“America is a unique nation.”

“America is exceptional.”

“America is specially blessed by God.”

“America has a particular purpose in God’s plan.”

If you’ve grown up in the US, especially her American churches, all of these are pretty common refrains you hear bandied about. They usually come up around election time, the Fourth of July, or on the National Day of Prayer, when we’re urged to pray for our nation’s “return” back to her God and her former holiness. Mike Huckabee recently released a free video entitled “One Nation Under God” in the “Learn our History” video series, promoting it on Facebook: “Sadly, not enough of our kids appreciate God’s love for America.”

Now, there are two different ways of taking these statements. Let’s tackle what I take to be the more modest view first.

The modest view takes its roots in the doctrine of providence. As Christians, we do believe that we have a sovereign God who has a plan for all of human history. Indeed, on that basis can go on to say that America does figure into that plan in a particular way. Just as Germany does. And France. And Ethiopia. And Mexico. And…well, you get the point. God has a plan for all things and so, of necessity, he has a plan for America. Within the providence of God, the history of each nation is particular and peculiar to it, with its own specific glories and shames.

What’s more, looked at from purely human point of view, certain nations (Greece, Rome, etc.) seem to occupy larger positions within general world history. At specific times, they’re more economically independent, politically powerful, culturally dominant, and so forth. It seems safe to say that’s true of America as well; she has particular blessings and particular graces. Within that providential ordering, we can even note the way that theological and philosophical principles have influenced our nation’s founding documents. It seems historically undeniable that the Christian faith, with the various Awakenings and social movements connected with the Church, has played a part in gaining the freedoms and various virtues America has possessed at one time or another. It’s not inaccurate, then, to say that America is in many ways unique and blessed by God.

You might disagree with the above, but still, you can see it, right? Unfortunately, as I said, that’s not the only thing people are saying.

Unpacking Americanism

The second, more common view is what Peter Leithart calls the Americanist view. In an interview with Trevin Wax, Leithart explains:

Americanism has a way of reading the Bible (with America sometimes playing a prominent role in the biblical story as the “new Israel”), an eschatology (America is the “new order of the ages” and the “last best hope of mankind”), a doctrine of political salvation (everyone becomes like us, and all will be well), and, since the civil war, a view of sacrifice (American soldiers give their lives, and take the lives of enemies, to make the world peaceful and free).

As Leithart chronicles in his book Between Babel and Beast (pp. 57-83), this is a reading of things we’ve had with us since first Puritans set foot on the New England shores. Many made the connection between Israel entering the Promised Land, escaping from Pharaoh’s (England’s) tyranny, driving out the Canaanites (Native Americans), and setting up a new theocracy under God.

Again, this reading is still with us. For instance, Huckabee’s video series embodies it beautifully. Aimed at teaching children, this video tells the story of some time-traveling teens who witness key, foundational events in our nation’s history to find out:

the crucial role that God has played in America’s founding and development – and helps children understand how all of our rights and freedom come directly from God, not the government.  It’s a great way to help your children understand how God and the Holy Bible have influenced our world.

huckabee“As we learn more about the evil of forces like Vladimir Putin and Hamas,” laments Huckabee, “I can’t help but think about how God’s special relationship with America makes us so different from the rest of the world.”

So, in Americanism, America enjoys a special favor from the Lord, not granted to other nations. He has a special love for us, and our history demonstrates the unique role that God has played in the founding of our nation, as opposed, to say, Russia, or Mexico. Why? Because America has made God her God, “honored him” as no other nation has, and so God has made her his nation. As the video trailer notes, Psalm 33:12 says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” This is Americanism at its finest; taking a verse talking about Israel, and all her long history of election and covenant dealings with the Lord,  and reappropriating it to speak of our own modern republic.

What’s the Problem?

The problem with this view, though, is that it’s actually a heresy, or at least a seriously false teaching. Leithart again: “Americanism is a heresy; in certain respects it is simply idolatrous.  Jesus, not James Madison, brought in the ‘new order of the ages.'” Indeed. To set our ultimate hope and give our ultimate fealty to anything other than Christ alone is false worship condemned by the first commandment, America included.

There are a myriad of reasons why this matters, as Leithart points out. Americanism of this type blinds us to America’s very real, human, failures and sins. Historically, we’re tempted to whitewash things like slavery, Jim Crow, redlining,  or Manifest Destiny and the brutal, un-Christian treatment of the Native Americans (you know, the Canaanites standing in the way God’s New Israel.) What’s more, it has a tendency to blind us to some of the dark stains on our current foreign policy record such as consorting with tyrants for the sake of American just cause in the world.

Beyond that, when you confuse Americanism with orthodox Christianity, you lose the shape of the actual Christian gospel. Jesus is the hope, savior, and Lord of history. He is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. And it is his Church, the new trans-national,  Jew + Gentile family unified in him (Ephesians 2), spread out across all nations who have become the “people he chose for his inheritance.” There is no verse, footnote, or asterisk in the Hebrew or Greek texts that include America qua nation in mix. America might have providential historical significance, but according to the Scriptures it has no redemptive-historical significance (at least no more than Rome did.) The danger of believing the gospel of Americanism is that its a sad substitute that blinds us, takes our eyes off our mission as the church to proclaim the reign of the world’s true Lord, and ultimately leaves us (and the world) hopeless, as all false gospels do.

I’ll come clean and say that I love America. I am grateful to have been born in this nation. I vote, I pay my taxes, and, when I remember to, I pray for her like the Bible says to (1 Timothy 2:2). I’m not a so-called “angry, hate-America progressive” (either theological or political). And yet, with all my heart, as a recovering Americanist, I’d urge your to search yours, and examine yourself on this point. In other words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” (1 John 5:23)–even shiny red, white, and blue ones.


21 Comments

  1. I call it “Christianamericanity” or, if it’s easier to say, “Americhristianicanity.” The mixture/overlapping of Americanism and Christianity. I have been in churches of Mike Huckabee’s particular brand where it is Republican first; Americanism second; that particular denomination third; and Christ fourth. Other than that, I kind of like Mike Huckabee.

  2. Well said, Derek! These things have been on my mind as well-though you have put them forward better than I could. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Bravo Derek, I appreciate your courage to write this. This is much needed in the ‘red’ south sates. I’m in Texas and have tried gently and systematically to expose the assumptions of these very concerns (re: idolatry).

  4. I add my endorsement to Derek’s post.

    In my book, “Living the Full Bible,” I argue on many levels, with evidence from beginning to end of the Bible for a gospel bigger than the one preached in most churches. I show consistent threads running through the whole Bible leading to the conclusion that God’s intends to renew all creation and that Jesus commissioned his followers to become transnational and transcultural portable living temples of the Holy Spirit, representing the good news of the reign of God, not the reign of any national culture.

    You can see the table of contents and read a sample chapter (Chapter 3, A Compassionate God), plus reviews and other info on the book at http://livingthefullbible.com/

    It is available in print and Kindle versions at amazon.com

  5. Derek, I am a 59 year old Christian woman, who loves the Lord with all my heart, soul and mind. I am redeemed by His grace and He is truly the love of my life. I am also a wife, mother, grandmother, and Red State Conservative, and I disagree with what you said for several reasons. (As I was reading your post I wondered if you were a Millenial?)
    I was taught in church, school, and home that God is God and we are to have no other gods before Him. I was taught that we are blessed in this land of liberty BECAUSE of God’s goodness and grace. I was never taught that He did not also bless other country’s. I was never taught we are ‘the new Israel”. It was also taught to us that Israel is God’s chosen country and people. And that those who choose to be on her side and bless her would be on God’s side. I knew from an early age what the Lord says in Scripture–that he will bless those who bless her and curse those who don’t. Up until recently America has been a country aligned with Israel and keeping her safe. Up until recently America was about keeping world peace and fighting to defend other countries who could not defend themselves. I was taught to be proud of my country for that. And that “pride” never came before worshipping Christ. American pride was a good thing, the same as having pride in our children or grandchildren. It was not in contradiction of who set the stars into place and held them in place. There was room for both, knowing who came first. I was taught to love my country and to be thankful for the freedoms we had. I was taught this country was founded on Judeo/Christian principles by men of honor and integrity. I was raised to be a person of honor and integrity, and as a Christian that is a good thing, unless you falsely believe that is what will lead to salvation. As an adult I choose to be a Conservative politically because I see that lining up more closely with the word of God and His heart. I am a patriot. I am incensed about what is happening to our country and the godless leaders who are leading it. I love America. I am grieved she has turned her back on God in a way as never before…….The problem is, the younger generations are not being taught the truth of America’s strengths, or the pricelessness of freedom. They do not share the love and pride of country that was ingrained into us, and that is a shame; for if we are not taught to cherish those freedoms, and understand what they mean for us and the world, then we will not be raising future generations willing to fight to protect them– which includes the freedom of worship. And if we loose the freedom to worship, and are forced to hide under threat of death, we will loose what is right and beautiful in this world. I so identify with Pippin in the Lord Of The Rings. His best friend Merry was tired and weary of fighting the “bad guys” and just wanted to go back to the Shire. Yet, Pippin was steadfast and said profoundly that if they turn back now there would be no Shire to go back to. J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the greatest Christian writers of the last century. He got it. He loved God and country. I believe we need more articles written by men of God, like you, who encourage the younger generations to love America more, not be fearful they are getting their allegiances confused. Because, quite frankly, I see so many young people having no allegiance at all. And that is a true tragedy. For if we do not have strong men and women willing to step out in faith and fight for America’s freedoms, we will collapse. And that will be a truly excruciating shame.

    1. Cate,

      I am not a millennial. I am older than you are. I share your faith in Jesus. I do not share your understanding of how that relates to international politics. The difference is not because I am a coward. It is not because I am apathetic. It is not because I am naive. I don’t believe that I am any of those things. I just have a very different understanding of what following Jesus in this world means.

      In the post just before yours, I plugged my book. It looks carefully at the whole of Scripture. It comes to a very different conclusion from yours about how Jesus wins the final victory. Yes, it takes courage and sacrifice to prevail for the right, but that courage and sacrifice are displayed toward different ends than the political and economic ends for which troops are usually rallied. And prevailing in the end comes from a very different source than worldly battles. Jesus taught us that we win by avoiding idolatry of empire, wealth, etc., by purifying our worship of God, and by loving our neighbors and even our enemies. Following Jesus to his victory does not call for killing enemies of our national goals. Our Lamb has already conquered, and we must follow his ways to his goal. That is the victory.

      I am a fan of Tolkien and Lewis as you are. I follow their faith. I do not follow their politics. Their experiences made them aware of the fallibility of worldly politics, but I don’t think that they had yet worked out the full implications of that.

      I don’t think I have all the answers by any measure, but I urge you to search the Scriptures without the tinted glasses of how you were taught the Scriptures. There is a different and better message to be found there. At least, that is what I believe.

      .

    2. `Cate,

      Thanks for your comments. I just want to respond with a few qualifiers and clarifiers:

      1. I am, broadly speaking, a conservative. My dad raised me on conservative politics since I was a kid. No lie, I was reading the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page in junior high. I’ve moderated a bit since then, but I’m not telling people not to be conservative. I generally favor limited government, a non-activist judiciary, I’m pro-life, want policies that aid small businesses, and so forth. Honestly, if you took this as a broadside against conservatism, I’d ask you to reread it. It wasn’t there.

      2. I love America. I generally hold the first, more modest view of God’s providential blessings on the States. I vote, I pay taxes, pledge allegiance, and so forth. It’s my home and I love it. I know there’s plenty that’s special about it.

      3. I’m also somewhat skeptical of my generation’s hyper-skepticism about civic duty and general political apathy.

      Here’s the thing, though, I am deadly terrified of the rampant, gross political idolatry on display in American politics and, even worse, American churches. I’ve seen it in the churches I’ve grown up in. I hear in our nation’s political rhetoric. I watch it online in the way church members discuss the nation, other nations, our foreign policy, and it’s, quite honestly, crushing.

      I don’t really have time to follow up more, but if you want to get a better feel for the case I’m drawing on, I’d recommend you read the book by Peter Leithart that I quoted above. It’s worth your time. It’s not a hate-America screed. It’s rooted in Scripture, knowledgable about history, and a very necessary meditation on the way we as Christians relate to our nation.

      Best,

      D

    3. “And if we loose the freedom to worship, and are forced to hide under threat of death, we will loose what is right and beautiful in this world.”

      As an American who does not currently live in America, I have a very, very hard time with this statement. While I definitely appreciate the freedom of religion in America, losing it would not mean we lose what is right and beautiful in this world. In fact, watching Christians refuse to forsake Christ even under the threat of jail time, torture, abandonment by family, and possible death is THE most amazing and beautiful expression of worship I’ve ever seen in my life. Not only that, but the Church often thrives under persecution. Though it’s not fun or comfortable, Christians overseas welcome persecution as a way to be “counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Most Christians in America, with even the threat of the slightest “persecution” (and I use that term loosely here), throw a temper tantrum and scream about their rights. I think I know which one of those reactions is more beautiful and right.

  6. Dear John, Derek, and Lisa. Thank you all for your kind and courteous comments in regard to what I wrote. First I would like to tell Lisa that what I meant to say is that if we in America loose our freedom to worship, as in the traditional sense of corporate worship, studying God’s word openly, and the right to worship in song and prayer, we will loose what is right and beautiful in America, not as in, all of life. For like you, I believe Christ is LIFE and to love and serve him in any capacity, even under threat of death, or unto death, is an honor. And I know one day Christ will return and will restore what is truly right and beautiful. But this is where I have trouble relating to some Believers, for some believers want to spiritualize everything, and not allow for the physical and human part of life to be acknowledged as good, or worth fighting for. (I’m not saying any of you are that way because I don’t know you.) But please don’t write me back and say the heart is deceitful or any other such scriptures, for I know that and know without Christ we would all have hearts of stone. I know this life is short. I know one day the ultimate battle will be won by Christ. I also look forward to, with all of my heart and soul, being united with my Lord in heaven. However, we are still earth bound. God established life here on earth for His children to work in a certain godly ordained order. He established governments, marriage, families, a time to plant and not to plant and on and on. It is the sin of mankind that disrupts and sabotages God’s intentions for life His way. Yet, as a light unto the world, we must still address earthly wrongs and take a stand against evil. I do not believe in any way, should we just turn our heads against evil and spiritualize it away. I believe, just as the Israelites of long ago, that to be taken captive by foreign enemies, to loose our homeland, to have our wall of protection torn down and our places of worship burned to the ground is a tragedy and one that can be avoided if we will repent and return to the Lord. How many chances did the Lord give to His chosen people, and how many chances as He given to us who live and work in the earthly freedoms of America.
    I am far more concerned with the lack of love and concern and regard for this country, than I am people idolizing it. Perhaps I am not aware of those doing this. I only see, especially in the younger generations, the opposite. And that is what breaks my heart. And I do not see anything spiritually immature or wrong with my heart being broken over this. Didn’t our Lord Jesus once feel that way, as written in the scriptures, when he looked at the town of Jerusalem spread out before Him, and wept not for just it’s people, but for the physical destruction that also was to come. Our homeland is a dear and precious gift from Him. How He longs for the people of America, and the world, to fall on their knees before Him and say, “I will turn from my wicked ways and follow you in spirit and truth.” And yes, it is ordained that one day every knee shall bow and confess that He is Lord. And only then will there be everlasting peace. However, in the mean time I feel as a Christian I am called to be a watchman, a light on the hill, a spreader of God’s word not just for His sake, but for the sake of this country that He has placed me in for such a time as this.

  7. I would like to add one more thing directed to John…….If I understand you correctly you are saying that because God will rectify everything in the end, and that is what we as Christians must hold on to, then fighting to maintain freedom or fighting to protect yourself or your country, if indeed that fighting involves killing others, you find to be wrong according to scripture? If that is what you are saying, then with that stance, you must believe Israel, currently defending itself and launching missiles against its enemies is wrong. Or you must believe that Esther was not called to stand up for her jewish countrymen and stop the destruction of her people. She herself did not wield weapons on this front, but others, because of her information to the king, did. So are you saying, we must accept what our enemies throw at us because this life is temporal and God will win in the end?? If that is not what you’re saying, then I would love to understand more clearly what you mean. Thank you John, if you are reading this comment. We are both in HIm, Cate Tuten

  8. Derek, I was thrilled to see this post and equally thrilled to see others comment on it. This is an essential question for the ekklesia in America to grapple with.

    I have been actively following and engaged in politics for over three decades, starting my “career” if you will as a senior legislative assistant to two Members of Congress during the 1980’s. This gave me an “insiders” point of view and let me assure everyone, it is a bipartisan problem and sadly, I played my part in it. Let me just put it this way, the Constitution is not exactly referred to for decisions being made, no matter what elected officials say during a campaign.

    I was there when the Christian Right rose to prominence and worked with leaders at the Moral Majority in its heyday.

    Since that occasion, I’ve had the privilege to raise a family of four, see them into college and now enjoy being a grandpa! But my interest in politics has never waned, in fact, it’s become so much more clear to me as an evangelical.

    Now when I speak, I speak in the language of your “first view” though I used to speak and write in your “second view.” The key to my transformation was undertaking an expansive study of our founding documents, writings, debates and profiles of leading figures. What I began to discover was that a great deal of what I had been taught simply could not be supported by source documents. Allow me to provide one example.

    It has been inferred by certain evangelical personalities on the speaking circuit that James Madison or “some of the Framers” searched the pages of Scripture to discover how to write the Constitution. Specifically it is alleged that Madison (or some unknown Framer) found the three branches of government in Isaiah 33:22. Hearing or reading this from respected leaders then builds greater confidence in the idea that the Framers of the Constitution were all Christians and that in some nearly divine way, God was “inspiring” these Framers to pen the Constitution as they did. I’ve personally attended many of these presentations and have seen this assertion made directly and indirectly (sometimes using power point). Just as I did years ago, most evangelicals take this assertion from a fellow believer as “gospel” and fail to check the facts.

    The problem is, there is absolutely no evidence in the existing record that this is the case for Madison or other Framers. In fact, in Federalist #47, James Madison himself pens who he gleaned this idea from, Montesquieu:

    “In order to form correct ideas on this important subject, it will be proper to investigate the sense in which the preservation of liberty requires that the three great departments of power should be separate and distinct. The oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu.”

    Now, does it make a difference if it was Isaiah 33:22 or Montesquieu? Yes, both theologically and politically. Right now the Christian Right is under a withering attack from progressives who are challenging the idea that America is a “Christian Nation.” They regularly point out errors like this (and there are many more I could have used) which diminishes our witness as honest Christians and our effectiveness politically because if we can’t get history right, how can we be trusted. I might add by the way, the progressive who level these accusations are correct and while not meaning to, are actually reproving us. We should humbly accept the reproof, correct the error and apologize, not get defensive and suggest that because they’re secular, that must make them wrong. That is Presuppositionalism run amok!

    Sadly, most evangelicals, including myself at one point, have been very poorly trained when it comes to the founding era. This has led most evangelicals who are politically active to draw a straight line from 17th century Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony to Philadelphia in 1787 and seeing the “hand of God” actively involved in ways Scripture simply does not permit beyond what you described in your “first view.”

    This has led to an unhealthy embrace of “Americanism” which in my view gets very close to a 1st and 2nd Commandment violation (which also leads to 5th, 8th and 10th Commandment problems). I have seen too many evangelicals support a brand of American nationalism few if any of the Founders, Framers or Ratifiers embraced. Thus, I believe the very issue you raise are issues that must be discussed by the “Church” in America.

    Lastly, I like you do pray for our leaders daily as I am exhorted to in 1 Tim. I do not say the Pledge and haven’t for years once I discovered its origins. I do not believe we’re a “nation” but as the very Preamble to the Constitution stipulates, we’re a Union of fifty separate and sovereign states. Sadly, I did not learn these things from my church or popular evangelical political leaders, I learned them from evangelical AND secular scholars and from spending the time reading the source material.

    So, thanks again for tackling this issue, it is a tough by necessary one to tackle.

  9. Spot on, Derek.

    I love America, but it took me three years living in the UK to face my Americanist zeal. I came back to the US with a greater love for other people and cultures. When you’re not living in America, America is not all that there is.

  10. There is only one truly Christian nation, and that is the Kingdom of God. As we are told in Psalm 2, all of the nations of this world – and yes, including the USA – rage and plot against Yahweh and against Christ, and God will break and dash to pieces every single one of them – yes, including the USA.

    I am, first and foremost, a member of Christ’s Kingdom. While I am thankful to live here and am thankful for all the blessings that come from living in the USA, the USA is not my eternal home.

    Those of us who are faithful Christians should take to heart and apply to our own lives the advice that Jeremiah gave to the exiles in Babylon:

    Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5-7)

  11. This article ignores a lot of history and creates a heresy where there is none. The Founding Fathers were along the same line as John Locke. The Magna Carta, and Bill of Rights can easily trace their origions to Locke. The Declaration of Independence was written as much in response to the biblical passage comanding us to obey the king! Throughout America’s history we can see the ‘pilgrim model’ used repeatedly in town after town where the church house doubled as the school house!. To suggest this nation was not founded on Christian principes is the heresy. Let me suggest you stop celebrating ThanksGiving.

  12. Pingback: Heresy
  13. Well and truly said.

    And since cards are being played (and this shouldn’t happen when addressing objective reality), I’ll play mine:

    Raised on a farm in situational poverty
    Barely graduated from high school
    Viet-Nam veteran (Not “Viet-Nam Era,” Viet-Nam)
    Worked full-time and used the G.I. Bill through a Catholic University
    Two graduate degrees from a public university
    Work experience: farm, janitor, ambulance driver, plastics plant, LVN, inhalation therapy, offshore, lots of volunteer work in my church and community, taught in a Catholic school, taught in public school, and in my old age teach part-time for a nifty little community college
    Got a ticket for an expired inspection sticker last week – my one crime to date, but, hey, I’m only 66, so there’s hope.

  14. I do not think Mike Huckabee is promoting idolatry with those videos and I believe Huckabee would be the first to confirm this. Perhaps Mr. Huckabee should have been given the opportunity to comment on the intent of the videos before labeling them as heresy. Heresy is a strong word and should not be thrown around lightly. I have seen examples of the “rampant, gross political idolatry” on display in both American politics and in churches and Mr. Huckabee is neither promoting “Americanism” nor idolatry.

    Mr. Rishmawry, I suggest you discuss your issues with Mike Huckabee and then post a follow-up article. This would be the charitable and Christian way of moving forward.

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