The Idol of Nationalism

“We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…,” the Puritan John Winthrop wrote. The Puritans who disembarked in Massachusetts in 1620 believed they were establishing the New Israel. Indeed, the whole colonial enterprise was believed to have been guided by God. “God hath opened this passage unto us,” Alexander Whitaker preached from Virginia in 1613, “and led us by the hand unto this work.”

Promised land imagery figured prominently in shaping English colonial thought. The pilgrims identified themselves with the ancient Hebrews. They viewed the New World as the New Canaan. They were God’s chosen people headed for the Promised Land. Other colonists believed they, too, had been divinely called. The settlers in Virginia were, John Rolf said, “a peculiar people, marked and chosen by the finger of God.”

This self-image of being God’s Chosen People called to establish the New Israel became an integral theme in America’s self-interpretation. During the revolutionary period, it emerged with new force. “We cannot but acknowledge that God hath graciously patronized our cause and taken us under his special care, as he did his ancient covenant people,” Samuel Langdon preached at Concord, New Hampshire in 1788. George Washington was the “American Joshua,” and “Never was the possession of arms used with more glory, or in a better cause, since the days of Joshua, the son of Nun,” Ezra Stiles urged in Connecticut in 1783. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted Promised Land images for the new nation’s Great Seal. Franklin proposed Moses dividing the Red (Reed) Sea with Pharaoh’s army being overwhelmed by the closing waters. Jefferson urged a representation of the Israelites being led in the wilderness by the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. Later, in his second inaugural address (1805), Jefferson again recalled the Promised Land. “I shall need…the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life.”

The sense of divine election and the identification of the Americas with ancient Canaan were likely used to justify much of the dealings with Native Americans. And the experiences of multiple wars (and the great communal sacrifices during them) served to cement this nationalistic fervor in the psyche of the more recent generations.

I can’t help but wonder how this strong sense of nationalistic pride has affected the Christians in the United States?  As I reflect on my childhood and the strong relationships that did much to form me, I recognize an odd phenomenon that existed in my subconscious – to be an American was to be a Christian. What have I taken from this as it relates to how I treat people who are different from me, people who have different values or different cultural norms?

A short answer is that my sense of nationalism may have become an idol.

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