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This is the second part of a two-part series engaging the doctrine of providence and our understanding of American political destiny. You can read part 1 here.
As way of a recap, in the first piece I established a theological definition of providence and then considered how it has historically been confused in its political application to the United States, first from the 1600s to the 1800s. In this second piece, I continue to examine some ways that providence has been misapplied in American politics from the 1800s to the present day. Finally, I share five warnings from a Christian historian, Dr. John Wilsey, that help us apply providence correctly to our American context and understanding of political destiny.
Manifest Destiny was another period in our republic’s history that was rife with an unbounded and distorted view of providence. John Louis O’Sullivan, founder of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, and the first to use the term “manifest destiny,” was a particularly egregious purveyor of an unbiblical understanding of providence and the American nation.
Historian John Wilsey characterizes O’Sullivan as one who “preached a particular form of Christian nationalism that centered on expansionist fever occurring during the 1830s and 1840s.”
Taking religious themes and doctrines and reappropriating them to advance a nationalistic purpose, O’Sullivan sought to make use of the American past to influence its present advancement. In one of the most blasphemous examples of this, O’Sullivan took the figure of the “Suffering Servant of Christ” and used it to channel the theme of American democracy. Westward expansion became akin to regeneration.
The end result? He turned “American democracy” into “the gospel of Christ who brought forth the United States into the world sinless to serve as the example to all humankind and the usher in the kingdom that would be defined by personal liberty and equality.”
As Wilsey explains in American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, “O’Sullivan read the providence of God like one may read a five-day weather forecast…In O’Sullivan’s musing about the destiny of America, he gave not the slightest hint of doubt to the idea that America was especially favored and chosen of God, and that it would—it must—be triumphant.”
Skipping ahead to more recent history, this misappropriation of providence is one of the few points of critique that some progressive authors like Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead rightly recognize in their work Taking America Back for God. They note that “Ambassadors” — those who recorded responses strongest in favor of their indicators of Christian nationalism — express a belief that “the United States has a special relationship with God”, or, stated only slightly differently, that “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
And here is where this line of thinking, this understanding of providence, careens off the biblical track. Whether it is Winthrop, Edwards, O’Sullivan, or modern-day patriotic Christians, each of these begin to go astray when they confuse “a plan” in general with “a specific plan” that guarantees that the United States will enjoy unending success as guaranteed by God’s providential blessing.
Now, to be very clear, in hindsight, it is appropriate for a Christian to look back on American history and say confidently that God intended to prosper our nation in the manner that He has up until this point. But we cannot promise that God will, indeed, continue to bless us going forward and that we are the sure inheritors of His special favor and providence.
James 4:13-15 cautions against this very attitude:
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”
Rightly understood, God’s providence is His sovereign and particular ordering of all things unfolding in His creation. To claim that this providence ensures our national blessing and advancement, akin to a New Israel, is to misunderstand this doctrine at a foundational level and also to mistake how God deals with nations and peoples on this side of the Cross. God’s Old Testament covenant people were the Israelites. His New Testament covenant people is the Church. It was never promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the United States, but rather that those gates would not prevail against the blood-bought, Spirit-born body of the universal Church.
This raises an important question. How can American-loving Christians avoid these pitfalls? How can we rightly view the interplay between Christian providence — God’s control of all things and His ordering of history — and our own American history and national destiny?
I would argue we can do so by employing historian John Wilsey’s five-fold warning system he provides in his book American Exceptionalism. While Wilsey outlines these Gospel-preserving gut checks as a means of keeping “American exceptionalism” in its appropriate place, I argue that they work just as well concerning the role of providence in our American political destiny.
“A high view of American exceptionalism is, at significant points, at odds with the Christian gospel. Exceptionalism does not necessarily come into conflict with the Christian gospel. But when expressed and understood in strongly providential terms, it involves at least five theological themes imported from Protestant Christian theology and applied to America: (1) chosen nation, (2) divine commission, (3) innocence, (4) sacred land, and (5) glory.”
As I mentioned, it’s clear here that Wilsey is primarily considering a concept that’s known as “American exceptionalism.” In a review of Wilsey’s book, one theologian explains that “Wilsey traces these two concepts of exceptionalism through this book, referring to them as open exceptionalism and closed exceptionalism, respectively. His basic argument is that closed exceptionalism ‘is at odds with the Christian gospel,’ while open exceptionalism ‘can serve as a beacon pointing to justice, natural rights and the ethical well-being of the nation and the world.’”
Wilsey’s concern about a “closed exceptionalism” is identical to the concerns of a confused providentialism applied to America, particularly on the question of being a chosen nation, with a divine commission, destined for glory (1, 2, and 5).
Wilsey goes on:
When exceptionalism relies on these themes, then the idea is in conflict with the Christian gospel. This kind of exceptionalism should be rejected because it potentially relies makes America an object of worship, bestowing a transcendent status upon it. And it sets America up as a necessary player in redemption history. From a Biblical standpoint, this soteriological form of American exceptionalism paves the way toward heterodoxy at best, heresy and idolatry at worst.”
Wilsey is right here, and this tempers our view of American political destiny. As much as we love our nation, we don’t worship it. As much as we can recognize that God has done great things for America, we don’t proudly proclaim that we know “for sure and certain” that God intends to prosper us for hundreds more years to come. As much as we can celebrate that we are the land of the free, we don’t pretend that we haven’t committed grave national sins in our past, like slavery, and even continue to promote terrible evils today, like abortion and transgenderism.
Still, we embrace a view of America as exceptional and exceptionally blessed by our providential God, as long as we don’t pretend our nation is something it has not been, is not currently, and or may never be.
To rightly understand the role of providence in the success or failure of a nation, the nation must refuse to view itself as a “chosen nation” or the inheritor of a “divine commission.” In other words, there is no such thing as a “New Israel” from a national perspective. Therefore, the United States shouldn’t view itself as such nor should its citizens.
In summary, rightly understanding providence helps us better appreciate God’s manifest blessings on America thus far. Indeed, our national history, like the history of all nations of mankind, is a mixture of great sin and great achievements. In, through, and over all of that has been God’s gracious hand, preserving and ordaining all things that come to pass.
No, the United States isn’t a “chosen nation” like Israel of old. That doesn’t mean it’s not been one of the greatest forces of good and Gospel advancement in the modern era — it certainly has. So let’s praise our homeland for the good it does, critique it for its failures, and trust God with its future. We will be better neighbors, citizens, and Christians for it.
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Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.