- The monotheistic world view behind the US cultural war also unites the nation in countering China’s rise and defending US hegemony
- Unless Americans step back from the brink, the US risks both a violent civil uprising and a dangerous reconfiguration of the world order
The US is battling threats from within and without. Unless they can be freed from the Manichaean world view of good vs evil, Americans will face enormous difficulties coexisting peaceably with each other, and with China.
An exceptional superpower, the US is also afflicted with flaws peculiar to itself. The American obsession with firearms and inability to deal with gun violence has confounded the world. Every country faces the abortion dilemma but none has experienced the same social-political upheaval as in the US.
French philosopher-historian Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, once observed that, “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America”.
Indeed, the vow “In God We Trust” animates the US body polity, for better and for worst. The bitter dispute over abortion, for instance, is by all accounts a religion-induced cultural war.
From the 1960s, America undertook historic social-political reform, according civil rights to racial minorities and affirming sexual and gender equity, including the landmark Roe vs Wade ruling on abortion rights. But the liberal push for a progressive, big-tent America has strained the country’s social fabric, leading to the present-day conservative resistance.
The conservative-majority Supreme Court is purportedly resetting America’s moral compass. Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser to Donald Trump, has called for “one religion” in America, namely Christianity. The emergence of white Christian nationalism has led the Department of Homeland Security to issue a domestic terrorism alert, warning of possible civil unrest.
In spite of the internal strife, Americans are united in countering China’s rise and defending US global hegemony. Republicans and Democrats alike continue to believe in America’s manifest destiny as the “beacon” on the hill – a conviction rooted in the Christian monotheistic theology that the gospel alone is the light for a fallen world.
But there are nuances in how a divided America assesses the China threat and envisions US global leadership.
The conservatives tend to vilify communist China as a godless, immoral regime, a threat to the Christian way of life. For the religious right, America must deploy its power to sustain a world order in alignment with Christian values.
The liberals, however, see an authoritarian China as a peril to liberal democracies. For the secular left, America’s responsibility is to preserve a global order anchored on the universal principles of liberty and equity.
Compared with the religious right, the secular left champions a more inclusive, pluralistic world order. That said, the liberals are as dogmatic as the conservatives in asserting their political ideology.
Like the Christians who believe the church is the only gateway to heaven, the secular left is convinced that liberal democracy alone is the political passageway to a world free of tyranny. Instead of Christianising the unsaved, liberal America, with religious-like zeal, is determined to liberalise and democratise the world.
This brings us to the civilisation dimension of US-China rivalry. The Confucians are polytheistic, recognising multiple pathways to realising the good. And this belief is set within a broader ancient Chinese yin-yang cosmology where Confucians define the good as the unending quest for the harmonious coexistence of all things.
In contrast, the Christian universe is divided into antithetical spheres, namely, good vs evil. And, according to Biblical prophesies, this dualistic tension will ultimately end with an apocalyptic battle where the forces of light will triumph over those of darkness.
For American evangelicals, the foretold “end time” battle has begun and China is on the wrong side of this epic struggle between good and evil. The secular left is derisive of Christian eschatology. But they are as unsparing in denouncing China for being on the wrong side of the “end of history” hypothesis, and branding the one-party Chinese Communist state as an existential threat to liberal democracies and the US.
But China is not the only source of the predicament besetting the US. Inside America, the religious right are fighting back against their left-leaning fellow countrymen’s supposedly permissive secular ethos and socialist ideologies.
Liberals, in turn, are bent on subverting the conservatives, fearful that the erosion of the separation of church and state could hurl the republic back into the dark ages of bigotry and intolerance.
America’s cultural war is an intra-civilisation clash, an infighting between adherents of the monotheistic world view. Both conservatives and liberals are trapped in tunnel vision, convinced of the superiority of their ways, each disparaging the other as anathema in their conflicting visions for America.
At the fringes of this deepening schism, the far right and far left appear to have given up hope of any political resolution to the worsening discord. The congressional hearing on the January 6 Capitol attack made clear how close the country came to abandoning the democratic process.
America’s cultural war bears the markings of a religious war. The republic, founded as a haven for those fleeing religious persecution, now faces the danger of a religion-inspired social upheaval.
Americans, conservatives as well as liberals, have to find a way out of the dark Manichaean world view of good vs evil. Unless they step back from the brink and reaffirm the humanity in their fellow countrymen, a polarised United States is at risk of a violent social-political uprising.
And until Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, accept China as an equal partner, the reconfiguration of the 21st-century world order will remain tense and dangerous.
Author: Peter T.C. Chang is deputy director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, SCMP