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The Bad Shepherd By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 26, 2007

Having apparently exhausted real-life targets, the Religious Left is now lashing out at a fictional movie character who supposedly embodies ugly American attitudes of chauvinism and imperialism.

Speaking to hundreds of left-wing religious activists at an “Ecumenical Advocacy Days” rally this month outside Washington, D.C., United Methodist lobbyist Jim Winkler targeted the Matt Damon character in “The Good Shepherd,” directed by Robert DeNiro.

Damon portrays a fictionalized James Jesus Angleton, the long-time chief of counterintelligence at CIA. In the Damon characterization, Angleton is the ultimate repressed and dutiful WASP, who diligently serves his country by fighting Nazis for the OSS during World War II, and then working against the communists for the CIA during the Cold War. The Damon character is an emotional cold-fish, who channels all his energies into defending America.

As a “good shepherd’ watching over his flock, the Damon character defends America’s interests by overthrowing an unspecified leftist regime in Latin America, obviously based on the 1954 coup in Guatemala, and he organizes the failed Bay of Pigs operation. Like the real-life Angleton, the Damon character is also obsessed with a possible Soviet penetration of the Agency.

Winkler found in the Damon-Angleton character the embodiment of American imperialism. “We are battling three myths: the myth of white supremacy, the myth of male superiority, and the myth of American exceptionalism,” Winkler explained. The latter is “an incredibly dangerous myth,” which has “led us into debacle after debacle.”

“We must free ourselves from the notion the United States is blessed by God to Christianize and civilize the world,” Winkler intoned. “The United States can and should be a good nation, but it is not a chosen nation.” Indeed, from the perspective of the Religious Left, America is not only unchosen, it is downright wicked.

America as chosen nation originated with New England’s Puritan founders, who eventually morphed into America’s WASP ascendancy. The Matt Damon character is the son of an admiral, attends Yale, and belongs to the infamously mysterious Skull and Bones fraternity there. As Winkler archly noted:  “Of course, the Bushes are also Skull and Bones and part of the still-dominant WASP aristocracy that rules this nation.”

Winkler recounted to the crowd of left-wing religious activists a particularly troubling episode with the Damon/Angleton character. The espionage officer travels to Florida in preparation for the Bay of Pigs and tries to cajole a mafia leader into helping overthrow Fidel Castro. As Winkler recalled the mafioso’s befuddled response to Damon’s WASP rectitude: "We Italians have our family. The Irish have their church. The Jews have their tradition. The blacks have their jazz. But, you people - who are you?" Damon replies, "We are the United States of America and the rest of you are just visiting."

For Winkler, the Damon/Angleton character personified the ugliness of American exceptionalism. “That, my friends, is a world view and one that is exceedingly dangerous,” Winkler told the crowd. “It seems to me the chosen nation theory has created an awful lot of problems and misunderstanding in human history and is one that needs further exploration and study.”

Of course, the quote attributed to Damon/Angleton is fictional. The real life Angleton had a Mexican mother, was Catholic, came from the Mid-West and hardly embodied the bigotries, real or imagined, of the legendary WASP ruling class. But Angleton did attend Yale and belong to Skull and Bones.

But the dangerous myth of American exceptionalism, supposedly perpetrated by WASP’s like the Damon/Angleton character, has fueled countless crimes against the world, especially Latin America. Or so Winkler believes. He told the religious Left audience that the oppressed people of Latin America remember:  

  • “the role of the United States in the 1954 coup that removed the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala;
  • the repeated attempts to destroy the Cuban revolution in the 1960s;
  • the U.S. invasions of the Dominican Republic 1965, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989;
  • the 9/11/1973 overthrow of the elected Chilean government of President Salvador Allende;
  • U.S. support for the "dirty wars" in Uruguay and Argentina; and
  • U.S. support of the terrorist Contra forces in Central America in the 1980s.”

Apparently, Winkler believes that a Latin America governed by Castroites would have been preferable and was blocked only by U.S. aggression. There are many misdeeds by the United States in its relations with Latin America over 200 years.  But opposing Marxism was not among them. And Winkler’s historical remembrances are faulty. The U.S. was relieved by but not directly involved in the coup against the Allende regime. Nor did it “support” the “dirty wars” in Uruguay and Argentina.   

Winkler calls the anti-Marxist contra rebels in Nicaragua of the 1980’s “terrorists,” a term that he rarely uses to describe Islamic militants. And he evidently laments the overthrow of the drug lord Manuel Noriega in Panama and the restoration of democratic rule by U.S. forces in Grenada, which Grenada still celebrates to this day. Winkler’s attitude towards Castro’s “revolution” seems to be uncritical, even after five decades of totalitarian misrule.

Winkler complained: “Have you noticed it is virtually impossible to imagine a U.S. apology for these tragedies? What character defect in the American soul forbids repentance, change of direction, and the asking for forgiveness by those whom we have wronged? How can an overwhelmingly Christian nation miss these basic points?”

In other words, for Winkler and the Religious Left, the “Good Shepherd” of American exceptionalism is in fact a very Bad Shepherd who is bigoted, imperialistic, and chauvinistic.   

Once again, Winkler is a poor historian. The American exceptionalism crafted by the Puritan fathers was profoundly universalist and egalitarian, if often imperfectly implemented. The Puritans, relying upon their English heritage of equality before the law, and refined by their own Calvinist piety, believed in a city on a hill in which all persons could pursue happiness and worship God. They did not fully live up to their vision, but at least they aspired to. American exceptionalism was sustained by the WASPS, but eagerly embraced by countless waves of immigrants from throughout the world.  Even the grandsons of slaves, during the civil rights movement, pointed to its ideas of justice and ultimate tolerance.

The Matt Damon/James Angleton character invented by Robert DeNiro is partly unfair in its portrayal of WASP duty and patriotism. But it is not entirely disrespectful nor cynical. It retains enough reality to incite the disdain of the Religious Left, which is always anxious to portray America as sinister and malignant.      

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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