One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America (Pickwick, 2011) and a forthcoming history of American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion (IVP Academic, 2016).
American exceptionalism, in the words of UVA political scientist James W. Ceaser, has “gone viral” in the past decade or so.(1) Whereas other generations may have used the term “American patriotism,” over the last twenty or so years, more and more Americans have used the term “exceptionalism” to cast America in special terms, set apart and superior to all other nations, past and present. Exceptionalism as a concept animated the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, both of whom wrote books casting themselves as noble champions of the idea.
Combine the idea of American exceptionalism with the Christian America thesis—the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation—and you have a potent brew indeed, a super-charged nationalism which has an exceptional quality all its own.
I have a word for this powerful ideological combination—Americolatry. Americolatry consists of a form of civil religion that entails the doctrine of American greatness, innocence, and superiority (e.g., Reagan’s “the last, best hope of mankind,” Albright’s “indispensable nation,” or David Gelernter’s America as “one of the most beautiful religious concepts mankind has ever known”(2)). Americolatry also entails the practice of religious devotion to America by inextricably linking Christian devotion to patriotism. In other words, to be a devoted Christian equals the uncritical acceptance of America as superior and morally regenerate.
We encounter one of the bastions of Americolatry (American exceptionalism + Christian America thesis) in many Christian school and Christian homeschool history curricula. Now before I go any further, I must come out and say: my wife and I are evangelical Christians and we homeschool our two children. As Christian homeschoolers, we want our children to learn how to think Christianly about the world they inhabit. We also want them to think historically about the past. And we realize that there is no necessary conflict between thinking Christianly and thinking historically. Quite the contrary—thinking Christianly and thinking historically are entailed in one another, since Christianity is a faith built on a historical foundation.
Here is an example of a history curriculum you can purchase for your kids: http://www.freegoddvd.com/Gift.html. You can view the video sample before you commit (which I highly recommend you do before committing your hard earned money). You’ll notice that it has a ringing endorsement from former Arkansas governor and failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. But far from being an outlier, this example is one of several Americolatrous history curricula being offered to Christian homeschooling families.
Three other examples of Americolatrous history curricula are A Beka Books, Bob Jones University Press, and Veritas Press. The eleventh grade U.S. history text produced by A Beka sets out to take “a positive patriotic approach . . . bringing to life events and personalities that have shaped the nation with a special emphasis on our Christian heritage.”(3) At the outset of the book, the authors make their ideological approach to history plain—this is a book extolling America as a morally regenerate nation that is possessed of no social ills and can do no wrong as it acts in history. The rest of the book follows from this stated premise.
The authors of the BJU U.S. history text actually compare America with heaven in their closing pages. The authors look ahead to the Second Coming of Christ, and the world to which all believers in Christ will go at the end of the age. “As America was to weary pilgrims long ago, this New World [that is, heaven] will be a refuge, a welcome shore, a city upon a hill.”(4) America, it seems, serves as something of a type for the authors of the BJU text.
The Veritas series of Omnibus books are not, strictly speaking, history texts. They are a collection of interdisciplinary readings from literature, philosophy, theology, history, and Scripture. But the readings on historical topics often forward an Americolatrous agenda, much like the A Beka and BJU texts. Specifically, Douglas Wilson compares the American and French Revolutions, calling the American Revolution “righteous” and the French Revolution “unrighteous.” O. Woelke Leithart suggests that the American Constitution ought to be read and interpreted much like Scripture—as a transcendent and permanent authority, and one directly informed by biblical principles. And while other countries have attempted constitutional government, George Grant wrote that only the U.S. Constitution has endured for so long and been so successful. In fact, according to Grant, “there is little doubt that [failure] awaits the emerging democracies that have begun dotting the maps of Europe, Asia, and Africa following the collapse of communism.” For Grant, the U.S. Constitution is “a creed. It is the very quintessence of American exceptionalism.”(5) Forget that the Constitution failed when the Union collapsed in 1860-1861. Forget that the Constitution had to be remade in the civil rights amendments of 1865-1870. And forget that the fabric of the American nation was woven in the threads of slavery, and slavery’s legacy has yet to be expunged from the national life.
Necessary ontological superiority; moral innocence; celestial typology—these are the Americolatrous themes appearing in much Christian school and homeschool curricula today. It is not necessary for us to jettison the concept of American exceptionalism altogether. That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Edifying patriotic devotion that calls the nation to its founding principles of equality, individual rights, tolerance, and justice emanates from a conviction that America is an exceptional nation.
But casting America as an object of worship, characterizing patriotic zeal as an expression of spirituality, and equating the Christian faith with a gospel of Americanism accomplishes nothing but the destruction of the idea of America that contributes to human flourishing, and the perverting of a gospel that provides Light to the world. We Christians who want our children to both think Christianly and think historically can and should expect better.
(1) James W. Ceaser, “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism,” in American Exceptionalism: The Origins, History, and Future of the Nation’s Greatest Strength, ed. Charles W. Dunn (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013), p. 11.
(2) David Gelernter, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 2.
(3) Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, and Kurt Grussendorf, United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom (1982; repr., Pensacola: A Beka, 1996), p. 5.
(4) Timothy Keesee and Mark Sidwell, United States History (1982; repr., Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2001), p. 656.
(5) George Grant, “Foundational American Documents,” in Omnibus III: Reformation to the Present, ed. Douglas Wilson and G. Tyler Fischer (2006; repr., Lancaster: Veritas, 2010), p. 91.