In 2008, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly released a survey on how Americans view their country’s relationship to God: “Sixty-one percent agree that America is a nation specially blessed by God,” it revealed, “and 59 percent believe the United States should be a model Christian nation to the world.”
Ever since Europeans came to America, the idea of the United States as a land of special blessings has animated America’s soul. John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously drew upon the Bible to describe the early New England settlers: “We shall be as a City upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.”
Subsequent generations have voiced similar themes to propel America’s narrative: their country was thought to have a “manifest destiny;” to represent “an empire of liberty;” to offer the “last best hope on earth;” and above all, to embody “American exceptionalism.”
All this talk of America’s unique stature, however—especially when combined with a supposed mandate from Heaven—has unnerved critics, both Christian and secular. They have a point.
Biblically speaking, all human beings are blessed by God by virtue of the fact they are created in his image, and fundamentally equal. Even when the Lord honored the children of Israel as his chosen people, it was done to fulfill his divine plan for everyone, and in the context of his boundless love for a unified human race. Further, nothing is more alien to the Old and New Testaments than to sacralize the unholy, or divinize material things. To regard secular America as some kind of Messiah nation, or geo-political golden calf, is sheer idolatry.
The secular critique is just as pointed. In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, Harvard University’s Stephen Walt assails “the myth of American exeptionalism,” pointing out that America’s sins at home and abroad undercut this “self-congratulatory portrait” of a country superior to others and consistently beneficial. Excessive nationalism, he argues, can lead to hubris, and hubris to something dangerous and destructive. “Americans,” he writes, “are blind to their weak spots, and in ways that have real-world consequences.”
This critique has validity, but suffers from selective indignation, and ignores moderating factors. While American Christians have never been shy about assuming God’s blessings, they have invariably seen them as conditional and under God’s judgment. In the very speech in which he spoke about the “City upon a hill,” Winthrop qualified it by cautioning that “if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”
Furthermore, as historian Donald Scott notes:
In the decades following Winthrop’s speech most New England divines preached less about New England’s divine mission, than issue deep laments—Jeremiads, subsequent historians have called them—about how far New Englanders had fallen from fulfilling the requirements of their Covenant with God and how all the woes and turmoil that had befallen them—Prince Phillip’s war, the loss of New England’s charter, the witchcraft phenomenon, droughts and dreadful winters, etc—were the signs and result of God’s wrath over their failings.
America’s sense of mission was never higher than during World War II, but it was at that moment when Venerable Fulton Sheen warned his fellow countrymen not to allow the justice of their cause to minimize their personal sins:
Our greatness is conditioned upon our earnestness in examining our own faults and remedying them. America will be reborn when it stops its roaring self-righteousness, and begins to examine its conscience, not its newspaper editorials: begins to judge itself not by the degeneracy of warring dictators, but by what we ought to be in the eyes of God . . . . Let us give up Stephen Decatur’s ‘my country right or wrong,’ and substitute for it the promise that the world will never be wrecked by faults of ours.
More recently, Richard Land, the well-known Evangelical leader, expressed his deep appreciation for America’s blessings, but stressed that “those blessings invoke a reciprocal obligation and responsibility,” and cautioned fellow Christians: “We cannot assume ‘God is on our side.’ We are not God’s gift to the world. America does not have a special claim on God.”
If excessive self-flattery is embedded in America’s tradition, so too is self-reflection and self-criticism. One cannot walk into an American bookstore without finding a plethora of books, from every different angle, decrying some national problem or crisis, and advocating changes for the better.
Walt’s Foreign Policy article is flawed because it ignores this corrective aspect of American history, just as it downplays American generosity: whenever a catastrophe strikes the world—an earthquake, tsunami, famine, epidemic, or emerging genocide—America is the first to be called upon. And for good reason: despite its errors, and need for self-examination and penance, America is, at its best, a giving and caring nation.
Curiously, though Walt’s article castigates America for its transgressions, it is silent about its most serious one: the ongoing slaughter of the unborn. Is that a part of an “American exceptionalism” that critics are now ready to accept?
Pro-life Christians never will, and it is abortion, more than anything else, that has shaken their faith in America as “one nation under God.”
As they ponder that question, and vacillate between idealism and despair over the United States, they can reflect on a message sent to them at the end of the Second World War. At that time, the world was still in a state of disorientation, having witnessed the deaths of tens of millions of people, hoping to recover some sense of its humanity. Because of their leading role in the world—first in winning the war, then in rebuilding the peace–Americans were highly regarded, and Pope Pius XII sent them a letter, expressing his admiration and expectations: “The American people, ” he began, “have a genius for splendid and unselfish action, and into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of afflicted humanity.”
Ronald Reagan liked quoting that line, and Walt criticizes Reagan (and by implication, Pius XII) for suggesting “the United States has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world.” But neither the well-intentioned Reagan nor the disapproving Professor Walt mentioned the title of Pius’s letter—“Wisdom—not Weapons of War,” nor did either quote the rest of Pius XII’s message, which reveals it was a call for selfless Christian witness and universal love:
May the noble flame of brotherly love be kindled in your hearts. Let it not die quenched by an unworthy, timid caution in the face of the needs of your brethren, let it be not overcome by the dust and dirt of the whirlwind of anti-Christian or non-Christian spirit. Keep alive this flame, increase it, carry it wherever there be a groan of suffering, a lament of misery, a cry of pain, and nourish it evermore with the heat of a love drawn from the Heart of the Redeemer
Armed with the arms of spirit and heart, the merciful weapons of peace: wisdom, justice and charity, we must stand united against the wanton weapons of war: tyranny, hatred and greed. Then the griefs of the world’s bereaved . . . will be sealed with the tranquility and the glory of God’s peace.
This is the kind of America we should strive to build: an America that walks humbly with the Lord, in charity and prayer, seeking truth, and hoping to live honorably enough to receive his immeasurable blessings.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
“Survey: Most Americans Believe God Uniquely Blessed U.S.,” The Christian Post, October 23, 2008.
“The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” by Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy , November, 2011.
John Winthrop (1588-1649) on the “City Upon a Hill,” Bartleby.com.
“The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny,” by Donald M. Scott, National Humanities Center.
A Declaration of Dependence by Fulton J. Sheen (Bruce Publishing Company, 1941).
“A God-Blessed America: Obligations and Responsibilities,” by Richard Land, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, July 2, 2010.
“We Will be a City Upon a Hill,” Ronald Reagan, Speech of January 25, 1974, to the First Annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
“A Post-Christian America,” by Father C. John McCloskey III, The Catholic Thing, August 19, 2012.
“Reflections on the Institute on Religion and Democracy,” (speech on Christianity in America) by Father Richard John Neuhaus, October 2005.
“Wisdom—Not Weapons of War,” Message of Pope Pius XII to the American People, Colliers Magazine, January 5, 1946.