Preface: “Thinking Theologically”
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
In a recent opinion piece on the trial of a white police officer for the murder of an unarmed black man, Botham Jean, J. Kameron Carter revisited Robert Bellah’s classic article on civil religion, demanding a reset: “Notwithstanding Bellah’s great insight about the operations of American civil religion, what he nonetheless failed to grapple with was the degree to which America as a religious project rooted in the higher ideal or the natural law of human equality and freedom for all rested on an inequality within the ranks of the human ideal of freedom.”1 Like Carter, this volume sees America as a religious project. It is motivated by the notion that what it is to be human is newly under pressure today and nowhere more than in the United States. Joining others who are reinventing theology to address these broader issues, the essayists understand religion to be a question and not an answer.
Invoking the troubling polarization of American life today has become a weary and narcissistic refrain. Notwithstanding these seemingly intractable divisions, however, much important and thoughtful work in various fields is being done to understand and minister to these divisions. Joining this larger conversation, this volume is motivated by the conviction that essential to this effort is making visible the complex and deeply ambivalent religious logics, both explicit and implicit, at work in the various discourses of American exceptionalism. We call this work theological, theology here understood as a broadly inclusive spirit of inquiry, a mode of thought attentive to human finitude. We find with contributor Matthew Scherer that much of the resistance to American exceptionalism today is informed by secularist assumptions and preoccupations that “obscure, disavow, or otherwise evade the theological resonances of the exception.” Our engagement with this topic thus necessitates, as Joseph Winters reminds us, “a refusal of any solid distinction between the theological and the secular, or religion and politics.” Thinking theologically allows us to revisit familiar themes and events with a new perspective; old and new wounds, enduring narratives, and the sacrificial violence at the heart of America are examined while avoiding both the triumphalism of the exceptional and the temptations of the jeremiad. It involves, as Winters recommends, departing from “commitments and investments that have made US exceptionalism so pervasive and commonsensical,” and thinking rather with the “unmourned” while remaining “‘suspended in the oceanic.’”2
We have deliberately sought out spaces not traditionally explored by most theologians. With Cooper Harriss, for example, we turn to novelists as theologians and the “Great American Novel” as theology. Such novels, as Harriss explains, qualify as theological not because they are god-obsessed but rather because of their focus on interiority, the fostering of correspondence between personal and social dimensions of human experience, and the narration of subjectivity within objective frames: “Sounding the distance between internal moral condition and external social order, Great American Novels provide the unbearable evidence of just what such gods require.” Lisa Sideris, in her essay, underlines the theological dimensions of American techno-optimism as an antidote to climate disaster, an optimism predicated on Americans’ “godlike capacity, our gift for innovation and infinite malleability.” Noah Salomon diagnoses “exceptional Americanism” as the moment when the exception seeks to enter into that from which it has been excepted. Circulating through each of these reflections are questions of theology, ultimacy and the limits of the human.
Theologies of American Exceptionalism is a collection of fifteen interlocking essays reflecting on the vagaries of these and other exceptionalist claims in and about the United States.3 Loosely and generatively curious, these essays bring together a range of historical and contemporary voices, some familiar and some less so, to stimulate new thought about America.
Contributors were asked to expound on an exemplary text. They chose texts that range from what might usually be regarded as religious texts, such as John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon said to have been delivered aboard the Arabella and Ruhollah Khomeini’s “Last Will and Testament,” to judicial opinions, such as that of the US Supreme Court articulating the doctrine of conquest, literary reflections on the Great American Novel, and academic writing on capitalism, consumption, and excess. These texts were not understood to be canonical or exhaustive, but rather suggestive. (The texts are listed in an appendix to this volume.) The essays are presented in pairs under five headings: Love, Fiction, Revolution, Commerce and Chosen. Five respondents provide further reflection on the paired essays. Read together and in conversation with other reflections on US exceptionalism, the fifteen contributors explore difficult and unresolved aspects of the American project in conversation with the exemplary texts and with each other. The essays are intended to be open-ended, published as they are on this innovative new platform, inviting the reader to join in the conversation with us.
Love. The first two essays, “Familiar Commerce and Covenantal Love” by Constance Furey and “A Yet Unapproachable America” by Matthew Scherer, are followed by a response by Joseph Winters: “The Promise of Immanent Critique.” Furey and Scherer stage a conversation between theology and political philosophy, between John Winthrop and Stanley Cavell, highlighting themes of the individual and the community, hierarchy and inequality, tradition and novelty. Each challenges Americans to live up to their exceptionalism. Winters takes exception to their readings by making visible the always outside of the inside created by community, whether triumphal or penitential.
Fiction. The second pair, “A History of America” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and “The Great American Novel” by M. Cooper Harriss, are followed by a response from W. Clark Gilpin: “Memories of the Future.” Sullivan and Harriss interrogate the theological narratives of two quintessentially secular forms, the Supreme Court opinion and the Great American Novel. In response, Gilpin further explores the tension between fact and fiction in his essay considering the function of national narratives in several classic texts, including the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King.
Revolution. The third set includes essays by Spencer Dew, “Revolution as Revelation” and Noah Salomon, “Exceptional Americanism” and a response from Faisal Devji: “Unexceptional Islam.” Dew the Americanist and Solomon the scholar of Islam undertake a quixotic collaboration, one that began with trading texts, and requiring each to reflect on an unfamiliar text from a tradition he did not specialize in. The result is a remarkable exchange between a scholar of Islam reflecting on a text by Moorish Science founder Noble Drew Ali, and an Americanist writing about Khomeini’s “Last Will and Testament.” Faisal Devji in response provocatively claims that the Iranian Revolution resulted in a solution to the problem of sovereignty posed by the US Constitution.
Commerce. The fourth set pairs “Techno-Optimism” by Lisa Sideris and “The America-Game” by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd with a response by Elisabeth R. Anker: “Sovereign Exceptionality.” Sideris and Hurd carefully expose the productively ambiguous religious languages used to sell “an affective conviction in the United States as transcendent.” Sideris displays the remarkable techno-optimism of Americans, uniquely resistant to human responsibility for climate change and endlessly confident that ingenuity will provide a way. Hurd examines Wal-Mart’s free enterprise model as an exceptionalist theology that, not unlike Sideris’ techno-optimism, naturalizes and depoliticizes a particular understanding of what it means to be American, and to be human. In response Anker reflects on the exceptional investment in sovereign individuality driving both of these stories. Even as sovereign individuality claims universality, she emphasizes, in the United States it is also a subject position available primarily to white men.
Chosen. Finally, “Sacrifice” by Stephanie Frank and “The Judeo-Christian Tradition” by Shaul Magid are followed by a response by Benjamin L. Berger: “Is the Particular Exceptional?” Frank uses her reading of Paul Kahn as an occasion to reflect on the sacrificial logic inherent in US exceptionalism, the need to constantly manufacture enemies, and to continually seize on the wrong victim, resulting in a form of political idolatry. Magid details the origins and odd journey of “Judaeo-Christian” as a description of America, showing it to be an assimilationist rather than conjunctive gesture, one that enables contemporary forms of Zionist and Americanist politics that specifically exclude the Muslim. Responding from Canada, Berger reflects on the complexity of the universal and the particular in US self-understanding by considering different meanings of the notion of chosenness. It is not merely the fact of particularity but rather the peculiar sacrality of the Constitution that marks US exceptionalism for Berger. He highlights as a central problematic the need to understand how the particular becomes universal in the American context such that it “has the confidence to traverse other particularities.” It is this boundless ethical horizon of American chosenness that aligns with and often seems to precipitate the projection of U.S. military might, markets and morals around the world.
Together these essays challenge the reader to think America anew.
J. Kameron Carter, “How a Courtroom Ritual of Forgiveness Absolves White America.” Religion News Service (October 4, 2019). https://religionnews.com/2019/10/04/how-a-courtroom-ritual-of-forgiveness-absolves-white-america/; Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, special issue on, “Religion in America,” Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1: pp. 1-21. In a footnote to Chapter 7 of Beyond Belief Bellah clarifies: “I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form of religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not” (1970: 168). ↩
Winters quotes Hortense Spillers: “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 206.↩
As part of the Luce Foundation-supported project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” Theologies began to take shape in 2017 when the editors guest-curated a series of paired posts on The Immanent Frame, the SSRC’s online discussion forum on religion and public life. Two years later these essays seem prescient, noting, as they do, themes and logics that have only become more insistent. The initial posts have been expanded and refined for this volume.↩