Faith in War: An Interview with Matthew McCullough

The following is an interview with Matthew McCullough, pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville and author of the excellent new book, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U. S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (University of Wisconsin Press, August 2014).  Readers will also want check out Paul Putz's wonderful review posted a few days ago, which McCullough responds to below.  (PS John Fea has scooped me; you can check out his interview with Matt here).

1. What led you to this time period and subject?

I can summarize this progress in three steps.  First, I’ve been interested in Christian nationalism since college.  It didn’t take much exposure to the history of American Christianity to recognize that the meaning and significance of the American nation has been a central preoccupation for American Christians for much of our history.  I entered graduate studies looking to understand how and why Christian nationalism has taken the shapes it has taken.  Second, times of war offer especially useful windows into Christian nationalism because it’s during such times that Christian leaders have been most prone to reflect on the significance of America, to define the nation in light of the cause for war and in contrast to whatever enemy has been on the other side.  Finally, I was drawn to the Spanish-American War in part because it had received much less scholarly attention than more famous wars before or since, and in part because—despite it’s brevity and it’s relative obscurity—this war marked a turning point for America.  It’s something of a hinge from the bitter, debilitating divisions of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras into a century of worldwide influence.  The Christian leaders who commented on this war saw it for the departure that it was and worked hard to justify the shift.

2. You argue that "this particular strand of American nationalism--this messianic interventionism--was embraced in the Spanish-American War as both Christian duty and providential destiny, first for liberation and then for subjugation" (5).  Could you explain what you mean by "messianic interventionism" and how it relates to your understanding of "Christian nationalism?"  Were one or both exceptional to this era?  Your reference to "subjugation" would suggest that messianic interventionism was an imperial ideology, no?

By Christian nationalism, I mean an understanding of and devotion to the American nation among Christians wherein the nation is believed to play a central role in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.  By messianic interventionism, I mean a specific dimension to Christian nationalism.  When American Christians have discussed the American nation as an object of significance within their Christian worldview, they’ve commonly included some sense of national purpose, of how America would be used to benefit the nations of the world.  Messianic interventionism is one way of understanding this national purpose.  Before the Spanish-American War, the dominant understanding of America’s purpose was to win the world to ordered liberty by force of attraction, through the power of their example.  But in this war many came to believe it was America’s responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other nations to spread liberty by force of arms. 

I’ve called this ideology “messianic” interventionism because I believe the semantic range of the term nicely captures two dimensions to the prominent understanding and justification of this interventionism.  The two dimensions seem from our perspective ironic at best and outright hypocritical at worst.  But showing how they made sense to folks in 1898 is one of my main goals. 

First was the notion of national self-sacrifice.  What made this interventionism “messianic” is the widespread argument that America stood to gain nothing by this intervention, but was acting altruistically in the interests of the oppressed.  This notion didn’t come from thin air; northern interpretations of the Civil War emphasized liberation for the oppressed, and more recently some had called for American intervention to stop the slaughter of Armenians.  But this was the first concrete action—the first international war—framed in this light and the war’s distinctive features worked together perfectly to support the rightness of the idea. 

The second dimension was the notion of benevolent rule.  In its earliest biblical development, the messiah figure focused on kingly rule, an anointed one who would come and set the world to rights.  With some qualification, I’d say this was definitely an imperial ideology.  Weighing motives is always difficult, but my sense is most who celebrated the intervention genuinely believed it would be helpful to the Cubans and Filipinos and that America really was disinterested.  So I don’t believe messianic interventionism was developed self-consciously to support an imperialistic, conquest agenda.  But it was definitely an imperial ideology in the sense that it was easily adaptable to justify continued government over—and suppression of—those believed to be incapable of governing themselves.

3. What person or group do you think was most influential to defining and propagating Christian nationalism during these years?

I can’t think of anyone more influential than Lyman Abbott and the periodical he edited called The Outlook.  He occupied one of the country’s most famous pulpits as Plymouth Church successor to Henry Ward Beecher.  He used his sermons to describe and defend his view of American identity and purpose, and his sermons were often disseminated in print through newspapers like the New York Times and other periodicals.  The Outlook was one of the most widely circulated religious periodicals of the time and was often cited by other religious editors.  This was especially true during the months of the war, when its editorials were offering perhaps the most careful and articulate case for messianic interventionism.

4. You conclude that "since World War I no definition of American identity and purpose has proven able to command the level of widespread assent that pervaded the public rhetoric of Christian leaders during the Spanish-American War" (141).  An yet America continues to this day to conduct the same sorts of "humanitarian" wars, in the name of "national self-sacrifice," that you find originating in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.  Is this yet one more example of the recently renewed "cultural victory thesis" (Demereath, Hollinger, Hedstrom)--that originally ecumenical Christian ideas have since become the norm of American culture and politics?  Or, could American statecraft since Worlds War I truly be characterized as "secular?"  What accounts for the apparent marginalization of pastors and their sermons over the course of the twentieth century ( certainly not lack of effort)?

I agree that the value of and the possibility of disinterested intervention has been affirmed and celebrated in the rhetoric surrounding interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, minus the overt Christian language.  But—acknowledging that we’re pushing beyond my area of expertise here—I think there are at least two important differences between these later interventions and what I describe in the Spanish-American War.  First, besides WWII and perhaps the Gulf War, these later interventions have been far more controversial, leaving the American public much more evenly divided than during the Spanish-American War.  With this level of controversy, I’d hesitate to call messianic interventionism a dominant “norm” in American culture. 

Second, as the question suggests, these later interventions have not seen nearly the same level of explicit Christian language used in public justifications.  I wouldn’t say that’s because American statecraft after WWI has become secular.  There was a great deal of generically Christian language used for American policy and national identity during the Cold War.  And even without the references to divine calling or invocations of divine blessing, I would say the philosophical underpinnings of foreign policy are never secular. They may not be tied to the principles of one particular religion, but they’re always tied up with definitions of the good life, of human identity and responsibility, and other issues that are at the heart of religious worldviews.  But Christian justifications for foreign policy decisions have definitely faded in prominence and I don’t know of one central explanation for the shift.

I’m convinced by accounts that point to the decline of Mainline Protestantism as a major factor.  For a variety of reasons the Protestant groups most visible and vocal in public life of the first half century saw their influence largely evaporate from the 1960s on.  These groups and their leaders weren’t necessarily less politically active, but they did become less numerous, less powerful, and in some doctrinal respects less Christian.  I recently enjoyed George Marsden’s argument on this front in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, where he also tries to identify factors limiting the usefulness of the ideas and methods on the religious right.

5. Is there anything you’d like to say in response to Paul’s review?

First and foremost I’d like to say a huge thank you to Paul for taking time to review my book.  It’s a very rewarding thing to have someone take your work seriously.  And though I don’t have much experience being reviewed as an author, it’s tough to imagine having one’s work handled more fairly or carefully than he handled mine.  From my perspective his summary of my argument captured exactly what I wanted to communicate.  And I would affirm the same basic limitations that he points out.  I try to frame and in some cases justify those limitations in my intro and in the notes, so I won’t restate the case here.  I’ll simply concede that there’s a lot more ground to cover; that my book would be more interesting if it had tried to cover more; and that, by limiting my scope, I hope what I have written holds a more coherent narrative flow and is convincing so far as it goes.

I’d also like to briefly take up his concluding question about the relationship of my role as a pastor to the subject matter of my book.  They’re definitely connected.  I wasn’t serving as a pastor during my research or most of my writing of this book, but I was pretty sure that I wanted to pastor by then and my affection for the local church definitely influenced my choice in subject matter.

I see the response of Christian ministers to the events of 1898 as a powerful cautionary tale from which pastors like me could learn a great deal.  A few examples:

1) It’s dangerous to assume you’re immune to the maladies of others.  The ministers I describe made this mistake when they believed America possessed a fundamentally different moral fiber than the colonizing nations of the Old World.  But the point isn’t thank goodness I’m not so naïve as they were.  The point is that like them we’re susceptible to being swept along by the force of events or colored by the assumptions of our time and place.

2) It’s dangerous to draw a straight line from the priorities of biblical ethics to the particulars of national policy.  We are necessarily short-sighted.  The particulars of public policy are often immensely complicated.  And the particulars of healthy policy are often a good deal removed from what I’m authorized to say with clarity as a minister of the gospel.

3) It’s dangerous to suggest a tight correspondence between the moral character celebrated in the Christian scriptures and the actual character of any nation.  Far from unpatriotic, it’s simply unrealistic to expect any human individual much less any nation to act with unblemished altruism.  I agree with Tuveson that we tend to view America as an object of either apocalyptic greatness or apocalyptic disappointment; either way America comes off as exceptional.  We’d be better off if we could simply view America as a nation inhabited and governed by humans, capable of good things and bad, always to be cultivated but never trusted with the imprimatur of divine providence.


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