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Culture et politique

The Apocalyptic Empire of America

L’Empire apocalyptique américain
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p. 133-148


En général, les études traitant de « l’Empire » américain tendent à chercher à comprendre celui-ci à partir de termes concrets tels que la frontière, l’intervention militaire, le commerce international. Néanmoins, les Empires sont d’abord le résultat de profondes traditions intellectuelles intangibles qui encouragent et justifient les actions entreprises dans le cadre de politiques impériales. Dans le cas de l’Amérique, les fondements intellectuels du nouvel idéal impérial sont ancrés dans la vision apocalyptique transportée dans les bagages des premiers colons puritains. Si l’on ne prend pas en compte cet ancrage apocalyptique, on ne peut saisir, dans leur totalité, les principes fondamentaux de « l’Empire » américain. On devrait examiner des termes qui entrent en résonance avec le discours impérial tels que « mission » et « destinée » ainsi que de l’engagement explicite dans la rhétorique présidentielle en faveur de « l’amélioration » du monde à n’importe quel prix du point de vue de cette croyance apocalyptique éternelle. Cet article essaie d’élucider l’origine et l’essence de la vision apocalyptique américaine en portant une attention particulière sur son influence dans la genèse du concept d’Empire américain.

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…après un long sommeil, les mêmes hypothèses ressuscitent, sans doute nous reviennent-elles avec des vêtements neufs et plus riches, mais le fond reste le même et le masque nouveau dont elles s’affublent ne saurait tromper l’homme de  science…

…the dream is certain and the interpretation thereof sure.
Daniel 2:45

1Whether or not there is an American Empire is a long-standing question. Prior to September 11, the general tendency was to say that there had never been one, despite the undeniable signs of imperialism, which were the attempts by the United States to extend spatially the single-handed application of power beyond its borders. Empire is a political entity, which expands territorially through acquiring colonies and single-handedly establishing there a government encompassing all issues and areas from politics to social life. The rhetoric of empire always suggests an improvement in the current situation of the colonies and a departure from chaos, which would not have been possible without the imperial intervention. The episode of such a tangible empire with proper colonies and militaristically aggressive attitude was a brief chapter in American history, which only lasted from 1898 to 1912. One could extend this period to the independence of the Philippines in 1946, although, by then, the single-handed application of power had for some time been softened.  

  • 1  Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, London: Pimlico, 2003, 9.
  • 2  Amy Kaplan, “’Left Alone with America’: The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture” in (...)

2Numerous American imperial undertakings, on the other hand, were considered as somehow different from imperial governance whose typical feature is the permanent control over the use of arms, the administration of justice and the management of trade. Such empire, according to Dominic Lieven, is “a specific polity with a clearly demarcated territory exercising sovereign authority over its subjects who are, to varying degrees, under its direct administrative supervision”1. Thus, the United States escaped this definition of empire. For that reason, to some, the United States stood alone within the western experience of imperialism and this non-empire status was one of the reasons for the “uniqueness” of American political conduct. In this respect, it represented a “monolithic West”2 which is a term supporting the idea that the United States has not partaken in the imperial experience. This viewpoint has not yet faded away and it is still currently argued that the United States has grown into a “World Power” but not an empire. What is more, according to the definition provided by American exceptionalism, the United States is supposed to be against all sorts of empire, whether it is built by the Old World or the Soviet Union: empires are first of all doomed to corrupt and decline. Secondly, they tend to become uncontrollable and even evil.

  • 3  Alain Joxe, L’Empire du Chaos. Paris: La Découverte & Syros, 2002.
  • 4  Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire,  New York: Penguin, 2004, 6.
  • 5 Ibid., 7.
  • 6  Robert Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, New York: Random, 2002.

3This opposition to the argument that America is an empire, however, has been overshadowed by the increasingly unrestrained usage of the term “American Empire” in the past three or four years. Once, when the United States was commonly seen as excluded from the list of world’s empires, the “American Empire” had only a pejorative meaning employed both within and without the American nation to criticize US foreign policy. It was even occasionally called by the oxymoron the empire of chaos3. Subsequent to September 11, the political and military discourse has, however, more and more embraced the language of empire by emphasizing some countries’ need for “enlightened foreign administration” to govern them in order to terminate the rule of chaos and restore the order of democracy and the rule of law. Becoming an empire would be, in fact, a small price to pay for Americans, if it meant preventing the chaos in rogue states from spreading over the order in the rest of the world. In Colossus, Niall Ferguson provides the reader with the examples of mentions of imperial governance by the American statesmen, writers and high-rank soldiers. Among them, the words of General Anthony Zinni, who was the commander-in-chief of the US Central Command in 2000, are very significant. Zinni thought of himself as “a modern-day pro-consul, descendant of the warrior-statesman who ruled the Roman Empire’s outlying territory, bringing order and ideals from a legalistic Rome”4. Of course, at the presidential level the acknowledgement of a territorial empire has never been made and the United States has remained an empire unnamed. Still, although “imperial denial”5 persists in some circles, America has come to be increasingly perceived as an empire in foreign policy analyses, particularly within a historical context. As the journalist Robert Kaplan suggests, it is inevitable that “future historians will look back on the 21st-century United States as an empire as well as a republic”6.

4Although all empires aspire to improve the current world order through economic, political and cultural means, there are many forms of empire, and the underlying philosophies do vary. An empire could not always be understood with respect to its tangible features such as borders, military interventions and foreign trade. In most cases, the tangible empire is not an objective in itself but a means to a greater end and this point takes us to the intellectual foundations of empires, which in fact encourage and vindicate the actions dictated by imperial policies. The philosophies of empires are never simple. They emerge as products of the complex interplay of various novel or perennial ideas, traditions or dogmas. In order to acquire a complete knowledge of one empire, all the elements that contribute to its philosophy should be taken into account, paying particular attention to the political aspirations determined by religion. As is well-known, religions prescribe a world order in which spiritual governance and temporal governance coexist. In most cases, empire is envisaged as the ultimate instrument to establish this new world order. In the studies of empire, it is a common exercise to focus only on the political or economic aspects of the imperial-building process and to fail to elaborate on the religious underpinnings. Nevertheless, it is imperative to be acquainted with the politics of religion in order to understand empires.    

5In this sense, the American Empire is no exception. As Kenneth D. Wald states:

  • 7  Kenneth D. Wald, Religion and Politics in the United States, Washington: CQ Press, 1992, 42.

In the colonial period, when religious creeds, institutions and communities exerted a major impact on life and work, there was bound to be same spill over into politics. Because the contribution of religion to American political culture covers such important beliefs as obedience, the designs of government, and the national mission, the religious roots of American political culture merit close investigation7.

Undoubtedly, covering all aspects of the intellectual foundations of the American Empire would, however, be too ambitious a task for a single article. Instead of providing the entire information concerning the intellectual background, I aim to call attention to only one aspect that has been to a certain degree ignored in explaining the imperial design of the United States and thus hope to somehow contribute to the future completion of the picture, which is, in fact, a long-term project. The American apocalyptic should be understood as one of the missing pieces in this puzzle we call the American Empire.    

  • 8 Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of Twen (...)
  • 9 Ibid., 221.

6Evidently, apocalyptic is not an intellectual tradition peculiar to Americans, or to Christians. Since the fall of Rome, the empires in history sought to become the Lords of the World and fulfill their eschatological mission foreseen by the apocalyptic. The Portuguese, Spanish, British and Russian Empires, for example, were certainly motivated by the pursuit of godly ventures. Nevertheless, in imperial histories there were times, when the apocalyptic as an esoteric tradition was a prominent element in the imperial discourse and there were other times, when it disappeared from the mainstream. Presently, it seems to desert completely the political debates in the countries that owned/were an empire once. Nevertheless, traditions though sometimes appearing trivial and beneath our notice, continue evolving through time. They are even restored to prominence. Subsequent to the fall of Soviet Union, for example, some long-forgotten beliefs have resurfaced in Russia. Alexander Dugin, as the key protagonist of neo-traditionalism during perestroika, offered Orthodoxy “as both an esoteric and exoteric practice” to the confused Russian society8. For those who opposed “the idea of transforming Russia into some variety of liberal, democratic state on reasonable terms with the West,” Dugin formulated the Russian version of Eurasianism, which in fact suggests a post-modern empire embracing not only temporal but spiritual elements. Needless to say, the spirituality of Eurasianism is substantially borrowed from the traditional interpretation of the Russian Empire and thus an esoteric tradition has “moved from the margins into the political mainstream”9. Although the Islamic challenge to Orthodoxy within the geographical area, which this new Russian Empire intends to occupy, remains questionable, Eurasianism is currently a scheme unfolding in the hands of Vladimir Putin.

7At the outset, apocalyptic, as a statehood tradition, may seem to belong to the earlier chapters of world history. Nevertheless, when the appropriate conditions are present, in our days too, one may easily observe its comeback in political discourse. Evidently, pinning down the elements of apocalyptic in every nook and cranny exceeds the scope of one study. On this account, although certain elements of Iranian apocalyptic are included, this article is limited to the American notion of apocalyptic, which is extremely visible nowadays.

8In the case of America, the intellectual foundations of the imperial ideal are very much based on the apocalyptic vision brought to the New World in the cultural baggage of the first Puritan settlers. Without taking the apocalyptic into consideration, attempts at pinning down the basic tenets of the American “Empire” will remain incomplete. Terms resonating in the imperial discourse such as “mission” and “destiny” as well as the explicit rhetorical commitment to the “betterment” of the world at any cost should also be treated from the perspective of this perennial belief in addition to others. I aim at elucidating the origins and the essence of the American apocalyptic vision with particular reference to its influence on shaping the American notion of empire.

  • 10  Speech at the University of Washington dated November 1961, quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (...)
  • 11  Michael Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire, London an (...)

9It should here be stated that no tradition encompassed by the discourse of empire remains unchallenged. Apocalyptic thought is therefore one of the traditions embedded in the complex imperial network of powers and counter powers. It has its counter argument. On the one hand, the American apocalyptic resonating in current presidential rhetoric suggests the deliverance of humankind by the hands of Americans. On the other hand, there is the counter-apocalyptic discourse sometimes articulated by other presidents, the most notable example being John F. Kennedy’s words: “we are only 6 percent of the world’s population” and “we can not impose our will upon the other 94 per cent of mankind”10. The existence of counter arguments, however, should not overshadow the argument that the apocalyptic is a major component of the American Empire. It is the aspect that offers “a spiritual reading of geopolitics in our time”11.

10The apocalyptic mission attributed to America is one of the most influential esoteric traditions persisting in the US and not an invention of President George W. Bush. This overtly visionary feature of the American raison d’être was initially brought to America by the Puritan settlers and, having grown to predominance, had an unmistakable impact on American political culture throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, for many people, the biblical terminology of the apocalypse in time came to be detached from its eschatological context in the course of time. For instance, the word “apocalypse”, in a way similar to the current deployment of the word “crusade” without reference to its religious implications, has acquired a popular usage connoting any destructive and large-scale disruptive incident. Also, under the influence of pure historicism, all historical events and their human causes have long ceased to be considered by the man of reason as representing the predicted phases of the divine plan executed by God’s providence. In the face of the popularization of the terminology and the secularization of the understanding of historical change, the essence of the American apocalypse seems to have broken loose from its affiliation with Protestant eschatology.

  • 12  Ernest L. Tuveson, Millennium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress, Berke (...)

11Additionally, on the few platforms where the apocalypse has retained its eschatological sense as the science of the last days, the American apocalyptic mission is not generally viewed as something to be pursued by the federal government, as it was, for example, by the Branch Davidians, for the government itself represents the source of evil and degeneration. Alternatively, it is seen as marginalized, limited to the non-aggressive but over-enthusiastic web-pages and bumper stickers of some individuals and communities. However, in reality, as Ernest Tuveson underlines in his renowned Millennium and Utopia, apocalyptic was “not a fantastic occupation of the lunatic fringe in theology” but “a deadly serious business which concerned Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican of every variety”12. If we regard the crucial role it played in the first formation of American identity, the phases of maturation it underwent concurrent with the phases of American history and finally its deep impact on American contemporary politics and its occasionally explicit articulation under the Bush administration, one can easily agree with Tuveson and extend his conclusion to the present day. In order to understand better why American apocalyptic is “a deadly serious business”, it is essential to strip from the term apocalypse the secular, popular, fanatical and ridiculing labels that have been attached to it and to lay particular emphasis on its eschatological sense as embedded in Scripture.

  • 13  M. Northcott, op. cit., 73.
  • 14  Catherine Albanese, “Requiem for Memorial Day: Dissent in the Redeemer Nation”, American Quarterly (...)
  • 15 Avahi Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America, Cambrid (...)

12The word “apocalypse” originates from the Greek word apocalypteo which means “to unveil”13. In a religious context, an “apocalypse” may be described as an allegory of the order of the events of the future, often concentrating on the approaching end of the world. Generally it takes the form of a supernatural revelation. Apocalyptic is a mode of thought grounded in the belief that such eschatological revelations show the unfolding of the grand design brought about by God’s providence, which governs the course of history. For Christians, this design is pre-eminently set out in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. Based on the revelations in these texts, Christian eschatology sets forth the sequence of the last events which will result in a “marvelous betterment on earth before the End”14. The last events are to take place within a continuous battle between the forces of good and evil and, for that reason, should be perceived as, in Avihu Zakai’s words, the drama of man’s “alienation from, and reconciliation with God”15. And millennialism is a specific form of apocalyptic concentrating on the thousand year period of peace and justice prophesized in Revelation, Chapter 20. The argument whether this thousand year period of bliss on earth will precede or follow the Second Coming of Christ distinguishes the pre-millennialists from post-millennialists respectively. The texts which are of particular interest to my argument are written mostly by the pre-millennialists.

  • 16  James Muldoon, Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800-1800, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999, 10 (...)

13At the heart of apocalyptic, there is empire − an empire which is entangled in Realpolitik but at the same time pertains to God’s plan for mankind. Within this context, as proceeding towards the foretold end of the providential plan for mankind, empire has a “metaphysical reality”16. The apocalyptic empire is to play a unique role on earth, influence world politics and finally offer the imperial seat to Christ when the time comes. As Daniel prophesizes,

  • 17  Daniel 2:44.

the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will this kingdom ever be delivered up to another people. It will crush and put an end to all those kingdoms, while itself will stand forever17.

14This last kingdom will be a world-kingdom, in other words an empire both temporal and spiritual. It will be the last and final empire in world history after four successive empires, which have already risen and fallen. According to one interpretation of the Book of Daniel, the four empires to precede the empire that History unfolds towards were the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Greek − or Macedonian − empires. St Augustine’s interpretation in City of God, on the other hand, suggests that the four empires were the Assyrian, the Persian, the Macedonian and the Roman. Whatever the four empires may be, because they remained in the past, the fifth empire encompasses present and future. Throughout history, the notion of fifth empire has greatly influenced the way the empire is perceived in the West. Protestant belief, which is of particular interest to us, prescribes a worldly empire growing into an apocalyptic empire as what is desired.

  • 18  Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Boston, 1702, v.

15Emphasizing the singular role to be played by the English in providential history, Protestant apocalyptic tradition exercised an undeniably great influence in England from the early days of the Reformation onwards. Tudor imperialism was shaped to a great extent by the conviction that the signs of the golden age were on the horizon. Ventures such as the circumnavigation of the globe by Sir Francis Drake promised the overseas expansion that would bring along the fifth empire and thus underpinned the belief that the redemption of humanity would come at the hands of Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, the enchantment of the Puritans with the role of England in the providential scheme was only of short duration consequent to their suppression in the reigns of Elizabeth I and the early Stuart kings. To the Puritans, England could not have been the space prophesized as the heavenly imperial seat on earth where the faithful would be blessed by eternal salvation. For that reason, the Puritans moved the providential scene across the Atlantic from England to America, just as they themselves had crossed, and they were later followed, both in body and spirit, by other dissenters disillusioned by the Church of England. It is crucial here, however, to highlight that a reconciliation took place between the Evangelical Churches of America and the Church of England in the late eighteenth century. This was actually the fulfillment of the first generation millennialists’ wish “to forget and forgive”18.    

  • 19  Henry and Brooks Adams, “Gilded Age Apocalypse”, in Arthur Herman (ed.), The Idea of Decline in We (...)
  • 20  M. Northcott, op. cit., 5.
  • 21  Cotton Mather, quoted in Wendell Barret (ed.), Cotton Mather, New York, London: Chelsea House, 198 (...)

16Apocalyptic foretells a chosen, an “elect” and predestined people to redeem the other peoples of the Earth. Being the elect is the consequence of the “sworn covenant with God”19 and this is the origin of the conviction that the Americans are a chosen people with a divinely ordained mission, which passed into later generations’ vocabulary in other forms such as “Manifest Destiny” or simply the “American way of life”20. The godly people of the apocalyptic, who will have departed from a sinful past and corrupted religious and political traditions are supposed to dwell on the piece of land that will serve as the core of the Kingdom of God, when the time comes. John O’Sullivan’s conviction that the Americans left behind the “gates of hell” while other nations were still subject to committing sins is grounded in the apocalyptic sense of being chosen. Having left behind a corrupted and desacralized England, the Puritans settled in the sacred place prophesied in Revelation. Migrating to America, in the seventeenth-century millennialist Cotton Mather’s words, was “a removal from a corrupt church to a purer” and “a removal from a place, where there are fearful signs of desolation, to a place where one may have well grounded hope of God’s protection”21.

  • 22  Cotton Mather, “The Devil in England”,in The Wonders of the Invisible World, New England, 1692, 1.
  • 23  Increase Mather quoted in Charles Chauncy, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New Eng (...)

17America was proven to be the sacred land of the people of God also on the grounds that it was rescued from the hands of the ungodly natives. As Mather went on, America consisted of “once the Devil’s territories” but now, subsequent to the arrival of the godly people, “it may easily be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed”22. Regarding the point that America was at the outset not yet sufficiently populated by the elect and unfortunately contaminated by the existence of the natives, Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather, had warned that “in the glorious times promised to the Church on earth” America would be “Hell” and nothing like the kingdom of Christ23. In the American apocalyptic vision, particularly in the beginning, although the millenarianists stood wholeheartedly committed to the idea that America was the land prophesied in the revelations of Scripture, the possibility that Europe could steal the glory of the reign of the last days was never completely ruled out. Unless the Americans fulfilled the duties required of them and put an end to the devil’s reign over their lands, the apocalyptic mission to redeem mankind and reconcile it with the Creator would not be theirs in reality. Of course, consequent to the western expansion, the conviction grew that the land, which was once land of the devil, had now been conquered by the force of good. The notion of expansion is inherent in the apocalyptic, as it depends on the fifth empire’s capacity of enlargement. Thus, America proved its capacity to stretch itself over the territory of evil. Still, Europe − the Old World − has continued to haunt American apocalyptic as the alternative sacred scene of providential history.

  • 24  Samuel Harris’s 1870 Lectures at Andover Theological Seminary quoted in James H. Moorhead, “Betwee (...)
  • 25  Ethan Smith, Dissertation on the Prophecies, Charlestown, 1811, x.

18The idea of sacred space requires living in sacred time. Within the Protestant apocalyptic understanding of time, man lives in a continuous state of the present embedded in a predicted future. The divine design of God’s providence is unfolded in the present and proceeds towards the prophesied end. As Yale Professor Samuel Harris stated in 1870, there was and will not be “a violent disruption of all the continuity” in eschatological time until the end has come24. The past has already taken place and is recounted in Scripture. The days remaining belong to a long sequence of present, which will remain unbroken until the Second Coming of Christ and the eventual end of earthly history. In this sense, adopting Hegelian terminology, the present is the perpetual “completion of history”. Living in the time prescribed in the Books of Daniel and Revelation, in the words of Ethan Smith, the nineteenth-century millennialist, is living in the present “while the events which” the Books “predict are taking place, and while they are future25. These events, which are known as “the signs of the times,” are to be studied and noted as the end approaches. Given the statements in Daniel, such as “the things which must shortly take place” (1:1) and “the time is near” (1:3), the common conviction is that the present embraces the latter days of the unfolding of the godly scheme.

  • 26  Jonathan Edwards, Thoughts on the Revival, Boston, 1741, 13.
  • 27  Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, London, 1774, 112.
  • 28  G. W. F. Hegel, “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate”, in Hegel, Early Theological Writings tr (...)

19In the eyes of the first few generations of millennialists of America, the last days and the last things, in other words living in sacred space and time while waiting and working for the coming of the heavenly empire implied an incessant struggle between good and evil and the impermanent victories of the forces of the devil. Quoting Jonathan Edwards, the champion of the eighteenth-century Great Awakening, American apocalyptic predicts “that there [will] be many changes, revivings and intermissions and returns of dark clouds and threatening circumstances, before […] Christ’s kingdom shall be everywhere established”26. Therefore, the moment Americans took upon themselves the mission of bringing collective salvation and acting as the facilitators of a new world order, they also became the subjects of the devil’s scheme of deception, destruction and suffering. This also demonstrates that American apocalyptic suggests “various steps and degrees” of apocalypses and not one supernatural cataclysm. Edwards’ words below best reveal such conviction that dominated the apocalyptic vision of America: “[…] the ends of the world are come on us, not the end but the ends of the plural number as though the world has several endings one after another”27. This fear of multiple endings stemming from apocalyptic thought has in effect given way to the constant fear of corruption which is central to American morality. Empires, by definition, rise, decline and fall. The inevitable decline comes with corruption. The only empire exempt from corruption is prophesized to be the fifth empire. Therefore, the United States should not be open to corruption and falsehood. There could be few occasions for corruption as a part of the battle between good and evil. As Hegel argued in his Spirit of Christianity, “life can heal its wounds again”28, as long as corruption does not become a way of life.

  • 29  J. H. Moorhead, op. cit., 527.
  • 30  Timothy Dwight, Fourth of July Sermon, 1784 quoted in Ira V. Brown, “Watchers for the Second Comin (...)

20Having laid more emphasis on Matthew Chapter 13 than on Chapters 24 and 25, American millennialists did not promote the apocalyptic interpretation suggesting that the Kingdom of God would come by the supernatural end of the world. To them, the “labors of believers”29 were the means through which the Kingdom would be built and this was not necessarily to take place after the Second Advent of Christ. In his highly apocalyptic Fourth of July sermon in 1798, Yale’s president Timothy Dwight, for instance, reassured his audience that “the millennium” was “to be realized gradually and through human instrumentalities”30. Advancement towards collective redemption depends on the action of Holy Spirit, but it also requires human effort. This was a tenet of American apocalyptic that seemed compatible with the progressivism and individualism that was to flourish in the coming centuries. Apocalyptic history is perceived as a series of continuous changes or an incessantly progressive movement unfolding towards the foretold end. Although the change is predestined, it will come consequent to the individuals’ intense fight to remain good and resist sinfulness.

  • 31  David Austin, The Millennial Door Thrown Open, Connecticut, 1799, 31.
  • 32 Ibid., 30.
  • 33  J. Edwards, Redemption, op. cit., 483.

21Therefore, although the apocalyptic vision was grounded in the idea of collective salvation, the American apocalyptic dwelt on the appropriateness and desirability of individual effort. While waiting for the coming, or return of the messianic figure, different individuals at different times were needed to assign tasks and duties to prepare the nation. Almost all American millennialists, such as Mather, Edwards, Thomas Parker, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, David Austin and Ethan Smith, believed they were witnessing the existence of the Holy Spirit on earth and became re-born Christians. The manifestation of this aspect of the apocalyptic has been observed among American presidents on so many occasions. The millennialists took upon themselves the role of giving Americans moral and religious guidance. Nevertheless, apocalyptical thought presupposes not only spiritual guidance but a political scheme as well. In his sermon entitled “The Millennial Door Thrown Open,” David Austin preached in 1799 that the design of God’s providence foresaw a transition “first outward and political” and only then a second one “inward and spiritual”31. In this respect, the apocalyptic could not be considered as an exclusively religious phenomenon that ought to remain the business of churches. It had, and has, a very explicit political aspect and the American millennialists have been very clear about putting forward the redeeming role of America in this “outward and political” transition. As Austin continued, America was a land “into whose bosom the Nations of the Earth are to bring their glory and their honor”32. According to this view, the United States of America was founded as the promise of the collective salvation of mankind, the reconciliation of it with the Creator, and the final overthrow of the devil’s rule. Thus, under American guidance, Edwards was convinced, the entire world would be “united in peace and love in one amiable society; all nations, in all parts, on every side of the globe, shall then be knit together in sweet harmony”33. There is no doubt that the individual conduct of the political design is the responsibility of the presidents.

  • 34  Dorothy Ross, “Historical Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America”, American Historical Review(...)
  • 35  A. M. Schlesinger, op.cit., 143.

22Although, the approach to history visibly shifted “from a providential toward a historicist view of time”34 in the Gilded Age, the American apocalyptic has persisted and made its way into presidential discourse. From Jefferson to Lincoln, Roosevelt to Reagan, the presidents of the United States of America have intimated their belief in God’s providence, and not human actions, as the major force in history and offered religious explanations for the events of Realpolitik. Nevertheless, George W. Bush has become, in Arthur Schlesinger’s words, “the most aggressively religious president in American history”35 and demonstrated an unusually explicit commitment to American apocalyptic which is prominent in his political speeches. He has recalled the spiritual interpretation of world events and trusted America’s future in “the angel of God who directs the storm”. His presidency has been openly “faith-based”, and it is commonly known that he has called himself a “born-again Christian”, echoing the first and second-generation millennialists who witnessed the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth. His compatriot neo-conservatives have espoused together with him the millennialist credo.

  • 36  H. and B. Adams, “Gilded Age Apocalypse”, 148.
  • 37  A. Zakai, op. cit., 305.
  • 38  A. M. Schlesinger, op. cit., 23-4.

23The September 11th attacks called to mind the sacred origins of the United States. Evil attacked Americans in their homeland, the sacred space − the empire − of the apocalyptic vision. The apocalyptic foresees impermanent victories of the forces of the devil prior to the final victory of goodness. Therefore, if “God’s signs” do not always convey the march of good against evil, they could sometimes reflect the contrary, but still belong to His “moral design”. The attack on the core of the American Empire at once justified the unilateral actions of retaliation and evoked the conviction that expanding over the territory of evil was a responsibility36. September 11th has also demonstrated that the cultural, political and economic means of expansion may not always be sufficient in the elect nation’s advancement towards the prophesized end. The imperial mission described in messianic terms also requires belligerent actions, for the apocalyptic rests on “the warfare between good and evil, between evangelical truth and the intrigues of Anti-Christ”37. If the godly mission as redeemer necessitates actual war, it is the responsibility of America to fulfill this requirement. In order to rule out the possibility of another attack on the homeland ever again in American history, the Bush administration has set forth the idea of pre-emptive war. Paradoxically, the preventive war would also serve the purpose of bringing peace to even the remotest corners of the world or in Bush’s words, restoring “the earth to God’s control”38.

  • 39  M. Northcott, op.cit., 93.
  • 40  Convito, Fourth Treatise, Chapter V.

24Thus the empires, particularly those aspiring to a spiritual role, demand sacrifices from man, even if this means shedding blood of the self and others. As a matter of fact, as Michael Northcott asserts, “the imperial power is the most deadly of all human and political arrangements”39. When verbatim quotes from religious texts are incorporated into political discourse, empire’s promise of fatality becomes a reality. For that reason, though aiming to see what is described by Dante as “the Ship of the Human Family […] hastening to its rightful haven”40, the apocalyptic empires with their self-justified political actions inevitably pose the threat of spreading, temporary or permanent, chaos on account of employing the apocalyptical thought − both as a genuine religious principle and as an instrument of propaganda.

25What is more, the notion of apocalyptic empire is not peculiar to Christianity. Interestingly enough in Islam, the pursuit of apocalypse lies at the heart of the Shiite cult, and thus of the Iranian state. Since the emergence of the first Shiite Safavid state in 1501, a version of apocalyptic has always remained considerably influential in the state philosophy of Persians. Although with the coming of modernization in the late nineteenth century, which resulted in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, the apocalyptic discourse had disappeared from the mainstream, it made a major comeback in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The contemporary Islamic state of Iran aims at the incessant movement towards Allah and thus the collective salvation of the people who share the same faith. Based on the Koranic verse “My righteous servant shall inherit the earth”, [21:92] the Shiite state seeks supremacy and territorial expansion. Also, the Iranian government has taken upon itself the mission of redeeming humanity in accordance with the Koranic verse “And we wish to show favor to those who have been oppressed upon earth, and to make them leaders and inheritors”. [28:5] Again in undeniable similarity with the Christian apocalyptic, the Shiite cult perceives history as a linear progression towards a foretold end, which is the coming of the 12th Imam, who is yet in occultation. The prayer to God to hasten the reappearance of this messianic figure in effect resonates throughout the Iranian constitution. Finally, the Shiite apocalyptic suggests waging war whenever it is inevitable again depending on the verse “[p]repare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and strings of horses, striking fear into the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them” [8:60]. Strikingly enough, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi cleric, claims that the army of Iran is the Mahdi Army (the Army of the 12th Imam) and in that sense “is beyond the Iraqi army”41. Therefore, given these facts, the apocalyptic empire of Iran ironically bears undeniable similarities to that of America.

26Now, the clash between these two apocalyptic empires is on the horizon − two states which separately believe that they are uniquely blessed with a divinely ordained mission to expand ideologically and redeem mankind or the believers. Within this system of belief, any action against the enemy is justified as part of a divine plan and the leaders of these states view themselves as the self-appointed executers of such a plan. On this account, it would not be wrong to suggest that the possible ruin to be caused by any war between these apocalyptic empires is too great to estimate. Any projection focusing only on international relations terms such as reciprocity and deterrence or the middle and long range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons would remain incomplete. In measuring the probability of a war between the United States and Iran, the apocalyptic faith should be included in the equation as the stimulator of aggression.

  • 42  M. Northcott, op. cit., 12.

27In conclusion, the apocalyptic is one of the basic tenets of the American Empire. Ultimately, it is a system of thought seeking the ways of attaining heavenly peace on earth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. However, it has an aggressive side vindicating unilateral action against the enemy. Overemphasizing this side poses a grave threat to global harmony and world peace. For that reason, there exist varying interpretations of apocalyptic, some of which attempt to lay emphasis on its non-violent aspect. Northcott, as a theologian, even contends that the apocalyptic empire as desired by Bush is “false” and Jesus Christ was in effect the victim of a “false” empire of the similar kind. To him, Christian eschatology has never prescribed the “imperial cult,” which has been evolving in the Christian world since the reign of Constantine, and which seems to be animating American foreign policy in our days42.

28The misrepresentation of religious ideals in contemporary Realpolitik is a common problem on the global level. Various esoteric beliefs all prescribing ways of improving the world order assign leadership to various nations. Unfortunately, the world is too small and too real to offer enough “sacred space” to all leaders with apocalyptic vision and this makes deadly clashes inevitable at some point in history.

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1  Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, London: Pimlico, 2003, 9.

2  Amy Kaplan, “’Left Alone with America’: The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture” in Amy Kaplan (ed.), Cultures of United States Imperialism, Durham and London: Duke University, 1993, 4 and 17.

3  Alain Joxe, L’Empire du Chaos. Paris: La Découverte & Syros, 2002.

4  Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire,  New York: Penguin, 2004, 6.

5 Ibid., 7.

6  Robert Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, New York: Random, 2002.

7  Kenneth D. Wald, Religion and Politics in the United States, Washington: CQ Press, 1992, 42.

8 Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 2004, 225.

9 Ibid., 221.

10  Speech at the University of Washington dated November 1961, quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., War and the American Presidency, New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2005, 44.

11  Michael Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire, London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004, 13.

12  Ernest L. Tuveson, Millennium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949, 11.

13  M. Northcott, op. cit., 73.

14  Catherine Albanese, “Requiem for Memorial Day: Dissent in the Redeemer Nation”, American Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4, October, 1974, 1612.

15 Avahi Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America, Cambridge University Press, 1992, 8.

16  James Muldoon, Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800-1800, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999, 101.

17  Daniel 2:44.

18  Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Boston, 1702, v.

19  Henry and Brooks Adams, “Gilded Age Apocalypse”, in Arthur Herman (ed.), The Idea of Decline in Western History, New York: The Free Press, 1997, 147.

20  M. Northcott, op. cit., 5.

21  Cotton Mather, quoted in Wendell Barret (ed.), Cotton Mather, New York, London: Chelsea House, 1980, 15.

22  Cotton Mather, “The Devil in England”,in The Wonders of the Invisible World, New England, 1692, 1.

23  Increase Mather quoted in Charles Chauncy, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, Boston, 1743, 7.

24  Samuel Harris’s 1870 Lectures at Andover Theological Seminary quoted in James H. Moorhead, “Between Progress and Apocalypse: A Reassessment of Millennialism in American Religious Thought 1800-1880”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 71, No.3, December 1984, 541.

25  Ethan Smith, Dissertation on the Prophecies, Charlestown, 1811, x.

26  Jonathan Edwards, Thoughts on the Revival, Boston, 1741, 13.

27  Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, London, 1774, 112.

28  G. W. F. Hegel, “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate”, in Hegel, Early Theological Writings tr. T. M. Knox, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975, 230.

29  J. H. Moorhead, op. cit., 527.

30  Timothy Dwight, Fourth of July Sermon, 1784 quoted in Ira V. Brown, “Watchers for the Second Coming: The Millenarian Tradition in America”, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, December 1952, 449.  

31  David Austin, The Millennial Door Thrown Open, Connecticut, 1799, 31.

32 Ibid., 30.

33  J. Edwards, Redemption, op. cit., 483.

34  Dorothy Ross, “Historical Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America”, American Historical Review, Vol. 89 No.4, October 1984, 925.

35  A. M. Schlesinger, op.cit., 143.

36  H. and B. Adams, “Gilded Age Apocalypse”, 148.

37  A. Zakai, op. cit., 305.

38  A. M. Schlesinger, op. cit., 23-4.

39  M. Northcott, op.cit., 93.

40  Convito, Fourth Treatise, Chapter V.

41  <>, consulted in April 2007.

42  M. Northcott, op. cit., 12.

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Akça Ataç

Dr. C. (Bilkent University, Turkey)
C. Akça ATAÇ received her PhD from Bilkent University, Turkey (2006) with a study of British philosophical history in the eighteenth century and its depiction of the ancient and contemporary empires. Her current research concerns the historical development of the theories of empire in Europe. She has published on the eighteenth-century receptions of the Spartan and Athenian empires and the American imperial perceptions. She teaches history of political thought and European integration.

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