Afghanistan is very much in the news, specifically America’s hasty withdrawal that left the country at the mercy of Muslim fanatics.
This action followed from first Trump and then Biden decrying ‘forever wars’ America has to fight on behalf of those who won’t fight for themselves.
This elevates the argument from the specific Afghan context to the level of general principle: making America great again means her taking care of the internal business first. Let others fend for themselves.
Leaving the specific Afghan arguments to others, I’d like to comment on the general principle, which I think springs from insufficiently deep thinking on such matters. For messianic proselytism lies at the very foundation of America.
This was demonstrated by the first batch of English settlers who colonised Massachusetts Bay. As early as 1630 their leader, John Winthrop, delivered an oration in which he alluded to Matthew 5:14 by describing the new community as a “city upon a hill”.
Let’s consider the contextual implications of these words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the light of this world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” This proselytising verse issues both a promise to the world and an entreaty to the listeners: by following Christ they would light a lantern illuminating the righteous path for the rest of mankind.
Not only would they acquire an ability to do so, but they would also acquire the duty. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works…,” continued Jesus.
Thus, when Winthrop likened the new colony to a city upon a hill, he implicitly equated it to the beacon that shone the word of God onto the rest of the world. And since he did so in a secular context, the religion based on this premise could only be secular.
The new nation was to become a secular simulacrum of God as an object of worship. This was a curious example of amour propre: America was to worship herself.
The Biblical phrase immediately entered the American lore and there it remains to this day. The underlying spirit cuts across party lines: the phrase “a city upon a hill” was used by both the arch-Democrat John Kennedy and the arch-Republican Ronald Reagan.
America isn’t just different from all other countries; she is saintlier and therefore better. While other lands amble aimlessly through life, it’s America’s right and duty to carry out a messianic mission, to give “light unto all that are in the house” by spreading the ideals of democracy, republicanism or any other voguish political term denoting the underlying virtue.
In 1809 Jefferson expressed the principle of America as a beacon without relying on biblical references: “Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”
Tastes differ but facts shouldn’t: America wasn’t “the only monument… and the sole depository… of freedom and self-government”. Britain, to name one other country, had form in those areas too. But then the puffery of political pietism knows no bounds.
In due course the “city upon a hill” was helped along by other words from the lexicon of American exceptionalism. In the 1840s the journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the term ‘manifest destiny’ to describe America’s messianic mission in the world. Said manifest destiny was according to him “divine”: it was incumbent upon America “to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man”.
Like Christianity, in due course its secular simulacrum, the American creed, also split into two streams, both based on the underlying premise of American exceptionalism: hermetic and crusading.
The hermetic stream (these days called isolationism) prefers to practise its unmatched virtue internally. Others, if they know what’s good for them, are welcome to follow, but the hermeticists are more concerned with protecting their own cloister from strangers than forcing them to join.
Conversely, the crusaders (usually called interventionists) are ever ready to strike out, converting others not just by setting glittering examples of virtue, but also by setting stubborn infidels on fire.
Both streams have issued countless statements of intent, but I’ll quote only two, made by two US presidents a century and a half apart.
Encapsulating the ethos of hermetic American exceptionalism, John Quincy Adams declared: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Yet John Fitzgerald Kennedy communicated the opposite view in his inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
This specimen of demagogic logorrhoea was making a promise of eternally escalating imperialism, going back to Winthrop with his ‘city upon a hill’. And it’s this crusading streak of the bifurcated American religion that has made the US the success she is today. Though from time to time the American pendulum swings towards the hermetic end, the overall tendency towards crusading invariably takes two steps forward to every backward one.
This innate crusading spirit has established America as ‘the leader of the free world’, a status that confers benefits, while also imposing responsibilities. The benefits are mainly economic: America has supplanted the British Empire as the most economically virile Western nation.
That wasn’t an entirely haphazard development: much of America’s elevation at the expense of Britain’s demise was a matter of deliberate and consistent policy. Hence, while fighting the Axis powers during the Second World War, America always had in her sights Britain as a secondary target.
Thus America’s wartime arrangements with the moribund British Empire were different from those with Stalin’s Russia. If billions’ worth of US aid given to Stalin was free, Britain had to pay for everything in cash, IOUs being accepted only grudgingly and with the understanding that no defaults would be allowed. (Britain only finished repaying her US wartime loans at the end of 2006.)
The entire gold reserves and foreign investments of the British Empire had to be used up to pay for American supplies, especially food and medicines. The victory was ultimately won at the expense of Britain’s post-war economic prospects.
Churchill knew this was coming. On 7 December, 1940, he wrote to Roosevelt, pleading that the terms on which American aid was being proffered would consign Britain to post-war penury: “Such a course would not be in the moral or economic interests of either of our countries.” Roosevelt acknowledged receipt and promptly collected Britain’s last £50 million in gold.
Churchill pretended not to understand that “such a course” was precisely in America’s “moral and economic interests”. Morally, the demise of the traditional British Empire, the last major stronghold of Christendom’s political order, played into the hands of the American crusading ambitions of leading the post-Christian world. And economically, British cash helped America double her GDP during the war.
Moreover, as a result of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, the US dollar became the world’s reserve currency. That’s how America has been able to run up a $27 trillion national debt without, so far, catastrophic economic consequences.
Generally speaking, this vindicates the crusading communicants in the secular American creed. Yet after each geopolitical setback the hermetic confession comes back into its own, and this is exactly what we are witnessing now.
Both Trump and Biden have made pronouncements along hermeticist lines, which proves that this strain, like the crusading one, is impervious to the presidents’ personalities or stated principles. However, we can be certain that before long the crusading spirit will come roaring back to “make America great again”, in the primitive way in which greatness is understood nowadays.
Where will the crusaders strike next? I don’t know. But I’m sure they will.