Is America Exceptional? The ‘new Israel’

Massachusetts Bay

I was just over at Roger Olson’s blog, and he has provided a mini and partial review of Peter Leithart’s book, Between Babel and the Beast. Apparently (I’ll need to read this when I get the chance), Leithart challenges a religion that he (amongst others) has labeled Americanism (or the worship of America as God’s special nation, like the new Israel). There are multiple trajectories that we can take to get into the implications and presuppositions of this ‘religion’. We could spend the time looking at how the ‘conservative Right’ largely embodies this kind of folk religion; or we could look even more particularly at how a movement like the Tea Party seeks to repristinate the perceived golden age of our Christian origins as a nation. I am going to broach this golden age idea that Tea Partiers are hearkening us back to, and then tie this into ideas of exceptionalism, and a comment that someone made over at Olson’s blog that typifies, I think, a common and popular notion of what it means for America to be an exceptional nation. Before we launch into this brief exercise, let me caveat that I am glad and even proud to be an American; we have freedoms (still!) that the rest of the world, by-and-large does not. But we need to hold these in perspective and understand how our nation became a nation, and how that continues to inform the theopolitical rhetoric even of today.

The Puritans originally came to America in order to gain freedom of religion, freedom from the persecution that they were experiencing at the hands of an antagonistic Church of England. And so they fled. In their fleeing they encountered all kinds of hardship and tribulation, and yet they endured and finally made it to the ‘Promised Land’. It was these kinds of experiences, and the relative success of establishing a new nation, that imbued Puritan pastors and theologians with the notion that Divine Providence had carried them into the new land of promise. Indeed, many (if not all) of the Puritans believed that they were truly the new Israel of God, and that they had been given Divine sanction to sack the native Americans (like the original Israel did with the Canaanites), and take their lands (manifest destiny). Here is what Noll, Hatch, and Marsden have written about how Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Company, conceived of America as the literal new Israel:

[...] The Old Testament clearly taught that God dealt with nations according to covenants, either explicit or implicit, the stipulations of which were God’s law. Covenant-breaking nations were punished; covenant-keeping nations were blessed. The people of God, Israel in the Old Testament times and the church in the New Testament age, stood of course in a special relationship to God. If they were constituted as a political entity, and here Israel seemed obviously the model to imitate, then they should make their social-political covenant explicit, following the examples in the Pentateuch. This is precisely what Winthrop and his fellow Puritans thought they were doing. The were becoming a people of God with a political identity, and so they stood in precisely the same relationship to God as did Old Testament Israel. Bercovitch explains this equation in terms of typology:

Sacred history did not end, after all, with the Bible; it became the task of typology to define the course of the church (“spiritual Israel”) and of the exemplary Christian life. In this view Christ, the “antitype,” stood at the center of history, casting His shadow forward to the end of time as well as backward across the Old Testament. Every believer was a typus or figura Christi, and the church’s peregrination, like that of old Israel, was at once recapitulative and adumbrative…. [Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search For Christian America, 34.]

This is part of the heritage that the conservative Right appeals to today; theologically, a Calvinistic postmillennial heritage that believes that America has its rootage in Divine favor and blessedness—as God’s covenant people. [sidebar: the really interesting thing about this, is that most American's who appeal to this age as constituting a "Christian" heritage to our nation, are not postmillennial, but premillennial dispensationalists, which is completely at odds with postmil thought!]  And it is this kind of mindset that believes that America is exceptional, that is, because we have been blessed of God (as his covenant nation), and thus we can offer things to the rest of the world (even if that means that we, in a utilitarian and pragmatic way impose ourselves on other nations for the greater good; i.e. which is the preservation of God’s new Israel, America) that the rest of the world needs; we are the dispensers of God’s covenant promises after all ;-). But are we really exceptional, and are we really God’s covenant nation who operates with Divine sanction? I will answer these questions more specifically in the days to come. Let me leave us with a comment made over on that post I mentioned earlier at Roger Olson’s blog; the comment typifies how, I would imagine, most Americans who believe that America is exceptional, conceive of this:

If America is not “exceptional,” please explain to me why millions of people from many other nations are so anxious to find a way of entrance into this country. They will endanger their lives to climb the highest obstructive fences, float the seas on inflated inner tubes, stowaway on leaky boats, cram into sealed semi-trailers in stifling heat, risk being shot or arrested, dig tunnels miles long, pay exorbitant prices to human traffickers, and upon arrival live in a 3-room safe-house with 30 other people; all rejoicing and praising God that they have finally arrived in the “Promised Land.” [taken from here]

I will admit that these kinds of pragmatic concerns make America exceptional in a certain way (but certainly not the “Promised Land”!). But usually exceptionalism is used much more politically, we will use virtues of America, like the comment does above, to then justify atrocities (like foreign policy, nation building, economic treaties—like with China, etc.) that we perpetrate in the rest of the world. And we do all of this garbed in the language of being the “Promised Land.”

There is much more to say, but I will have to pick up where I am leaving off later.

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9 comments on “Is America Exceptional? The ‘new Israel’

  1. Heather says:

    Are you back on WP now?

    But are we really exceptional, and are we really God’s covenant nation who operates with Divine sanction?

    Good question, Bobby.
    In many ways, America IS exceptional. Although, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that we’ve got some exceptionally shameful points as well as those of which we can be pleased. And, I fear that we, as a whole, have forgotten to honor God in our time of prosperity.

    To whom much has been given…

    I’ve not quite attached to the concept that the US is the New Covenant counterpart to OT Israel. But can see how that way of thinking certainly influences the way we interpret both history and current events.

    Looking forward to reading your future thoughts on this topic

  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Heather,

    Yes, I am here at WP, to stay … my word on that :-) !

    I think we are exceptional in certain ways, but not in the way that it is used politically.

    And yet, it is this concept of the US being a blessed nation that finds its historical grounding, I would contend (with these historians), in the idea that we are indeed, at least, typologically, God’s covenant nation. I think I will tie this into how American Evangelicals, who are dispensationalists nuance this in their own special way. That will be in a post to come.

    Great to hear from you, Heather! Hope you, Craig, and your kids are doing well! Blessings.

  3. kc says:

    Bobby,

    The Tea Party movement that I support is based on “The Contract from America” and “The Commitment to America”. Do you find any point in these documents to be idolatrous? Is there a Tea Party movement other than the one seeking sound government fiscal policies?

    What do you perceive is the purpose of government? How would you handle “economic treaties—like with China, etc”?

  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Hey Kc,

    I have your book, I just need to send it :-) !

    How would you handle “economic treaties—like with China, etc”?

    I wouldn’t make them.

    Government? cf. Romans 13 ;-) .

    Yes, idolatry is when we worship something other than God; and often this is, like the nation of Israel (in OT) is done through syncretism, so we conflate worship of God with other things like nationalism etc.

  5. kc says:

    Bobby, thanks! I’m really looking forward to getting your book.

    Before I go further I should say I have no doubt that there are, have been and will be many who place their love of their country before their love of God. I just don’t see how the Tea Party movement provokes this anymore than, say, “Green” energy policies or any other political ideology?

    Regarding isolationism, do you consider that the “Christian” position? (WARNING: Pointed Question!) ;-)

  6. kc says:

    I intended the above to be a question: ” How does the Tea Party movement provoke this anymore than, say, “Green” policies or any other political ideology?

  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Hey Kc,

    I guess my concern is just one with a certain ‘folk’ ethos. My concern is when our primary goal as a nation is to promote ourselves in order to maintain a certain status of stability and comfort (relative to other nations). This seems at odds with a Christian ethic, quite clearly (e.g. where we put ourselves before others). So I guess even the modern (if not ancient) understanding of “Nation” can be problematic relative to a Christian perspective (which is why I take it that Christianity supersedes all ‘national’ boundaries by being ‘in Christ’). And yet, of course, being a nation, in itself, is not sinful; but it is when the ideals of being a ‘sovereign’ nation—being rooted in an absolute notion of sovereignty Versus understanding sovereignty as tensed by “Love”—rub up against what it means to be a Christian; this is when I start to recoil.

    I am still thinking all of this through, Kc; which is why I blog about it :-) .

    I don’t know what I consider the “Christian” position when it comes to politics, Kc. But one thing I can identify, and that is that what usually counts as the “Christian” position in America, indeed is not! For some of the reasons I just hinted at in my first paragraph.

  8. Jon Sellers says:

    Bobby, I don’t think any modern nation state of today can actually act as a Christian nation. I really don’t see any scripture that calls sovereign governments to act Christianly. Christ redeemed individuals from every nation – people group (ethnos). It is only to the extent that Christians can have influence in their government to transform it, that the government can begin to act in ways that reflect Christian values. This is the purpose of believers being in all areas of society (even in Caesar’s household).

    It seems at this point essential to work out what might be the proper role of the government and how God see modern nation states. For example in the following sentence you seem to want to hold us to a standard of Christian behavior as a nation, yet in your post you are not wanting to allow us to consider ourselves a Christian nation.
    This sentence.

    “My concern is when our primary goal as a nation is to promote ourselves in order to maintain a certain status of stability and comfort (relative to other nations). This seems at odds with a Christian ethic, quite clearly (e.g. where we put ourselves before others).”

    This is where the Founding Fathers in the Constitution laid out the limits of government with the essential idea that man is ultimately self determining, so that government simply allows for community and society to function as it will.

    Their vision does adopt values from natural law, Christian ethics and principles of good government, but do not specifically lay out America as a Christian nation in the covenantal sense you described earlier. Rather they see all people and nations as under God’s sovereignty and responsible to Him.

    So do we now expect a modern nation state, which I assume to be led and governed largely by unredeemed , self seeking sinners, to somehow act in a way befitting a Christian (loving, selfless, putting others first, etc. ) without first being redeemed by Christ?

    It is this double standard that I am noticing from many Christians right now. We want to criticize the US for not acting Christianly, but we simultaneously deny that we are a Christian nation. What other sinners do we expect to act like Christ before being “in Christ”?

  9. Bobby Grow says:

    Jon,

    Thanks. But this isn’t really what I am getting at; i.e. whether our nation should act “Christian.” I agree with you, it cannot! My issue is how does a Christian related to the policies of our nation? My issue has to do with the conflation of State with Christianity, so that Christianity no longer has the room to allow the State to be the State; and thus we no longer have a distinct voice as Christians to speak against and into the State (e.g. since we have so cloistered ourselves with one reading of the State over against another). As my quote, at least, should illustrate (in the post), though; the original founders of our State had already privileged the origination of our nation with Divine cause, and I see this operative, maybe even just latent, in the aspirations and rhetoric of so many right wing conservative Christian people.

    My criticism of our State/Nation isn’t that they aren’t acting Christian (I agree, they shouldn’t and won’t because they aren’t, or the concept isn’t); my criticism is of Christians who say our Nation is Christian, or believe it was Christian to begin with. My criticism is of this golden age fallacy that drives so much of “conservative” thought about politics; i.e. that we were originally a Christian nation. Again, this comes back to conflating Christ with Nation, the very thing you say we shouldn’t do; which I agree with. And so my issue has to do with Christian’s vision of how we understand ourselves relative to our Nation. And insofar that our Nation engages in political activity and policies that are NOT Christian, then we ought to stand against that! How is this operating with the double standard you say that it is, Jon?

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