Sunday, September 16, 2007

Robert Jewett’s THE CAPTAIN AMERICA COMPLEX: America’s Zealous Nationalism, Vietnam, and Iraq

Robert Jewett’s THE CAPTAIN AMERICA COMPLEX: America’s Zealous Nationalism, Vietnam, and Iraq


It is no surprise that Robert Jewett's book-length study of American civil religion, The Captain America Complex, contains ideas similar to those expressed in Robert Bellah's essay, "Civil Religion in America." Bellah's essay lay the groundwork for the study of the religious justification of American nationalism; and in his "Acknowledgements," Jewett mentions the encouragement he received from Bellah. (1)

But Jewett has gone much farther than Bellah. Where Bellah's essay was a survey of American civil religion, Jewett fully analyzes the causes and consequences of such an ideology. Not only does he have the space of 287 pages in which to develop his thesis, but he wrote his book in 1973 when the American involvement in the Indochina War had run its course, providing a full-blown example of the dangers that Bellah was only able to warn of in 1966 and creating a political situation in American society that made an analysis of the forces that caused American involvement painfully necessary.

In his analytic methods, Jewett differs greatly from Bellah. Bellah searched Presidential inaugurations to support his thesis that America has always believed itself to be the new Israel chosen by God to fulfill His holy designs on earth. He ended his essay with the hope that America will discontinue using its divine ordination to justify dishonorable international adventures such as Vietnam and that it will rejoin its civil religion to its altruistic ideals. (2) Jewett, accepting Bellah's thesis in the preface to his book, turns to the Bible to examine the ancient nation of Israel and finds that America has inherited its nationalistic civil religion from the Bible via the Puritans. In his reading of the Bible. Jewett finds two strains of ideology in the Hebrew nation: Zealous Nationalism and Prophetic Realism.

What is Zealous Nationalism? "It seeks to redeem the world by the destruction of the wicked." (3) As for Prophetic Realism, "It seeks to redeem the world for coexistence by impartial justice." (4) In the Bible, Jewett finds proponents for the former in Elisha (5) and the Maccabees (6), for the latter in Amos, Hosea, (7) Isaiah, (8) and Jesus. (9) Zealous Nationalism is a fanatical absolutism marked by the idea that God, who is with us, will guide us, the pure saints, against the massive conspiracy of evil confronting us, against our enemies, who, by opposing us (and through us. God) are utterly evil; and so we must either convert them or annihilate them in total war. It is an ideology, justified by a nation's religious background, which breeds crusades, stereotypes, absolutist thinking, an attraction to conspiracy theories, and an adulation of violence that encourages atrocities against the enemy in the name of holy war.

Jewett traces the roots of the divergence between the Zealous Nationalists and the Prophetic Realists to their differing interpretations of the Biblical story of the Fall. Because of their conspiracy thinking, the Zealous Nationalists blame Satan, in the form of the Serpent, for corrupting man; the Prophetic Realists believe that man chose to disobey God of his own free will. (10) Horrified by the destruction and hatred wrought by the Zealous Nationalists, the Prophetic Realists urged their citizens not to be swept up in the glory of religious crusades, which time and again, as Jewett points out, proved to be self-destructive, because of the irrationality of the policy.

Tracing America's religious heritage down through the Puritans, Jewett provides significant examples of how the Captain America Complex, his term for the American psychosis of Zealous Nationalism, has prompted most of the violent events in American history, including the Revolution, the Mexican War, both sides of the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the suppression of the Philippine insurrection (waged in rhetoric identical to Vietnam), our entry in both World Wars, the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam. In all cases, Jewett reveals, we exhibited strong Zealous Nationalism. His analysis is quite brilliant. (11)

He recognizes that as America has drifted into a post-religious age, Zealous Nationalism has developed into a civil religion with stronger overtones of a political ideology than an actual temporal crusade.

The concept of redemptive violence [“We destroyed the village in order to save it”] was translated increasingly into secular terms in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Albert K. Weinberg has traced the rise of the idea of “humanitarian coercion” prior to the Spanish-American War. Leaders began to suggest that “all previous American history had prepared for the realization of the beneficence of force.” Underdeveloped countries would have to be brought forcibly into democratic civilization. (12)

The mistake is to consider stereotyping a purely intellectual problem, a habit of the mind which can be altered by the infusion of contrary evidence. In actuality it is a religious problem. The American stereotypes of good and evil are idolatrous belief structures, held not ft by superficial levels of the intellect but rather by the tenacious resources of the whole self. They are essential aspects of Zealous Nationalism, offering the believer a clear and morally defensible sense of the identity and solution of evil and an equally clear and gratifying sense of self-righteousness. To give them up is to acknowledge the guilt of the self and the sinful qualities of one's national or peer group history. It is to enter the dangerous and ambiguous realm of relative judgments on every level, with no hope of absolute certainties and every prospect of incriminating mistakes. (13)

He connects the Hebrew policy of herem, mass annihilation in the name of God, to modern American attitudes toward bombing.

There is something distinctly American about the belief in the efficacy of bombing. The fervor with which it is defended indicates that it is a belief structure rooted in the civil religion itself. When one attacks the belief with arguments about morality or practicality, he inevitably encounters the response that bombing shortened World War II, and in particular, that using atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki "saved a million American lives." This is the standard in the school history books and it leads frequently to the belief that, had we used atomic bombs in Vietnam, we could have easily and cheaply won the war. [He lists facts to prove that it was unnecessary to atom-bomb Japan.] The bombing of the two Japanese cities, with an appalling loss of noncombatants, was in these terms unnecessary, but since American strategists assumed that the enemy was demonic, they were convinced that Japan would not submit before total destruction. Specialists in Japanese culture were not even consulted in connection with the atomic bomb decision. The ideology alone sufficed. If violence is redemptive in a world of demons, then total violence must be irresistible. A self-fulfilling prophecy was thus set in motion to confirm the dogma for a subsequent generation: the enemy which had presumably been recalcitrant was suddenly brought to terms; the war was won by the marvelous new form of herem; therefore the ultimate violence of atomic weaponry is the best means of achieving peace. (14)

In particular, he illustrates how the Biblical form of Zealous Nationalism shaped John Foster Dulles' policy of massive retaliation directly; he adopted it from Revelations, where both the saints and sinners are disintegrated at Armageddon, but the saints inherit the next world, so that makes a holocaust all right. Jewett also shows how conspiracy thinking pushed the United States into Indochina and kept us there.

"Whenever one’s precepts are thwarted by an adversary, zeal arises." (17)

Three distinctive forms of zeal have been transmitted from the Biblical tradition to the modern world. The first of these, hot zeal, is active, direct and violent in its outcome. In the conviction that God desires the annihilation of the wicked, it carries out the bloody task without a twinge of conscience. Its heroes stand in succession to Phineas: Samuel, who hacked the pleading Malecite king to pieces before the altar of Yahweh at Gulag; Elijah, who slew the prophets of Baal with his own sword on Mt. Carmel; and Elisha, who called for the annihilation of the Moabites. (18)

As American examples of hot zeal, he cites Nat Turner and John Brown.

Standing in contrast to hot zeal, which is active, violent and devoid of regret, is cool zeal, which is passive, preferring to let other dispatch the victim, and concerned lest the saint be defiled in the regrettable course of the battle. While Phineas and Elisha were prototypes of hot zeal, the books of Daniel and Revelation provide inspiration for the cool variety. (19)

In cool zeal, one is only the instrument of God's wrath. Jewett sees the American exemplar of cool zeal as Lt. William Calley, the mass murderer of My Lai.

Artful zeal is motivated by the desire for mastery, usually in the form of political advantage. In a calculating manner it seeks the appearance of zealous behavior to win the support of the public. It is unscrupulous in its exercise of power because it is unhindered by respect for life. It emerges in a society that has begun to doubt and to modify the zealous ideals. (21)

In Biblical times, he sees Jehu as the prime example of artful zeal; and because of Jehu, Israel was destroyed. (22) In modern America, he singles out Richard Nixon, a political opportunist, who was anti-Communist in the Fifties, and who offered Vietnamization to a war-weary America that wanted to back out of its responsibility for the war. (23) Comparing the two, he says,

Jehu sought the prestige of a dynasty and used the rhetoric of zeal to establish it. President Nixon has sought the meaning of his life in mastering crises, which the Presidency supremely offers. His book, Six Crises, reveals that it is not the triumph of some cause which is ultimate, but rather the personal sense of mastery in the midst of the battle. As the following excerpt indicates, it provides him with nothing less than the ultimate meaning of life:...

...And it is something less than reassuring to have the possibility of an atomic holocaust at the fingertips of a man who seeks out crises for the sake of mastery, and who identifies the fulfillment of his religious ideals as deriving from his own coming through on top. As the history of Jehu indicates, artful zeal yields a destructive legacy. (24)

Jewett traces the consequences clearly. He recognizes Deuteronomic repentance (the rededication of a weary nation to its Zealously Nationalist ideals) in a Nixon speech which gained him decisive support for his Vietnam policy. (25) Jewett comments:

While this Deuteronomic form of repentance has potent capacities for manipulating a zealous public, it should never be mistaken for true repentance. It is vastly different from the repentance to which the great prophets called their people. It turns a nation backward to the old idolatries, to the very beliefs and action that defeat is demonstrating to be false. It confirms the overblown view of our virtue. (26)

After tracing the terrible effect the collapse of this system of illusions had on Israel, (27) he turns to the United States.

When the national destiny and religious heritage are linked to such an effort to shore up weakened self-confidence, the collapse is all the more destructive when it comes. The idealistic aspects of the civil religion are the first to go down in the wreckage. To support this idolatrous effort, as Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and other clergymen have done, is to prepare the way for the kind of religious and moral skepticism that generations of zealous warfare have produced in Christian Europe. (28)

In Jewett's view, what can be done to prevent our downfall? First of all, he does believe in zeal and that America has a mission to fulfill in the world.

To deny the necessity of zeal and to eliminate it from American morals would be to open the door to nihilism or worse. Without zeal for some righteous purpose the American moral sense could disintegrate.... The prospects of vast American power, unrestrained by the internal flywheel of its own sense of moral obligations to mankind, are terrifying. We could transform the rest of the globe into a replica of the moonscape now visible in Indochina. (29)

What we need is good zeal.

For zeal to be responsible, it must acknowledge the limitation of its moral vision and still dare to act in prudent faith. Only when zeal is fixed steadfastly on transcendent justice, which stands forever beyond the limitations of human achievements, can it remain both effective and humble.... Such pilgrim zeal may be glimpsed in the life and thought of Abraham Lincoln and in some of the best of American literature. What we must do is make use of these resources and transform America's zeal before it is too late. (30)

The way into the pit is the path of Zealous Nationalism. Its end has already been determined if we remain enthralled by the dogmas of our past. The alternative is the hard, narrow path of realism. This is the path of which the prophets have spoken, the one which leads directly through the fields of adversity and the slough of despair. (31)

The American sense of mission, scorned by current cynics and disappointed idealists alike, needs to be transformed rather than abandoned. Its sense of how the world should be led to peace has simple been misguided by zealous myths.... Our calling now is to separate ourselves from this legacy and to enter a long, twilight struggle against what is dark within ourselves. It is not our adversaries alone who must change. It is ourselves. (32)

Yet Jewett closes his book very much with an open end. He is expecting American citizens to save America, not God or through Him a man who will ride in on a white horse to clean up the town; and he is fully aware of the fact that we have been practicing The Captain America Complex the past two hundred years and that Israel was warned by Prophetic Realists and still destroyed itself. He admits this danger openly. Citing instances where the United States encouraged or caused wars, contrary to popular mythology, he says,

The appeal of the myth is so fundamental that disclosures of complicity in these instances do little to alter popular consciousness. If we believe we have never started a war, this confirms in our minds our virtuous lack of aggressiveness. And if we have never lost, this is clear Deuteronomic proof that "our cause it is just."' (33)

So people may never heed. When he sums up the situation, on a note tinged with despair, he almost calls on God to save our unfortunate land:

The present crisis is one in which these two paths, which have been hopelessly confused in the American mind, stand as sharply opposed alternatives, awaiting our choice. If our path be redemptive love, then the policies and the mystique of violence must be repudiated once and for all. And if it be the path of violent zeal, all pretensions of carrying out the goals of love should be dropped. The two paths are mutually exclusive. May the God of justice, whose wisdom far transcends our poor powers to comprehend or convince, guide our nation onto the path which truly leads to peace. (34)

By expanding on Bellah's trailblazing essay, Jewett has written a masterful and moving analysis of the causes of American Zealous Nationalism and how it has shaped our foreign policy and warped our national character. He has warned us and proved that as a Zealously Nationalistic nation, we are going the way of Biblical Israel. We must rely on ourselves to guide our land, not God. And if he ends his argument with a touch of doubt for the future, he is entitled, as a realist. Israel did not heed the Prophetic Realists; why should we?

At first, when President George W. Bush assumed power in 2001, Americans didn't notice the changes; but as in Ionesco's Rhinoceros, to outside observers, it was apparent that they were slowly turning into animals

In diagnosing our national psychosis and providing a difficult though realistic cure, he has done everything he can for a nation of which, after the past fifteen years, poet Gil Scott-Heron says,

And now it's winter, winter in America
And all of the healers have been killed or betrayed

But the people know, the people know

It's winter, winter in America

And ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save. (35)


  1. Robert Jewett, The Captain America Complex (Philadelphia,1973), p. 7.
  2. Robert Bellah, "Civil Religion in America." Beyond Belief (New York, 1970), pp. 168-169.
  3. Jewett, pp. 10-11.
  4. Ibid., p. 11.
  5. Ibid., p. 16.
  6. Ibid., p. 21.
  7. Ibid., p. 17.
  8. Ibid., p. 19.
  9. Ibid., p. 23.
  10. Ibid., p. 121.
  11. Ibid., pp. 27-7o.
  12. Ibid., P. 189.
  13. Ibid., pp. 165-6.
  14. Ibid., pp. 192-3.
  15. Ibid., pp. 67-76.
  16. Ibid., pp. 131-6.
  17. Ibid., p 8.
  18. Ibid., p. 83.
  19. Ibid., p. 91.
  20. Ibid., p. 98.
  21. Ibid., pp. 98-9.
  22. Ibid., pp. 99-101.
  23. Ibid., pp. 102-6.
  24. Ibid., pp. 106-7.
  25. Ibid., p. 230.
  26. Ibid., p. 231.
  27. Ibid., pp. 232-3.
  28. Ibid., p. 234.
  29. Ibid., p. 112.
  30. Ibid., p. 114.
  31. Ibid., p. 242.
  32. Ibid., pp. 252-3.
  33. Ibid., p. 221.
  34. Ibid., p. 214.
  35. Gil Scott-Heron, "Winter In America," The First Minute of a New Day (Arista Records, New York, 1974)


Bellah, Robert. "Civil Religion in America." Beyond Belief. New York, 1970.

Jewett, Robert. The Captain America Complex. Philadelphia, 1973.

Scott-Heron, Gil. "Winter in America." The First Minute of a New Day. Arista Records. New York, 1974.

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