The last 8 years have been fertile soil in the U.S. for deploying anti-empire polemics. A key example of this is the long in production, but only recently released Evangelicals and Empire, edited by Peter Hetzel and Bruce Ellis Benson. The book engages Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s books Empire and Multitude, both of which are supremely important books in the field. Evangelicals and Empire features a fascinating diversity of essays which analyze the various streams of evangelicalism from the standpoint of Hardt and Negri’s Empire theory as well as applying forms of theological critique their project. In the midst of this book there are some essays that are rather simplistic reiterations of common anti-Bush sentiments translated into a critique of “American Empire.” The chief example of this is Jim Wallis’ well-worn and whiney essay “Dangerous Religion.”
My point in mentioning this is not to say that critiques of Bush-style neoconservatism are wrong, rather it is that they are just far too easy. Any Christian critique of empire worth its salt must be able to do more than lob shots at the chicanery of the Bush administration. Amid the uproar of exultation surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration Christians need to remember what it might mean to be true critics of empire. As Andrew Bacevich notes in his superb book, American Empire, the imperial pretension of the American national project are not in any way reducibile to partisan differences within the American political apparatus. The differences between republicans and democrats, between Bush and Obama, as real as they might be are ultimately only differences of degrees. At best.
If America was an empire yesterday it remains one today despite the Obama administration’s proclamations of hope and seismic change. For my part I think Obama’s election makes for no substantive change in regard to the fundamental posture that Christians must take in regard to their view of American imperial pretensions. What is needed now, in a post-Bush America is the kind of vigilance that refuses to assume that that empire has ceased to be a theological problem for Christians in America. We will almost certainly see a lapse in the rush of anti-empire publications in the next few years. For far too many “progressive” Christians being anti-empire just means being anti-Bush. What is needed now, in light of the (false) hope of the newly inaugurated Obama presidency is ongoing critique of the problems of American empire. So that is my plea. Let us not be seduced. We lived in an empire yesterday. We live in an empire today. There are just as many idols to be unmasked today as there were yesterday. Let’s not get lax about it just because Bush is gone.