The year: 1777.
The pastor: Nicholas Street.
The place: East Haven, Connecticut.
The situation: The Revolutionary War.
Just months after the American colonies declared independence from England, Street preached a sermon that applied Old Testament Bible stories to Revolutionary War events. The title of the sermon: “The American States Acting over the Part of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness and Thereby Impeding Their Entrance into Canaan’s Rest.” It’s a mouthful!
Street presented the American colonists, enduring English oppression, as the children of Israel. He compared the leaders of the American Revolution to Moses and Aaron – catalysts who freed Israel from slavery. He paralleled England and Egypt, correlated the military struggles of the infant republic with the crossing of the Red Sea, and presented the colonies as the Promised Land. Street wasn’t alone. Many preachers of this time did the same.
This idea didn’t dissipate. Almost a hundred years later, Herman Melville, most well-known for authoring Moby Dick, took this idea of American being a chosen nation and pushed it farther saying, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world…God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race…Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings.” America was the Messiah.
Admittedly, God has blessed this country in ways that far exceed our merits. I’ve talked with believers all over the world who would laugh at me if I said otherwise. We should express gratitude to God for these blessings and seek to be superb stewards of them. However, I would contend this notion that America has a special relationship with God has been emblazoned in our nation’s DNA. And it’s an insidious idolatry.
Trevin Wax comments, “…no matter how much we long for the blessing of God on our nation, we must expose the lie that America has a special, privileged, relationship with God…applying Old Testament promises to our nation today is unsound scriptural interpretation. The Church is God’s shining city on the hill, not the United States.”
If it’s irresponsible to link America to Israel, should we link it to Babylon? This view is becoming increasingly popular as we see books written from an “exilic” perspective (Daniel and his friends are getting a lot of attention these days!) If one sees America as Babylon, expectations for political success will certainly moderate. But so will political involvement – perhaps to the point of political reclusiveness. I don’t think that’s a wise application of Scripture either.
Under the providential governing of God, America is still a democratic republic where the citizenry has a voice in the direction of the country and who represents us. Daniel and his friends in Babylon didn’t have that luxury and this difference is significant enough for me to conclude “America as Babylon” is also a poor parallel…at least for now.
Where does that leave us? America is neither Israel nor Babylon. Probably not the climactic end you were looking for, but hopefully the journey there was worthwhile.