Christianity and the American Self-Image


July 15, 2017

This week’s reflection is part one of a two part reflection about Christianity and the formation of the American self-image. For many years the area of religion and values in American society has been my area of research and teaching. I remain a critical-thinking, patriotic American. I remain as well a critical-thinking Christian believer. 

The uniqueness of the American (US) experience is rooted in the self-image and world-image of the 17th century English colonialists who understood themselves as SENT BY GOD. Those early Americans saw themselves in terms of Jewish/Christian imagery. They were the NEW ISRAEL going to a NEW PROMISED LAND and they understood themselves as SPECIALLY CHOSEN BY GOD. 

We see this understanding in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the 1630 sermon given by Puritan leader John Winthrop, on board the ship Arbella en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with him for this work, we have taken out a commission…. Now the only way to avoid shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God…….The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies: when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations: ‘the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill: The eyes of all people are upon us….” 

So the American self-image stressed being: the new chosen people, a superior people, led by Divine Providence, self-made people, with a messianic mission to humankind to convert the world. 

For the newly developing Americans, the old world was a sinister and dangerous place: the old world of monarchs and popes was corrupt. The only hope for humankind was in a new world and a new age. We see this belief displayed on the one dollar bill: “In God we trust;” God blesses the American undertaking, “ANNUIT COEPTIS;” and America is a NEW CREATION “NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM.”  

For Americans “new” has always been better than old. The throw-away culture: out with the old and in with the better-working and better-looking NEW. They established New York, New Orleans, New Buffalo, etc. We have new states like New Jersey, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. 

Our ancestral Americans saw the world as the great stage for an ongoing battle battle between good and evil. They understood the struggle between good and evil as a struggle between God and Satan…..Contemporary political debate has followed the same pattern. The country is best unified when we have a devil to oppose, whether it is Adolf Hitler, Nikita Khrushchev, or Osama bin Laden. American national unity reaches its peak in times of crisis: World War II, the height of the Cold War, and the early days of the War on Terrorism. When the outside threat passes, however, they can turn on each other with racist and police brutality. The American irony. Who is the enemy? 

Right from the beginning Americans had to confront real and imagined enemies. They feared a wilderness they did not known, a climate that could destroy them, Indian conspiracies, slave revolts, famine, “popery,” witchcraft, and werewolves. Clearly identifying the “enemy” brought cohesion and a uniform identity. 

In the historical development of their identity and mission, Americans have had a succession of OUTSIDE enemies: Kings, Roman Catholics, “Indians,” “Barbarian” Germans, North Vietnamese, Islamic terrorists. Fear has been an underlying element in all of these interactions. I have often thought FDR’s words could be applied across the whole panorama of US history: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” 

Curiously, when we look at US history, African Americans were denigrated, taken for granted, and often conveniently overlooked in considerations about US identity. Were they people? I am still shocked when I read my four-times-back great grandfather’s last will and testament. He owned a plantation in Virginia and died n 1790. He listed the property and items that should go to his children. He asked the children to care for their mother. Then he listed the number and kinds of animals in the barn. At the end of the will, after the farm animals, he lists his slaves…. 

Of course, Americans are not per se bad. Americans have always struggled, however, with two elements of their character and can find a justification for each in Biblical imagery…… 

FIRST there is a positive humanitarian orientation to seek justice, do good, build a better world (as we see in the words of the Prophet MICAH). Here we can point to various humanitarian programs throughout the world, involvement to save Europe in two world wars, creation of the United Nations, etc. 

A less positive side of the American character, on the other hand, is found in a kind of self-righteousness and self-importance that arrogantly dismisses the rest of the world, due to an exaggerated sense of being a superior, CHOSEN PEOPLE. In our history, we have had: manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, various times of isolationism, extreme xenophobia, and the policies like those advocated by the currant presidential administration. 

Although the situation is now changing, Christianity has been greatly valued by Americans, because it has reinforced the sense of being a special people in a special land and it has served as the social glue that holds the country together. It is a point for discussion but I think much of the emphasis on Christianity has been more about RELIGION and NATIONALISM than FAITH. At the time of US engagement in WWI, the popular evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935) said, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.” Those words still echo in parts of the country today.  

There is a uniquely American kind of focus on religion. The 18th century observer of American culture, Alexis de Toqueville, summed it up this way: “As for what we generally understand as faiths, such as customs, ancient traditions, the strength of memories, up to the present I don’t see a trace of them….The religious state of this people is perhaps the most curious thing to examine here. Go into the churches, you will hear morality preached, but of dogma not a word. What is most important for America is not that all citizens profess the true religion —- but that they should profess religion.” 

President Eisenhower echoed de Toqueville, when he observed in the 1950s “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on deep religious belief and I don’t care what it is…..” And, at about the same time, the American sociologist Will Herbert (1901-1977) wrote: “The typical American has developed a remarkable capacity for being serious about religion without taking religion seriously.” “Americans” he stressed ”believe in religion in a way that perhaps no other people do.”  

Bear with me. This is an ongoing reflection. Next week some observations about American civil religion. Then my thoughts about what I see as major contemporary trends in American religion and culture. 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Christianity and the American Self-Image

  1. Happy to “bear with you”, Jack. As always, I learn so much from your columns – always a font of new information for me and well-reasoned – and always have so much to reflect upon.

  2. Thank you so much for your enlightening history lesson – so thoughtful. I agree with what you said & am looking forward to next lesson.

  3. Hi Jack,
    A key word here is “Canaanites.” The Indigenous peoples of North America find themselves in the First Testament narratives of the Israelites entering the promised land of Canaan — on the side of the original inhabitants, the Canaanites. It’s a simple insight but it turns the narrative upside down — as well it should. I learned that from my doctoral student who’s developing a “settler theology of liberation” by first fully entering into dialogue with the original peoples on whose land the settlers’ descendants live. Here in Ottawa it’s becoming customary to note that the city stands on Algonquin territory that was never ceded.

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