Civil Religion Series: God’s Chosen Nation?


Civil Religion, part two
God’s Chosen Nation?

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these. We will look at material from three books, the first of which is Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God.

Hughes claims that Christians in the U.S., and evangelical Christians in particular, have a fundamental problem when it comes to a proper theological understanding of our nation and its place in the world: biblical illiteracy.

In 2007 Stephen Prothero published a major book that documented that illiteracy in substantial detail. He called that book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know— and Doesn’t. While Prothero examined illiteracy about many world religions, not just Christianity, his study confirmed what others have been reporting for many years on the ignorance of the American people about the Bible. We learn in this book, for example, that “most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible,” that “only one-third know that Jesus . . . delivered the Sermon on the Mount,” and that “ten percent of Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”

Most surprising— and appalling— is the fact that religious illiteracy abounds where one would most expect to find a solid knowledge of the biblical text: among evangelical Christians. Prothero argued that “despite their conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, evangelicals show scant interest in learning what scripture has to say or wrestling with what it might mean.” Indeed, in the 1990s evangelical theologian David Wells lamented, “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.”

The truth is that, in general terms, American Christians across the board know precious little about the religion they claim to profess. Their factual understanding of the Christian religion is meager, and their grasp of the great theological teachings of the Christian faith is more meager still. That fact alone should call into serious question the notion of Christian America (p. 17).

Not only is the idea of “Christian America” contrary to the U.S. Constitution (a point Hughes argues elsewhere), it is foreign notion as far as the Bible is concerned as well. And Christians, of all people, especially those who claim to take the Bible most seriously, should grasp that.

Two themes in particular have been misconstrued and misapplied to construct the concept of “Christian America” —

  • God’s Chosen People (Nation)
  • The Kingdom of God

Today, we look at the first of these motifs.

God’s Chosen People (Nation)

There is a chosen people (nation) in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible unambiguously gives that title to Israel. Hughes cites Deuteronomy 7:6 as a prime text: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”

Central to this honored status is the concept of covenant — that God would bless his people for their faithful loyalty to him and bring curses upon them if they broke the covenant, failed to keep his laws, and followed after other gods (Deut 7:12-13, 8:19).

This is clear enough with regard to ancient Israel. However, many centuries later, these ideas became prominent in the self-understanding of English Reformers, through whom the vision developed and crossed the sea to America’s shores.

Richard Hughes recalls William Tyndale, the Bible translator, who in the days of Henry VIII published two editions of the New Testament in the hope of bringing religious reform to England. In his subsequent studies of the Pentateuch in preparation for a complete Bible translation, he pointedly applied the teachings of Deuteronomy to England herself. Tyndale wrote the following in a revised preface to his 1534 New Testament:

The general covenant wherein all other are comprehended and included is this. If we meek ourselves to God, to keep all his laws, after the example of Christ: then God hath bound himself unto us to keep and make good all the mercies promised in Christ, throughout all the scripture (p.22)

Tyndale’s Bible was extremely popular among English Protestants and helped shape their vision of “chosen people” and “national covenant” for generations. Heirs of that way of thinking — the Puritans in particular — brought that vision with them to American soil.

John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, impressed upon those pilgrims his deep conviction that they were God’s chosen people, standing in a special covenant relationship with God. They understood themselves as “God’s New Israel.” They believed they had been led out of bondage (England), across the sea (the Atlantic), and into the Promised Land (North America).

Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” sermon (1630) makes a direct correlation between God’s covenant with Israel and what was happening in New England:

2a0536661a563a4c6bce21bcf03b9ea4…wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going: And to shutt upp this discourse with that exhortacion of Moses that faithfull servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israell Deut. 30. Beloved there is now sett before us life, and good, deathe and evill in that wee are Commaunded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundements and his Ordinance, and his lawes, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that wee may live and be multiplyed, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it: But if our heartes shall turne away soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worshipp other Gods our pleasures, and proffitts, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it;

Therefore lett us choose life,
that wee, and our Seede,
may live; by obeyeing his
voyce, and cleaveing to him,
for hee is our life, and
our prosperity.

This perspective was proclaimed throughout the colonies. It provided a theological grounding for the Revolution to which many preachers appealed. Several of the Founders, though they may not have shared the deep theological conviction of the pilgrims, embraced the imagery of the myth of America as a specially chosen nation. Hughes notes that even Ben Franklin suggested a seal for the U.S. portraying Moses and the people being delivered at the Red Sea. Twenty years later, at an Independence Day celebration, John Cushing proclaimed, “there is as great similarity perhaps int he conduct of Providence to that of the Israelites as is to be found in the history of any people.”

In his 1850 novel White Jacket, Herman Melville included this passage: “Escaped from the house of bondage, we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”

The 20th century showed an ongoing fascination with this theme, particularly during the Cold War years when preachers like Billy Graham warned against the threat of atheistic communism by appealing to our nation’s special covenant relationship with God and urging people to stay true to that covenant’s terms so that God would keep America in his blessing and would not give us up to our enemies.

One of the strongest voices in the “Christian Right” era of evangelicalism was Dr. D. James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge (FL) Presbyterian Church. He wrote a book called, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? in which he said:

Here God established a certain sort of nation, a nation that was founded by the Pilgrims and the Puritans and others who came with evangelical Christianity. Here the Bible was believed and the gospel was preached. It was an evangelical nation. . . . If God, in His providence, ordained that this is what this nation should be, then all down through the ages, in fact from all eternity, God intended that it would be so.

It must be said that there have been dissenters from the beginning. For example, there was Roger Williams, one of the founders of Rhode Island, a minister who questioned the rights of colonists to take Indian lands and who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious and political views. Williams founded the first Baptist congregation in the colonies and then later became a “Seeker” (essentially non-denominational), and is best known for his foundational ideas about religious toleration and separation of church and state. In his work, A Plea for Religious Liberty, he made the following points (among others):

3003829926_0f463def87…Fifthly, all civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.

…Seventhly, the state of the Land of Israel, the kings and people thereof in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.

…Eighthly, God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

…Twelfthly, lastly, true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile….

Key to Williams’s argument is his point seven, which in one sentence denies that the Bible supports any claim that America is the “New Israel.”

Israel alone was God’s chosen nation, the Hebrew Bible is her story, and the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah in the New Testament presents the fulfillment of that story. To apply covenantal texts speaking of Israel in the context of that story to any other nation is to misread and misapply the Old Testament scriptures.

Furthermore, as Richard Hughes observes, this view of America also misses how the New Testament develops the idea of “God’s chosen people” into a transnational, universal concept.

…numerous New Testament writers redefined the meaning of “chosen” to point not to Israel alone, but to all in every nation— Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female— who place their trust in Jesus Christ. This attempt to redefine the meaning of “chosen” lies at the heart, in fact, of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he asked, for example, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised [i.e., the Jews] on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised [i.e., the Gentiles] through that same faith” (Rom. 3: 29– 30). Later in Romans, Paul made the same point in a slightly different way. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Rom. 10: 12– 13) (p. 26).

This is not mere theological dispute. Hughes reminds us of the real world danger in missing this. When a nation understands herself to be “God’s chosen,” experience shows that it leads to unhealthy and violent forms of nationalism. Other peoples and nations who do not fit our agenda become “enemies” to be opposed. From the Puritans’ view that the native Americans were “heathens” to be destroyed as the Israelites had conquered the Canaanites to the wars and policies some urge us to pursue today, there is an “exceptionalism” that is used to justify lording it over others.

In 1899, the U.S. invaded the Philippines to put down an insurrection that was part of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, whom the U.S. had defeated in the Spanish-American War. In 1900, Senator Albert Beveridge from Indiana, a devout Christian, stood before the Senate and justified the invasion.

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No. He made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.

That is perhaps the clearest statement of America as “God’s Chosen Nation” that I have read.

I wonder how many Christians in the U.S. today would shout “Amen” to that?

69 thoughts on “Civil Religion Series: God’s Chosen Nation?

  1. “I will turn this ship around or sink it.” – Albert Mohler

    i.e. “If I can’t have MY way, I’LL MAKE SURE NOBODY CAN!”


  2. “Name it and Claim It”, i.e. “Abracdabra = I Speak and It Is So”.

    I watched a guy die of a heart attack as everyone around claimed his healing but nobody administered CPR.

    “Not My Fault!” say the claimers; “He died because (1) God Willed It; (2) He didn’t have enough FAITH (like us!); (3) He must have had some Secret Sin; or (4) All of the Above!”


  3. That’s “Flutterhands Piper, heir to Calvin’s throne” and “WayneGrudemGoWayneGrudem!”.


  4. Did you ever hide their smartphones/blankies and watch the panic reaction?
    (Especially if their potty training was entirely on an app…)


  5. I don’t find many people who have any interest in self-education where the Bible/religion is concerned. I don’t know if it’s lack of interest, being overwhelmed by all the choices, or what. But even among church goers, it’s rare to find someone who wants to read a book on religion beyond some Christian fiction featuring the Amish or going to the latest Christian rock concert. I find almost no curiosity about where our notions came from, what others see as “normal” beliefs, where we fit into the rest of the world.


  6. Hi DAMARIS,
    I don’t think you have ‘derailed’ Chaplain Mike’s topic at all . . . not if you look at his final sentence . . . from which I took the implication that among our American population, there are many who are not into critical thinking skills . . . and these people cannot ‘think through’ the consequences of their immediate ‘Amen’ to a situation where a sitting President of the United States engages in a war with Islamic countries and this President uses the unfortunate language of calling our mission a ‘crusade’ . . . (sigh)

    A lot of good people lack critical thinking skills, but if you prompt them, they start to see through their own fog and realize they spoke prematurely . . . an example was my godmother who recently passed away . . . she wanted for there to be ‘prayer in the schools’ and I remember asking her ‘which religion do you want to conduct those prayers?’ . . .
    and she admitted she hadn’t thought about THAT . . . and that it would make a huge difference in how something that sounded good would go wrong if applied without consideration for our diversity of faith in our public schools.

    People seeking power count on a base that doesn’t have critical thinking skills . . . hence, the use of catchy one-liners and the use of snark instead of open and honorable debate between involved parties.

    It has even now come down to a group of people who, looking at Donald Trump, refuse to say out loud, ‘the emperor has no clothes’ . . . ignorance seems to be blissful to them, but it will be costly


  7. This is the new knowledge economy. Not only do people not know things, they consider knowing things to be a hindrance and waste of time. There’s an app for that. Those who would be most competitive must have access to the most complete information the quickest. I remember taking a stats course in grad school, and the (very old) professor was having us do multi-variable ANOVA by hand and calculator (yes, it gets complicated). I did all the exercises and guess what – I found out that I understood the math. The theory became a prism through which to view data. But the vast majority of my class-mates downloaded an app to their phone to solve the problems, all while making rude comments about the man’s passe methods. It was a pretty eye-opening experience.


  8. At the congregation where I grew up, the ushers insisted on wear American Flag-themed ties every time they distributed communion, which was one Sunday a month. When I asked them why, the responses were:
    – Who doesn’t like america?
    – It’s just something we all do; camaraderie among users
    – I like that we live in a country free where we can celebrate communion freely.

    All of those are nice statements that I can agree with. But somehow they missed the syncretism slowly creeping in through the symbolism. And of course, we missed the admonition to have communion as often as we meet in remembrance of the Lord, whose sacrifice reached far beyond any human form of government.


  9. My families came to these United States only a generation and a half ago, and I must say, as American as I am in so many ways, inside my skin I’m an alien in just as many ways, a stranger living in a strange land. I don’t think I’ll ever really know what it’s like to be a young American, or any kind of American.


  10. “Claiming” was a large part of what soured me as it had just gained a full head of steam when I couldn’t listen anymore. I travelled with a preacher around the east coast who taught that manipulative stuff till I was sick. I couldn’t stomach it anymore. I had to drop out. There’s a grain of truth buried in the recesses of that thicket that relates to faith but it is unrecognizable through the weave of greed that surrounds it. It made it difficult to sort out my true faith from the form it had almost taken in the name and claim game. I watched a guy die of a heart attack as everyone around claimed his healing but nobody administered CPR. That was about the end for me. It was just too weird.


  11. Melville doesn’t specify.

    He does, however, say that Queequeg was the son of king among his people, who stood in line of the kingship. Because he loved his people, and wanted to be a good leader to them when his time to rule came, he felt he must travel beyond his island, and familiarize himself with the far-flung world. This is why he smuggled himself on board a departing ship that had been at port off his island.

    Melville is in fact more interested in Queequeg’s noble character than the exact location of his island home, or anything else; with his frequently demonstrated virtues, he is the “noble savage” foil to the obviously degraded and degrading behavior of many of his “civilized” counterparts in the novel.


  12. It’s hard to take John Winthrop seriously when he didn’t even bother to learn proper spelling. Pfft!


  13. I’ve heard that opinion seriously proposed. Soviet Communism as the last and greatest (or worst if you prefer) Christian heresy.


  14. I agree that wisdom is more valuable than knowledge, kerokline, but knowledge has its place. Wisdom has to start somewhere, and it often begins with knowing. Before you can have a wise understanding of the world, for example, you have to know a little bit about how big the world is and the variations within it. Yet if people think that Africa is a single country and the Epcot Center is a sufficient representative of life in other countries, what wisdom can they have? You say that you are suspicious of received knowledge, and I have some sympathy for that view; but are maps, countries, capitals, and climate zones things you can’t trust? Are directions to places, recipes, songs, poems, Bible stories, jokes, foreign languages, arithmetic, addresses, phone numbers, and names and faces suspect knowledge? Because these are all at risk. Our ability to acquire knowledge is atrophying, and we might need it one day. Primitive peoples can identify thousands of kinds of plants and know how not to get poisoned; what would you do if you had to find food? I have confidence that we moderns can learn, the same as every human who has ever lived, but only if we know how to learn. That skill is what I see being lost. And yes, I’ll stand by my claim that TV has a lot to do with it, but I’ve already derailed Chaplain Mike’s original topic enough. 🙂


  15. Poor naïve Fosdick. He should have been around to watch the fundamentalists of the SBC remorselessly and pitilessly and mercilessly purge itself of all that evil godless “liberalism” in the 80s.

    “I will turn this ship around or sink it.” – Albert Mohler


  16. > Many believe than can “just look it up” if they ever have a need to know something.

    Hmm, I resemble that remark 😦

    Millennial that I am, I do view knowledge itself as relatively useless – it is easy to look up, and my recall as a human being is flawed. What I view as more helpful is wisdom.

    What I mean is, what good does it do me to know anything? I am young, and not particularly well traveled or experienced. I am not particularly intelligent, I am not particularly studied. Whatever knowledge I have is suspect at best.

    So the goal is not to “know” anything, really – at least, not to know it for myself. The goal is to get good at filtering what others know. To quickly and efficiently gather data on a subject, and to retain the conclusions about it. To constantly filter the elders from the upstarts, the studied from the frauds.

    There is far too little wisdom, I think, for how much knowledge is out there in the ether. People don’t know (either because they don’t care or haven’t been taught) how to filter the data that is out there, and so they default to what fits with what they already know. But that’s not a failure of knowledge, that’s a failure of wisdom.

    I also bristle at the suggestion that TV or the Internet has exacerbated anything latent in humanity. I’m not saying there isn’t danger, because there clearly is, but not in terms of knowledge. There have been ignorant, unwise people as long as there have been people. The difference is that before they didn’t have much time to waste because life was nasty, brutish and short. Now, they have plenty of time to waste. I call it an improvement.


  17. Amen, very true. Which is why myself and so many others want out and refuse to work the traditional 9-5 anymore. It’s a waste of time, money, and resources.


  18. Yup. South Africa was settled by the Dutch in the 1600s. Apartheid was initially a response to English Imperialism.


  19. Reminded me of this song by Bruce Cockburn. Written in 1987, but very relevant today.

    Gospel of Bondage

    Tabloids, bellowing raw delight
    Hail the return of the Teutonic Knights
    Inbred for purity and spoiling for a fight,
    Another little puppet of the New Right

    See-through dollars and mystery plagues
    Varied detritus of Aquarian Age
    Shutters on storefronts and shutters in the mind –
    We kill ourselves to keep ourselves safe from crime.
    That’s the gospel of bondage…

    We’re so afraid of disorder we make it into a god
    We can only placate with state security laws
    Whose church consists of secret courts and wiretaps and shocks
    Whose priests hold smoking guns, and whose sign is the double cross
    But God must be on the side of the side that’s right
    And not the right that justifies itself in terms of might –
    Least of all a bunch of neo-nazis running hooded through the night
    Which may be why He’s so consipicuously out of sight
    Of the gospel of bondage…

    You read the Bible in your special ways
    You’re fond of quoting certain things it says –
    Mouth full of righteousness and wrath from above
    But when do we hear about forgiveness and love?

    Sometimes you can hear the Spirit whispering to you,
    But if God stays silent, what else can you do
    Except listen to the silence? if you ever did you’d surely see
    That God won’t be reduced to an ideology
    Such as the gospel of bondage…


  20. A nation that doesn’t know its history is like an individual who has no memory.

    As to “looking it up,” you have to know something about the subject before you can even “look it up.”

    I’m afraid education has become little more than job training, preparing students to become cogs in the machinery of business, who know little else than being a cog. The whole point of life for many consists, sadly, in becoming a bigger cog.


  21. I would echo your experience but add that “Bible study” rarely led to mature theological reflection.

    This, more than anything, is why I didn’t fit into the charismatic cult. I knew too much. I did it wrong. I asked the bad questions. I used my brain. I knew my Strongs and my Vines for more than just claiming a word of knowledge here and there. I bought my first Concordance at 16. I used a four way parallel Bible at 15, and knew the differences between the LXX and the Textus Receptus et al by age 14.

    Pointing to Sam Storms as the sole exception doesn’t bode well for the charismatic side of things. And more and more, this seems to be the same with evangelicalism as well, if people like Piper and Grudem are the best examples of systematic theologians. Which, again, systematic theology is also not true Bible study or theological reflection…


  22. Daily verses on printed cards and such.

    I’ve experienced that through the 90s and 00s. But they were mostly positive affirmation verses, rarely whole passages or chapters. And never for the intent of studying and knowing, but always for ‘claiming’.

    I knew some people who would plaster those cards around their houses, their cars, their work stations, wherever. To learn? Didn’t seem like it. More as reminders. Almost like magical wards. Memorize the spell and spit it out once per day.


  23. Sometimes not even rewordgitating the words but only the Chapter-and-Verse coordinates, i.e. the Zip Code of the words. Not only duckspeak, but Insider Jargon.


  24. It became nothing more thanThe Party Line, rewordgitated without engaging any neuron above the brainstem.

    Like the caricature of Muslims going “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”

    Or “doubleplusduckspeak INGSOC”.


  25. Something I’ve always wondered about Queequeg; other than a “South Sea Island Cannibal”, does anyone know what ethnicity he was supposed to be?

    He is usually portrayed with Maori facial tattoos or Moko, so I wonder if he was supposed to be Maori from New Zealand (i.e. BIG Polynesian).


  26. I am often reminded of my childhood in South Africa when reading things like this. If anybody had a “chosen nation” complex, it was the Afrikaner – backed up by a very comprehensive Calvinist theology. And I’m meaning continental Calvinism (Heidelberg, Dordt etc), not Westminster and all that.

    It didn’t work out so well. At least there was public repentance from the leading Dutch Reformed churches. but the harm had been done. the fusion of nationalism and religion is a nasty thing. That is what the GOP has done, especially since Reagan. That is what has been happening in many Orthodox countries. It is all BS.


  27. Hughes claims that Christians in the U.S., and evangelical Christians in particular, have a fundamental problem when it comes to a proper theological understanding of our nation and its place in the world: biblical illiteracy.

    Of course. Because Biblical literacy is modernism, now called liberalism, and it’s responsible for the mainlines dying and God turning his back on this country and Roe v Wade and civil rights and lesbian women abortion witch doctor politicians.

    It’s all predicted right here –


  28. I don’t understand why only Marxist folk get a bad rap for believing history has a direction or purpose. In what sense is believing that ‘these are the Last Days’ not very much a form of believing history has a direction? Especially since Jews/Christians/Moslems have ‘run the experiment’ (3,500+ years) way longer than the Marxists ever did (maybe 100 yrs.).


  29. Knowing chapter and verse was sort of the mark of an evangelical. We strongly criticized the Godless heathens, otherwise known as Catholics, because if they even owned a bible they didn’t know where it was. That was a fairly common talking point when it came to comparing camps.


  30. The optimist believes that this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears that this is the best of all possible worlds.

    With my screen name, you can guess where I fall on that spectrum. 😉


  31. Yes, most certainly. The only point being that you knew Joan of Arc wasn’t in the mix and that the bible didn’t say, “God helps those who help themselves.” Sounds like today’s crop couldn’t even tell you that.


  32. Very true, Suzanne. My students vary in age from late teens to their 70s. There are a few differences according to age, but not many.


  33. For better or worse, America has been and is that city on the hill, hugely influencing the whole world. I don’t think that today’s discussion or this whole series can be meaningful without a good understanding of empire as apparently normal human behavior, always in the name of one god or another, still dominating your evening news. Damaris is quite right about what we might call ignorance and illiteracy being widespread amongst young folks today, but I wonder if there might not also be the first generation worldwide coming up who are not going to tolerate the agenda for empire and control. Maybe wishful thinking.

    Whatever Biblical literacy I have has been acquired thru self-education. I have come to think of my ongoing study of the Bible and theology as protection against preachers and Bible teachers and theologians with tunnel vision and an agenda. This morning it occurs to me to ask, if I could go back and start over in my early twenties with the goal of becoming ordained enough to give me a career as a military, hospital, prison, or hospice chaplain, where could I go to school today to be certified that wouldn’t give me a twisted education or put me under the thumb of a controlling denomination?


  34. That was a constant theme of IMonk’s – evangelicals memorized the Bible, but didn’t pull the parts of it together in a theologically coherent manner.


  35. McKinley who claimed that he had prayed on his knees and received a determination to “Christianize the Philippines”?

    The same Philippines that had been 90% Catholic for three centuries?


  36. John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, impressed upon those pilgrims his deep conviction that they were God’s chosen people, standing in a special covenant relationship with God. They understood themselves as “God’s New Israel.” They believed they had been led out of bondage (England), across the sea (the Atlantic), and into the Promised Land (North America).

    A Promised Land already inhabited by Heathen Canaanites.

    At which point, they started LARPing the Book of Joshua as well as Exodus.


  37. I appreciate the Beveridge quote, especially since the war in the Philippines between 1899 and 1902 led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Filipinos and was justified for religious reasons not just by Beveridge but also by President McKinley himself. It’s also no accident that this war was also justified by the raw racism that characterized the U. S. at that time.

    Now we see the spectacle of people like Donald Trump parroting Bible verses and lamenting that we still don’t “have” Iraq despite all the blood and treasure we spent there. His main opposition is the odious Dominionist Ted Cruz.

    This arrogant and unChristlike mentality ought to be condemned.


  38. Yeesh! That quote from Albert Beveridge. Having lived in Indiana much of my life, I can attest that this mentality has not passed away with the years.


  39. I would echo your experience but add that “Bible study” rarely led to mature theological reflection. It’s not just reading the Bible but understanding what kind of book the Bible is and how it works. In many ways, evangelicals are reading a different book than others who read scripture.


  40. When a nation understands herself to be “God’s chosen,” experience shows that it leads to unhealthy and violent forms of nationalism. Other peoples and nations who do not fit our agenda become “enemies” to be opposed. From the Puritans’ view that the native Americans were “heathens” to be destroyed as the Israelites had conquered the Canaanites to the wars and policies some urge us to pursue today, there is an “exceptionalism” that is used to justify lording it over others.

    After two generations of railing against the “godless communists”, that enemy was sorely lacking in the 90s. The Rapture/Tribulation lit of the age definitely didn’t have the same hard edge as the stories from the 60s and 70s – the EU just didn’t offer the same gut-level reaction as the Evil Empire did. But the Islamic world has filled in the role of The Enemy almost to a tee – violent, non-white, heretical, Other. If there were no Islamic terrorists, the Christian nationalists would have almost have to have invented them.


  41. I left the evangelical world about 1984. At that time memorizing scripture was practiced everywhere it seems to me. Daily verses on printed cards and such. Intense, in depth Bible study was part of everyone’s regimen. I feel as though I had a full 25% or more of the bible memorized and that was nothing exceptional. While not memorized per se I was fully versed in the other 75% and that was just to be expected. When did all that change with evangelicals? It is surprising.


  42. It’s not just kids. A woman I work with, successful in her field, asked me a few years ago if it was true that there were still Jews in concentration camps into the 1940s. She was amazed. Another time, I was with a group of middle aged women, all hard working, God fearing, good family people. The topic of WWI came up. I’d guess a good half of them could not even pinpoint the century in which it took place.

    I run into lifelong church goers all the time who don’t know the basics of their faith. I get asked almost every year what this Pentecost thing is, ditto with Ascension. From people who are in church nearly every week. It amazes me.


  43. Damaris I think this is an excellent point. People don’t read much of anything else, why would they read the Bible? The Bible is a hard read.

    And yes it makes us sound like fanatics but you’re right Adam it is being raised on TV that has done the damage.


  44. “I wonder how many Christians in the U.S. today would shout “Amen” to that?”

    Just about every one I know or have known.


  45. Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
    — TSE

    Where is the information we have lost somewhere on our crashed hard drive?
    — Me


  46. I can’t help but think of Lincoln’s typically masterful turn of phrase when he described America as “His almost chosen people.” It strikes all the right notes.

    In a much lighter vein, poor Tevye’s lament in the shtetl also comes to mind: “Why can’t you choose someone else once in a while?”


  47. Yes, of course you’re right; it is reflected in many of his novels, most especially in The Confidence Man, an American apocalypse that has for its motto “Hope believeth all things.”


  48. Yes to the optimist versus pessimist distinction.

    I think for Melville the highest expression of religion is in the scene in Moby Dick where Ishmael bows down and worships Queeqeg’s idol god, deeming it the only decent and democratic thing to do.


  49. Yes, he knew of its existence of Exceptionalism in American culture, and he played off of it in his irony. What is typical is for him to have his narrator (who is not Melville himself) utter a declaration like the one in question here, and then describe scene after scene in which the that statement is contradicted.

    Moby Dick itself is in significant part a subversion of American Exceptionalism, with its religious captain in command of a ship with an international crew on a quest to destroy the evil he has experienced and suffered. Ahab in turn becomes a Satanic reflection of the evil he has perceived in the whale, and leads his ship and whole crew, with one exception, into hell itself; the City on a Hill becomes the destroyed Pequod, with an embittered and maddened captain, and a Quaker at that, leading the way into a full embrace of evil.


  50. > my students know very little about anything

    Yea, I encounter this too, it is troubling. Many believe they can “just look it up” if they ever have a need to know something. This makes knowledge thin – – – and of course you may never realize you need to know something. And you cannot think about information sitting in a database; it must be known to be considered.

    Ignorance makes people open to absurd arguments; which once accepted are then entangled with identity and vanity.

    > but I think the phenomenon I describe is pervasive enough that we need to bear it in mind

    It likely is different than this; as there was no TV or Internet – just books – until recently. But perhaps the ignorance illustrated hear has roots in the same attitude towards knowledge [and, aside, note the root “know” in “knowledge”, but I digress…. and I really irritate Millennials when I get on this riff 😉 ]


  51. See “Herman Melville and the American Calling” by Spanos. I have not read it, but I have heard a lecture on it. Melville was complicated, and shifted over time. But if he was not an Exceptionalist he certainly **recognized** the meme of Exceptionalism in American culture; in either case it supports the case of pervasive Exceptionalism.

    Exceptionalism itself is a greasy weasel. American Evangelicalism may very much Ra-Ra a quote like:

    “””“Escaped from the house of bondage, we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.””””

    – however, from the same text, I suspect many would be quite uncomfortable with:

    “””But in many things we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nations must, of right, belong to ourselves. There are occasions when it is for America to make precedents, and not to obey them. We should, if possible, prove a teacher to posterity, instead of being the pupil of by-gone generations. More shall come after us than have gone before; the world is not yet middle-aged.””””

    Exceptionalism in the mind of an Optimist is a different animal than Exceptionalism is the mind of a Pessimist [or worse an Apocalypticist].


  52. Ignorance of the Bible comes less from theological causes and more from educational. The majority of my students know very little about anything. I am not saying anything about their intelligence, diligence, or sense of responsibility; they just do not have any information in their heads — about history, science, geography, the Bible, even popular culture. I wonder if this isn’t the TV mentality. I notice that I have a good number of students who come to class, are engaged and happy to be part of a discussion, and seem to like me — but when they return to the next class, they haven’t done any homework and they can’t remember anything substantive that we did last class. I feel like a TV show: something mildly interesting on at 11 am that they’ll watch if there isn’t anything better, but not anything they will think about once they walk away from the screen. That attitude can’t help but affect understanding the Bible, sermons, etc.

    Sorry, this is off the topic of civil religion, but I think the phenomenon I describe is pervasive enough that we need to bear it in mind whenever we talk about anything concerning knowledge and beliefs.


  53. “Escaped from the house of bondage, we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”

    Note: I’ve read a good amount of Hermann Melville, though never White Jacket, and as a result never this passage. But all else that I have read of Melville contains much irony; he was, in fact, a master of literary irony. I’d be surprised if this passage is not also ironic in intent, given Melville’s extremely ambivalent views on America and American history. Of course, I may be wrong, having never read this particular novel and passage; but if I’m not, it would be unfair to include him among those who held such uncritically romantic religious views of America’s character and destiny. CM, have you read this novel, and are you familiar enough with its literary themes and goals to vouchsafe that Melville was, at least at the time of its writing, under the influence of such views, rather than speaking from his typically ironic perspective?


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