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Versions of this talk were delivered at Iliff School of Theology in Denver Colorado, on January 28, 2003, and at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, on March 6, 2003.  An abbreviated version of it, entitled "Righteous Empire," was published in the March 8, 2003 issue of The Christian Century.

Can We Be Citizens of a World Empire?

Robert N. Bellah

When we think about the history of the United States we cannot but be amazed at the transformation that has occurred in a little more than two centuries since our founding, or a little less than four centuries since the first European colonies were established.  What was in the 1630s virtually nothing at all-a few hundred colonists set down in the wilderness, and by the late 18th century hardly much more-a number of colonial outposts on the Atlantic Coast of North America at the far fringes of the great European world empires, has today become itself the only empire there is, the economic, political, cultural and military master of the globe, or should I say, more cautiously, almost master of the globe.  There are still a few untamed barbarians on the frontiers and all is not entirely well within our own camp.  But to be sure, we have no rival.  If we are not entirely master of the globe no one else is anywhere near being so.

In a conference on religion and public virtue it is appropriate to ask whether the public virtue required of us at the beginning of our history, and the religious basis of that virtue, are still adequate for us in the entirely new situation in which we find ourselves today.  I will argue that there are some strong continuities, as well as some stark discontinuities between our beginning and our present, and that we will not understand what is required of us today unless we carefully examine that history of continuity and discontinuity.

At the very beginning of European colonization John Winthrop in 1630 preached a famous and much-quoted sermon on board the Arbella just before disembarking at what would become Salem, Massachusetts.  The words we all know are as follows:  "[W]e shall be as a City on a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."  Ronald Reagan added the word "shining" to this passage, so that America became a "shining city on a hill," even though neither Winthrop nor Matthew, 5:14, from which Winthrop took the phrase, had used that word.  What Reagan did not quote, however, was the passage just following the famous one.  After saying  "the eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop went on to say "so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going."  So we should remember that Winthrop's city on a hill was a conditional city:  not only was it not divine, it stood constantly under divine judgment and would be condemned if it was false to its promise.  Nevertheless, as Perry Miller pointed out, Winthrop did believe that the Massachusetts Bay Colony had world historical significance, and that it might even be politically important as part of a far-flung Protestant establishment that might eventually challenge its leading opponents of the day.  But if Winthrop hoped for a Protestant, even a particular kind of Protestant, eventual victory, it is unlikely that he ever imagined Massachusetts would be politically central.  Rather, the new colony was to be a demonstration experiment, a model that would influence more by example than by power.

The idea that the American experiment was divinely ordained did, of course, not end with John Winthrop; it is alive and well today.  There has not been a generation since 1630 that has not understood Americans to be in some sense or other a chosen people.  Consider the uproar that ensued when a panel of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in June of last year ruled that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of religion.  The Senate interrupted a debate about defense spending to pass unanimously a resolution condemning the Ninth Circuit decision, while members of the House met on the Capital steps to recite the Pledge with "under God" included.  In light of Winthrop's words it is worth pausing to ask what "under God," added only in 1954 during the Cold War, actually means.  Does it mean that America alone is "under God," and the rest of the world must recognize our special status, or does it mean that America is under God like all other nations, and, like them, subject to divine judgment?  I suppose most school children recite the words by rote without thinking whether they mean anything, but I wonder in which sense the few who do think about them take them to mean.  I also wonder if there has not been a not so subtle change in the meaning of such a phrase as "under God" from the time when we were a tiny outpost in the wilderness to a time when we are the center of a world empire. 

As a sociologist of religion, I want to ask a further question about the religious, basis of public virtue in America.  If America has always had a more or less conscious sense of religious mission, what kind of religion defined what that mission was?  One might imagine that a nation with so strong a sense of divine calling would have an established church.  The Puritans in New England did have an established church, though they were dissenters from the established church in England.  There were Anglican establishments in several of the southern colonies.   But in the early history of the republic an alliance of largely Baptist dissenters and Enlightenment Deists made sure that there would be no established church at the national level by passing the First Amendment, which we must always remember also contains a clause protecting the free exercise of religion.  And from fairly early in the Nineteenth Century the majority of Americans belonged to, and have continued to belong to, dissenting Protestant churches, making America unique among Western nations; all the others have traditions of established churches, however vestigial those establishments may be today. 

There are two things about dissenting Protestantism that we might want to think about as we consider how that majority tradition continues to influence the religious understanding of our nation and of our obligation as citizens today.  For one thing, dissenters have an aversion to government.  This is natural, since governments with established churches have sought to enforce just the beliefs and practices on dissenters that the dissenters were dissenting from.  But the aversion to government went beyond aversion to government interference with religion.  It was expressed in a general feeling that people should do things for themselves rather than rely on government, and that the primary instrument for doing things for themselves was the voluntary association, based on the model of the dissenting church itself, which was a voluntary association.  Strong society, weak state was the model for the United States for much of its early history.  Hegel went so far as to say that we had no state at all.  Given the enormous power of the federal government, especially its military power, today, that would hardly describe us at present.  With the decline of every kind of voluntary association in the last 40 years, as documented by Robert Putnam, we might even say weak society, strong state is a better description of our present reality. 

However much the reality has changed, ideology has not.  Ideologically, hostility to government is as strong as ever.  Remember Clinton saying, "The era of big government is over," at a time when government had never been more powerful at home and abroad?  Another indication of the strong American hostility to government is our aversion to taxes.  When Americans are asked if they would like to see cuts in most of the programs funded by the federal government, they say no, because when the programs are named they see that they need them.  But when asked if they want tax cuts, they say yes by large majorities.  We seem to be headed for another 600 billion plus in tax cuts at a moment when federal expenditures are rising dramatically.  I don't say at all that dissenting Protestantism is solely responsible for this disconnect between reality and ideology, but only that it is one factor that makes this disconnect greater than in any other Western nation.

There is another aspect of dissenting Protestantism that contributes to making the United States different from other Western nations with established church traditions.  Established churches, Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican, think of their membership as including everyone, saints and sinners.  Some are more pious than others but it is the job of the church to nurture the less pious so that they understand better their religious obligations, and to nurture in the nation those institutions that will contribute to a more ethical society.  Dissenting churches are exclusive, not inclusive; they are churches of the saved; they exclude the reprobate.  Rather than seeing the church as a moral hierarchy in which some are more morally exemplary than others, they tend to see society and the world as split between the righteous and the unrighteous.  The dissenting churches have been and are still today ardent missionaries, but their aim is not to include the converted in their difference, but to transform them as much as possible into the image of the saved, not only religiously but culturally as well.  I often think of American multiculturalism as the last turn of the dissenting Protestant screw, in which every group, whatever its background, will be included as long as it resembles as much as possible the dominant American way of life.

This evening I want to consider how well our dominant religious tradition has prepared us, or failed to prepare us, for the imperial role we have long been assuming, but which has been urgently brought home to us by September 11 and subsequent events. 

While "American imperialism" has been a catch phrase on the left for a long time, those across the political spectrum are only now beginning to accept the idea that we have decisively entered the age of the American Empire.  The two empires with which we are most often compared these days are the Roman and the British.  It is worth pointing out that both of these empires had established churches.  In the case of Rome I am not only pointing to the establishment of the Catholic Church by Constantine, important though that was, but to the religio-cultural synthesis that developed at the time of Augustus Caesar, that gave to the emperor and the imperial institution a salvific meaning.  I would also suggest that the Anglican establishment added a significant religio-ethical dimension to the self-understanding of the British in their imperial age. 

How well has our belief that we are a city on a hill, even if a dissenting city on a hill, prepared us for empire?  Not very well, I will argue.  Indeed the deep hostility to government in our tradition makes the very idea of empire repugnant.  If we don't want a strong government at home, why would we want to rule the world?  Interestingly enough, George Bush gave clear expression to this feeling during the 2000 electoral campaign.  He consistently opposed what he called "nation building" as an American responsibility and called for more "humility" in our relation to the rest of the world, striking a strong chord of something like the isolationism that has been perennial in our tradition.  Many have noted how greatly 9/11 changed Bush's views.  But even after laying out in September of last year the most explicit blueprint in history for American world domination in the document entitled "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America," Mr. Bush could tell a group of veterans gathered at the White House in November that America has "no territorial ambitions. We don't seek an empire.  Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others." 

Such statements have led Michael Ignatieff in an article in the New York Times Magazine in January of this year to comment:

A historian once remarked that Britain acquired its empire in "a fit of absence of mind."  If Americans have an empire, they have acquired it in a state of deep denial.  But Sept. 11 was an awakening, a moment of reckoning with the extent of American power and the avenging hatreds it arouses. Americans may not have thought of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon as the symbolic headquarters of a world empire, but the men with the box cutters certainly did, and so do numberless millions who cheered their terrifying exercise in the propaganda of the deed.

In spite of the fact that with respect to the word "empire" Mr. Bush is apparently still in the state of what Ignatieff called "deep denial," his September 2002 National Security document is nothing if not a description of empire:  America will strike any nation or any group that it deems dangerous, whenever and however it feels necessary, and regardless of provocation or lack thereof.  America invites allies to join in these ventures but reserves the right to act with or without allies.  No nation will be allowed to surpass or even equal American military power, and indeed other nations are advised to limit or destroy any "weapons of mass destruction" they may have, and that includes Russia, China and India.  Only the United States will have large reserves of weapons of mass destruction, apparently because only we can be trusted to use them justly.  Although the document several times uses the time-honored phrase "balance of power," it is very unclear what that phrase can mean in a situation where we have all the power and no one else has anything to balance it with.  Further, our enormous power will be used not only to inhibit the power of others but also to disseminate throughout the world what the document calls "a single sustainable model for national success," which it defines as "freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."  In other words, all other nations had better look like the United States pretty soon, or else.

Thus we have the paradox that, because of our aversion to the idea of big government, our president can deny the idea that there is an American Empire at the very moment when we are asserting absolute military and cultural domination of the globe.  Can our dissenting Protestant tradition help us explain that?  Certainly not entirely, but I think it helps.  Our tendency toward moralistic splitting, of thinking of the world as divided between the saved and the damned, the good and the evil, can trump our aversion to power.  If evil is loose in the world, it is up to us to put a stop to it.  I don't think I am the only one to have noticed how presidential rhetoric after 9/11 has been continuously punctuated by the words "evil" and "evildoer."  Perhaps the most extreme use of the word came right after 9/11 in the service in the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, repeated in the National Security document of September 2002, when Mr. Bush declared that it is "our responsibility to history" to "rid the world of evil."  Rid the world of evil?  It is hard to exaggerate the breathtaking quality of that assertion.  What even God has not done America will do. 

Robert Jewett has long pointed out the American infatuation with superheroes, figures with mythic powers, whose sole purpose is to rid the world of evil, though they never seem to succeed completely.  The superhero is usually fighting against an evil genius bent on world power who must be stopped.  Enter Osama bin Laden.  Early on Mr. Bush promised to "smoke him out and get him."  That hasn't worked out, but there is always a waiting line of potential evil geniuses, and the next in line turned out to be Saddam Hussein.  Yasser Arafat is also in line, but so are Kim Jong-il and the Ayatollah Khamenei, though the latter two are on hold at the moment.  If there are evil people out there who want to destroy us, and we must admit that Osama bin Laden, at least, has explicitly promised that that is exactly what he wants to do, then any use of force to put a stop to them is justified.

Moral splitting is a general human propensity; I don't want to claim that the United States has a monopoly of it, only that we do it more than other Western nations.  And even though I see dissenting Protestantism as one source of it, my reference to superheroes suggests that this tendency is now secularized and pervasive in our popular culture, disseminated by movies, television and video games.  At a deeper level our infatuation with technology plays into this idea:  technology, particularly military technology, will give us the equivalent of the supernatural invincibility of superheroes.  I will have more to say on how problematic this tendency toward moral splitting is as the basis of national policy, but first I want to comment on how it has influenced public discussion since 9/11. 

Joan Didion's article "Fixed Ideas" in the New York Review of Books in January of this year describes the shift.  She quotes Steven Weber of the Institute of International Studies of my university as saying:

The first thing you noticed [after 9/11] was in the bookstores.   On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan.  There was a substantive discussion about what it is about the nature of the American presence in the world that created a situation in which movements like al-Qaeda can thrive and prosper.  I thought that was a very promising sign.
But that discussion got short-circuited.  Sometime in late October, early November 2001, the tone of that discussion switched, and it became:  What's wrong with the Islamic world that it failed to produce democracy, science, education, its own enlightenment, and created societies that breed terror?

I can remember how in the fall of 2001 the Fox cable news network (which I assure you I watch very sparingly) began an incessant campaign against those seeking to "understand" those who had attacked us.  According to the Fox commentators, pure evil is beyond understanding-it can only be opposed.  From where they got the phrase "moral clarity" I don't know-Bill Bennett used it in a book title-but moral clarity became the watchword of the moral splitters.  Any effort to understand the enemy, above all any attempt to show that the United States might bear some responsibility for conditions leading up to the attacks, was denounced as lack of moral clarity, as moral relativism, postmodernism, or worse.  Didion's point is that this tendency has flattened discussion since 9/11, and has created a coalition government in which Democratic politicians, with few exceptions, either have remained silent or have supported whatever the President wanted with respect to foreign policy-the congressional vote on war powers in Iraq being the prime example-so that there is no effective political opposition.

If moral splitting helps us understand how a nation deeply suspicious of government seems ready to assert absolute world military supremacy-after all, we are simply trying to take out the bad guys-and to doubt the patriotism of anyone who thinks otherwise, does it provide us with adequate help in assuming the responsibility that world power carries with it?  Does it provide the kind of public virtue that would allow us to run an empire?  On this point Michael Ignatieff, in two articles in the New York Times Magazine in the last six months (July 28, 2002, January 5, 2003), argues that it does not.  Let me begin with his article of last July entitled, significantly, "Nation-Building Lite [spelled lite]."  Its subtitle was "The Bush administration is trying to reconstruct Afghanistan on the cheap.  But empires come heavy or not at all."  Remember Afghanistan?  Apparently neither our leaders nor our fellow citizens really want to.  Ignatieff helps us understand why:

Empire means big government.  One paradox of the new American empire is that it is being constructed by a Republican administration that hates big government. Its way around this contradiction is to get its allies to shoulder the burdens it won't take on itself.  In the new imperial division of labor on display in Afghanistan, the Americans do most of the fighting while the Europeans, who have no ideological problems with big government but don't like fighting, are only too happy to take on the soft sides of nation-building: roads, schools, sanitation and water.

However, as Ignatieff notes, the United States is only supplying military security lite as well.  It's cheaper for the US military to work with local warlords than to help Muhammad Karzai build a military force that could control the whole country.  But local warlords are prone to fight each other and to resist centralized control from Kabul.  Since the US is unwilling to provide even minimal security for the whole country, the various European nations who have taken on nation-building responsibilities are more and more uncertain whether they can even stay in Afghanistan.  From the American point of view, we have taken care of the bad guys:  the Taliban are no longer in power.  Why can't we just leave, like superheroes always do after they have defeated the evil genius?  But is our grasp on history so faint that we have forgotten the last time we intervened in Afghanistan to support the Mujahidin in their war against the Soviets and then left when we thought the battle was won?  As Ignatieff writes:

Washington had better decide what it wants.  If it won't sustain and increase its military presence here, the other internationals will start heading for the exit. If that occurs, there is little to stop Afghanistan from becoming, once again, the terror and heroin capital of the world.  There is no reason that this has to happen.  Afghans themselves know they have only one more chance.  They understand the difficult truth that their best hope of freedom lies in a temporary experience of imperial rule.

The San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service in an article on February 10 of this year indicates that what Ignatieff feared last July is already coming to pass.  According to this article American forces have recently abandoned five outposts along the Pakistani border because of increasing attacks by pro-Taliban forces.  Nongovernmental organizations are also coming under attack-16 attacks in the two weeks before the article was written-making it possible that they might have to suspend operations in Afghanistan altogether, especially should America attack Iraq.  "We are worried about a repeat of the past," said a Pakistani intelligence officer.  "We are all still paying the bill from the last time that America turned its focus away from Afghanistan."  (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/10/03, p. A11)

So at the moment Afghanistan remains exhibit A for the problems of empire, American style.  We are prepared to fight the bad guys wherever they appear.  We don't seem to have the stomach to finish the job after the initial military victory.  If we are messing up in Afghanistan, where reconstruction and serious reform, even security, are stalling, why would one think we would do better in Iraq, a much larger and more complex society?  But Afghanistan is old news.  We barely hear a whisper about it from Washington.

Ignatieff's second article, appearing in the New York Times Magazine in January, is even more sobering.  It is entitled simply, "The Burden."  For the British in their heyday it was the white man's burden.  Thank God we have gotten beyond that, but that empires create burdens is as true now as it ever was.  Neither Ignatieff nor I are saying that empire is inevitably bad.  In his interesting book, War before Civilization, Lawrence Keeley argues that the Roman Empire was one of the most peaceful periods in history-fewer men under arms, and fewer civilians killed in war than in most of history.  The British Empire during its heyday, roughly from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I, maintained a degree of tranquility in the world that encouraged unprecedented economic growth.   But both the Romans and the British knew that empire imposes enormous burdens and were prepared historically and culturally to take those burdens on.  At their best they also knew that no empire, no matter how strong, is all-powerful.  Over-extension is the bane of empires:  limits must be recognized.  If they are not, it is the beginning of the end:  burdens that are too heavy lead to imperial defeat and dissolution.  Ignatieff argues, and I agree with him, that in this dangerous period the world needs the American Empire as a guarantee of security and the basis for building new institutions in shattered nations.  But military superiority is only the first step in creating a successful empire.  Are we prepared for the many time-consuming and exhaustingly expensive steps that must follow if the empire is to be a success?

But let me return to my root question about our moral and religious resources for sustaining empire.  Dissenting Protestantism at its most confident is an unlikely candidate for imperial power, as I have already suggested.  But dissenting Protestantism is not at its most vigorous today.  Even within apparently vigorous congregations, consumerist attitudes are evident:  programs that once were supported by willing volunteers now have to be sold as "adding value" to the participants.  Even more problematic is the weakening of the influence of Evangelical Protestantism, in the broadest sense of that term, in the culture as a whole.  That influence that was once so pervasive has been undermined by the very individualism that it has helped to unleash.  Max Weber argued almost 100 years ago that Protestantism, in helping to create capitalism, was unleashing a genie that would come back to haunt it.  Capitalism gives rise to a secular version of Protestantism that operates through the culture of mass consumerism and the ideology of privatized self-fulfillment.  If Protestantism helped to create capitalism, it also helped to create modern democracy, but consumerism and privatization undermine the very institutional basis of democracy, that is, the structure of voluntary association, the civil society, without which democracy becomes, as Tocqueville warned, democratic despotism or the rule of an economic aristocracy. 

Last fall I saw on television Cardinal George, the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, describe in a moment of candor, what he called our secularized American Protestant culture as a combination of decadence and moralism.  It may seem an odd moment in history for a leading Catholic cleric to criticize even a secular version of Protestantism, but I found it immensely refreshing.  And only too true:  our capacity for moralistic condemnation seems to be equaled only by our capacity for national self-indulgence.  In short, it is a strange time for America to take on the responsibilities of empire, when our own society, from the family to the corporation, shows signs of deep inner incoherence. 

And, as if that weren't bad enough, we must ask what kind of influence America is exerting on the rest of the world.  Every great empire depends as much on cultural influence as on political authority and military might.  American culture, even the American language, through the movies, television and the Internet pervades the world, but with what message?  Affluence and self-indulgence as the answer to the meaning of life would not seem to be a firm basis for the dissemination of democracy in the world.  To what extent is our culture teaching the world the virtues of citizenship, self-control, care of others?  These are the ideals that make democracy work.  To what extent is American culture teaching the world the opposite of these ideals?

There is a great temptation for American intellectuals today to watch in resigned fascination, as the greatest empire the world has ever seen lumbers toward self-destruction.  I don't want to do that.  I still believe our enormous power can be used for good.  Even though, as a Christian, I must support military action only with fear and trembling, I am not arguing that all use of military power is wrong.  In a world as dangerous as ours, a judicious use of military power is probably unavoidable.  I did not oppose the Gulf War:  annexation by force must be reversed.  I believe it was a great mistake to leave Saddam in power in 1991-that would have meant simply finishing a war he had provoked.  Our intervention in Bosnia was wrong only in that it came much too late, after a quarter of a million unnecessary deaths had occurred.  I believe it was right to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, though as in Afghanistan, where I also think our military action, if not always the way it was carried out, was justified, we can ask if our contribution to rebuild has matched our military victory. 

But military action should always be a last resort.  Its consequences are too grave and its outcome too uncertain to engage in it otherwise.  At the moment, I would much rather see the United States army intervene in Israel and Palestine to provide security for both peoples and the possibility of building a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state, than engaging in a highly personalized invasion of an "evil" country, yet to be proven an imminent threat to anyone.  Fortunately the supermen at the Pentagon do not seem inclined to take on the really dangerous member of the axis of evil, North Korea, at least not for now.

In terms of cultural resources, I have several suggestions for making our empire benign, though some of them may seem utopian.  We are, more than ever, a city on a hill.  But what do the eyes of all people see when they look at us?  Are we the model of Christian charity that Winthrop intended us to be?  Does our citizenry enact the virtues that Winthrop in his rolling biblical rhetoric said would be necessary?  Not nearly as good a model or as virtuous a citizenry as we could be.  Why do we have the highest rate of poverty, the largest percentage of the population without health insurance, and the greatest number of gun deaths among any of the advanced industrial nations?  Why are we polarized into two nations, one living in first world affluence, the other in third world misery, again unlike any other advanced nation?  If we want to be, as other successful empires have been, a teacher to the world, so that other nations will want to imitate us, why cannot we give them a better model to imitate?  Empire is enormously expensive, but if it means that we abandon those in need at home, is it worth the candle?

In terms of our majority religious tradition cannot we ask our friends who are dissenting Protestants, remembering that all of us more than we know are influenced by this tradition, to consider whether their aversion to government and their tendency to moralistic splitting are an adequate basis for imperial responsibility?  Here I think Jimmy Carter provides a model.  As a professing Baptist, though one who has found it necessary to dissociate himself from the Southern Baptist Convention in its present incarnation, he exemplifies the dissenting tradition.  Yet he has turned the individualistic moralism that somewhat marred his presidency into a model of civic responsibility in his years of retirement (or did he ever retire?), becoming the most valued ex-president in our recent history and a deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Influential though the dissenting Protestant tradition is, it is clearly only one of many religious traditions in today's America.  Traditions with a stronger sense of the common good, a better understanding that we need each other and will not make it all alone, in one way Judaism, in another Catholicism, even Protestant denominations with a heritage of establishment, have much to contribute as we think through how we as a nation must act in the world today.  I also think all the minority traditions-Muslim, Buddhist, Native American, and others-have much from which we can learn.  Almost all of them, in one way or another, have ways of thinking about the world that are less individualistic and privatizing than our dominant tradition.  

But our greatest need, in our hour of imperial eminence, is moderation, and every moral and religious resource that we can draw on to understand what moderation at this moment in our history means.  Our greatest danger is, in our present moralistic and belligerent mood, to take on responsibilities we cannot and will not fulfill.  Though we are the greatest military power the world has ever seen, we cannot rule the world alone, nor only with Britain as our faithful shepherd dog ally.  We are not rich enough or strong enough to do that.  In the last six months we have, at least apparently, pulled back from a radical unilateralism to a recognition that the rest of the world counts.  Let us nurture that change and extend it.  Edward Tiryakian, in an interesting paper on American hegemony after September 11, argues that we cannot succeed, as the September 2002 National Security document proclaims, as the world's only hegemonic power.  As Tiryakian suggests, a viable world order cannot be unipolar, but must be at least tripolar.  The European Union on the one hand and the major nations of East Asia on the other must be equal partners in sharing the burden of lessening world disorder.  If we are first, it must be first among equals, not we will tell you what to do or else. 

In this situation, it is not helpful though it might be understandable, for our president to say not long after 9/11, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists."  The world is too complex and its diversity too great to be split in two on any issue.  We must expect that many who have no sympathy with terrorism nonetheless are not "with us" in all that we propose to do.  When we tell them what to do it would be wise, as Tony Blair recently suggested, to "listen back," even if we have to hear strong disagreements. 

We should also remember that, though unilateralism-we will either withdraw from the world or dominate it-has long existed in the American tradition, it has never been the only strand.  It was, after all, Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian, who proposed the League of Nations at the end of World War I, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an Episcopalian, who drew the plans for the United Nations after World War II.  If at the moment the American administration seems inclined to withdraw from or refuse to join almost every international agreement (the Kyoto Protocol and the International Court of Justice are only the most obvious examples), this has not always been true.  We have in the past signed test ban treaties, promoted efforts to limit nuclear proliferation, joined with other nations in a variety of international undertakings.  Our support for rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II, though in part motivated by the Cold War, was sustained and successful, the opposite of the pattern of hit and run we are tempted by today.  But most fundamentally can we really afford to call the United Nations "irrelevant" if it does not do our bidding, as some of our leaders have been saying for some time?  If not the United Nations, then what?  For 58 years the United Nations has been building a web of international institutions, fragile and often inadequate to be sure, that have made the international community safer and more effective.  What is it that we propose to put in its place?  Do we really intend that the United States alone will provide all the money and personnel to run the many, many humanitarian, peacekeeping and cultural programs that the United Nations sponsors?

Let me put it to you starkly.  The National Security document of last September claims world military hegemony.  As Max Weber has taught us, the monopoly on the use of force is the very definition of the state.  That document is a blueprint for a world state, and it is us.  The new world order indeed.  The black helicopters that have worried the right-wing fringe turn out to be ours.  But a nation that hates taxes becoming the world state?  We are only 5% of the world's population, but just think about what it will cost every man, woman, and child of us in taxes if we are really going to run the world.  I don't think so.  A nation that is in many ways falling apart at home can't be the only player on the world stage.  We need to build a society-and a world-in which it will be clear that we need one another, that we will bear one another's burdens.  We need to reassert the virtues that Winthrop described in his great initial sermon:

[W]e must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. . .

Power.  We have enormous power, more than any nation has ever had before-probably more than it is good for any nation to have.  But power in itself is not bad; we cannot live without it.  The question is, what kind of power?  Albert Borgmann has usefully contrasted regardless power with careful power.  Regardless power is the great temptation of technology, military technology in particular-if we have it why not use it?  But regardless power destroys what it touches, the environment, society, individual lives.  Careful power is moderate and restrained, always thoughtful of consequences, always concerned that it nurture, not destroy.  The Christian tradition is rooted in the idea that God in Christ is the very exemplum of careful power.  All of the other great traditions say something similar in one way or another.  Can we build an empire based on careful power and lay regardless power aside?  That is the test that 9/11 and its aftermath lays on the shoulders of all American citizens.

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