Putin on God

September 13, 2013

Following President Barack Obama's primetime speech designed to sell the American public on attacking Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin penned an op-ed in the New York Times urging the U.S. to instead engage in peaceful dialogue. The last paragraph of his piece quickly garnered the most buzz as he offered a biting critique of Obama's rhetoric about "American exceptionalism" and God blessing America. Putin argued:

I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is "what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional." It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
Putin's argument is ironic given his own repressive policies that clearly do not treat all people as equal. But although he is a clearly imperfect messenger, his message is a spot-on critique of Obama's rhetoric and the rhetoric of other recent U.S. presidents. The idea of American exceptionalism (the idea that we are a superior nation) is problematic.

Particularly troubling with the exceptionalism idea is that many of the most prominent supporters are conservative Christian leaders, even though the notion is unbiblical. As Putin put it, God created us all equal and one people cannot be depicted as inherently superior. Yet, prominent Christian leaders - as well as politicians like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan - even steal biblical phrases like "city upon a hill" to describe the U.S. as an exceptional nation uniquely blessed by God. Of course, such usage of the phrase is sacrilegious since that phrase by Jesus in the "Sermon on the Mount" refers not to the U.S. (or any human-created nation-state) but the global Christian community. To say that the U.S. is the "city upon a hill" is to suggest that all Americans are Christians and no one else can truly be Christians. Once we develop that worldview, it impacts our foreign policy and how we treat other nations. And so the rhetoric of exceptionalism leads a nation to consistently seek to impose its will on other sovereign nations through force.

Putin's connection of the political doctrine of exceptionalism with basic theological beliefs about equality before God nicely counters the way Obama ended his war speech. As I noted, his use of "God bless America" to end his speech seemed particularly profane after giving a speech urging war. Presidents since Reagan routinely use this phrase to end speeches. It often seems they use it without much thought or spiritual meaning, which should concern Christians that the statement has become more political than religious and therefore is literally a way of taking God's name in vain. As I demonstrated in a recent study published in the Newspaper Research Journal (in which I analyzed more than 1,700 instances of the phrase in more than 120 years of the New York Times), the phrase "God bless America" has become a political battle cry for war (as opposed to bringing a spiritual message). Fortunately, Obama's rhetoric of American exceptionalism and his baptizing of it with God-talk has not persuaded Americans to support his war plans. Perhaps we are learning the lesson Putin urged us to recognize (meaning we might even figure it out before he does). After watching then-President George W. Bush wrap American exceptionalism in the cross to launch military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is refreshing to see that perhaps the effectiveness of such rhetoric is diminishing.