America: God’s New Israel

I couple years ago I wrote a short paper on how Americans use biblical metaphor as a lens through which to view their past, present, and future experiences in transcendental terms. This tradition has a variety of labels, but for present purposes I will refer to it as national providence—the belief that a nation has been chosen by God to carry out his will on earth. My previous focus was on the development of this idea on the American continent, but I realize now that this incomplete without looking first at the religious heritage of our nation’s English roots.  So I’m going to try and do this in a 500 word blog (Just finished and came back to this. I failed).

The development of national providence in the New World can be traced back to the religious thinking of the Old World.  By the 17th century, Christians in England and Europe held two  ideas that shaped their understanding of world events: first, God controlled everything that happened on earth; and second,  God had a particular plan for history.[1]. These two convictions combined to form the concept of national providence, which consign the nation to a unique relationship with God[2]. To understand the conditions of this relationship, Christians turned to the bible. There they found the grand narrative of the Israelites, the first nation singled out by God. In this narrative, God is a helper and guardian, and yet a judge and punisher. The exodus, deliverance of Canaan, and the glory of David’s kingdom were signs of God’s favor; the Babylonian exile and expulsion of Jews from Israel were signs of His disapproval. The English thus interpreted history in these terms. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a sign of God’s favor; the return of Catholicism was a sign of his disfavor.

This view of history arrived with English colonists, especially the Puritans who settled in New England. They understood their settlement as akin to the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, that through their example God’s desires will be spread through the world. They were to accomplish in the New World what the Old World (particularly England) had not. John Winthrop would articulate this in the timelessly quoted declaration that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to be “a city on the hill, they eyes of all people are upon us.” Increase Mather, the influential minister and president of Harvard, would speak of America’s destiny: “God hath called out a people, even out of all parts of a Nation, which he hath also had a great favour towards, and hath brought them by a mighty hand, and an out-stretched arm, over a greater than the Red Sea, and hath caused them to grow up as it were into a little Nation”[3] (quoted in Guyatt 48). They could see in their experiences the hand of God. The mass deaths of the natives, for instance, was God clearing the land for his people as he had in Canaan, yet the early tribulations of the colonies were signs of God’s dissatisfaction with their actions.

The Revolutionary War would forever define the plan that God has for America. In the follow up to the war, the clergy were instrumental in raising support for the cause, and their success came from rousing in the people a sense that their struggle was part of God’s plan for history. This was evident made that more evident through the parallels drawn by the colonists between their own plight and that of the Israelites in Egypt. Sermons like Nicholas Street’s The American States Acting Over the Part of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness identified Britain as the Pharaoh and the colonists as the Israelites fleeing the bonds of their oppressors. Victory only cemented this parallel in the minds of the newly liberated Americans who celebrated this definitive sign that God was indeed on America’s side. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson went as far as propose this parallel be formally cemented in the Great Seal. Franklin’s design was a depiction of Moses parting the Red Sea, with the British replacing the Egyptians as the enemy engulfed by the waves of God’s

Franklin and Jefferson’s proposal for the Great Seal of the United States

judgment while Jefferson suggested an image of the Children of Israel in the wilderness being guided by God. Jefferson’s role in this may come as a surprise, since he is well known for his analogy of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Yet he was an active author in this sacred history of America’s roots, which he reiterates in his second inaugural address: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of Old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Throughout American history this idea of divine providence would pervade such institutionalized events of national communion; not one president has failed to mention God in an Inaugural Address. The significance of this isn’t that every president has believed in the idea, but that the audience addressed (in the case of the inaugural the American people as a whole) finds the rhetoric compelling. I am, and you may be, unmoved by the idea that God has a special relationship with America, but a significant portion of Americans (think of the Religious Right) subscribe to such an interpretation of America’s past, present, and future. When nearly 2nd in line to commander-in-chief Sarah Palin claimed that sending US soldiers to Iraq was a task from God  it was (1) terrifying and (2) proof that this idea is alive and well in modern America. The tasks from God have changed over time, usually involving the deliverance of God-given rights and liberal democracy to those countries of economic or strategic interest. Thus our nation has a history of such missions, from Manifest Destiny to planting the tree of liberty and democratic governance in the sands of a desert and expecting it to grow with only blood, oil, and a hatred of the planter as fertilizer.

Finally, a brief comment on whether this tradition supports the arguments of those who claim that the United States is a “Christian nation” (like how we have no homeless people). Although every president has invoked the figure of God in their inaugural addresses,  not one has referred to Jesus Christ. The rhetoric of divine providence is religious, but not in any specific sense Christian. The vast majority of Americans do hold similar religious beliefs, and that they would pull together these common characteristic in a construction of self-identity is not unexpected. But our political institutions remain based in law, order, and reason rather than the teachings of Jesus (who we would have to pretend was individualistic, greedy, and an enthusiast of semiautomatic rifles). This post is way too long, and if you’ve read this far hopefully you’re not disappointed.

[1] Yep, working in the footnote. Guyatt, Nicholas. Providence and the invention of the United States, 1607-1876. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 14

[2] Ibid, 16

[3] Quoted in Guyatt, 48.

General References and Related Items

Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1967.

Bellah, Robert Neelly. The broken covenant: American civil religion in a time of trial. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

– “Civil Religion in America.” [Electronic Version] Daedalus 96.1 (1967): 1-21.

Cherry, Conrad. God’s new Israel religious interpretations of American destiny. Rev. and updated ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Guyatt, Nicholas. Providence and the invention of the United States, 1607-1876. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American mind: from the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1966.

Wood, Gordon S. “Ideology and Origins of Liberal America.” [Electronic Version] The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 44.3 (1987): 628-40.

The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1969.