COMMENTARY: On the Boykin Affair

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

(David P. Gushee is the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.)

(UNDATED) I once wrote a book in which I envisioned the day when we might be able to get “beyond the culture wars” in American society. Perhaps that day will one day come. But today is not it. The current tempest over the comments of Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin offers yet another example.

Boykin, currently the highest ranking uniformed intelligence officer in America, has had a distinguished 32-year military career in special operations. As a young captain, he was involved in the failed 1980 mission to rescue the hostages in Iran. He participated in the invasion of Grenada, led the manhunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and lived through the searing disaster of Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993. He is one of the elite members of the American military, and should be honored as such.

It also turns out Boykin is the bearer of a passionate and very public Christian faith. While such a faith is certainly not universal among American soldiers and military leaders, it is also not uncommon. The military remains one of the most socially conservative institutions in American life, and as such it attracts large numbers of cultural and religious conservatives. Boykin seems to be one of them.

Boykin’s only other brush with notoriety before now was his plan six months ago to host a “Super Faith Force Multiplier” event at Fort Bragg, largely for a group of conservative pastors. The planned event apparently involved such an explicit marriage of Jesus and the military that it drew complaints from several sectors. The event was drastically scaled back. But the spirit that motivated it lived on.

Today Boykin is back, revealed as a military leader who has been giving speeches and sermons identifying the war on terrorism as a war against “a guy named Satan,” describing the U.S. military as a “Christian army” serving a “Christian nation,” and saying that the only way to defeat terrorists is to “come against them in the name of Jesus.”

Such comments have won him predictable praise from the religious right and outrage from the religious and secular left.

My analysis of the Boykin affair comes from insights gained by reading the writings of some major theologians and ethicists who were active in the middle of the 20th century, a time of grave crisis in Western culture and international relations. Noticing that the era’s regimes, such as Nazism and Soviet Communism, were as much faiths as they were political beliefs, several thinkers, such as H.R. Niebuhr, suggested a retrieval of classic categories for thinking about God such as polytheism, henotheism and monotheism.

In this interpretation, “polytheists” are those whose lives demonstrate faith in many gods, and many types of gods. The second variety, “henotheists,” demonstrate faith in one (primary) god. This is not what we might call a “personal” god, however, but clearly the god of the group, tribe or nation.

Finally, “radical monotheists” worship the one God who is beyond all secular values, all nationalities and all cultures. This God is “the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” as the creeds say. He is the source of all being, the one who transcends all partial and fragmentary loyalties.

Although Western religion (Judaism and especially Christianity) is officially monotheistic, and Western culture still declares its allegiance to this religious tradition, our religions and culture are constantly engaged in a struggle between polytheism, henotheism and monotheism for the real allegiance of individuals.

In other words, although we might think of ourselves as monotheistic, we usually aren’t.

The problem continues today. American Christians are functionally polytheists when they attempt to juggle loyalty to money, power, love, fame and Jesus, all more or less functioning at the same level of allegiance. American Christians are henotheists when, in our nationalist zeal, we misidentify our faith in America and its cause with faith in the one God of all nations and his cause. Here, Jesus is at risk of becoming the tribal deity of the American people, rather than the Son of God who is Savior of the world and who equally values every person and every nation. This confuses a legitimate patriotism with an illegitimate henotheism.

As for pure monotheism, it is not at all clear that one can actually find it outside ancient Israel (and this only in glimpses), in Jesus himself and in the churches in their very best moments. Polytheism and henotheism are constant dangers.

It needn’t be secularists who remind Christians to watch out for the Americanizing of Jesus as a tribal national deity. Concern about this grave threat to the uncompromising monotheism demanded of God’s people ought to emerge from the church itself, as we fight for the survival of biblical faith among us.


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