The American presidential election campaign seems to have an ambiguity at its centre. John Kerry's agenda is for change: for co-operation with other nations, for avoiding rash warmongering and for curbing Pentagon-led foreign policy. It's an agenda likely to be welcomed by the United States' friends and enemies alike, falling as sweet showers in the dry barren climate of the isolationism and militarism of America's foreign relations. Yet, alongside this refreshingly new aspect of the agenda is another in which there is no change. The overt and indomitable American self-belief remains intact.
This self-belief which has undergirded the policies, attitudes and international diplomacy of, at least, the last four years is apparently even now not up for any kind of critical analysis. Indeed, if he is to have any hope of wooing the average voter, Kerry still has to declare his unconditional commitment to a set of national values and ideology summed up in the campaign slogan, "I believe in America". And the echo resounds through the whole political culture. The US party conventions are less democratic processes than great exercises in pumping up self-belief. The leaders must feed on the roars of the multitudes and multitudes must have the one-liners to roar at. Whatever the changes, the underlying faith remains that of American self-belief, whether it is expressed in the small, flag-waving township or in the transcorporate mega-worshipping of the American way of life.
Self-belief motivates many reactions. I was in the US shortly after the horrors of 11 September 2001, and was struck by the speed with which the conception of what had happened changed from that of terrorist carnage to an attack on American identity and its ability to believe in itself. One newspaper headline announced, "Why America will not be humiliated", and rallied its readers to a frenzy of nationalist fervour. The necessity to restore belief in America became identified with belief in George W. Bush as his pursuit of Osama bin Laden and then of Saddam Hussein became a means of re-establishing American pride.
In the United Kingdom this kind of national self-belief is less overt, yet there are strong overtones in the rhetoric of our own political leaders. The pitch in Tony Blair's conception of office has been that we should believe in him as a matter of trust. In fact, the unshakeable self-belief of the Prime Minister has been the sticking point in the appraisal of the war against Iraq. Though the weapons inspectors had come up with nothing, though the United Nations Security Council had serious misgivings, and though millions of people in the streets believed otherwise, the war was declared on the grounds of the immediate threat of weapons of mass destruction. Even now with clear evidence to the contrary the Prime Minister and the Cabinet still have their self-belief in place. Whether it is in place because of a fear of climb-down, or an inability to face what that decision has cost real people, ostensibly self-belief remains. There has been, to use a good Christian word, no repentance.
In politics as in personal life, self-belief is a disaster. The pressure to generate such belief destroys self-critical awareness. Blind assertion cuts us off from the humility of addressing whether we might be wrong. The submission to external critique is not available, and the insistence of being right must continue. This cultural attitude is not new. It existed in Fascist and Communist regimes where the leader and the ideology had to be right. Then, Christianity was actively resisted and the opposition was clear. Now the worrying thing is that the rhetoric of self-belief sits alongside claims of espousal of the Christian faith.
Yet there is, of course, a fundamental conflict between self-belief, either personal or national, and Christianity. The Americans who say both "In God we trust" and "We believe in America" are logically and necessarily schizophrenic. For the God of biblical revelation, revered by Americans, holds all nations as "drops in a bucket" and cautions against believing in any of them. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets of God critique all nations, especially the overweening ones. The prayer of King David, "Search me, O God, and see if there be any offensive way in me" does not sit with self-belief. Christ's emphasis on "dying to self" is the opposite of it.
Trusting in God requires some recognition that all nations are called not to self-belief, but to submit their ways to God. In that process, self-examination, exposure, confession and repentance break up the foundations on which unqualified self-belief is built. In its place comes an acceptance that any nation and its leaders can get things terribly wrong. The sheer inconsistency of trusting God and believing in self is being stretched to breaking point in American, and to some extent in British public life. We may soon hear the twang.Reuse content