Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Americanization of God

Christopher Levenick reviews three books on religion and America by George Marsden, Mark Knoll, and Richard Carwardine. Concluding paragraph: "Each of these books makes a major contribution to our understanding of America’s religious heritage, and each deserves the lavish praise it has received. Yet all three authors make an argument that perhaps says more about their modern-day sensibilities than it does about the objects of their study. They all take care to present Edwards and Lincoln as having eventually abandoned the idea that God had somehow set America apart from the rest of dreary human history. If ordinary Americans imagined themselves as a new Israel, the authors claim, better minds recognized the notion as sanctimonious vanity. Edwards, for example, speculated that only revivals in the New World could presage the millennium; Marsden finds the argument ’tortured’ and implies that Edwards later abandoned it. Similarly, because Lincoln once alluded to America as an "almost chosen people," Noll concludes that Lincoln doubted "whether America was the people of God." Carwardine likewise writes that Lincoln "distrusted" the "certainty of moral superiority" and "acute millennial consciousness" of Northern evangelicals. But there remains considerable evidence that both Edwards and Lincoln shared with their contemporaries the sense that America was called from above to great and noble things. In a day when American exceptionalism is roundly decried, it is apparently inconceivable to these authors that the keenest theological minds this land has yet produced may have shared with so many of their compatriots a deep and heartfelt faith in America."

Discussions - 2 Comments

I was chewing over the problems of the world with a friend of mine who for years has worked arduously to bring intergroup respect, the rule of law, and government by consent to the Balkans.

He’s now off to the Arab world in a few weeks to try and scratch out some kind of purchase for these same ideals.

Although not an overtly devout guy, he’s seen enough of the ugliness and cruelty in places like Kosovo and Bosnia to know that most Americans have no clue just how good we have it, how problems that our Founders foresaw and helped us to avoid or mitigate still torture so much of the globe beyond our shores in ways we can barely imagine.

He raised his eyebrows at one point in the conversation and said reflectively: "You know, if America didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent her."

"Maybe Somebody has," I thought.

And reading this post just now, I thought it again.

In my book, Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government (Lexington Books 2000), I argue that the idea of constitutional self-government under the providence of God stands as a running theme for Lincoln. A chief example is his well-known reference to the American people as God’s “almost chosen people,” which he made in an address to the New Jersey Senate as he was traveling to his first presidential inauguration. In relating the early revolutionary efforts of New Jersey to his present objective as president-elect, Lincoln remarks, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.” Here he provides a political parallel for the biblical representative of God’s will, the Hebrew nation. But where the Jews of the Old Testament were chosen by God to be a spiritual “light unto the nations,” Lincoln suggests that the American people could very well be God’s elect to offer political light unto the world.

Lincoln does not substitute the American people for the biblical chosen. He calls them God’s “almost” chosen people, at minimum respecting the religious sensibilities of Jewish Americans. In a political sense, moreover, the American people could only be God’s “chosen” if they succeeded in perpetuating “this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people” according to “the original idea for which that struggle was made”: an idea “that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.” With the nation divided over slavery, Lincoln could scarcely call them God’s chosen people without qualification. Recall the Old Testament promise to Abram, the original “chosen” one: “And I will make thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). Lincoln hoped to be the instrument of God and the American people in leading them to secure the principle of human equality for themselves and hence for mankind, thereby blessing all the families or nations of the earth.

Without knowing the entire will of God, Lincoln charts a course for the country between the political paralysis of pious resignation and the jeremiads of the self-righteous. The former leads to the accident and force that befalls those who choose not to act, while the latter identify their cause as God’s cause to the detriment of deliberative politics.

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