Democracy and empire

American empire illustration

Liberal religion can nurture the weakened democratic spirit and push back against the forces of empire.

Image: ©James Fryer /

©James Fryer /


We face a critical moment in the life of our democracy. The United States has periodically struggled to preserve its democratic spirit in the face of its own imperial impulses. In recent years, the American impulse toward empire has been on the rise, especially since 9/11, and observers from across the political spectrum have remarked that this flexing of imperial muscle has come at the expense of American democracy. Historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired career military officer and a Republican, claims that “American democracy in our time has suffered notable decay” and that the American proclivity for global power projection threatens “the destruction of what most Americans profess to hold dear.” Philosopher Cornel West, a progressive, points to “a deeply troubling deterioration of democratic powers in America today.”

Urgent challenges confront us. As religious liberals who support democratic values and cooperative uses of power, how can we help nurture the weakened democratic spirit and push back against the forces of empire? What theological and spiritual resources can we bring to this struggle, and how can we most effectively use them? In short, how do we engage in liberal prophetic practice under a condition of empire?

The impulse toward empire

American empire is not just a matter of global dominance but involves both external and internal projections of power. External power projection consists primarily of U.S. military presence, global economic power, and the worldwide influence of American culture. Internal power projection involves increasing concentrations of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer people, as well as the blending of governmental and corporate power that gives large corporations unparalleled influence over public policy. These internal power projections are most responsible for the undermining of our democracy. Yet the internal and external dimensions of American empire are parts of a larger whole, and both shape the context within which liberal prophetic voices must speak.

The American empire of the twenty-first century differs from empires of both the distant and recent past. Rather than conquer other societies to rule them directly, the United States relies on indirect influence through various forms of pressure and intervention. By the same token, internal control is maintained not by suppressing political opposition or applying police state tactics, but by manipulating existing political and legal structures in ways that appear to support them but in fact distort or subvert them. Political philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin uses the phrase “inverted totalitarianism” to describe this system. He does not mean that the U.S. government is totalitarian in the traditional sense, like the former Soviet Union. Rather, American imperial power exerts itself in certain totalizing tendencies toward control, expansion, and dominance.

The American impulse toward empire is rooted in the ideologies of militarism and capitalism that, like all ideologies, are grounded in a specific worldview and reflect a set of core values. West calls these core values “aggressive militarism” and “free-market fundamentalism” and sees them as “dominating, antidemocratic dogmas.” We can better understand how these dogmas work in the service of empire if we look at them not simply as social or political ideologies but as theologies.

Theology of Violence.The dogma of aggressive militarism is part of a deeper theology of violence. In America, it points to a disposition to use violence, and especially the military, to accomplish national goals. Religious and political liberals must understand that the dogma of military aggression was part of the American theology long before the Bush administration’s bellicose response to 9/11. American militarism goes back at least to World War I, and its deep roots lie in the period of European colonial conquest and the glorification of violence that has always been part of our culture. This dogma is not simply the domain of political conservatives. Bacevich notes that during the 2008 presidential election campaign, no candidate in either party questioned either the logic or the wisdom of the policy of global military dominance. Two months after his inauguration, President Barack Obama affirmed a commitment to “maintain our military dominance” and “have the strongest armed forces in the history of the world.” Although Obama’s foreign policy favors international cooperation rather than the gunslinger unilateralism of his predecessor, militarism remains entrenched in America’s identity.

Maintaining a global military force of more than 700 bases in over 100 countries is not cheap. The United States spends more today on the military than at any time in its history. By some calculations, we spend more on defense than all other nations in the world combined. The upshot is that we have the strongest military machine the world has ever seen. No other nation or bloc of nations even comes close. But our military might has become divorced from its nominal purpose: national defense. No one seriously argues that we need this much military power for actual defense against credible threats. Nevertheless, we take for granted a perpetual state of war and preparedness for war.

Most theologies include what theologians call a soteriology, a doctrine about salvation or deliverance. In the theology of violence, violence itself brings salvation. Theologian Walter Wink calls this “the myth of redemptive violence.” Like religious myth­ologies everywhere, its story is ritualistically told and retold so that its explanatory power is continually reinforced. The basic story line is always the same. Think of any Western movie or any modern equivalent, such as Star Wars, any police or detective story, any superhero story. In every case, “bad” violence, symbolizing the evil we must conquer, is overcome by “good” violence. The good guys bring the bad guys to justice by applying superior force, and sometimes, superior intelligence, either by capturing or killing them. Our children learn the salvific power of force and violence at an early age from cartoons and video games, many of which are cast in explicitly militaristic terms. This deeply engrained worldview seems perfectly normal. “Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least,” Wink declares. “Violence simply appears to be the nature of things.”

In political contexts, the military becomes the divinely chosen instrument of our salvation. The theology of violence gives divine sanction to military power used in the service of national/imperial policies. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that “war continues to seem necessary because we have found no way to tell the stories of our lives without war playing a role.” Bacevich observes that our global military supremacy has “come to signify who we are and what we stand for.” In other words, in the theology of violence, war is not just about what we do, it is about who we are.

Theology of Free-Market Fundamentalism. The second antidemocratic dogma, free-market funda­mentalism, is an ideology that supports the accumulation of unlimited wealth and power in the hands of global corporations and justifies the obscene level of wealth inequality in the United States. As with militarism, we may think of free-market fundamentalism not simply as a political or economic ideology but as a theology.

In free-market theology, the market becomes the god whose divinely ordained processes create order and balance in the universe. Theologian Harvey Cox points out that, like other gods, the market-god is looked upon by its worshippers with reverence and endowed with a range of divine attributes that “are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith.” Here, too, we have a doctrine of salvation. In free-market theology, the market itself is the god that will bring us salvation—as long as we don’t disturb its natural order through regulation. The divinely chosen instrument for this purpose is the multinational corporation. Corporate power itself takes on certain divine attributes. Like most gods, its authority becomes self-justifying, and it therefore has no need for moral accountability. The economic meltdown that began with the collapse of our financial system in 2008 has shown—if we needed to be shown—that this false god cannot save us. Yet the bailout of large and often corrupt financial institutions and the extreme reluctance to impose even the most basic regulatory reform suggest that faith in this god continues unabated.

Defenders of free-market fundamentalism continue to trust in the market as though it were grounded in a higher order of natural law. Economic historian Gordon Bigelow describes this vision of the market as a utopia, an “imagined place, where equilibrium rules, consumers get what they want, and the fairest outcomes occur . . . as if the neoclassical theory of the free market were incontrovertible, endorsed by science and ordained by God.”

Since the end of the Cold War and the Reagan administration’s aggressive deregulation of American business—a policy largely continued by the Clinton administration—free-market fundamentalism has in­creasingly become the guiding theology of government policy as well as corporate practice. The result is a unique and dangerous blending of corporate and state power. The corporate relationship to the state shifted from seeking to influence government policy and legislation to what Wolin calls “managed democracy.” In this system, the state increasingly relies on corporate economic power to advance its policies. The result is “a symbiotic relationship between traditional government and the system of ‘private’ governance represented by the modern business corporation,” culminating in the “ultimate merger . . . between capitalism and democracy.”

Consequences of empire

The union of globalized corporations and the U.S. government has dangerous and far-reaching consequences. It is fundamentally antidemocratic, because the corporations that share this enormous power are neither answerable to the electorate nor subject to the limits on state power imposed by the Constitution. American empire has its own unwritten constitution, which sanctions vast public and private powers limited only by opportunity and ambition. Wolin’s stark conclusion is that the imperial tendencies expressed through militarism, globalized capital, and the alliance of corporate and state power undermine one of the most basic principles of the American political system: that “the Constitution provides the standard for a government of limited powers, and that American governance and politics are democratic.” He argues that American democracy cannot be revitalized until the American people and their political leaders squarely confront this reality.

The fundamentalist theologies of empire also undermine what we might call the spiritual dimensions of democracy by diminishing our understanding of citizenship. While empire expects loyalty and patriotism, it resists a truly engaged citizenry. Empire prefers its citizens to be subjects rather than agents, demobilized and passive rather than organized and active. It encourages this disengagement by fostering what Wolin calls “an atmosphere of collective fear and of individual powerlessness.” The fear may be directed toward specific possibilities, such as terrorist attacks, losing one’s job or health insurance, or not having enough money in retirement, but the object of the fear is unimportant. The goal is to maintain a generalized feeling of insecurity and powerlessness. When citizens live in a constant state of anxiety, and when they feel powerless to change the circumstances that create their anxiety, they are more likely to withdraw, seeking to protect what they have rather than to mobilize for change. In a sense, the people are simply worn down or “hammered into resignation.”

Other systemic factors impinge on democratic citizenship. Political candidates as well as the public are often uninformed or misinformed, and political events such as debates or town meetings are highly scripted and almost willfully uninformative. The dumbed-down nature of our public discourse makes serious engagement with important issues nearly impossible and undermines our democracy. As this condition becomes normal, people lose faith in the prospects for public discourse altogether.

The endless opinion polls thrust at us by the media and their corporate owners further distance us from the political process. These polls create the illusion of meaningful participation by inviting citizens to express their views on current issues and candidates, but they are typically structured so that only shallow and meaningless responses are permitted (yes/no; agree/disagree; don’t know). Worse, polls involve a low-risk, no-cost form of pseudo-involvement. Yet pollsters and pundits parse the data, sagely reporting the views and trends among subgroups such as white males over forty, Hispanic voters under thirty, female college graduates, and so on. This information is useful not to voters but to candidates, who use it to target different segments of the electorate with messages designed to appeal to their preferences or prejudices. By highlighting the places of division and disagreement, this process can lead to mistrust among voters and make organizing around common interests difficult.

The right to vote is commonly understood as the ultimate democratic practice, bringing the power back to the people. Yet voter turnout in American elections is abysmally low. One factor in low voter participation is the widespread, justifiable feeling of powerlessness, the sense that voting doesn’t really change anything. Our political system produces candidates who represent the interests of the existing imperial structures rather than the needs of ordinary citizens. It’s not that candidates and public officials all think alike. Deep ideological divisions contribute to the government gridlock we have witnessed in recent years. But despite these philosophical differences, the structural inertia of empire ensures that switching a few faces in Congress or even changing the ruling party is not likely to alter the dominant imperial structures or produce any real change in government practices. The persuasive power of the citizen’s vote is no match for the persuasive power of the corporate purse.

Worse, despite the public spectacle of political campaigns, the forces of empire actively discourage voting. The message that voters should not trust the government, incessantly pushed by many politicians, encourages alienation and tells voters not to bother seeking help from those elected to serve them. An even more cynical tactic is the recent proliferation of state laws that ostensibly protect against voter fraud, but whose barely disguised purpose is to restrict voter eligibility. A recent independent study concludes that these laws will make voting more difficult for more than 5 million people, primarily young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as voters with disabilities—in other words, those most likely to vote against entrenched power interests.

Revitalizing democracy

In the face of these realities, let us consider the prospects for liberal religion’s prophetic practices. Happily, the American impulse toward empire is only one side of the coin. The im­pulse toward democracy still beats in the American breast. Despite his harsh assessment of our current situation, West believes that the forces of democracy are ultimately stronger. Wolin thinks the days of American global economic dominance are over, and Bacevich argues that the current policies of global military power projection and perpetual war are unsustainable and beginning to collapse under their own weight. Each thinker sees openings through which a revitalized democracy may begin to emerge. But this impulse toward democracy is not self-perpetuating. Our prophetic actions, working in concert with other concerned individuals and groups, must keep it alive and healthy.

This work will not be easy. We cannot start from scratch. Whatever opportunities for renewal are available today, they bear the weight of current imperial structures, and although the forces of empire may be waning, they are not likely to disappear. A globalized economy is here to stay, and constantly shifting global power structures involving the interplay of governmental and private actors are a part of the twenty-first century. Our challenge is to nurture a prophetic counterweight to check these impulses toward expansion and domination and help create breathing space for democracy.

West identifies three basic commitments within the American democratic tradition. They are deeply engrained in the American psyche and form part of what Wolin calls the “culture of democracy.” West calls these basic democratic commitments the “Soc­ratic commitment to questioning,” the “prophetic commitment to justice,” and the “tragicomic commitment to hope.” These commitments are the spiritual wellsprings of a reinvigorated democracy, and they are also basic to liberal religion. Drawing on them in our prophetic practice will deepen our faith even as we nurture the culture of democracy and contribute to the struggle against empire.

West traces the democratic tradition of questioning to Socrates. Here West means not clever verbal sparring, but a commitment to truth-seeking and truth-speaking, requiring “a relentless self-examination and critique of institutions of authority, motivated by an endless quest for intellectual integrity and moral consistency.” This commitment draws on the democratic preference for forms of public discussion that involve reason-giving. True democratic dialogue is not simply about expressing our opinions and preferences; it requires that we justify our positions.

A commitment to questioning, and especially to self-examination and the critique of authority, has always been part of the liberal religious tradition. It emerged from the Enlightenment principles of personal autonomy and free critical inquiry. In practice, all claims of external authority, whether from government, denominational institutions, or ministers and congregational leaders, are subject to challenge.

As we struggle against the injustices of empire, we must also reflect honestly and critically on how we have contributed to or acquiesced in these conditions. The practice of self-critique forms an important part of liberal religious self-understanding and enables us to contribute to revitalizing our democracy just by doing what we have always done best.

West’s second element, the prophetic commitment to justice, can be traced to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Like prophets in all ages, they spoke out against injustice and called their leaders to account. Prophetic witness, says West,

consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery. It highlights personal and institutional evil, including especially the evil of being indifferent to personal and institutional evil.

The prophetic commitment to justice builds on critical questioning and calls our communities to spiritual and social transformation. The prophetic voice speaks not only on behalf of the poor and the oppressed but also against those who misuse power. Here, too, the liberal religious tradition has made an important contribution. Liberal religion has always emphasized ethics over doctrine, and religious liberals have always been among those who call society to account in the face of injustice, challenge the cultural status quo, and work for the dismantling of unjust institutions and the creation of just ones.

West’s third element, a “tragicomic commitment to hope,” is not simply about being optimistic, but involves a deeper form of spirituality: the ability to persevere, to continue the struggle for justice even when all seems hopeless. He describes this kind of hope as “the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy—to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy—as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair.”

Hope has always played a central role in the liberal religious tradition. Early Universalists offered a doctrinal basis for human hope: Their belief in universal salvation stood in stark contrast to the Calvin­ist doctrine of election, which condemned most of humanity to the hopelessness of eternal damnation. On the social level, liberals have always had deep faith in the possibilities of human fulfillment and social progress. But West’s notion of tragicomic hope is a bit different, a gentle critique of the liberal tendency to be overly optimistic or to swing the other way into despair.

A long-term view is essential if our prophetic practice is to be effective. We must be willing to participate in the struggle for justice against the forces of empire even if we can’t define all the terms of our involvement and can’t control the outcome. Uni­tarian Universalist ethicist Sharon D. Welch suggests that we should measure our involvement “as much by the possibilities it creates as by its immediate results.” In other words, responsible prophetic practice means changing what we can in the present while also creating the “conditions of possibility” for further changes by others. Hope comes from acknowledging that the struggle for justice is always long-term and from knowing that our tentative and often halting small steps form an important part of this larger process.

The tension between democracy and empire seems to be a permanent feature of the American condition. By the same token, religious liberals seem cursed to live with the tension between energizing hope and the temptation toward paralyzing cynicism. But cynicism is a luxury of privilege, a negative spirituality that in the end only feeds the forces of empire. We can maintain our hope, and be true to our own religious ideals, if we remember that this very dissonance, this tension that so often frustrates us, can be creative as well as destructive. It can fuel the passion to question, the courage to be prophetic, and the faith to hope.

This essay is adapted from Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square, © 2012 by Paul Rasor (Skinner House Books). Illustration © James Fryer/