Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
“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.
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.
“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 re–appropriating it to speak of our own modern republic.
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 it‘s 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.
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