Kent’s post today about Christian America reminded me of some of the work I’m doing recently about civil religion in America. Kent points to some rhetorical patterns in American Evangelicalism of talking about America as God’s Chosen people, a Christian nation that has been blessed because of our adherence to Christian moral principles etc, etc. He rightly observes that saying America is “founded on Christian principles” is misleading. However, there is a historical tradition of drawing on that idea rhetorically which makes many people continue to think that way.
American Rhetorical tradition, and American Civil religion, begins with the Puritans. On the boat on the way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon “A model of Christian charity.” In that sermon he talks about the new world and their new settlement as a City upon a Hill. That was in 1630 and this kind of language continues in American oratory, in presidential address (all through history, and certainly in recent years) and patriotic sermons. The idea of America as the chosen people and light to the world certainly lead to the idea that we must evangelize democracy, and to the idea that we could, like the ancient Israelites, exterminate the Native American people. Kent is right in saying that this twisting of biblical allusion is not consonant with the real message of the Bible, or a gospel for all nations.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’m writing about a Martin Luther King Jr Speech – “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” King’s rhetoric uses that same language of God’s chosen people and biblical allusion, but he casts African Americans as Israel escaping slavery, and himself and other activists as prophets like Amos, calling out for justice. My argument is that his interaction with the biblical and American epic traditions is why he is so well respected and effective as a speaker.
All of this leads me to a few questions. What do we do, as Christians and Americans, in this centuries old rhetorical tradition? This centuries-old myth is not going to disappear. I think that Dr King had the right idea, to twist the chosen people myth toward social justice. But there is only so much we can accomplish in light of American arrogance. Another, related problem, is differentiating Religion from Patriotism and Christianity from the agenda of the religious right. These things seem even more complex. Jim Wallis tends to call upon the prophetic tradition and the person of Jesus to get at this idea. As does John Howard Yoder in the The Politics of Jesus (summary of our discussion then here). How can we use our language in church and activism to change the harmful attitudes civil religion has left us with?