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Public Theology: The Temptation to Empire
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The Temptation to Empire
Empires require gods according to Reinhold Niebuhr in The Structure of Nations and Empires

Hard as it is to believe, there are people around the current president of the United States who are very seriously promoting the idea of an American Empire. The United States is no longer just a nation-state, not just one nation among many, according to this view. With the end of the Cold War the United States has become the one dominant superpower in the world. Rather than think of the United States as a nation that relates with other nations in the United Nations, the United States is itself an empire, able to exert its will anywhere in the world. The Bush administration's adoption of the perspective in The National Security Strategy of the United States clearly advances the notion of American Empire, what is called "leadership".

As the president said on March 17, 2002, in announcing that the U.S. will attack Iraq, it is not a matter of authority but a matter of will. The United States has the authority to do whatever it deems necessary for its security. And, in the same speech, the president says that the United States will act for the benefit of the liberation of Iraq, to make it a democratic nation. No matter that the United Nations security council will not authorize this attack. The president is acting as if the United States is an empire with global dominion.

If this idea of empire takes hold and begins to broadly define the nature of policy and politics in this country it means the end of the United States as we have known it. For empires need official religion. Empires always try to justify themselves by appeal to universal beliefs and concepts. It is these beliefs which create the social cohesiveness required for imperial success, and ultimately, these must be religious beliefs. Empires need a god. If the United States becomes an empire it can no longer be founded on liberal democracy which is opposed to imperial government and which separates church and state. I will suggest below that a new god is being created from three religious sources in American culture to justify an American Empire.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book in 1959 called The Structure of Nations and Empires. In one chapter he examines lessons from three empires emerging in the Middle Ages after the Roman empire, the eastern empire centered in Constantinople where the emperor constituted both religious and political authority, the western empire which emerged in Europe and associated with the Catholic Pope as dominant in the tension between church and state, and the Islamic empire which emerged in the seventh century A.D. Here is his conclusion to that chapter.

“The impulse to dominion on every level, but particularly on the imperial level, is able to use the most varied and contradictory religious impulses and philosophies as instruments of its purposes. The similarities which we have noted in the three occidental empires point to a pattern of community which is more universal than western history. It is that quasi-universal community and dominion is bound to use religious quests for ultimacy and universality as instruments of its purposes. No pattern of history could give a more vivid evidence of a perennial fruit of one aspect of human existence. That aspect is that man has the freedom over nature to create communities in ever larger proportions. He also has the freedom to transcend these political constructions and to envision a meaning and system of ends which transcends these historically contingent and precarious political configurations. But the rulers also can make use of this final flight to the absolute and harness it to political ends. The question is whether they could be so successful if men did not give themselves willingly as tools for this enterprise, perhaps because they seek collective compensation for their individual insignificance.”

Niebuhr wrote his book in the context of the Cold War. The subtitle is “A study of the recurring patterns and problems of the political order in relation to the unique problems of the nuclear age.” He often points to Communism as an example of secular religion supporting the world expansion of Communist ideology and practice. In 1989 Communism, of course, came to an end, as is the habit of empires.

Niebuhr himself would be surprised by the degree to which political forces of the last three decades have developed in this country that are explicitly or implicitly religious. As I read his book it was not Communism that seemed the best contemporary example of what he was talking about, but three strong movements in the past several decades each presenting a kind of public theology which together now seek to justify an American Empire.

The first and most obvious, of course, is the religious right. It has emerged as a much stronger force than most people would have thought possible at the time Niebuhr was writing. It is partially a reaction to the excesses of the 1960s as well as a protest from among people who have not enjoyed the benefits of the modern economy but who provide the human resources to be used by irresponsible leaders of the religious right. The religious right in its covenantal theological form teaches that the United States is a Christian nation destined to lead the world in bringing all people to faith in Jesus Christ and to bring all people under the dominion of their understanding of biblical morality. Or, in its pentecostal form the religious right teaches the central role of this country within universal, apocalyptic history; for these folks the end of the world is near. These are, indeed, universal visions which require a notion of this country as empire.

The religious right wants to use the power of the state to achieve its religious purposes. It attacks the United Nations as an instrument of the devil. It wants to return to the Middle Ages when a religious institution had the power to use the state to accomplish its purposes.

George W. Bush was elected by these people and he speaks their language of opposing with military force all evil in the world, as he did at the National Cathedral following the events of September 11. The Republican Party has allowed itself to be captured by this vision of reality. For these folks the Iraq war, now begun, is a step toward implementation of this notion of American Empire.

But there are two quasi-religious forces also at work in contemporary culture. One is the idea of the market. The market has become a kind of god in the thinking and belief system of intellectuals and politicians today, who are furthering the interests of those so-called private economic corporations who have grown to be so powerful within the country. The government of the United States is today in the hands of people who don’t believe first and foremost in government. For them liberal democracy is not as significant as the market. It is this universal market god that now is used to justify an American Empire, particularly through world economic institutions such the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. These world institutions are controlled by the United States but are otherwise not under any world governing authority and can be understood as a means to implement a universal economic belief system. But it is interesting that even many business leaders themselves are becoming wary of the degree to which those calling themselves neo-conservative intellectuals and politicians are skewing politics away from support for important social institutions such as schools and social welfare agencies and for necessary taxation and regulation. Responsible business leaders working in the real world know the importance of a fair and equitable legal system to guide economic behavior.

The second quasi-religious belief justifying American Empire has a longer history in this country. It is the god of nature, appealed to by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, the god that justifies the natural rights of man. George W. Bush appealed to this god when he said in his last press conference that liberty is not just a value of the United States but is God’s gift to every individual in the world. This belief is very important in the history of the country. What must be seen here, however, is that this language is used by the president to justify going to war with a country that presents no immediate threat to this country. It is the mission of the United States to bring god-given liberty to everyone in the world; the United States should use all its military force to further this universal purpose, liberty for all! But the United States itself is testimony to the fact that abstract beliefs must be implemented in particular institutional forms, and that these forms always only approximate the content of the belief. Constitutional democracy is based on the consent of the governed, yet very large numbers of people in the United States do not even vote. Freedom of the press is an important principle of constitutional democracy, yet it can be asked today whether or not the media is not so closely associated with business corporations that it has lost its independence as a free institution within this society, whether it sees its role primarily as attacking government. To use the belief in liberty not as Jefferson did, as a basis for a people to reject the dominance of another, but as an abstract justification for military dominance of another country is a contradiction not unperceived by the victims of such domination, and their neighbors in the Middle East. And this undermines one of the most important principles of this country in the eyes of others. George W. Bush is creating cynicism around the world concerning one of the most important beliefs in the history of this country, not a very good thing for a leader trying to create an empire.

There are many people living in the United States for whom these three gods are essentially one, one public theology, one individual all-encompassing God of fundamentalist Christianity, Economy, and Nature. It is this God which now can be used by leaders with imperial ambitions for this country, just as Niebuhr says is the predisposition of all empires.

There is in Jewish and Christian faith a word for this, it is idolatry. “You shall have no other gods” the commandment says. The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, presents the history of Israel's worship of other gods, for which it suffered greatly. The church has a long experience in the world and should now beware of empire. In-so-far-as the empire ideology and theology is still a temptation and not an established fact it should be resisted in every way possible, for the sake of both faith in that God which is beyond all empires and this country as a continuing nation-state founded on liberal democracy.


Note: After writing this article I was told of an article on American Empire by Robert Bellah in The Christian Century, where there is another helpful article by Gary Dorrien.

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Date Added: 3/18/2003 Date Revised: 3/27/2003 1:55:37 PM

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