Ross Douthat, in his much-discussed survey of American religion, exposes one of our most persistent and complex heresies in his final chapter, which bears the appropriate title: “The City on the Hill.” This particular heresy, which has reached across the entire social-political spectrum, is “the heresy of American nationalism” (Bad Religion, 244). Noting that “universal faiths are a relative novelty in human history” he correctly observes that there has rarely been anything like a separation between religion and politics in human history, at least until the formation of the United States of America. On one end of the spectrum societies have deified their rulers while on the other they have identified their unique practices and ideological beliefs with a tribal god. But local gods will go away when the cults and rituals associated with such a deity go away. History demonstrates this point.
The strange revelation, at the very heart of the Old Testament, is that the universal God actually entered into human history and became the champion of a particular race and people. And this universal God, in the Christian understanding, sent his one and only Son into the world, as a human being, to redeem the world. “What Jewish prophecy envisioned, Christian history has operationalized” (Bad Religion, 246). As St. Paul says, “Salvation is from the Jews” and that salvation is now available to all people and nations regardless of their political and social past or present.
So what happened to tribalism when the tribal gods were destroyed? The tribal impulse was retained. This is why advanced nations like America can be so religious and combine their religion so directly with the fortunes of this nation on the world stage of history. The impulse to conflate a nation, or a special ethnic people, with God’s providence has a problematic history, to say the least. In our own recent history ethnic sub-churches, such as the German Lutheran Church and the Italian Catholic Church, have illustrated the power of nationalism to actually destroy a people and create war on a global scale.
As far back as I can recall I have heard patriotic and zealous Christians equate America with Israel, either by consciously bad theology or by, in more cases, an uninformed theology. We thus became “the promised land,” “a new order for the ages,” or fulfilled our “manifest destiny.” This occurs in the closing words of almost every speech by our recent presidents when they finish by saying, “May God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.” David Gelernter, a much-respected religion writer, suggests that Americanism is “The Fourth Great Western Religion.” Simply put there is a deep sense, seen in the prayers, hymns and symbols of most of our churches, that the American narrative is a continuation of the biblical story. One recent study found that 60% of Americans actually believe that “God has granted America a special role in human history.”
Ross Douthat believes “a version of exceptionalism is entirely compatible with Christian orthodoxy” (250). If God is the sovereign lord of human history then providence has plainly had a role in America’s place in the events of mankind and civilization. I will surely grant this to be a Christian idea. I have serious doubts that most Christians are able to distinguish between divine providence, as it impacts all nations and peoples, and America’s role in having what amounts to a covenantal relationship with God. Douthat says such an “exceptionalism