Star-Spangled Salvation

When Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil came out in early 2003, America was debating going to war in Iraq. During these months of war and its aftermath, hardly a week goes by without some event that reflects the confusing interplay of religious language and national mythology. In May, George Bush used Isaiah’s messianic language to proclaim victory; more recently came the uproar over Gen. William Boykin’s assertions that our Christian army is doing battle with Satan.

To understand what’s really going on, the fervent yet scholarly work of Jewett and Lawrence is helpful—and timely. Don’t let the comic-book character put you off. Captain America, born in 1941, is simply a symbol for a much more serious theme—the political theology of zealous nationalism. More than 30 years ago, biblical scholar Jewett began using Captain America to personify the "myth of the American superhero"—a lone crusader who intervenes dramatically to purge society of threatening evils. To achieve his purpose, however, the superhero must ignore democratic processes and the existing legal order to eliminate the source of evil. The troubling undertone is that ordinary citizens and normal democratic procedures are incapable of responding to the threat.

After Jewett first exposed zealous nationalism in The Captain America Complex in 1973, he collaborated with Lawrence in a whimsical study of superheroes in popular culture, The American Monomyth (1977). More recently they updated these themes in The Myth of the American Superhero (2002), followed now by this major work that combines biblical scholarship with historical and political analysis to interpret the ideologies behind the headlines.

THE BOOK IS structured around the historic tension between two competing strands in American civil religion—zealous nationalism and prophetic realism, both of which originate in the Hebrew-Christian Bible. Zealous nationalism is grounded in the conviction that the world must be saved by the righteous destruction of all enemies. This ideology of redemptive violence emerges in the biblical conquest narratives and finds its distinctive American form in such ideas as Manifest Destiny and the more recent crusade against an "axis of evil." Prophetic realism, on the other hand, emphasizes justice, tolerance, and the rule of law, deriving inspiration from the biblical prophets (especially Hosea and Isaiah) and Jesus, and exemplified by Abraham Lincoln’s mature wisdom. Although the authors strive to balance these themes, much of the book documents the widespread destructive power of zealous nationalism. Their provocative analysis of various modes of zeal moves from the Bible to contemporary parallels with Islamic jihad.

The book’s survey of more than two centuries of American history is obviously selective, but many will find the authors’ thesis persuasive. While much of the exegetical and historical material has been recycled from the 1973 original, the new book is nearly double in size. Along the way, we get chapter-length treatments of such intriguing subtopics as apocalypticism, conspiracy theories, the stereotyping of enemies, theologies of victory and defeat, and the curious phenomenon of flag sanctification.

Occasional abrupt shifts between modes of discourse, from scholarly analysis to ethical and political exhortation, reveal the authors’ prophetic and unabashedly Christian motivation. Just one example of how basic themes and new insights have been integrated with current events is their view of terrorism in a post-Sept. 11 age. Insisting that war is futile as a response to terrorism and encouraging nonviolent alternatives to war, the authors insist on international cooperation to legitimate any use of force.

One telling image sums up the book. Jewett and Lawrence display an early 2002 cover illustration from the German magazine Der Spiegel, depicting President Bush as Rambo, flanked by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell costumed as other pop-culture superheroes, all armed to the teeth. But the authors note that what was intended as critical satire was embraced with pride by the key players; Bush and friends eagerly displayed poster reproductions. We are left with the sobering reminder that those who most need the message may be the last to get it.

J.R. Burkholder is professor emeritus of religion and peace studies at Goshen College in Indiana.

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