I don’t usually find myself quoting Doug Wilson much these days, but he wrote an article for Chronicles magazine lately that I thought was generally right on the money. Here are some excerpts of the article:
The second kind of empire is an economic empire, as ancient Rome was. America is becoming such an economic, pragmatic empire, only without the formalization of proconsuls and tributary states. In other words, American hegemony is being exerted with a great deal more finesse than was seen with the old-fashioned empires, but our cultural influence, economic domination, and military presence are not any less real for all that. We may call it “global leadership,” but this does not alter what is actually happening on the ground. You can still get a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt from just about anywhere, and the U.S. Marines will help to keep it that way.
In many ways, economic empires can be far more benign than the empires built and run by ideologues. The commies wanted to haul us off to the Gulag and take all our stuff. The Americans just want the opportunity to sell us a Windows upgrade. Rightly understood, free trade can be a great blessing and benefit. Empires built by merchants are generally not the world-class human-rights disasters that ideological empires are. At the same time, they are empires, and this means the use of force to protect future sales. Establishing democracies may be the stated goal, but establishing markets is a close corollary. Nevertheless, by God’s common grace, empires of this kind can provide the Church with multiple opportunities. The Apostle Paul was not at all hesitant to use the perks of empire—from roads to citizenship—as he sought to establish churches upon the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Neither should we be shy about it.
In economic empires, the unifying principle is the economic vitality of the empire itself—the cash box. This is the implicit unitarian god of the system, the god that will be defended against blasphemy. The diversity and tolerance are only apparent in those things that are for sale; the right to sell anything is a right that will be defended to the death.
This also reveals why the theological currents within the Church have been running the way they have throughout the course of the last century. Despite all Her problems, the Church in America is still a thriving force in our public life. It is therefore important to do something that will prepare our nation’s millions of Christians for their assigned role in the empire. That “something” is to neutralize the Faith by making it just one more item in the yard sale. What is the unifying principle behind our current theological battles? What do openness theology, seeker-sensitive worship, and dumb evangelical T-shirts all have in common? All of them represent a shift from the worship of Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords, to Jesus, competitor for market share. Modern evangelicals want the shoppers to buy Jesus instead of the old lampshade, and they do not care who runs the cash box.
The American commitment to the bottom line is real and abiding. It would, therefore, be a great error to suppose that America’s conflict with Iraq has been a conflict tantamount to a war between the Christian Faith and Islam. This is not a second Battle of Tours. Something far more complicated is going on. In recent years, the United States has armed and/or tacitly supported Muslims in their conflicts with Christians in Indonesia, the Sudan, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc. We have also supported Jews against Muslims (and Christians) in Israel. We have also supported Muslim against Muslim. The reason for all of this is ultimately the bottom line, Mammon, America’s great idol. This includes obtaining resources, such as oil, and establishing markets in which we may compete—otherwise known as “spreading democracy.” Because Money is our great idol, we want all the customers to stay contented, and one good way to do this is by honoring their household deities—the kind of gods that can be kept on a shelf.
The one rule is that all the customers must go along with this and not complain when the economic empire honors the tiny gods of the other customers. If we agree to have our God demoted, the merchants of empire will see to it that all the other traditional gods are demoted, too. The empire’s name for this kind of unctuous flattery is pluralism.
In order to honor God’s name in such civil settings, Christians need to recover a right approach to Christian worship. We will not get out of this mess by seeking to “recover” the Constitution. We should not idolize the Constitution but should regard it as an exemplary document, now deceased. As one writer has observed, our current rulers treat the Constitution as the Queen Mum of American politics. She gets trundled out on the balcony periodically to wave at the crowds, but she has no real power. Case in point: We went into Iraq to topple the regime of another country. This was an old-fashioned war, pure and simple. The Constitution says that Congress, not the President, declares such wars. The Constitution, for all intents and purposes, is a dead letter, although certain parts of it are still arbitrarily observed because they are part of our unwritten constitution. The best thing would be to quit pretending.
Still, to acknowledge the development of an American empire, even a polytheistic one, is not to say that everything that comes out of it has to be bad. God extends His common grace in all sorts of ways. Such an empire is not necessarily wicked in everything it does, but a consistent Christian cannot give any fundamental religious allegiance to it. And, as American Christians participate (necessarily) in the growing fight between the open markets desired by our government and the closed minds desired by Islam, we must not see this battle as one between light and darkness. This is not a religious war, except in the sense that it is a war between two idols, Mammon and Allah. Christians may be present in the fray—there are many believers in the American military—but all Christians everywhere must not give way to the pressure to conform to the prevailing idolatry.