A couple months ago I sent out the tweet you see on the left. A few
#twitterstorians jumped into the conversation, and one of them mentioned
that John Wilsey might be willing to write a guest post on the subject
since he was working on a book about American exceptionalism. The end
result of that twitter conversation is this post. Wilsey is assistant
professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist
Theological Seminary. He is author of 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.