U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Time…it’s on whose side?

I have an idea I would like to test. In reading how American presidents of the post-WWII period tried to explain to the nation why America must fight wars, I’ve noticed a difference in how they discuss time. It seems that various presidents have operated under different imperatives imposed by their ideas about time. In short, they saw different ways of understanding how war changes the pace of change. For me, there are two different ways they thought about time: political time and theological time. The former requires action sooner rather than later and emphasizes the imperative of acting in order to move the nation in line with its professed values. The latter, requires patience because moving too fast would cause greater problems and would ultimately undermine the values that make change in the future possible.

So let me use two examples to illustrate this observation. Take Eisenhower’s farewell address as an example of theological. Even though much has been made about his ominous warnings regarding the military industrial complex, Eisenhower ended his address by ruminating about time. He knew that he was ending his time as a major public official, and that in a sense he represented a group of Americans who had been part of the greatest, most terrifying struggles of the century and were now growing older and likely less relevant. Moreover, like Niebuhr and Lincoln, Eisenhower had developed a deep appreciation of the limitations of not merely his office, but of humanity itself. He told the American people: “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” So, according to Ike, ideas, not great sweeping policy statements and strategic plans, had to guide the United States. But developing those ideas took time and after eight years as President, Eisenhower said, “I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment.” No nation, no army, no single person could create the peace that people so desperately wanted. And so he ended his long career in public service imploring Americans “to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice. May we be ever unswerving in devotion to principle, confident but humble with power, diligent in pursuit of the Nation’s great goals.” And just as he began his time as President with a prayer, he ended his final term asking Americans to pray that “in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

Compare the tone of Ike’s address to Jimmy Carter’s famous speech on human rights delivered in May 1977 at the University of Notre Dame. In a memorable section of Carter’s remarks, he declared:

The world is still divided by ideological disputes, dominated by regional conflicts, and threatened by danger that we will not resolve the differences of race and wealth without violence or without drawing into combat the major military powers. We can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the new global questions of justice, equity, and human rights.

It is a new world, but America should not fear it. It is a new world, and we should help to shape it. It is a new world that calls for a new American foreign policy–a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.

Carter followed this statement by explaining how this bold realignment of American foreign policy was already underway because of actions taken by his administration. The specificity of his list is both impressive and slightly incredible—as if the engineer-president had a to-do list for creating a new world order.

Thus while Ike regretted that he failed to do more to stem the growing tension of the cold war—especially the threat posed by the Soviet-American nuclear stand-off—he seemed to caution against imagining that there was a quicker or easier solution to such huge problems. Carter, on the other hand, seemed to believe that Vietnam had so clearly illustrated the terrible consequences of failing to make American values responsive to global conditions, that he needed to take drastic measures quickly to correct this incongruence.

I have a theory as to why this difference exists: Ike was ambivalent about religion; Carter was devout. The more devout a president’s faith in religion, the more of an imperative there was to launch changes that would fundamentally alter the nation’s course. Furthermore, the born-again Christianity of Carter and George W. Bush played a role in how they saw time and change in a political sense. Those presidents such as Eisenhower, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and (I think) Obama are less inclined to see radical change in the world made manifest by American action. What I am floating is a theory that there has been a “born-again” model of civil religion used by presidents of devout religious faith and a theological model of civil religion used by presidents of less devout and more ambivalent faith. While Carter and Bush obviously saw different roles for the United States in the world, they both seemed to think that the nation could act in ways that would make it and the global politics more moral.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. First, can someone fix the font (and the “its”) so it matches the rest of the blog? The large type is actually making the entry less readable.

    Turning to the question at hand, I’m not convinced by the bifurcation of time into “political” and “theological” modes. There are plenty of theological conceptions of time which demand “action sooner rather than later and emphasizes the imperative of acting in order to move the [fill in blank] in line with its professed values.” It’s no accident so much Christian theology is devoted to eschatology and chiliasm. The “pursuit of the millennium,” as the late Norman Cohn called it, has been an endemic feature in Western society, especially in the last thousand years. Lots of folks over the years have argued that the secularization of this pursuit was what gave numerous modern ideologies and philosophies of history (utopianism, Marxism, communism, Hegelianism, the idea of progress) much of their political and moral force.

    So I think the second part of the essay gets closer to what was going on. Which is simply that Bush and Carter’s religious views influenced their politics. But in that case there’s no need to posit a “political time” for them to believe in. Instead, they were recapitulating a persistent strain of American thought, the notion of America as having a divinely inspired special providence to improve the world.

    That’s not to say you’re wrong about Eisenhower. There’s another view that God’s will is inscrutable and moves of its own accord beyond humanity’s attempt to impact it. That’s a theological view, too, but different to the millennial vision. And that’s where you do wind up at the end by differentiating between “born-again” and “civil religion” understandings of time. I’m tempted to say, though, that the necessity of “patience because moving too fast would cause greater problems and would ultimately undermine the values that make change in the future possible” seems very conservative in a Burkean sense. That is a legitimate view, but I have a hard time ascribing it to any president. However one wants to define America’s creed – if one believes in such a thing – I have a hard time seeing any place in it for Burkean conservatism.

  2. One more thought that popped into my head. Surely Reagan saw the struggle against communism (or at least the Soviet Union) as an attempt to achieve “radical change in the world made manifest by American action.” He may not have been devoutly religious in the manner of Carter or Bush, but he was also the one who quoted John Winthrop (quoting the Sermon on the Mount) about America’s destiny as a “city upon a hill.” On which basis I think one could argue that Reagan, like so many others, believed that the United States was not only the source of, but was itself the radical change that would transform the world.

    Where this leaves Nixon, though, I have no idea. Besides Hell, I mean. I think we all agree that’s where he’s been left.

  3. Thank Vrad for the comments (and corrections!).

    You are right that pre-millennialists have tried to hasten the ‘end times’ in order to remake the world, and this is a theological position. What I have in mind here is a theological position related to American civil religion that sees the United States as special but does not necessarily translate that faith in the nation into political action.

    Reagan is a good example, as you suggest, of a president who viewed the United States as a beacon to the rest of the world. Yet, as a number of historians have pointed out recently (including Diggins in his biography of Reagan) Reagan resisted calls from the religious right and neo-cons to send American combat troops into Central America. Of course there was the Grenada invasion, but that was the extent of Reagan’s adventurism with troops. Even Reagan’s crusade against communism now seems more rhetorical in hindsight and his aversion to nuclear weapons was more complicated and at least as strident as Carter’s.

    So it seems to me that Reagan’s ambivalent religious faith, influenced the kind of civil religion he promoted. In this sense, he saw civil religion more in theological terms than in political terms; less as public policy and more as creed.

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