and the freedom to be free from fear, have always been a part of the American D.N.A. In his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, political scientist Corey Robin argues that “American Style” political fear is a truly omnipresent beast. He defines “political fear” as “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being — the fear of terrorism, panic over crime, anxiety about moral decay — or the intimidation wielded over men and women by governments or groups.”* Robin observes that fear has consistently been a major source of unity in a pluralistic, decentralized democratic society where unanimity on anything rarely exists. “We [Americans] savor the experience of being afraid,” Robin writes, and, citing the experience of unity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he argues that, “only fear, we believe, can turn us from isolated men and women into a united people.”* As Robin notes, however, fear divides as much as it unites, and it inspires actions both heroic and stupid.

The historical influence of fear in American society helps explain why FDR’s famous first inauguration quip that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” seems so clear and yet so mysterious. In 1933, Roosevelt urged Americans not to fear the Great Depression, but to instead fear the fear of the Great Depression. It was “fear itself” that would cripple America’s ability to deal with the economic crisis, because whatever the consequences of the Depression, to tackle it based on fear — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” — would only make the problem worse. But if fear was a detriment to combating the Depression, it was also a source of unity: only “fear itself” could rally a nation behind a new leader tasked with alleviating an economic catastrophe the likes of which the U.S. — and the world — had never seen before.

So integral was fear to addressing the events of mid-twentieth century American history that FDR made “Freedom from Fear” a part of his “Four Freedoms” that every American deserved. In his January 6, 1941 Annual Message to Congress, Roosevelt declared Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear to be integral to the American experience. He invoked these freedoms to combat both foreign and domestic threats. As historian David Kennedy writes in his epic study Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, “at this level of basic principle, there was unmistakable continuity between Roosevelt’s domestic policies during the Great Depression and his foreign policies in the world war.”*

President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans to action during the Depressiona nd World War II.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans into action during the Depression and World War II.

Roosevelt explicitly invoked his “Four Freedoms” to contrast the U.S. with the growing dictatorships of Europe and Asia, where governments threatened to take away freedoms, not preserve them. Yet even as FDR championed “Freedom from Fear,” he paradoxically invoked fear — the fear that the four freedoms could be taken away from Americans by an increasingly unfree world — as a source of motivation for Americans to fight for, and preserve, those freedoms. A world characterized by Freedom from Fear, FDR stated, “is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” Thus, the determination to be free from fear — and the things that inspired that fear — nonetheless relied on making Americans afraid of what would happen if they failed to defeat the forces of dictatorship. To stop a world from falling to fear, Americans needed to be very afraid of that world. Americans intuitively understood this because fear had been a motivating force in U.S. society since the colonial era. The Indians and dictators of the past have become the terrorists and diseases of today. The more things change…

Given the long-standing and important role that fear has played in U.S. society, it’s no surprise that Americans are still afraid of an endless barrage of potential foreign and domestic threats. Some of these threats are very real; others are overblown, and still others are the products of unhinged hysteria. And while we might lament the at-times overwhelming presence of fear in U.S. society, it’s at least worth remembering that fear, for better or for worse, is utterly central to the American experience. The age of anxiety has always been with us, and it probably always will be. Hopefully, that fact won’t scare you — too much.

* See Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian Warfare Transformed America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 41.

* See Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2-3.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 470.

The Midterm Elections and the Rural-Urban Divide in U.S. History

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (). The idea of a "Chick=f=lay+ section of America is really a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (2012). The idea of a “Chick-fil-A Country” is really just a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Ah, the American press. The third estate. Delivering the hard journalistic facts to an information-starved American public. Okay, so those are the ideals that the more idealistic fools among us would wish upon U.S. journalism. Instead, we have programs like Meet the Press, now hosted by renowned Beltway fluffer Chuck Todd, who, like famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, has two first names. In a recent segment in which he discussed the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the goeteed sage decided to frame the current political narrative through the lens of that most American of institutions: fast-food. You see, Todd believes that the current liberal-conservative divide in American politics has split the country into a “Starbucks Nation” and a “Chick-Fil-A Country.”

“Starbucks Nation” is characterized by big cities, where effete, spineless, multi-cultural, non-open-carrying, socialistic, Starbucks’ latte-sipping, atheistic, possibly homosexual, tax-raising urban liberal hippies vote for the Democratic Party and thus, plan to destroy America. “Chick-Fil-A Country,” by contrast, is characterized by small-towns — the real America — and is populated by white, gun-humping, (Protestant Christian) church-door-darkening, tax-cutting, flag-waving, freedom-oozing, military-worshipping, free-market-mouthing, conservative Chick-Fil-A patronizing rubes who vote Republican to save America. According to Chuck Todd, it’s the political battle between these two competing demographics — “the Democrats who live in the big cities” versus the “Republicans that live in the areas between suburban America and rural America” — that will decide the 2014 mid-term elections.

This is your press, America. And while Chuck Todd should certainly be taken to the proverbial woodshed for reducing American politics to a dualistic smackdown between competing styles of fast-food (believe it or not, there actually are small-town Starbucks AND big-city Chick-Fil-As!), he is nonetheless echoing a very old — and very real — divide in American culture: the clash between the rural and the urban; between the small-town and the big city.

Culturally, the Seattle-based Starbucks, as purveyors of crappy, overpriced coffee and mass-marketed faux-European cafe kitsch, is often used as an all-purpose stand-in for air-headed progressive urbanity (“Putting soymilk in your ten-dollar mocha-chai-pumpkin-Twinkie-latte AND supporting gay-marriage?! How sophisticated!”). By contrast, Chick-Fil-A has a conservative, middle-American image. Its founder is an evangelical Christian, and the chain’s critique of all-things queer-o-sexual made it a rallying point for right-wing, small-town Americans who wanted a big helping of culture-war conformity alongside their value-priced, coagulated chicken globules.

But regardless of how overly simplistic it is to associate Starbucks with liberal city life and Chick-Fil-A with small-town conservatism, Chuck Todd can get away with this kind of superficial bunk because there’s a very real history of urban-rural clashes in American history. Todd is referencing that history in his bone-headed, fast-food-based take on the 2014 midterm elections. After all, as the Wall Street Journal reported early in 2014, it’s a well-established fact that in modern America, cities tend to be havens for liberals while conservatives are mostly concentrated in rural areas and small towns. This type of political divide is the legacy of an American cultural proclivity towards viewing cities as bastions of openness, impersonality, and chaos in contrast to the supposed stability, conformity, and slower-paced, value-driven life of the countryside.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they're ordering the new Trotsky latte.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they’re ordering the new Trotsky latte.

As historian Paul Boyer writes in his book Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920, the urban-rural divide in American life is as old as the republic itself. The first wave of mass urban growth during the Jacksonian era struck fear into the hearts of American agrarians. “Urbanization posed profound threats to the social and moral order they knew,” Boyer writes, and, as a result, critics of urban life unleashed “somber warnings about the prevalence of intemperance, gambling, sexual immorality, profanity, and Sabbath breaking in the cities.”* To nineteenth century America’s moralizing country-bumpkins, “the urban order represented a volatile and unpredictable deviation from a familiar norm.”*

Perhaps America’s most famous of all agrarian apologists was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The archetypical Founding Father spent most of his life touting the importance of an agrarian ideal in which America would ideally be populated by independent, virtuous yeomen farmers far-removed from the tempting licentiousness of the cities.

In his famous 1784 book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson waxed nostalgic about how rural and small-town life provided a bulwark against the dastardly influence of urbanization. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” Jefferson wrote. “It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” And what did Jefferson think of the cities? Although he wasn’t totally adverse to the growing importance of urban commerce, he nonetheless took a defiant stance in favor of the countryside, writing that, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Ouch.

The influence of Jefferson, a southerner, echoed during the buildup to the Civil War. In the antebellum period, northern and southern opponents tended to cast the sectional conflict as a clash between a rural, slaveholding South and an industrial, urbanizing North. But such black-and-white distinctions were products of politics and culture, not reality. Historians have since shown that while the South was indeed more rural than the North, it had plenty of cities and industry, and while the North was more urbanized and industrial than the South, it was still a mostly agrarian region that sent far more farmers than factory workers to the battlefields.

But such nuances didn’t matter to pro-slavery politicians like South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond, who invoked the rural life to defend southern slavery against supposedly hypocritical, anti-slavery urban northerners who criticized the South’s peculiar institution while simultaneously ignoring the wage-slavery in their midst. In his famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech,” Hammond argued that southern slaves were, “hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our [enslaved] people, and not too much employment either.”

Unlike southern slaves, Hammond claimed that northern workers were, “hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns.” “Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South,” he boasted. The virtuous southern rural lifestyle, Hammond argued, was superior to northern urbanization because it kept only a specific group of (black) people enslaved, whereas wage-slavery affected whites and spread like a disease through northern cities. Checkmate, countryside!

Even decades after the Civil War, however, the allure of the countryside as an antidote to urban ills maintained a powerful hold on some folks in the conservative South. In the early twentieth century, a group of southern agrarian intellectuals railed against the influence of so-called “New South Boosters,”  who sought to remake the post-war South into a northern-style industrial urban powerhouse.

In their seminal essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, the agrarians made their case for the inherent virtue of Dixie’s rural and small town lifestyle. “Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian,” they wrote, “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations.” The rural lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the “evils” of urbanization and industrialization, especially “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.” Like that of Jefferson before them, the echoes of the agrarians ring loudly in modern American discourse that presents the conservative small town as morally and spiritually superior to the liberal big city.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

While America’s rural areas are declining in population, the old historical preference for the countryside now surfaces via “traditional” residents of small-town America who put their faith in the Republican Party as the last bulwark against a creeping, urbanized, secular, liberal culture. As Josh Kron of the Atlantic wrote a few years back, “the new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside…the voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.” This demographic reality is why 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin adopted her best “aw shucks, gosh darnnit'” tone to claim that authenticity reigned not in cities, but rather “in these small towns” and “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America,” the residents of which were apparently “hard-working, very patriotic, and very pro-America.”

Palin’s speech is the type of hayseed-mongering that rural and small-town conservative voters lap up like St. Bernards at a cotton candy convention, and it’s a major component of the Republican Party’s electoral playbook. The same folks who were inspired by Palin’s neo-agrarian rhetoric are the same folks who get a major culture war hard-on when they buy a Chick-Fil-A sandwich just to spite teh gayz. And it’s these same conservative, small-town and rural voters that urban, lefty, Starbucks slurping, gay-marrying pinkos are dismissing as relics of a barbaric age.

Chuck Todd’s Starbucks vs. Chick-Fil-A approach to American politics may be slightly moronic, but it does make a certain kind of indirect sense when you consider the long urban/rural divide that his fast-food metaphor is clumsily referencing. And while this divide has been — and continues to be — a real thing, let’s not overlook the myriad complexities of American history that caution against total, black-and-white approaches to regionalism. Both cities and small towns have their virtues and vices; there are liberal farmers and conservative hedge funders; and pretty much everyone in America has, at some point in their lives, ordered a Starbucks coffee or chomped on some Chick-Fil-A waffle fries.

So while rural/urban divisions will probably never go away, we’ll all be better off if we try to identify our similarities as well as our differences, wherever we live. The reality is that most small towns aren’t idealistic Mayberrys, but they aren’t necessarily backwards hellholes either. Moreover, while they can certainly have higher crime rates, most cities aren’t morally deprived war zones. The charm and slower pace of the countryside can house deep-seated prejudices just as the dynamic multiculturalism of the city can conceal some very real feelings of anomie and alienation. The world is more complex than a simple urban/rural divide would suggest, despite its historical provenance. And as for Chuck Todd: lay off the fast-food, man, Jefferson would have wanted it that way.

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5, 4.

Poverty, Shopping, and American Inequality

This American consumer doesn't believe in class. He knows that he runs fast enough, he'll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich. Some day...

Just keep on running, American consumers, because you’ll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich, some day…

Americans love to shop. More than a mere mundane exercise in the exchange of script for goods and services, shopping in the U.S. has long been a kind of secular ritual. During this ongoing rite, the trembling, plastic and paper contents of Americans’ collective purses and wallets are gleefully drawn and quartered through millions of soulless, retail card-swipe machines or fed into the ravenous, gaping maws of insatiable cash registers in an orgiastic display of consumerist debauchery that would make Caligula blush.  Indeed, so intense is the American consumer’s desire to please the market and retail gods that we even have a term, “citizen-consumer,” to describe how Americans want to define and project their personal identities via the buying of goods and services.

The fact that citizen=consumer in modern America only makes the recent census report on the state of the American economy all the more depressing. As TPM reports, while the overall health of the economy is apparently improving, the lingering question is, “improving for who?” And that’s where the future bodes ill for the poor and the already over-maxed, under-earning — but still consumption-crazed — middle class. Basically, the “economy” has been improving for those at the very top of the economic pyramid. But for everyone else, especially the poor and the now endangered species known as the middle class, income gains have been flat, if not outright regressing. The New York Times’ Neil Irwin sums up the problem nicely:

This simple fact may be the most important thing to understand about today’s economy: Around 1999, growth in the United States economy stopped translating to growth in middle-class incomes. In the last 15 years, median income has been more or less flat while there was far sharper growth in, for example, per capita gross domestic product.

But a good GDP doesn’t necessary translate to a good overall economic environment for the average American. “You can’t eat G.D.P. You can’t live in a rising stock market. You can’t give your kids a better life because your company’s C.E.O. was able to give himself a big raise,” Irwin writes. The real measure of America’s economic health, he concludes, “is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their [Americans'] pockets and what they can buy with that money.”

The key line there is “what they can buy with that money,” because buying is a core aspect of American identity. The growing gap between GDP and the average American’s purchasing power is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is how it unveils the inherent dangers of associating American identity with that of conspicuous consumption. The link between citizenship and consumption in modern America can’t be overstated. Since the early twentieth century, Americans have associated the freedom to shop with the essence of freedom itself. At this point in history, people who’re born in the United States might technically be citizens, but if they aren’t working to buy large quantities of mass-produced crap, then they don’t really count as Americans.

Thus, linking citizenship to consumption has caused a circular problem in American culture: the vexing issue of income inequality has lessened more and more Americans’ purchasing power, but the fact that Americans can still buy anything at all is taken as evidence by some commentators — notable those on the Right — that poverty and income inequality are issues that simply don’t matter in America today. Think I’m kidding? Consider a 2011 article by Robert Rector, a malcontent who works for the National Review. Rector mocks the idea that poor Americans are actually poor simply because they might own TVs, cars, or have internet access. Likewise, oozing talk-radio boil Rush Limbaugh frequently cites Rector to argue that, “poverty in America isn’t poverty” because Americans have access to consumer goods like cell-phones, air-conditioning, and Chicken-McNuggets.

Granted, poverty is certainly relative depending on where you are in the world (being poor in India is far worse than being poor in America, for example), but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that conservatives actually give a damn about the material conditions of America’s poor (and, increasingly, its middle class). The right-wing touts the “poor people aren’t poor” meme as a way to dismiss the notion that the inequalities created by market capitalism should be acknowledged and addressed, period. To the Right, the blessings of American market citizenship bestow an unbelievable purchasing power on even the most lowly of citizens, who have the ability to buy stuff that would make a Third-World peasant salivate.

In July 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

In March 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

But as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann notes, this is a dodge to avoid addressing the REAL problem of growing income inequality. The availability of cheap goods misses the fact that prices are rising on essentials such as education, health-care, and child care. Weissmann calls this “the tension at the core of modern impoverishment.” In order to climb out of poverty in America, you need higher education, and if you have kids, and if you have to work full-time for ever-declining wages, or if you get chronically sick, you can kiss economic improvement goodbye. “While a high-definition television is nice, it won’t permanently improve your circumstances,” Weissmann writes, “and psychology has told us that the stress of financial instability…is part of what makes poverty such a horrible experience.”

Which brings us back to the historical trends that have conflated “citizen” and “consumer” to the point where right-wing concern-trolls can doubt the existence of poverty and brush off the need to question unfettered capitalism’s inequality-producing tendencies by simply saying that, “Americans can still buy stuff.” In her book A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America, historian Lizabeth Cohen describes how Post War American culture embraced the idea of the “purchaser as citizen” as a way of harmonizing patriotism with the need to boost the American economy after the twin blows of the Great Depression and World War II. For a while, the citizen-consumer ideal seemed to work, but in the wake of the Great Recession, the wheels have come off the spending bus and there aren’t any spares.

Of course, consumption has been an essential aspect of American identity since the earliest commercial transactions between European colonists and Native peoples, but modern consumer citizenship is far more total in its power to define pure ‘Muricaness. Cohen explains how the post-war era fully developed the idea of a “Consumer’s Republic” that, “entrusted the private mass consumption marketplace, supported by government resources, with delivering not only economic prosperity but also loftier social and political ambitions for a more equal, free, and democratic nation.”* Equating consumerism with citizenship was all well-and-good to a point: after all, it was a GOOD thing for more Americans to have the ability to improve their material well-being, even it meant buying a bunch of junk on the side.

But a consumer republic only works if Americans have the ability to consume. And even if that ability could somehow be retained by the mythical free-market, conflating citizenship with consumerism runs the risk of equating the value of American life to buying Ed Hardy perfume at Target: it’s a pay-to-play model of national identity that says, “you’re not an American unless you’re a consuming American.” In a consumer’s republic, basic citizenship rights — like petitioning your government, voting, and, complaining about the growing influence of Big Money on American society — are all things that can be brushed aside as the whiny tantrums of people who should be thankful that they can own a TV.

This is why increasing income inequality in the American economy is such a troubling development. If American citizenship is reduced to the ability and means to go shopping, then the declining purchasing power of the average American becomes that much more tragic. Perhaps even worse, however, is the rise of a conservative political discourse that trivializes the experiences of poverty and broad-based economic anxiety. Equating citizenship with consumption cheapens the value of a small “r” republican society, in which the plight of average citizens should be synonymous with the plight of the nation. These days, we’re witnessing a perverse flipping of that ideal, as the success of the 1 percent is taken as evidence of an improving national economy even as most Americans continue to face an ever-increasing economic uncertainty. This is no way to run a nation, unless you want to run it into the ground.

* See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America (New York: Vintage, 2003), 13.

Iraq, ISIS, and the Legacy of American Redemptive Violence

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missle that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missile that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Iraq. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, amiright?! You’d think that after America flexed its collective freedom muscles and bombed the shit out of liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein — the dictator that America once supported — that all of the Fertile Crescent would rejoice at the chance to bow before the benevolent, freedom-extolling Yankee occupying forces. Because, after all; freedom! But nooooooo, Iraq had to go ahead and turn itself into one of the biggest American foreign policy blunders ever — maybe even out-porking the Bay of Pigs. And so, the current American President, Barack Obama, has been forced to deal with the latest Mesopotamian morass known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — or ISIS, for short.

I discussed ISIS in a previous post about the dangers of American nation-building, but let’s briefly recap who these jolly jihadists actually are. ISIS is essentially a group of über pissed off Sunni Muslim extremists, and they trace their origins to the Al Qaeda faction that emerged in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Conservatives in particular are making ISIS out to be the scariest group of foreign brown people since the last scary group of foreign brown people. But the group’s military gains in Iraq aren’t particularly impressive when you consider that the U.S.-trained-and-equipped Iraqi army decided to run without even cutting, thereby allowing ISIS to capture several Iraqi cities and seize plenty of military goodies to further their goals.

And their goals are quite lofty. As the BBC reports, not only does ISIS want to control Iraq and Syria (you know, that OTHER Middle-Eastern country that’s in total chaos right now) but it also wants to “create a broader Islamic caliphate.” Hey, give them credit for thinking big.

And so, facing increasing pressure from American conservatives (who have soooo much credibility when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East) to stop being “passive” about ISIS’ reign of terror, president Obama gave a speech on  September 10, 2014 in which he outlined his plans for dealing with the latest Iraq sh*tstorm. Obama’s speech was actually well-thought-out. He reiterated that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam as a whole — since most of the group’s victims have been Muslims — and noted that the U.S. had already been conducting air-strikes against ISIS. But the president also noted that U.S. forces alone can’t — and shouldn’t — destroy ISIS, so he outlined a multi-pronged strategy based on a combination of continued air-strikes, collaboration with anti-ISIS forces and the Iraqi government, and general anti-terrorism strategies that will, with luck, help put a stop to the cock-sure caliphatin’ conquerors. But above all else, Obama emphatically reassured Americans that the fight against ISIS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

This was about as reassuring as any American president, regardless of his political party, could be in this type of situation. What Obama is wrestling with, nay, what America is wrestling with, is the world’s continued refusal to accept the supposedly superiority of U.S. freedom-by-gunpoint. Violence has always been an essential part of American identity, and throughout its history, the U.S. has embraced the redemptive power of violence in order to influence people inside and outside of its borders into embracing the supposed righteousness and beneficence of freedom, American-style.

Now, let’s be clear: I certainly don’t mean to condone ISIS, or any other of the Middle East’s Islamic terrorist clubs. These guys are downright barbaric; the worst type of religious fundamentalist scum, and every single one of them deserves to get a missile up his ass and lice in his beard. But the problem in Iraq goes beyond ISIS or any other single group. The real problem is the United States’ history of embracing a providential mission to violently spread its own vision of freedom in the world. The history of American violence is bolstered by a potent mix of secular and sacred beliefs, and America’s vision of making the world embrace its own brand of freedom has too often been a vision that mistakes strength for wisdom, substitutes forethought with vengeance, and creates wrathful enemies instead of passive subjects.

President Obama is aware of the need to maintain an extremely delicate balance between appeasing national calls to reign down Hell on the ISIS insurgency while also trying to make sure that the U.S. isn’t stuck playing terrorist whack-a-mole in Iraq for the next hundred years. A key moment in his speech came when Obama tried to embrace the long-held belief that America must use violence to redeem the world in the name of freedom while acknowledging that, quite often, this type of violence only begets more violence and chaos. “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” he said, “it is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.” But the president also admitted that, “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

Therein lies the problem: America has always welcomed the responsibility to lead, but sometimes it doesn’t realize that its leadership might be misguided. The U.S. has too often demonstrated its “endless blessings” through religiously motivated, redemptive violence, and the results have been the “enduring burden” of unintended — and often violent — consequences.

In their essay collection From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America, scholars John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel emphasize how the sacred embracing of violence has colored American identity since the colonial era — with alternately beneficial and catastrophic results. Religion, they write, “has been operative in the background culture of American violence” for a very long time. The most famous of American wars: The Revolutionary War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — all “have been infused with religious rhetoric and faith-based ‘othering.'”*

This “othering” has almost always employed religious justification for violence. Consider the case of the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate clergy spouted spiritually sanctioned rhetoric to urge their respective sides to violent victory over the enemy “other.” In his book Upon the Alter of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, historian Harry Stout observes that violence North and South had to be “augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another.” Indeed, Stout notes that, “both sides needed to enlist God in their cause as both justifier and absolute guarantor of their deliverance,” and the result was that “thousands of clergymen in thousands of churches North and South” became “especially meaningful as critics or cheerleaders of the war’s conduct.”*

But quite often, Civil War-era clergymen were cheerleaders for violence in the name of a higher, providential purpose. Thus, at the outbreak of the conflict, men like the northern Universalist minister J.G. Bartholomew proclaimed that, “‘Never before since the days of the Revolutionary memory and fame has there been a call to arms that has so thrilled the great heart of our people…and set the pulse of patriotic feeling beating.'”* Similarly, James H. Elliot, an Episcopal minister in South Carolina, warned that the outbreak of war constituted “‘instinctive warnings of great importance in God’s government of the world,'” and claimed that, after the fall of Fort Sumter, the South had “‘a signal display in the powerful providence of God.'”* For both sides, the message was clear: violence should be used to annihilate enemies and enshrine American greatness because the head honcho of heaven willed it.

In the 1860s, this ‘signal display’ justified bloody war against the “other” in the name of national redemption and the promotion of earthly freedom. But the idea that God has granted America the authority to wage redemptive violence still rings loudly in the twenty-first century — a continued “enduring burden.”

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Indeed, who exactly constitutes the “other” is relative and always changing. Moreover, regardless of whether the “other” deserves to be vanquished, plenty of people will die. In some cases, the foes that America has identified as “others” to fight, reform, and/or vanquish have been true villains; the Nazis, for example. In other cases, these “others,” such as Native Americans, Mexicans, and Iraqi civilians, have been unfortunate casualties who died in the name of American imperialism. By there’s an additional process to the violence that complicates America’s tendency to “other-ize” different groups: some foes, like Saddam Hussein and ISIS, might deserve a good beating, but the question remains: should America actually administer that beating?

This is the question vexing America in 2014 as it deals with yet more violent strife in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. In its willingness to use violence as a redemptive force, America has transcended its former position of supposedly speaking for a higher power and, instead, has acted the role of a small “g” secular god in itself; one that deems itself worthy of righting perceived worldly wrongs. The U.S. is willing to use violence not only to protect its own interests, but also to make sure that non-Americans get a lesson in U.S.-style freedom. President George W. Bush embarked on just such a sacredly secular adventure in Iraq in 2003, and the U.S. is still dealing with the fallout. After all, if the history of religiously motivated violence tells us nothing else, it’s that you can’t bask in the glory of the angels without encountering a few demons. And for the U.S., some of the worst demons, from Confederate rebels to ISIS, have been self-created.

Although a generic Christianity has historically justified American redemptive violence (largely because Christianity has been the majority American religion since the beginning), in 2014, American violence represents no particular denomination and is waged in the name of a civic religion that retains its Christian flavor but extols the virtue of a more general American Exceptionalism.

It’s tragically fitting that America now finds itself waging redemptive violence against Islamic foes. Islam is, after all, Christianity’s historical antagonist. And while Barack Obama, unlike past presidents (cough, cough, Dubya) tends to not wear his faith on his sleeve, he can’t help but succumb to historically established spiritual precedents for American redemptive violence. Even as the President admitted that America’s “endless blessings bestow an enduring burden,” he nonetheless concluded his speech with the refrain, “May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is making similar pleas for Allah to bless their own cause, and the results will no doubt be burdens that endure for many years to come.

* See John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel, eds., From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 15.

* See Harry M. Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006),  xvii, 37, 44.