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The Spiritual Roots of American Arrogance


The pitifully small amount of US foreign aid being pledged in response to this week's tsunami disaster continues to heat up as an important issue.  In light of this, I offer the following post:

It is commonly known that around the globe, we Americans are regarded as rather arrogant.  In part, our subtle (or not so subtle) sense of superiority flows from the belief (espoused in our schools, churches, and service organizations, and reinforced by our politicians) that we are citizens of the best and most powerful nation on earth.  Most of the planet, however, doesn't quite see it that way.

In their recently released book, Terrorism and the War in Iraq: A Christian Word from Latin America (published by Kairos in Argentina), C. Rene Padilla and Lindy Scott present a disturbing yet compelling argument that behind the self-serving and oppressive policies of the U.S. government, lies the twin idolatries of materialism and ethnocentric patriotism.

The Church in America, rather than recognizing and condeming these idolatrous values, has in fact embraced them.  For example, Brazilian Assembly of God pastor Ricardo Gondim claims that "North American Christians have become worldly and have been molded into the image of their culture" -- for many evangelicals in the United States, "the 'American way of life' and the gospel are Siamese twins.  It is almost impossible to separate them" (Padilla, 108).

Evangelicals outside of the United States are not, however, the only ones drawing attention to the spiritual woes of the U.S.

Padilla and Scott poinantly draw attention to this reality:

On May 28, 2004, Pope John Paul II warned Catholic bishops in the American heartland not to let the flock stray amid the lure of materialism.  The Pontiff evaluated America and Americans as having a "soulless vision of the world," one characterized by an excessive materialism and a drift away from their spiritual roots.  The Pope's comments were not new, for he had already stated his argument on many occasions.  Back in 1991, the Pope lamented that American Catholic Christians were being molded by the capitalistic, materialistic culture of the United States.  This had resulted in their individualistic self-love.  After his five-day visit to the United States in 1995, the Pope again pointed out the deadly materialism of the North American culture.  Then in his final World Peace Day message of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II branded capitalism' child -- materialistic consumerism -- as an evil of the same stature as Marxism, Nazism and fascism (Padilla,119).

Although Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde (a practicing Roman Catholic) took issue with the Pontiff, saying he was "absolutely wrong" and then defended the oft-cited "fact" of America's surpasing generosity among the nations of the world, Padilla and Scott challenged this, quoting from World Bank's World Development Report of 1995, and presented the following table detailing the estimated official development assistance from industrialized countries as percentages of their GNP (notice how the United States compares):


When it comes to the generosity of individual Christians in the U.S., the picture certainly doesn't improve drastically. "North American Christians give only 3% of their income to their churches and to other charities" (Padilla, 126).

Padilla and Scott would have us wake up to the fact that it is this self-absorbed lifestyle that desensitizes North American Christians to the need for justice around the world, and at the same time, leads them to blindly pledge allegiance to a government which is more interested in furthering its own interests and agendas around the world than assisting other nations with theirs.

As the first three chapters in their book amply point out, Latin America has good reason for distrusting the United States, based on their dealings with the U.S. throughout the 20th century.

There are perhaps many reasons why the centre of Christianity is shifting from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere.  As a comparitively affluent, white, American, evangelical Christian, I want to make certain (to the best of my ability) that I am not blind to the truth -- wherever it may be found -- even if critical of my "tribe."  I believe in the universal body of Christ, and seek to learn from the wisdom of my brothers and sisters to the south of me.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but this material is tough to deal with.  I've blogged before about how intertwined much of American evangelicalism is with American patriotism.  I feel the need to get a better handle on all this.  I accept the likelihood that I'm probably pretty blind to some of this.  Your thoughts, as always, are both sought and appreciated.


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We have become a fat and lazy faith here in America. We are not a "blessed" nation at all.

Although I have some skepticism over the numbers and the role the US plays in international aid (thoughts below), your central point - that we have hitched the evangelical wagon to patriotism – is well worth our consideration. I'm not sure that either is bad by itself (said with a smile by a non-evangelical Christian), but together they can blind us to seeing the world in a clearer light as Christians. I think we need to divorce our “Christian” worldview from a national worldview.

As stated, I confess to a little skepticism on the application of the numbers presented. I have not, however, read the book - so maybe my questions are addressed. Charitable giving by country is a really murky subject that gets even more difficult in the determination of international aid. Many countries only give through governmental and quasi-governmental organizations, others include NGO's (non-governmental organizations), others include aid in kind and non-monetary assistance, others include religious and charitable organizations. To make it even more difficult, it becomes almost impossible to add in the factor of organizations like the World Bank or the IMF that receive funding and use it in discretionary ways. All that, just to say that it's not at all clear who gives more - despite the widely published World Bank chart which, to my understanding, only counts direct governmental monetary spending.

"We have become a fat and lazy faith here in America. We are not a "blessed" nation at all."

I believe we see real faith waning throughout the first world - through arrogance in our blessing, through arrogance in our understanding, and through arrogance in our governments. We no longer see God as provider, but rather as a "slightly off" friend who we allow to hang around with us. I'm not sure we were ever "blessed" more than any other country - the thought that we are is probably a real source of arrogance and condescension.

In 2004, the United States gave $2.4 billion in official government assistance worldwide covering food, shelter, and medical aid. This accounts for 40% of ALL governmental assistnce given by all the governments of the world. It does not includes assistance outside of those three areas, either, making the official dollar amount even higher.

Also not included in those numbers is the cost of using the United States military to protect nations that do not have adequate defense. The second most generous nation is Japan, who incidentally uses our military to protect itself. What is the cost of defending a nation? Should it not be included when we figure benevolence? I believe it should. We should also remember that because Japan pays little for its military protection, it has more money to give in areas not covered by the military. Fair is fair, right? This should also be considered we when talk about the UN and worldwide defense. The US military is the bulk of the UN peacekeepers.

No people is as generous individually as Americans are on the world stage. Most of the world's hospitals, refugee centers, and food distribution points were built with money provided by private individuals in the United States. Many of those same operations are staffed by Americans overseas. We Americans rise to almost every disaster abroad, but it is not always the case for other countries helping us. The true number of countries represented in the 9/11 cleanup was small. But almost no world disaster goes unseen by America and its citizens. alone has raised millions for tsunami relief.

People in other parts of the world see this, too. In recent Russian and Turkish earthquakes, the locals were amazed at the fact that a large number of rescuers were Americans come to their country rather than their own countrymen. This prompted many, especially in Russia, to label America the most generous and caring nation in the world.

The standard of living in the world has never been higher across all countries than it is today. This is in large part due to American largesse, not only financially, but also in time and effort spent through education and other non-traditional means. One can also claim that our wealth is raising up other countries. Witness what is happening in China for instance. No political system can outstrip what capitalism can do in raising all boats. Even the Chinese communists understand this.

Beyond even financial matters, the world is largely evangelized thanks to American efforts. Millions have escaped Hell and found peace in Christ thanks to American evangelization efforts. We too easily forget this and dwell on the negative and nihilistic.

America is not "The Great Satan" that so many want to paint it. There is democracy, free elections, voting rights and education for women in Afghanistan thanks to the United States. Millions in the world are free thanks to the American democratic experiment. The world is not under a Nazi or communist dictatorship because of America. (Is anyone figuring the human toll that was spared due to this fact?) Millions want to live in this country because they understand its benefits and opportunities. And just as many millions want to denigrate this country because they cannot stand the fact that they do not have what we do. That used to be called sour grapes or jealousy but now we try to make it noble--but it is not.

I am really sick of all the rocks hurled at the US this year. Everyone on the Left sucked up to Europe and now you have countries like The Netherlands realizing they goofed and should have seen what we did. Now it may be too late to undo.

Apply the same standard universally. If we want to stop idolizing the United States, then we have to stop idolizing other countries, too. Be fair if you are calling for fairness. And don't forget all the good things the United States has birthed worlwide by having the most generous people on the planet.

Dan, I rarely disagree with you... but this time I must. Your rebuttal represents the kind of rhetoric so often heard from Americans, which I believe to be one of the reasons why we're so blind to the runaway consumerism, materialism, and individualism that plagues us (and is so obvious to those outside). We commonly point to "this" or "that" to appease our personal and corporate consciences.

That said, I conceded that there are generous Americans, generous American businesses (didn't one such business pledge more itself than our entire nation has to the tsunami disaster?), and generous religious relief organizations -- thank God. But this must not be allowed to cover up the economic stinginess that characterize the masses.

My own congregation is not unlike any other -- people would rather spend on themselves than on the poor when given the chance.

And as far as your statement about "idolizing other countries" -- who is doing that???

I do not think that giving an equal amount of our GNP would be the answer to anything. Just as a person attending a small church who won the lottery might not be wise to give 10% if 700 million dollars to a small church - the same consideration must be given to charitable destinations. If there are not organizations in place to wisely use monies, and the necesssary accountability in place to monitor the spending - we end up with countries paying off evil governments (like France and the UN with oil for food), in order to get kickbacks of their own. Wise spending does not mean paying off countries cause you want something back- even though I am sure we have done the same thing. All I am saying, is this is a far more complex situation then can be easily summed up as "American Imperialism is bad," and we are self righteous. Although, I know that is true as well. We are self centered folks, not wanting to get our nose into other people's business, unless of course someone shoots it off - and then we start taking notice.

Either way- we should have been much more concerned with other countries then we are with missions, aid, love, the truth of the gospel, etc. But it is way to early to judge as in the case of the 350 million pledge that may only be the beginning.

PM -
I appreciate your perspective. Thanks. You're probably right about it being too early to judge the US on their level of pledged aid (via the gov't, that is) for tsunami relief.

Not unlike life in general, it's important to learn from one's critics. U.S. Christians need to listen to what believers in Latin America are saying. Their sentiment may be jaded, but that doesn't mean it's void of truth. As the center of Christianity moves into the southern hemisphere, I see this wilingness to listen to the Church in the South as becoming even more important.

The US contribution of aid to tsunami victims now tops $350 million. All contributions from all countries were totaled at $500 million before this additional funding from the United States (and that includes $35 million already pledged by the United States and $250 million from the largely American taxpayer-funded World Bank.)

And Americans are stingy?

Again, the facts and numbers are right there and are indisputable. The United States and its people carry the world burden far more than any ten countries combined.

Chris, I know we don't disagree on much and I appreciate your standing by many of the less popular things I've written here, but we will have to disagree on this issue. In every measurable sense, the United States is the world's benefactor and has been for more than a hundred years; we would live in a far more impoverished and diminished world if the United States had never existed.

In response to "idolizing other countries," there is this wild love affair right now between more left-leaning folks in this country and Europe. The materialistic and largely godless Europeans can do no wrong and are far more enlightened than the rube farmer in Iowa, or so goes the common sentiment among the left-leaning. How many million times did we hear that during this last election cycle? I lost track. Truth be told, there is a large anti-American sentiment among some Americans that I find absolutely incomprehensible. They are torturing bloggers in Iran even as we speak, but somehow it's America that is evil.

This one thing is true: there are too many people in the United States who are ingrates. If you want to talk about a complete lack of thankfulness in this country, it is easy to know where to start. The stingy ingrates largely populate the states that went for Kerry, as a well-known correlative chart showed that in terms of personal giving and largess, the so-called "Red States" dominated the top twenty spots among states. If anything, there appears to be a correlation between not being a Christian and being stingy, since self-identified born-again Christians reported in higher numbers in those same red states.

I don't want to turn this into a political polemic, but I want to see real numbers charted against real facts. Three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. And statistics that are not correlated against all the facts are the worst lies of all. Again, I would highly doubt the book you cited made any correlation between military expenditures by the United States and our involvement as the world's peacekeeper. I would suspect in the minds of the authors that this counts for nothing since they probably believe we should have no military period--some of us live in the real world, though. So we foot the bill and then everyone complains against us at the same time. Too darned convenient if you ask me.

I just wonder why we have become so critical of every move we make as a country. Bush pledges $80 million to combat AIDS in Africa--something no president before him had done--and yet he's criticized for it not being enough. I think that if most people saw how many billions of dollars this country spends on aiding other countries in ways that are not scrupulously tracked they would be shocked. Again, 40% of all government aid distributed worldwide is spent by the United States. How can anyone argue against that?

(I would recommend two books by P.J. O'Rourke as counters to much of the sentiment expressed here, _Eat the Rich_ and _All the Trouble in the World_. The latter book is especially helpful in understanding that we simply don't get the whole story behind all the problems in the world. O'Rourke's firsthand observations of all the things he writes about deflate much of the manic speculation we engage in when discussing powderkeg world issues. His commentary on driving for sixteen straight hours through endless Somali wheat fields during the height of the Somali famine should be a lesson to everyone, for instance.)

I heard PJ being interviewed on his book,
Peace Kills, (I think it was him),
and he mad an amazing case about,
how our isolationism,
and people's "idea" of "old-Europe" peace ideas,
is actually what helped people like
Mussolini and Hitler flourish,
and I must admit I was impressed by the facts.

Jesus preached peace one earth and
brought seemingly the opposite,
death, destruction, etc
The God who is doing things in the spiritual realm,
is also doing things in the physical realm,
and they often look like opposites.

In the same way, America ignores countries in need,
and people think we are being great,
when in reality we are neglecting things.

Then when we step in to help financially, spiritually, or in political ways,
people think we are the great Satan,
when in reality we are probably being used by God.

War never stopped anything,
except slavery, facism, nazism, Goliath and communism.

I disagree often with Dan, and will again on this one. Chris is not disagreeing with you about how much we give, or that the USA doesn't give more than anyone else. We are talking about percentages.

I was really convicted reading this. Yeah, we may have given over 350 million for the tsunami, but how many people are really giving? I haven't, nor do I know anyone that has. But how much have we spent on ourselves since this disaster happenned?

I once heard someone say that America has become the rich man in the gospel story while Lazarus is outside our gate. I would agree. Besides this Chris, your post has left me speechless and ashamed.

Will God judge us only by what we have done, or what we could have done? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the topic of how much christians should give. He answers the question by saying not a set amount, but to give until it hurts. I don't think many of us are.

Tracking with you, Benjy.
When we avoid "percentages," it's a lot easier to pat ourselves on the back. The idea you mentioned from C.S. Lewis is a powerful one -- giving until it hurts. Such a notion definitely rubs we American "consumers" the wrong way, I fear.

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