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Are politicians heretics?

January 3, 2012

This may just be a Catholic way of posing what is essentially a Mennonite question, but a passing reference to exceptionalism has got me thinking.  As I have tried to argue elsewhere, any form of nationalism audacious enough to claim the glory that belongs to God alone is profoundly subverted by the orthodoxy (in the sense of right worship) that pervades the Mass.  And I would go so far as to add that within a Christian worldview, all national exceptionalism (American or otherwise) is heresy, due to its incompatibility with the catholicity of the church and the universal dignity of all human beings.  Given that a belief in American exceptionalism seems to be all but required for election to any major U.S. political office, does that make all our politicians heretics – or at least the ones who profess Christian faith?

  1. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    January 3, 2012 5:45 pm


    I am sympathetic to this view, especially the opposition to “American exceptionalism” But I wonder how you deal with the fact that virtually nothing in the RC Church’s history accords with it until (partially) the 19th Century, and then (more fully theoretically) since Pius XII. The rest of the history seems not only bound up with national trajectories, but almost productive of them on a grand scale. To wit, by some historian’s lights it was the theocratic ambitions of the church that instigated the Holy Roman Empire itself as a counter-weight. And it strains credulity that the Donation of Constantine would have ever have been concocted if some form of national or country need were not sensed by those guiding the church from Rome. I think you are going in the right direction of universality on some level. It just seems like the RC Church, despite contemporary assertions otherwise, is a hard place to find it grounded in actual fact.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 3, 2012 8:52 pm

      If you wonder how I can deal with the imperial compromise in church history, the only answer I can give at this point is: so do I. By bringing that up you have touched a chronic nerve for this Mennonite Catholic. The best I can do on this point is to find hope in observing that the RC Church’s social teaching has indeed evolved, as you’ve noted. The Constantinian compromise (which I hasten to distinguish from a total “fall” according to which the church lost all authentic discipleship and therefore all validity) was a grave and tragic error, and the church knows better now.

      • Rodak permalink
        January 3, 2012 10:21 pm

        I have to think that what you call here “the Constantinian compromise” was simply the end stage of an extended “fall” that must have begun long before Constantine came on the scene. A sell-out on that scale, made virtually over night by disciples in the true tradition, would be an about-face that is just unimaginable.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        January 3, 2012 11:25 pm


        Well put. I can’t argue with that, There is nothing wrong with changing for the better, in fact it is absolutely admirable in such an ancient institution.

  2. January 3, 2012 6:23 pm

    While the position they’re taking is technically a heretical one, I’m not sure I’d call them heretics as they’re not, so far as I can tell, deliberately taking a theological position in opposition to orthodoxy.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 3, 2012 7:54 pm

      Neither did any major proponents of the positions now deemed heretical. Didn’t they think themselves to be articulating orthodox church teaching? This sounds like splitting hairs to me.

    • brettsalkeld permalink*
      January 3, 2012 8:12 pm

      Material, formal, and all that.

  3. Rodak permalink
    January 3, 2012 7:49 pm

    @ Kyle —

    It seems to me that taking the position that this nation’s founding documents are (for all intents and purposes) divinely inspired scripture, comes pretty close to being heretical. Not to mention that “the Founding Fathers” comes to sound more and more as if it were describing biblical patriarchs than 18th century politicians, almost with every passing day.

  4. January 3, 2012 8:28 pm

    If they believe in a merely PRACTICAL American exceptionalism (ie, believing America simply has, due to the contingent vicissitudes of history, achieved a unique position in the world that gives it certain responsibilities and powers)…then I wouldn’t think so.

    If they really believe in a “divine” American exceptionalism…it depends. If they really believe the Constitution is divinely inspired or that America is some sort of mystical institution like the Church…that certainly would be heresy. If they merely mean that they think in the plan of Providence that America has been given, for our age, a signal role…not necessarily, but it gets pretty hard to draw the line between a contingent position like this and some sort of “absolutist” notion of it.

  5. Kurt permalink
    January 4, 2012 8:34 am

    I think the phrase “American exceptionalism” is sufficiently vague and even meaningless to the point it presents no real challenge to orthodoxy. A Sinner has it pretty well analyzed, though I think it is better just to ignore the matter rather than analyze it.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 4, 2012 12:15 pm

      Even though I’m the newbie here at Vox Nova, I think I can safely say that ignoring a matter rather than analyzing it is not our usual modus operandi.

      If you want to know what American exceptionalism is and how it contradicts Christian orthodoxy, look at the text of just about any public speech by any U.S. president – and I’ll bet you can find some doozies in presidential and congressional campaign speeches too. Any time they use Christianity (or even an unspecified theism, generally directed at a “Christian” base) as a platform for American superiority, or express belief in divinely mandated hegemony, there you have it: the heresy of exceptionalism.

      A particularly egregious example can be seen at the end of this clip (which I have given up trying to find in its original context after wading through way too many videos, so here it is on Jon Stewart):
      Rep. Steve Smith wants to thank his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for another day of freedom in the greatest country in the history of the world.” Lord have mercy! I hate to think what heresies are contained in all the presidential Thanksgiving speeches that do mention God.

      • January 4, 2012 2:49 pm

        “Rep. Steve Smith wants to thank his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for another day of freedom in the greatest country in the history of the world.” Lord have mercy!”

        I don’t see it. Is it heretical to believe our country is the greatest ever? Isn’t that a matter of opinion? In what way does it challenge orthodoxy? Also note that what he’s thanking Christ for, specifically, is freedom.

      • Kurt permalink
        January 4, 2012 4:23 pm


        You are really killing me to have to defend Steve Smith, who I think is the south end of a north-bound mule, but I really don’t take that prayer much differently than if he were to say ” I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for another day of love with my wonderful and exceptional wife, the most beautiful woman in the history of the world.”

      • Robert Lennon permalink
        January 5, 2012 6:24 am

        Is that over the top on Rep. Smith’s part? Sure. But I hardly think it heretical. Men in all ages have considered their states to be unshakable pillars of the world, from Christian Rome to the Spanish Empire and beyond. Like A Sinner said, *if* that transmuted into a belief of the divine inspiration for the United States you then get into murkier waters. As it is? Maybe they should re-read Ecclesiastes, but I won’t call someone a heretic over it.

      • Julia Smucker permalink*
        January 5, 2012 2:28 pm

        Oh my. I would point out, first of all, that the notion of freedom put forth within the paradigm of hyperpatriotic hubris is fundamentally different from freedom in a theological sense. Kurt, your example is clearly hyperbolic, whereas it’s not at all clear that Smith’s comment is. The whole idea that one’s own country is the greatest in the history of the world and that Jesus Christ is somehow responsible for this (an idea taken all too seriously, and even literally, by far too many people) reflects not only exceptionalism but an additional, related heresy: civil religion, the idolatry of country-worship.

      • January 6, 2012 9:04 am

        In the general sense of Providence, God is “responsible” for everything. If our country is the greatest yet (a matter of opinion; how are we judging “great”??) that would be a blessing bestowed by Jesus Christ, just like the RICHEST man in the world (a little more objectively determinable) could thank Jesus for that blessing of Providence. That’s not a justification of the exploitationist economic structure that probably led to this man (whether he can be called personally complicit in it or not) becoming the richest. Nor is it saying he will always be the richest or that his status as richest is some sort of ontological essential absolute established by God (only THIS claim would be heretical).

        Distinguishing when people are talking about an ontological/essential claim and when they are talking about merely a historically contingent practical claim can be difficult (especially when such a distinction is vague or blurred, at best, in most people’s heads anyway).

        It only verges on heresy if these men think that America’s status constitutes some sort of moral dispensation to “play by different rules” than the rest of the world, and not merely for practical reasons (where more power or a particular structural position geopolitically may indeed equal different responsibilities) but because of some sort of divinely conferred impunity or impeccability or infallibility (ie, believing that America “can do no wrong” as opposed to merely that it has, as a matter or practical fact, not done any wrong).

        But I think we at least owe these people the benefit of the doubt; there are non-heretical interpretations of their statements, and at face value it is not clear that they are intending any sort of absolute “theological” claim about America, so we shouldn’t jump to such conclusions even if we personally find their high opinion of America hubristic, naive, or distasteful or dangerous.

      • Julia Smucker permalink*
        January 6, 2012 1:40 pm

        “In the general sense of Providence, God is ‘responsible’ for everything.” This is a biblical statement in a way, but as such it has similarly disturbing implications to the biblical tendency to attribute to direct divine action absolutely everything that happens, as in, “the Lord brought on such-and-such calamity.” Without wanting to deny that God is ultimately “in control,” surely human responsibility – and along with that, human error and sometimes structural sin – must have a hand in things somewhere. I hope we can all recognize the danger in spinning the results of structural sin as the results of divine mandate; from there it’s a very small step to a self-issued moral carte blanche justifying all manner of immoral action on the part of the state. Politicians take that step whenever they use theistic language in defense of any public policy that fails to respect human dignity.

        It is precisely this danger that compels me to describe this line of thinking as heretical. My working definition of heresy is based on my crash-course-level knowledge of the patristics, for whom heresy was not just ideas that conflicted with the majority view in the church or with a predefined orthodox position (since the orthodox position on many things was not defined until the need arose to respond to some heresy). What makes an idea heretical is when it poses an internal threat to the life and praxis of the church. We may quibble over semantic distinctions between heretical ideas and “merely” arrogant or dangerous ones, but that only obscures the danger.

      • January 6, 2012 2:05 pm

        Fair enough, but such a “patristic usage” of the term “heresy” should be explained BEFORE it is tossed around casually.

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          January 7, 2012 1:02 pm

          Likewise, fair enough – especially considering that “heresy” in its casually-tossed-around usage these days often seems to mean anything that falls outside the personally preferred boundaries of “orthodoxy” of whoever is making the accusation.

  6. January 4, 2012 2:28 pm

    Yes! American exceptionalism comes directly from the distorted Calvinism of its founders. America is a normal modern secular state. There is nothing either exceptional or unexceptional about it.

    • January 4, 2012 2:44 pm

      Absolutely, no. Practically, yes, at this point in history, whether you want to believe it’s exceptionally good or exceptionally bad (or both); it was, after all, for a while one of only two superpowers, and then stood (or stands?) alone. This is exceptional. It is/was also (as everything) part of Providence. It’s pretty clear (in the traditional Catholic narrative of history) that both Israel and the Roman Empire had “special parts to play” in God’s plan, and other countries (France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, etc) were not chided too terribly for taking up this mantle at various points in the middle ages and pre-modern times.

      But, Providence is of course not a “justification” for anything that happens, and people who use their blessings for hubris should be aware that what God giveth, God can (and almost always will, eventually) take away. I don’t think a particular Nation-State having a sense of “mission” is necessarily heresy, anymore than a given individual (say, the Founders of religious orders, with their charism) is a heretic for thinking so, but I think at the very least it often turns unnuanced, naive, and hubristic.

    • ivankauffman permalink
      January 4, 2012 8:43 pm

      What is exceptional about the United States is that it was the first modern nation to adopt democracy, in any form. When virtually every other nation in the world adopted democracy in the 20th century that gave the U.S. a very significant head start. But that won’t last for long.

    • Sophia permalink
      January 4, 2012 9:56 pm

      The founders were more deists than calvanists. That Anglicans, and Anglicanism didn’t stand for much even in the 18th Century.

      • Sophia permalink
        January 4, 2012 9:57 pm

        “That AND Anglicans”.

  7. Sophia permalink
    January 4, 2012 9:59 pm

    You also the mirror image of this, as well, though more in Islam than in Christianity–where America takes on the role of Satan and is seen as exceptionally demonic. It’s there in Christianity too though (think Rev. Wright).

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 5, 2012 2:41 pm

      What I think Rev. Wright was really saying in the full context of his infamous “God damn America” soundbite was that if we perpetuate injustice and then say “God bless America,” there is a profound contradiction in that.

      We should acknowledge also that Islam, like Christianity, is a universal religion in the sense that it claims a message for the entire world; therefore, giving America the role of Satan should fall outside the bounds of Islamic orthodoxy, so to speak. But I’ll grant you that the mirror image does exist, with a figure like Osama bin Laden as an obvious examplar. And from a Christian perspective, it is just as heretical to demonize an entire population as to idolize it.

  8. Rodak permalink
    January 5, 2012 11:40 am

    America is, and has been for some time, exceptionally powerful. Because of its power, America, when it is good, can be very, very good. But when it is bad, it is also very, very bad. History shows us that there is nothing particularly “exceptional” about power, per se. What has been universally true about power on the global scale is that it is temporary. Power is not God-given; power is seized. Its acquisition leads to delusions of grandeur, which lead to over-extension, which leads to a mighty fall. Fasten your seat belts.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 5, 2012 2:31 pm

      Well said, Rodak. That’s putting it in perspective. Fasten your seat belts, indeed. And, again, Lord have mercy.

  9. Ross permalink
    January 5, 2012 2:13 pm

    Great article, sometimes I think we need to be clear about the distinction between nationalistic patriotism and respect for the foundation of a liberal nation state which in principle let faith florish and allowed common people far more religious freedom than they’d enjoyed here in Europe. Quakers, Catholics and Mennonites are proof to that freedom. Also, as a European I’d gently point out that the entire Catholic blogosphere is dominated by a form of American Exceptionalism. Almost every “Catholic” blog, forum and website both liberal and conservative from Father Z to NCR is American and framed in an American context and targeted at an American audience. Strange considering we are a global faith and also fustrating to have to constantly read debates which are of distinctly shrill polemical style found mostly in the U.S.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 5, 2012 2:53 pm

      Ouch. Point well taken. I share much of your frustration and am thinking about addressing questions of polemics more directly in a future post. It just seems like we’ve become deeply diseased over here, and it’s hard to tell what’s at the root of it.

  10. January 6, 2012 1:18 pm

    A Sinner writes, “… we at least owe these people the benefit of the doubt; there are non-heretical interpretations of their statements, and at face value it is not clear that they are intending any sort of absolute “theological” claim about America, so we shouldn’t jump to such conclusions…”

    My thinking exactly (though I never could have said it so well).

  11. January 9, 2012 6:10 pm

    This is an excellent debate. Stephen M. Walt has a great and approachable article in November Foreign Policy on “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” (

    Robert Bellah and his group also have a lot to say on this issue.

    I agree with the point about the Catholic blogs. In a sense, perhaps, it shows a new version of the Americanism heresy. Ignoring the rest of the world and Church is a temptation for both the so-called liberals and conservatives.

    While the Church has a checkered history of supporting unjust government policies and monarchs, the universal vision of the church was always present as a challenge. For example, Catholics were among the first to advocate for supra-national political structures and religious congregations developed structures that spanned national and diocesan borders. There is a lot (even in the middle ages) for us to use to critique the deification of the nation.

  12. January 16, 2012 12:59 pm

    Glad these kinds of questions are still being raised here at Vox Nova.

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