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The City Upon a Hill and an Almost Chosen People

July 23, 2012


Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics has certainly been the most talked-about book on religion published in 2012. The New York Times op-ed columnist has discussed his work everywhere: CNN, The 700 Club, Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Beast” video blog, and even “Real Time with Bill Maher.” His central thesis can be rather simply stated: institutional religion is in disarray and decline in America, yet an overwhelming majority of Americans are religious. And this means, Douthat argues, that they have succumbed, for the most part, to heretical versions of classical Christianity, forms of thought that draw a good deal of inspiration from orthodox Christianity but manage to depart from, even pervert, the substance upon which they are parasitic. 

He names and explores a number of these modern day Christian heresies, including the “prosperity gospel,” which more or less identifies the goal of the spiritual life as material success, as well as the “God-Within” religion, which turns the God of the Bible into a greater Self—something like the Oversoul in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mysticism. This latter heresy is on vivid display, Douthat argues, in much of Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual teaching, in the feel-good ruminations of Deepak Chopra, and in novels such as Eat, Pray, Love, which extols the God “who is in you as you.” Both of these spiritualities borrow extensively from classical Christianity. Thus Joel Osteen, the most popular advocate of the prosperity Gospel, is the son of an evangelical preacher; and Winfrey, Chopra, and their innumerable disciples cite the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus frequently. This blending of Christianity with decidedly un-Christian ideas makes these contemporary ideologies—like the Gnosticism of the second century or the Manichaeism of the fourth century—Christian heresies.

Since I’ve written quite a bit about the two heresies mentioned above, I would like to draw attention to a third corruption of Christianity upon which Douthat rather deftly puts his finger. This is the tendency to identify the Kingdom of God, as described in the Bible, with American ideals and the American cultural system. Douthat draws attention to the extraordinary rally organized and led by the conservative political commentator Glenn Beck, during which Beck seamlessly blended his vision of a dominant America with the spiritual aspirations of the prophets of Israel toward the realization of God’s reign. And he observes the affinity between this Beckian perspective and the triumphant affirmation, made most memorably by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address, of American democracy as a world-saving, God-inspired ideology. That Bush’s claims were much more than abstract became unmistakably clear when the President sent planes, tanks, and troops in order to impose democracy on an Iraq that was utterly unprepared, politically and culturally, for such an imposition. 

Douthat insists that this identification of the American system with divine purpose is by no means the exclusive preserve of conservatives. In fact, in the course of the twentieth century, liberal statesmen have been some of its most devoted advocates. At the close of the First Word War, Woodrow Wilson shared his vision that an American-style democracy, including the rule of law and respect for the rights of ethnic peoples to self-determination, would usher in a world free of war. That Wilson could not even get his own Congress to agree to his pet idea of a League of Nations, and that Europe, within two decades of the end of the First World War, plunged into a second and even more devastating conflagration were rather clear indications of the utopian character of this dream. Moreover, in the middle of the last century, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson offered new versions of the Wilsonian project: the New Frontier and the Great Society, both attempts to realize the Kingdom through political change. Much of the American politics of the last four decades can be read as a response—by turns angry, nostalgic and skeptical—to that earlier utopianism. 

Douthat concludes, quite correctly, that the Kingdom of God, as the Bible envisions it, ought never to be identified with any political or cultural status quo. That Kingdom represents the accomplishment of God’s grace. Hence, every political or cultural system—even one as relatively benign as the American—falls under judgment. And indeed the best of our political and religious figures have clearly understood this. Many American statesmen—Ronald Reagan most recently—have drawn inspiration from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which the colonial leader spoke of the society he and his fellows were about to found as “a city upon a hill,” which is to say, a visible place of great interest to the rest of the world. If one reads the whole of Winthrop’s homily, it becomes clear that he is not one-sidedly extolling the virtues of the new colony, but just the contrary. He is warning his people that since their experiment in ordered liberty would be carefully watched, they must be vigilant lest sin get the better of them. President-elect Abraham Lincoln, in a February 1861 address to the New Jersey General Assembly, said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this his almost chosen people…” How wonderful that Lincoln, who certainly read American history in light of his belief in Divine Providence, was careful not simply to identify America with the chosen people of Israel, but to imply that an “almost chosen” people would always stand in need of correction.