This is the second of four sermon starters for the 4th of July weekend. I’m taking common Christian religious claims about the U.S. and re-examining them. Last week was “In God We Trust.” Next week will be “God bless America.” Readers are free to use these ideas. In each sermon starter, I endeavor to interpret the nation’s life in light of the nation’s value claims, history, and Christian scriptures and theology.
It is sometimes helpful to run this exercise: imagine that something (rather than someone, please) was truly canceled. Imagine you had a powerful magnet and something you wanted to remove from life for examination was as moveable as metal filings. For example, what would the American diet, the content of grocery shelves, and restaurant menus be without many tons of readily available, cheap, processed sugar? Or, if the Gulf Wars had never happened…
Let’s take that magnet and extract from the American story everything about being chosen by God, everything that was borrowed—misappropriated—from the Bible in regard to ancient Israel and used to interpret the meaning of America.
Magnet employed. Filings drawn out.
Imagine the U.S. if the Exodus narrative was not used by colonists to position themselves as the children of Israel seeking freedom against the Egypt-like, more powerful British empire. Neither was the narrative available to justify conquering from sea to shining sea, according to God’s promise to conquer the Canaanites (American Indians); or where the raging fire of God’s final act would spark American revivals, take over the earth, and bring down the curtain of history. So, our higher purpose for rebelling against Great Britain would have been… what?
There would be no Manifest Destiny to claim the West and Southwest and Pacific Northwest for God’s chosen white race.
White Christianity, the chosen of the chosen, could not position themselves as the pinnacle of religions for America.
The men who first drilled for oil, pre and post-Civil War, would not have claimed (as, in reality, they did) “God put these vast deposits in the ground just for us to discover, just for Americans to build the most prosperous civilization ever. God chose to reveal oil to us in this time and place.”
As we run this “what if we did not/could not claim a chosen people status” exercise, we see how much of U.S. history is tied into stories of being chosen. Being special. We are by no means the first nation to make this claim. And we are not alone in today’s world in thinking we are God’s favorite (at least when we “behave”). But we have, arguably, employed the Exodus—freedom—conquest—Promised Land saga more extensively than any other modern nation.
Many readers will know that Abraham Lincoln warned the nation away from such claims. A people whose origins include the embrace of slavery could not be God’s chosen. But Lincoln’s words about being an “almost chosen people,” while brilliant and eloquent, fell on mostly deaf ears. After his death, Jim Crow, rooted in a Lost Cause/chosenness theology, replaced Reconstruction.
Native peoples were hunted into near extermination by a government flying the banner of “this land is our land” because God said so. In the Spanish American war, we obtained colonies and justified our overlordship by the claim that the White Race was bringing civilization to the dark corners of the earth. And no small amount of chosenness continues to fuel America’s and Americans’ actions, right into the Gulf Wars and their aftermath, and on to the insurrection at the Capitol, in the name of God.
Now, here is a slightly different magnet. What if we Christians withdrew every filing of our support for the appropriation by the nation of “chosenness”? Setting aside what this withdrawal would mean for the roles of Christians within U.S. society, where would stripping out chosenness and its stories and symbols leave American history and society?
I think we’d have a much more clear-eyed opportunity to embrace and reckon with the whole of our history.
We might also see our uniqueness and purpose can still lift our eyes and strengthen our backbones. We are the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse attempt to form a nation and govern that nation, in large part, as a democracy. We remain in the vanguard of the post-Babel-ing of the earth’s population where persons speaking hundreds of languages might learn to see each other as neighbors rather than strangers. Despite the real, horrifying, maddening, and tragic lives too many migrants, immigrants, asylum and refugee seekers have found here, the U.S. is still a destination.
And here, the descendants of colonist-invaders-settlers, of invaded peoples, and of immigrants and asylum seekers are all in this land together. This land that is more the wilderness in which any “promised land” will be built together where we are rather than the place in which we organize to conquer someplace else. We tried that, and the so-called promised land for some came at the cost of great injustices for many.
There is still that e pluribus unum thing. Maybe we leave a smidge of “chosenness”: America is a place to demonstrate that “from many, one” is either a fantasy or really possible and, therefore, really is “the last, best hope of humankind.”
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.