The Sin of “American Exceptionalism”

Last night I watched Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in my home town, Broomall, Pennsylvania. What I saw sent chills down my spine. Demagoguery was on display. The people from my home town applauded the scolding of American President for apologizing. No apology for the tragedy of an American soldier(s) walking into the homes of families in Afghanistan to kill. No apology for … well…for ANYTHING. America is the greatest country in the history of the world. We should make no apology, said Mr. Romney.

In light of that speech, I am reposting this piece first published in February. It’s Holy Saturday for me. The one who lay dead on this day was killed, without apology, by The Myth of Roman Exceptionalism. The Roman Empire is long gone. But the myth never goes away. Only the name of the nation changes. Here’s the piece:

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“The stairway smelled of piss….This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world,  for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri.

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.

Sermon: “Blogging on the Cross”

Sermon, Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska, MN March 18, 2012.

Click HERE for the YouTube re-broadcast.