Custom Search


Book Review

Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism

Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence  
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2003  
392 pp

This review, written by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College of Nanaimo, BC, Canada, is in the public domain, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged—released October 2004.  For comments or questions please contact Ian Johnston


As President Bush the Younger prepares for the next election by wrapping himself in the flag and sets off, Bible in hand, to win the voters to his cause, Robert Jewett’s and John Shelton’s exploration of the religious roots of American culture and politics is particularly relevant, highlighting, as is does, their sense of a looming danger to American democracy and world peace posed by what they call zealous nationalism.

Central to this book’s argument is the idea that biblical stories enshrine two competing political traditions, zealous nationalism and prophetic realism.  The former (most clearly articulated in Deuteronomy and Revelations) urges us to kill our enemies with full blind confidence in our own righteousness, the latter (as developed in the ministry of Jesus and some prophetic books) to preserve a certain scepticism in the face of political questions and to seek resolutions to problems in a devout but more flexible humanitarian way.  Applying these analytical concepts to recent American history, the book laments the rapid growth of zealous nationalism (whose most eloquent expression in America is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) and urges readers to reflect on ways to counter this disastrous tradition.

The Captain America of the title refers to the secular symbol the authors have chosen to mark this trend—the inflexible faith in a superhero of mythic proportions who can with his own power and violence protect democracy by beating back its enemies with a large new technological stick and restoring the divinely sanctioned American order of things.  The dilemma mentioned in the sub-title is what the authors see as a result of this fierce and violent reflex faith—a subversion of democratic and moral values in America in the very process of affirming them.

The argument here covers an enormous amount of ground—a rapid sweep of American history (with particular attention to September 11 and afterwards), a number of close looks at certain passages of the Bible, surveys of Islamic and Jewish history and religious practices, reflections on American popular culture (particularly comic books), snapshot portraits of a number of American presidents, and so on.  It’s something of a bravura performance, handled with clarity, excellent and well documented scholarship, and occasional moments of humour.  There is a great deal here that anyone wishing to learn more about the complexities of world politics or the paradoxes of an American presidential election can profit from reading.  And anyone who thinks Biblical interpretation is, well, boring nitpicking should have a look at what these authors do.

Given that much of the argument concerns the biblical roots of political rhetoric in America, the authors wisely choose to let the politicians speak for themselves.  One great merit here is that the text helps to reveal just how pervasive such biblical language is and has been.  This is not simply a matter of one or two fundamentalist zealots like Reagan.  And when the authors deliver their own judgments, they are invariably energetic and interesting, even if now and then one might want to add some qualifications.  Here, for example, is what they have to say about William Jefferson Clinton, “Rather than achieving a genuine renewal of prophetic realism that this biblical concept [the New Covenant] might have evoked, Clinton covered himself with conventional patriotism whose purpose was, finally, nothing more than to save his own skin from opponents who found him unworthy of office.  In his instance, the path of mythic politics led into a pitiful frivolity that discredited the idealistic side of American civil religion.”  Harsh, yes, but in the context of the argument as they have framed it, they make their case persuasively.

But Jewett and Lawrence are seeking to do more than anatomise what’s wrong the present religious influences in American political life.  They wish also to indicate a new direction which will enable citizens to accept the political defeat of Vietnam (rather than reinterpreting it with some form of messianic Rambo revisionism) and to address the September 11 catastrophe with more than reflex reformulations of the zealous and complacent dogmas that produced the Vietnam disaster and drive present violent interventions all over the world.

That direction, they urge, cannot be pursued by jettisoning religious belief and myth and placing our faith in reason, for only a modern reinterpretation of those ancient texts can help us to cultivate a tragic sense of life and thus equip us to confront the tragedies of our own history.  And so what we really need to do is reacquaint ourselves with the tradition of prophetic realism, particular in the ministry of Jesus Christ and in some of the prophetic books (like Hosea and Jeremiah).   What this means as the basis for some practical course of action, however, is not at all clear.

Humanists, of course, will not find this conclusion particularly agreeable or persuasive and may be tempted to mutter something about how even the Devil can quote scripture.  Fair enough.  But number crunching in the approved rational manner can also lead to the same quandary—as the old adage has it, if you torture the figures they’ll confess to anything (including the existence of weapons of mass destruction).  And if one thinks there’s something to the claim that a tragic sense of life is a matter we need to reflect upon, it’s by no means clear how modern rationalism can encourage us to do that any better than what these authors suggest.

For all the obvious merits of this book, however, I do have an important reservation.  It’s not at all obvious to me that one can so easily ascribe the characteristic features of modern American political rhetoric and policy largely to religion and its popularity directly to comic books.  As I read this book I begin to wonder why, given the different political traditions in the biblical stories, American politicians and voters, for all the humanistic values enshrined in their constitution, tend to find the strain of zealous nationalism more spiritually energizing.  Could it be that the Bible is not the primary cause of this rhetoric but rather a convenient orator’s handbook for those seeking to give political and moral legitimacy and expression to deeper feelings which have little if anything to do with religion?

Consider, for example, violence.  One of the most peculiar features of American culture (in everything from its military tactics, high and low literary traditions, films, music, sports, and popular habits) is the casual acceptance of violence, often as something therapeutic, a destructive but liberating act which destroys a past problem and sets us on the road to a better future (no wonder so many of them love the death penalty and guns on demand).  There would seem to be clear social and political roots for this marked tendency, and these may have less to do with traditional biblical writings than with the development of an extraordinary nation which defined itself by a violent break with its past, a series of often bloody movements across a huge and largely undefended land, and an extraordinarily destructive civil war (after all, what confirms our faith in the Stars and Stripes is not the armies of the Lord but the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air).  Perhaps General Sherman is more responsible for forging this attitude than Deuteronomy, even if the latter is very useful for clothing the attitude in the language of religious purpose.  And it would surely not be very difficult to establish a persuasive link between the popularity of the cowboy-gunman-detective stories (which arose from particular social conditions rather than religious attitudes) and American reliance on high-tech bombing and missile launching to further its lofty moral mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The authors do discuss America’s faith in the redemptive powers of violence, but are not willing to see that as arising from particular social conditions or from concerted efforts by particular people to prevent the development of any growing social communal consciousness among the citizens in large eastern cities with an appallingly high rate of violence.  They ascribe a great deal of influence (too much in my view) to the super hero comic book, but don’t pause to wonder who is producing the book and why people are reading it and being encouraged to read more of the same (ditto for Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, Nashville, rock and roll, and television).

A similar reservation creeps in when I read how the authors apply their key terms to a comparison between what’s happening in American and in Israel and with militant Islam.  While these passages are always interesting and informative, I keep getting nagging doubts about the validity of the comparisons, given the very different histories, economies, religious traditions, and political situations of the different groups.  And that leads me to wonder about just how precise and useful the two guiding principles of the argument may be for understanding America.

For all that, this is a timely, interesting, and well-written book.  So rather than forking over a lot of money to see Mel Gibson indulge once more his life-long obsession with over-the-top bloody violence, try exploring in this book the religious roots of violence and political options in a more intelligent and challenging manner.


[Back to johnstonia Home Page]
Page loads on johnstonia web files

View Stats