America: The Israel of Our Time

Is there something special or unique about the United States and its culture? There are assuredly economic, geographical, and geopolitical reasons for America’s rise to power. No one denies those reasons. But has that rise been for a special purpose?

Many have thought that it has. To take one possibility, there is the belief in an American exceptionalism of one kind or another, such as the idea that the United States is the cradle of liberty. As Herman Melville put it in his 1850 novel White-Jacket, “we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” To entertain such a possibility is to leave the facts of economics and politics by entering into the world of religion.

The concerns of religion revolve around some conception of salvation that generally involves recognition of an other-worldly power or reality. That conception will differ from one religion to another. But central to all of the monotheistic religions is the recognition or, as the case may be, assertion of a meaning or purpose to human existence. To entertain the uniqueness of the United States—that it has a purpose or is in some sense chosen to undertake a mission—is to raise the possibility of a meaning to its history that transcends the economic and political facts of this  world. Thus, the original question of whether or not there is something special about the United States and its culture has been and could not avoid being expressed in a religious idiom: Is America an instrument of Providence? These are the questions pursued by Samuel Goldman in his valuable and well-written God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America.

In the history of Christianity, and increasingly so in the Reformed Protestant tradition, Christians turned to the Old Testament in an effort to understand how to organize themselves in this world. The New Testament does not offer a template for how to live together in establishing a national society devoted to God, as its orientation is to eternal life in heaven with the expectation of the imminent appearance of the second coming of Christ. While the New Testament appears to recognize a legitimate sphere of the state (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25), it has nothing to say about how the state’s power should be exercised or what should be the extent of its jurisdiction.

In contrast, the orientations of the Old Testament and the ensuing rabbinic tradition are to the organization of a holy life in this world. Of course, with the continuing delay of the second coming, the Christian Church could not, over time, be indifferent to organizing itself in this world, thereby requiring working out, in the canon law, what its relation to the state should be and developing laws to govern the social relations of this world. As is well known, the Protestant tradition rejected this legal tradition of the Church, instead turning to the Old Testament for guidance on how to organize a meaningful life in a way that is consonant with God’s plan. The cultural consequences of this turn to the Old Testament within the Christian tradition is expressed by the term “Hebraism” as distinct from Judaism.

The purpose of one’s earthly society within the Christian tradition was conveyed by the conception of a “new Israel.” The Old Testament image of Israel was reanimated by having been brought back into the Christian life of the present in order to justify the uniqueness of a national society. This justification traces its origins to far earlier than the Europeans’ arrival in the New World.

An early example of the reception of that image is found during the reign of the French king Philip the Fair (c. 1300 CE). However, it is especially to be found in the aftermath of the Reformation when, for example, the Dutch and English nations understood themselves as a new Israel. They did so to justify the uniqueness and liberty of their respective national societies in opposition to empire within the context of otherwise doctrinally universal Christianity. Appeals were often made to the ancient Israelite exodus from Egyptian slavery, a parallel now applied to those modern nations’ opposition to empire. Within the symbolic repertoire of the Christian tradition, the image of ancient Israel was a vehicle—not the only one, but an obvious one—to convey adherence to the idea of the freedom of self-government.

Even so, the concept of a new Israel could not avoid being fraught with paradox because of the continuing existence of the original (or old) Israel, the Jewish people. The concept was especially tension-ridden if one recognized that the covenant between God and (the original) Israel was eternal, as clearly stated in Genesis 17:7 (see Luke 1:55; Romans 11:1, 29) and 2 Samuel 7:12-16. If Christians accepted the belief that the covenant between God and Abraham’s seed was eternal, then the European (and American) new Israels could not quite be Israel.

But if not, what was to be the relation between Israel and these new Israels? Moving to an American context, Goldman presents the problem this way: “If the Jews were destined to be called home geographically, New England could not be a new Zion.” The problem of the relation between Israel and the “true Israel,” between the Old Testament and the New Testament—a relation which had troubled and even threatened early Christianity—had resurfaced.

If the covenant between God and Abraham’s seed was eternal, the following doctrinal complication arose: these Christian new Israels and the Church had not, as had been previously believed, superseded either the existence or, importantly, the justification or purpose of the Israel of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Further complications were unavoidable. How should Christians understand Paul’s “mystery” of the salvific restoration of Israel as presented in Romans 11:25-27? Did the advent of the Messiah require, as a precondition, the conversion of the Jews? Alternatively, did the advent of the Messiah require, as a precondition, the Zionist restoration of Israel?

If the latter, the significance of the geographical and political restoration of Israel in the land of Israel represented a wider transformation of human affairs. Did, as a consequence, the messianic expectation of Christianity entail that Christians should support the political task of restoring the state (kingdom) of David’s Israel? And if so, was one part of the purpose of the United States, in its contribution to the transformation of human affairs, to be an ally of Zionism? Goldman’s engaging examination of these and related problems in the religious history of America accounts for the subtitle of the book, Christian Zionism in America.

There has always been and continues to be, as Goldman rightly argues, a belief in a unique connection between America and Israel—a belief that is deeply embedded in the American imagination. Goldman traces this belief throughout U.S. history, from the Puritans to the “American Cyrus,” Harry Truman, the anointed restorer of Israel (Isaiah 45:1), to those later Christian Zionists Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and, today, John Hagee and his “Christians United for Israel,” which claims a membership of over one million faithful. Goldman examines the history of the belief in this connection with the subtlety required to deal with Christian ideas of supersession, replacement theology, restorationism, and premillennial and postmillennial dispensationalism. Noteworthy in this examination is his discussion of the Christian Zionism of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Goldman documents how, before the Reagan administration, it was mainline Catholics and liberal Protestants who argued that rather than waiting for an apocalyptic future, Christians had the responsibility to seek religious and political reconciliation with the Jewish people and the state of Israel. It was only after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967 that the support of the Protestant mainline denominations for Israel drifted away as they become increasingly critical of American foreign policy. As we know, Christian support for Israel was then taken up by more conservative Protestant denominations.

Especially important is Goldman’s convincing conclusion that “the idea of an American calling to help complete God’s plan for the Jews,” that is, restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, was “not invented by the Christian Right of the 1980s. On the contrary, it is a recurring theme of American thought. Since the Puritans, many inhabitants of what is now The United States have tried to make sense of their own identity by reaffirming God’s election of the nation of Israel. It is neither surprising nor sinister that this component of our national myth endures.”

Central to this idea was the recognition—already found in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, implicit in the image of a “new Israel,” and increasingly accepted, although with complications, during and after the Protestant Reformation—that God’s relation with the Jewish people was not severed with the advent of Christ.

Needless to say, this recognition of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people took on greater significance with the independence of the state of Israel in 1948, as the latter seemed to convey a confirmation of one Christian understanding of a meaning or purpose to history. And that meaning required Christian support for Israel. Of course, not all Christians have been or are Zionists, but the subject of Goldman’s book is the history of Christian Zionism in America.

Anyone interested in understanding our country ought to pay attention to its people’s religious beliefs, and the history of those beliefs. The straightforward reason for doing so is in order to better understand the not-so-straightforward culture of the United States. Religion is a key component in how one understands oneself and one’s relations to others; and this shared self-understanding is what is meant by culture. However, any culture, while achieving an always- developing unity, is nonetheless unavoidably replete with ambiguities and even fissures as the past is reinterpreted, under the influence of the tension-filled and conflicting demands of the present.

It is appropriate for an analyst to speak of a national culture, as the very name, in this case the United States, territory, and Founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—represent the existence of a kind of unity. Nonetheless, the analyst must never confuse unity with uniformity. Samuel Goldman has provided us with a well-written and rich examination of one aspect of American culture: the history of the relation between the United States and Israel and the complicated, even paradoxical, place of that relation in the Christian understanding of America.