The advice contained in the title is good counsel — but only if you are an American. Further, the phrase is not intended as any kind of backhanded praise, as though Americans repent better than anybody else. They only repent of American sins better than other people do, and then only if they are actually repenting. Cretans do better with Cretan sins, as outlined by the apostle Paul, as do Canadians with Canadian sins. And so forth.
C.S. Lewis once wrote insightfully about some of the dangers of national repentance, and nothing said here should be taken as though I am trying to lean against any of his cautions.
So what should our repentance look like? The American character is shaped by our early Puritanism. Puritanism is deep in our DNA — the trouble is that Jesus is right at the heart of all genuine Puritanism — which means that all this Puritan capital we have been spending is not bottomless. Without Jesus, the whole thing can go for a bit, with inertia and all, but the Puritanism, while still visible, is getting threadbare. We are the prodigal son buying the house another round. We still have some of Dad’s money, but Dad is back home and we are in a far country.
Without Jesus, the moral earnestness of Puritanism turns into Comstockery. Without Jesus, American postmillennialism turns into a can-do cheerfulness that has to be absolutely maddening to the gloomy gusses of other nations. Without Jesus, the focus on the global threat du jour has got to be seen as American exceptionalists aspiring to become Jesus themselves.
And so we have to repent.
This means that we must turn back to Jesus, which is what repentance is. But we also have to repent like Americans. This means that we have to drill down into our collective memory and understand ourselves in the story we are actually in. We cannot erase the last three hundred years in order to repent like generic human beings. We are not called to repent like bi-pedal carbon units. We must repent as sons and daughters of the Puritans who have gone astray, for that is what we are.
First, our optimistic activism is a lineal descendant of Puritan postmillennialism. This is now part of our cultural faith, detached from God’s promises to Abraham, but it is still going strong (at a cultural level) for all that. Even our dispensational premillennial leaders, who think the world will end in ten years or so, are busy building institutions for the ages. Somehow Jerry Falwell’s American “postmillennialism” trumped his theological premillennialism. In his actions, he was more American than he was dispensational, which meant that he was more like a Puritan than like an apocalypticist. Long term optimistic activism is the attitude we ought to have, but we ought not to have it in conflict with our foundational theology. If the Bible teaches optimistic expectation, then so should we, and for that reason. If it does not, then we should quit being so . . . American.
Second, we have a constant attraction to covenant tropes. But covenants cannot be made with nameless gods. The covenant we have is with YHWH. The covenant is with the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we repent and acknowledge this, then and only then will our wilderness journey make any sense. Then we may be a city on a hill, one of many. Then our constant fascination with the question of whether we are on the right track or the wrong track will suddenly come into focus.
Third, from the time of the Halfway Covenant, we have nursed an interior anxiety. Americans are characterized by an external can-do attitude (see above), but this has regularly been accompanied by a concern for what’s down in the heart. Are we “really” what we profess to be? External allegiance to America is not enough — we have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Evangelical exhortations have been brought over from the prayer meeting, and applied to the “faithful” in order to keep them walking straight and true. Just meditate for a moment on what the charge “un-American” means, and why people use it.
Fourth, the Puritans were focused on the political power of the Antichrist, the pope of Rome. He had been a real threat to free Europe, and with the crossing of the Atlantic, he became a threat to the world, a global threat. The French and Indian War was, for the Puritans, a fight with that Antichrist. Since the founding of our nation, Americans have seen themselves as having a consistent pivotal role in fighting a global super villain. That spot has been occupied by different entities over time, but that spot in the narrative has never had a vacancy. For example, through most of the twentieth century, that place was held by “godless communism.” This would be a good place to note that while Americans have always had a narrative running in which there is a super villainous threat to the peace of the world, this does not mean such a threat was imaginary. Some of them have been quite real. Communism was a genuine threat, and evangelical hostility to communism throughout the 20th century was one of our glories.
But like all the others, this kind of narrative cannot be sustained in any kind of healthy way without explicit reliance upon the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus must be owned. Unless Americans repent, and return to an open confession of Jesus as Lord, then Jesus will repudiate us before His Father (Matt. 10:32). Fighting the Antichrist, which heirs of the Puritans do, without relying upon Christ Himself, is the surest and fastest way to become the Antichrist.