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:
…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
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):
…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?