When America’s second president, John Adams, and America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, both died on the same day in 1826 – and that day was none other than the Fourth of July – it was seen as a sign of God’s favor on the United States. As historian David McCullough notes in his widely-acclaimed biography of Adams, it “could not be seen as mere coincidence.” It was a ‘visible and palpable’ manifestation of ‘Divine favor,’ wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, “expressing,” McCullough adds, “what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.”
The idea of “choseness” and “special blessing” from God has been a constant theme throughout the history of the United States, beginning with the Puritans and their “shining city on a hill.” In more recent times, the vision of a Christian America was popularized in the late 1970’s by Evangelical authors Peter Marshall and David Manuel in The Light and the Glory. Marshall and Manuel held that America was founded as a Christian nation and flourished under the benevolent hand of divine providence, arguing further that America's blessings will remain only as long as America is faithful to God as a nation. In 1989 a team of Evangelical historians (Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden) attempted to lay this somewhat dubious thesis to rest, but it continued as a popular framework for viewing American history among contemporary American Evangelicals.
Whether we were founded as an explicitly Christian nation or not, to many, the idea of God’s favor being removed from our land seems prescient.
As a recent Associated Press article suggested, “everything seemingly is spinning out of control,” with the article going on to note how Midwestern levees are bursting; polar bears are adrift; gas prices are skyrocketing; home values are abysmal; air fares are beyond reach; wars without end rage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An Associated Press poll reveals that only 17 percent of Americans believe the country is moving in the right direction (the lowest reading in history since their annual survey began). An ABC News-Washington Post survey put that figure at 14 percent, tying the low in more than three decades of taking soundings of the American mood.
Whether the current national malaise can be attributed to God’s disfavor or not, I am more convinced than ever that American needs to turn to what Christian moorings it once maintained. But not for America’s sake, per se, or even for the sake of Western culture.
But for the Kingdom’s sake.
America is not simply the leader of the modern world, but the principal carrier of globalization and exporter of culture. The ideas which lie at the heart of the West, and particularly the United States, are Judeo-Christian. Yet America is at great spiritual risk, and much of our current despondency is tied to our need for God far more than our need for economic relief. The very values and ideas that shaped us as a nation, and could therefore shape the world, are being lost. This has led some, such as Os Guinness, to call for a “third” mission to the West.
The first mission, of course, was the apostolic mission that eventually resulted in the conversion of the Roman Empire. The second mission followed the fall of Rome as missionaries refounded Western civilization and essentially reconverted the west back to Christianity from paganism, what Thomas Cahill referred to in the title of his book How the Irish Saved Civilization.
A third mission would seek to restore America as the leader of the Western world to her Judeo-Christian roots, ensuring continued vibrancy and influence for years to come.
Not to stave off “curse” and receive “blessing;” but instead to be a blessing to others for the sake of Christ.
And that would be another American Revolution worth fighting for.
James Emery White
David McCullough, John Adams (2001).
On the history of the idea of America as a chosen nation, see Conrad Cherry’s God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (1971).
David Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (1977).
Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America (1989).
“Everything seemingly is spinning out of control,” Alan Fram and Eileen Putnam, Associated Press, Saturday, June 21st, 2008.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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