I’m re-reading a fascinating book entitled An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire, by Michael Northcott. I expect to be quoting from it and discussing it in some detail over the coming weeks.
From the introduction:
The Bush administration’s policies combine a commitment to untrammelled capitalism, and hence a corporately restrained democracy, with a willingness to spend inordinate amounts of money on American corporations producing military technology. At the same time these policies are represented as America’s sacred mission to lead the world to its destined future of democracy and freedom. While Bush is clearly driven by a faith in unbridled capitalism that borders on religious fervour, these polices are not just the product of modern ideology. There is a deep millenial spirit here, which goes right back to the emergent belief of Americans that they were a “redeemer nation” destined to lead the world to the end of history.
It is the burden of this book to show that this millenial spirit rests upon a tragic deformation of true Christianity.
Perhaps now is the moment to mention that, although I grew up in the Episcopal church, I no longer consider myself a Christian. Of the philosophies that are generally referred to as religions, I’m most attracted to Zen Buddhism, which is really not a religion in the sense that Christians, Jews, and Muslims use the word. It does not posit a supreme being; it does not care about the issue of life after death, or struggle with the question, Why are we here? Indeed, it would consider that question silly. Zen concentrates on the eternal present, and on the decision about the next action; in other words, on what is relevant to the here and now. Thus it is not prone to being used for political ends, because it is too aware of the implications of each action.
Christianity, on the other hand, has been shaped by nearly two millennia of being used for political ends. This does not invalidate the religion; far from it. What Gibbon called “the pure and simple maxims of the Gospel” remain as relevant and as hopeful today as they were two thousand years ago.
But the circumstances under which Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire changed the ideology significantly. Although I have some issues with Northcott’s Roman history, and numerous minor complaints about the editing his book received, I find his analysis to be forthright, stimulating, and well conceived. I hope that An Angel Directs the Storm is widely read; it has much to tell us about the philosophical and psychological background of the religious framework of the United States. I hope readers of the upcoming commentary are provoked to engage in the discussion, and to encounter the original ideas in the book.