Peter Leithart – Between Babel and Beast [Feature Review]

March 8, 2013

 

Page 2: Peter Leithart: Between Babel and Beast

 

 

In part 2, Leithart examines the heresy of Americanism, which David Gelertner calls the “fourth biblical world religion.” This heresy has several features: America sees itself as the new Israel, America sees itself as the eschatological hope of the nations, and America perpetuates its existence by blood sacrifice. This sacrifice of sons and enemies must always be repeated if we are to be faithful to the Americanist creed. Leithart also concisely shows that America’s eschatology is also a missiology. Although the accepted narrative sees America as isolationist until World War I, Leithart shows how imperialist expansion was always already a key component of America’s praxis.

 

For Leithart, the real problem with Americanism is what we don’t see: “Our problem is not so much the history itself as the mythology or ideology of Americanism that blinds us to the real force of our history…What makes us exceptional is not our self-interest or the fact that we fight wars or the fact that we fight to win. We are exceptional in our blindness to our use of power. Americanism fools us into thinking that we are acting for high-minded ideals rather than for grubby national advantage…We can get away with all this because Americanism persuades us that we are invariably, no matter what the cause or how we behave, the global good guy” (109, 134).

 

So, in part 3, Leithart tries to give an honest, demythologized account of America. He clearly recognizes that America can be a force for good. But he also recognizes that America is a Babel, using both “hard” and “soft” power in such a way as to change the world into its own image. We tell ourselves that we are exporting democracy, freedom, and economic development. Leithart will not let us get away with that simplistic account. The most striking thing about this chapter was his listing of the sheer numbers of civilians of other countries killed by the US. For example, over 1 million Japanese civilians were killed in World War II. There is no terrorist organization that can claim anything close to those numbers. These numbers call to mind John Howard Yoder’s statement that it is not anarchy but civilization that is killing us.[1] On the altar of Americanism, no sacrifice–whether of self, sons, or enemies–is too much. Not only do we offer these sacrifices but, as Leithart makes apparent, we also lend economic and military support to beasts, i.e., nations who actively persecute and kill Christians.

 

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