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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‘American Revolutionary spirit‘: Should You Repent?

I was just reading the book The Search For Christian America (which is an excellent book, if you haven’t read it, and you suffer from grandeurs of delusion about Americana’s genesis as a “Christian nation;” then you must read this book, it will cure you of such flights of fancy), and wouldn’t you know it; but I came across a few paragraphs that touch upon the impact that the American Revolution had upon attitudes towards five point Calvinism, in particular, and Theology in general. It notes that after the American Revolution, how people’s attitudes in general took on an individualistic bravado that sought to sluff off any kind of theological shackles that might stand in the way of self realization; an attitude by the way that would make our own Glenn Beck very proud today. Let me quote at length (you will catch something else in the quote which I will comment on briefly afterwords):

[I]n this period one finds evidence of a similar revolt against each of the so-called five points of Calvinism, a revolt that had implications far beyond the importance of Calvinism itself. For it was directed against the entire belief that the heritage of the church could be an important aid for the present. Calvinism, which was the dominant theological tradition in colonial America, merely happened to be the first to get in the way.

Just as notions of total depravity did not stand up well to the belief that individuals were capable of shaping their own destiny, so “unconditional election” seemed to deny that men were fully capable of determining the course of their own lives. The antidemocratic tendency of the doctrine of election emerged even more clearly in the idea of a “limited atonement,” that Christ’s death was somehow restricted to those whom God elected to salvation. Similarly, the concept of “irresistable grace” seemed to make God a tyrant of uncontrollable power, just that from which Americans had fought to free themselves. Finally, the focus on volitional commitment as the primary human obligation made the idea of the “perseverance of the saints,” that we are sustained by the choice of another, irrelevant, if not contradictory.

In short, Calvinism was being dropped not in response to theological arguments but because it violated the spirit of Revolutionary liberty. During the early history of the United States self-evident principles of democracy persuaded any number of former Calvinists to strike out for a new faith. One who did so was the Free-Will Baptist minister William Smyth Babcock, who found Calvinism antithetical to democractic common sense. He spoke of its “senseless jargon of election and reprobation” and concluded that it had covered salvation “with a mist of absurdities.” “Its doctrine is denied in the Practice of every converted soul in the first exercises of the mind after receiving liberty.”

This revolt meant not just the replacement of an older Calvinist system with a newer Arminian one. It was rather a revolt against theological systems in general, the whole creedal and confessional structure of the church, and the idea of God’s truth being mediated by educated theologians. “We are not personally acquainted with the writings of John Calvin,” two colleagues of Barton Stone, founder of the Church of Christ, admitted, “nor are we certain how nearly we agree with his views of divine truth; neither do we care.” Stone himself not only rejected traditional formulation about the Trinity, but also dismissed the whole subject as irrelevant: “I have not spent, perhaps, an hour in ten years thinking about the trinity.”

In the early republic, popular theologies, claiming to be based exclusively on the Bible, refused to grant any value to the theological work of those who had gone before. Theological systems of any stripe became suspect, and common people came to think that one could in fact be biblical without being theological. . . . [Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search For Christian America, (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 118-19]

It seems that the “Revolutionary spirit” is still alive and well for many American Evangelicals. Surely five point Calvinism can be taken to task on theological grounds, but it is interesting to see how the socio can impact postures and attitudes for the populace towards particular theological traditions. What stands out to me the most, from above, is the last paragraph; this seems to stamp large swaths of American Evangelical Christians. That is, the idea that they can be a good biblical Christian without also “confusing” themselves with the theological intracacies that would seem to stand in the way of them realizing their personal best and actualized American Christian selves. I often wonder why there seems to be such a lack of value placed upon theological education, or even those of us who are theologian types, within the Evangelical ghetto; so what is sketched above provides some perspective on the kind of psycho-social that gives rise to this kind of disdain for thinking deeply upon the contours of what it means to be a Christian. Unfortunately this is commentary on my own Evangelical tradition and sub-culture.

Americans are interesting people. American Christians even more so. I wonder how Revolutionary you are this 4th of July; do you think you might need to repent?