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Essays, Justice, Politics of Scripture, States of Exception

A Retrospective on a Righteous Pagan: The Political Theology of Captain America, Pt. 1 (by Benjamin Wood)

On the surface Captain American: the Winter Soldier is a cinematic triumph of patriotic romanticism. Whatever injury has been done to the American psyche in the early part of the twenty-first century, Marvel has done its best to bind these wounds and produce a tour de force of idealism for a less than idealistic age. Captain America has done for democratic virtue what the West Wing did for American government.

On the surface Captain American: the Winter Soldier is a cinematic triumph of patriotic romanticism. Whatever injury has been done to the American psyche in the early part of the twenty-first century, Marvel has done its best to bind these wounds and produce a tour de force of idealism for a less than idealistic age. Captain America has done for democratic virtue what the West Wing did for American government.

Steve Rogers (one of the last survivors of America’s “Greatest Generation”) embodies a simpler time, when the ‘bad guys were really bad’ and ‘the good guys were really good’. Rogers personifies a hopeful vision of the American polity; unstained by the iniquities of Vietnam, the sleaze of Watergate, the abuses of Guantanamo Bay, and the sins of Abu Ghraib. His political creed is wholesome and simple; worshiping neither at the altar of money, or power, but rather determined to stand up for the weak and apply the principle of justice, without fear or favor. In this respect his politics is strongly Jeffersonian; standing up for the little guy and taking pride in American simplicity; the honesty of the small-farmer, the wisdom of the ordinary patriot and the discernment of the freedom-loving citizen. Yet unlike similar Neo-Conservative rallying-cries today, Rogers doesn’t take any pleasure in America’s latter-day role as ‘global policemen’ or ‘big bully’, much less in the mass surveillance which such a bullish role entails. Indeed, a key message of the film is that such a mantle is replete with ideological temptations. Power might make “the heroes” think that they are no-longer accountable to the heroic values they claim to serve. As Rogers says of Nick Fury’s mass surveillance program: “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” The film’s message is as clear as an Edward Snowden leak. American hegemony not merely corrupts; it invites the very totalitarianism it professes to condemn.

Yet as I watched the film a few uncomfortable truths began to dawn. Firstly, it occurred to me that we have created very few new political myths since 1945. So much of the oratorical energy of liberal-democracy continues to rest on the ghosts of Nazism and Stalinism. The Bush administration and its allies did much to rekindle the spirit of these old adversaries in the run up to the second Iraq War. Comparing Sadam Husain to Hitler, Donald Rumsfeld accused reluctant allies of pursuing a policy of appeasement for refusing to act on rumors of chemical weapon stockpiles.[i] Similarly, Tony Blair compared Sadam’s aggression towards his Arab neighbours to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1937. In 2007 such hyperbole reached a new watermark with a retrospective essay on Sadam’s rule in Iraq entitled ‘Saddam Hussein: Stalin on the Tigris’.[ii]  Yet such images are more than expedient rhetoric; their continued resonance serves to highlight the degree to which our political life is still overshadowed by the decisions of the wartime generation. Such tropes have resurfaced in response to President Putin’s actions in the east of Ukraine. Earlier this year, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble told an audience of students that Russia’s actions echoed those of Hitler’s.[iii]  Try as we might to extricate ourselves from the titanic battles of 1939-45 we find ourselves reliving the past at regular intervals.

Yet a political order based on the over-dominance of one story is bound to become slavish towards it. Captain America, for all its idealism, is the epitome of such entanglement. By offering laurel leaves at the graves of the greatest generation, the danger is that liberal democracies are trapped by the belief that the only way to test the mettle of their convictions is by going to war. Only by slaying some despotic dragon (whether Nazi, Communist or Islamist) can liberals and democrats prove that their hearts are really in it. Rogers might sit at the zenith of American virtue, but his moral energy gains its coherence in reference to recognisable enemies who dealt with customary belligerence. In Rogers’ most recent outing, it is revealed that the ideology of Nazi Germany is still alive in the ongoing secret activities of H.Y.D.R. Consequently, the film’s central threat is a great deal more nebulous than the marching armies of Hitler, yet it still owes its power to this original evil. Herein lies the central flaw of our contemporary politics. While Francis Fukuyama postulated that the collapse of the Soviet Union had heralded “the end of history” Captain America suggests that history has not so much stopped but rather is caught in loop.

If the Second World War is the foundation myth for liberal-democracy after 1945, such a culture can only be maintained if such belligerence is periodically re-enacted. In this way, war becomes the primary pattern in which liberal values are cherished and defended. All this conforms to what political theologians like John Milbank and Hauerwas have been telling us for some time. Despite the joyous melodies of peace and stability which are the lodestones of liberal-democratic discourse, the internal stability of democratic societies frequently depends upon an external enemy for their sense of mission. As Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon observe grimly: ‘We must never forget that it was modern, liberal democracy, in fighting to preserve itself, that resorted to the bomb in Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden, not to mention Vietnam.’[iv]  A few generations ago, it might have been possible to dismiss such disquiet by appealing to the march of the Welfare State in America and Western Europe. After 1945, the language of war was applied creatively to new enemies- squalor, bad education, poor housing and inequality. As President Johnson put it in 1964:

The young man or woman who grows up without a decent education, in a broken home, in a hostile and squalid environment, in ill health or in the face of racial injustice-that young man or woman is often trapped in a life of poverty. He does not have the skills demanded by a complex society. He does not know how to acquire those skills. He faces a mounting sense of despair which drains initiative and ambition and energy. Our tax cut will create millions of new jobs–new exits from poverty. But we must also strike down all the barriers which keep many from using those exits. The war on poverty is not a struggle simply to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others. It is a struggle to give people a chance. It is an effort to allow them to develop and use their capacities, as we have been allowed to develop and use ours, so that they can share, as others share, in the promise of this nation.[v]

The source of these sentiments is clear. It was believed that the solidarity and national spirit produced by wartime conditions could be harnessed to peaceful ends. Yet, now the external threat of Stalinism has abated, there is no reason for liberal-democracies to try and live by a self-imposed higher standard. Without the spur of an opponent, liberal-democratic culture easily falls into bad habits: it forgets about idealism and seeks safety in consumerism and materialism. In these latter moves the literal violence of the myth is set going again. Freed from the humane pretentions of Social Democracy and New Deal Liberalism, aggression begins to bubble up through the ruthless competition of the market-place. Life becomes a war of all against all, in struggle to keep one’s wealth and status in a Capitalist jungle. In this new world, Steve Rogers can’t offer us many answers, beyond the ones we’ve heard before. The ideal that is Captain America can exhort us to patriotism and virtue but he can’t teach us about a world beyond war for he is too closely tied to glorification of violence which grounds so much of contemporary politics.


Dr Benjamin J. Wood is a Research Associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester.  His current research interests include the theological validity of political liberalism, the Christian foundations of secularity and Augustinian theology in relation to individualism.


[i] Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Rumsfeld steps up Iraq war talk, US ‘cannot wait for arms proof’ like appeasers of Hitler did’, The Guardian, Wednesday 21 August 2002 02.14 BST, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/aug/21/iraq.richardnortontaylor

[ii] Harvey Sicherman, ‘Saddam Hussein: Stalin on the Tigris’,  The International Relations and Security Network, February 2007, http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=52898

[iii] ‘Fighting Words: Schäuble Says Putin’s Crimea Plans Reminiscent of Hitler’, Spiegel Online International, March 31, 2014 – 01:01 PM, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/schaeuble-compares-putin-moves-in-crimea-to-policies-of-hitler-a-961696.html

[iv] Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, (Nashville: Abington, 1989), p. 42-3

[v] Lyndon B. Johnson, Special Message to the Congress Proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty, March 16, 1964, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=26109


4 thoughts on “A Retrospective on a Righteous Pagan: The Political Theology of Captain America, Pt. 1 (by Benjamin Wood)

  1. “I’m loyal to nothing General…except the Dream.” It would be interesting to inquire as to what the American Dream is for Captain America. Is it just patriotic and warmongering pablum? Or could it be something deeper, more principled and historically rooted? And why “a righteous pagan”? Captain America is a Protestant.

  2. Hey Jordon, I think these questions will be better addressed in part 2, but suffice to say, I think CA has virtue but my ‘pagan’ judgement comes from the starting-point that Christians begin with a view which says that the world is ‘meant to be at peace’. CA, for all his moral uprightness, holds to something I classify as ‘pagan’ (in the old Roman sense). He believes that violence and battle in and of itself can be redemptive for a nation (that war is the testing-ground for principles) . I think the limitations of this kind of attitude can be seen very clearly in our contemporary world. My question to our culture (in relation to images of the hero) would be this. Are there other ways for liberals to test their convictions other than going into battle? On another page someone has criticized this article on the grounds of its normative pacifism. As a Quaker I’ll certainly put my hands up about that! But regardless of my stance, I still think the basic critique of the ‘war’ motif stands, even if you believe war to be morally justified in some cases. I think it can and does distort public discourse in ways which encourages us to repeat old patterns of brutality. Thanks for the response and hope the issues you raised will be met in part 2. .

    1. I’m looking forward to the second part, which perhaps might clarify whether Christian just-war theory is inherently “pagan” on your reading.

  3. What Jordan touched on is the ambiguity of the American church (as opposed to the church in America, those with ears…etc). Foreign policy for America has struggled with this combination of Roman-esque pragmaticism and national exaltation draped with christian language and conceptualisms.

    Captain America is a Protestant in as much as American Protestantism is Pagan.

    At the end of the day, Captain America is a Babylonian hero type, and his allure is strong, but will Israel remember Jerusalem?

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