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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 220–222 

Book Review

Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism

Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003. 392 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Kyle

What does a comic book character have to do with a Mennonite religious journal? At first glance, it would seem out of place. Actually, the theme of this book is quite relevant to Mennonite beliefs: excessive American nationalism in the aftermath of 9/11. Jewett is a guest professor of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and Lawrence is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Morningside College, Sioux City, Iowa. The authors build on their previous book, The Myth of the American Superhero (Eerdmans, 2002), wherein they argue that the superheroes found in comic books and action movies are actually antidemocratic in their actions. {221}

Captain America and the Crusade against Evil derives its theme from the comic book character Captain America. Created in 1941, he demonstrates heroic acts through America’s conflicts—the Western frontier, two world wars, the Cold War years, the Gulf War, and the present war on terrorism. This manuscript was completed in the winter of 2001-2002. Otherwise, it undoubtedly would have included the war against Iraq, which fits its theme even better than some of the previous conflicts. These acts of heroism are often illegal and nearly always excessively nationalistic.

Jewett and Lawrence argue that America’s civil religion contains two contradictory impulses: zealous nationalism and the tradition of prophetic realism. Both run through the pages of Scripture and American history, they contend. Zealous nationalism “seeks to redeem the world by destroying enemies.” It is part of America’s national psyche and it is “the biblical and cultural counterpart of the Islamic term jihad.” Running parallel to zealous nationalism is the tradition of prophetic realism. It does not paint things in terms of complete right and wrong or innocence and selfishness. Rather, prophetic realism attempts to “redeem the world for coexistence by impartial justice that claims no favored status for individual nations” (8).

The authors focus more on the theme of zealous nationalism, which runs from the Puritans to the present. Particular emphasis is placed on current events and George Bush’s response to 9/11, e.g., the “Axis of Evil” speech, the preemptive strike doctrine, the Patriotic Act, war in Afghanistan, and the incarceration of terrorist suspects. While they cite American history for most of their examples of zealous nationalism, they do note similar trends in the Islamic and Jewish traditions. They claim that television and popular literature have been vehicles for conveying zealous nationalism. They present a lonely hero, exemplified by Captain America, who stands alone against malevolent forces and goes outside the law to defeat evil.

Jewett and Lawrence do condemn zealous nationalism, and their arguments could well be applied to the rhetoric and the actions surrounding the Iraq war. They argue that Captain America, now in his sixties, should be retired. Instead, prophetic realism alone should be the response to terrorism, and international conflicts should be settled by submitting to international law. Mennonites should appreciate the authors’ condemnation of intense nationalism and their argument for peaceful solutions to international problems. Mennonite scholars, however, would like to have seen a criticism of civil religion itself, not just its misuses. Also, this book needs a clearer definition of civil religion in the text. While most of their examples of excessive nationalism are on target, a few are a stretch.

Richard Kyle
Professor of History and Religion
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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