America Sins at Dan and Bethel

Gelernter’s second chapter is quite valuable — in it he shows how American history is marinated in the Bible, and particularly in the cadences of the King James Bible. Back in the first chapter, he had noted what he means by the phrase “biblical republic.”

“That’s what I mean by ‘biblical republic’: not a theocracy; not a nation ruled by biblical laws. My only definition is informal. A biblical republic has the Bible on its mind” (p. 5, emphasis his).

With this definition, America is certainly a biblical republic, as Gelernter demonstrates in the second chapter — “The World-Creating English Bible.”

“America started with the Puritans; the Puritans started with the Bible — specifically with the Bible translated into English” (p. 21).

He calls the Bible, rightly in my view, “the most important book in British and American history” (p. 22). And tracing our emphasis back to the Puritans, Gelernter (again rightly) points to the refusal to exclude the Old Testament.

“In these areas, Americans, reflecting Puritan practice, have often shown a surprising sympathy for the Old Testament view” (p. 24).

Beginning in Britain, there was a strong tendency to identify the nation with a new Israel. This same tendency was transplanted across the Atlantic. Those familiar with how theology was done in the colonies are quite familiar with this marked feature. This is what lies behind William Bradford’s phrase, a “city on a hill,” going back to the gospel of Matthew, and picked up later by Ronald Reagan.

“In 1719 Isaac Watts published a best-selling translation of the Psalms, in which references to ‘Israel’ were replaced by the words ‘Great Britain.'” (p. 29).

It was obvious to them that in the settlement of the new world, something big was in the works, and that they had a pivotal role to play.

“But America and Americanism are both impenetrable unless we start with the Bible. America’s Puritans were Christians who believed absolutely in the divinity of Jesus. But they were also obsessed with their role as the ‘new chosen people’ in the ‘new promised land,’ and they were fascinated with the Hebrew Bible” (p. 32).

Gelernter also uses a phrase that Robert Frost used to describe his religious views to sum up this American sympathy, and I think it is quite accurate — “Old Testament Christianity” (p. 32). This explains the development of what Gelernter calls ‘American Zionism.’ Chesterton once famously described America as a nation “with the soul of a church,” and since the Church cannot be isolationist, neither can America be. Gelernter describes this as the impetus behind what he calls American chivalry. What goes on across the world is naturally our business. If we are St. George, then we shouldn’t care where the dragon lives. So the question before the house then — are we St. George?

This chapter by Gelernter really is informative. He pulls together a number of things that help explain the American psyche. Why do our leaders go in certain directions, and why do we let them? It is not hard, for example, to show that Woodrow Wilson, in his crusade to make the world “safe for democracy” was exhibiting remnants of the older postmillennial hope. But that only means we know what postmillennialism looks like when it goes to seed.

The problem is that any biblical response to all this should be fasting and mourning. Gelernter’s definition of a biblical republic — a nation with the Bible on its mind — is extremely problematic. I do think he is right that this is what we are. I believe we can extend O’ Connor’s observation about the South to the entire nation. We are Christ-haunted. But, as O’ Connor clearly knows, and Gelernter does not acknowledge, this is hardly a good thing. Biblical phrases do reach us, and they do affect us. There remains a deep tradition of biblical influence, despite everything. But St. James shows us the problem with this kind of thing. The man who hears the word and does not do it, he says, deceives himself.

This is where Americans stumble. Try as we might, we cannot have the Bible without Jesus too. And we cannot have the Bible without running into all those places where Jesus unambiguously condemns what we are doing. Those who appreciate the Bible for its literary or historical value will not appreciate the Bible for long. And if they take the Bible on its own terms, then the syncretistic project proposed by Gelernter falls to the ground. This is why Americanism is an idol, and it is why those Americans “with the Bible on their mind” will be intensely interested in getting our ropes over its head and pulling this idol down.

Not only does the Bible condemn what we are doing, all those Puritans who set us on this course would also condemn what we are doing. Gelernter may appreciate them, but they most certainly would not appreciate him. They would rightly disown us. If we want a biblical pattern for this, let us go (as good Old Testament Christians) to the reign of Jeroboam who made Israel sin at Dan and Bethel.

Seeing ourselves as a new Israel (which is only okay if we refuse to claim that we are uniquely the new Israel) is a two-edged sword. We are not just a city on a hill; we are also (if we read the stories rightly) a city in ruins because of its gross idolatry. You cannot be a stainless steel Israel, incapable of apostasy.

Given the nature of this discussion, let me end with a disclaimer that I believe I will probably have to make over and over again. Lest I be accused of a lack of native affection, let it be noted that I love my country and am grateful to have had an opportunity to serve her in the Cold War. Not only so, but I am also culturally an American, and I like being that way. No complaints. No leftist America-hating here. Apple pie, red-checked tablecloth, and a Winchester over the fireplace. But to paraphrase Thomas Watson, we can receive gifts from Christ without making a Christ out of our gifts.

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