American exceptionalism today – the same as or similar to American “messianism” of the mid-nineteenth century… right before the Civil War? Yes, I think – and what it does, negatively, to the religion, the common perception of it all, and the spiritual welfare of Americans.
Professor Mark Noll in his book, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” writes about the debates going on between pro- and anti-slavery theologians and biblical scholars leading up to the Civil War. The following quote comes from his analysis of Moses Stuart, considered one of America’s most competent biblical scholars of the time, a Reformed theologian, and how Stuart allowed his American citizenship (American messianism/exceptionalism) to overwhelm his scholarship and common application of scripture.
According to Noll, Stuart was compromised and thus blantantly inconsistent – his advocacy for slavery within his sense of “America” clouded his exegesis to the point of believing in the scriptural allowance of it. Are we are doing the same, today, in allowing notions of “America” to infringe upon and cloud what we are supposed to be and do as citizens of a different kingdom? We (many of us who claim Christ) make an idol of this nation-state and this notion of American exceptionalism. (This need not infringe upon the imagination of the American Ideal grasped by so many around the world and often forgotten by us, the supposed holders of it.)
From Noll, dealing with the specific debate over returning escaped slaves to their owners:
“Stuart, however, did not seem to feel that escaped slaves – considered as either Christians or potential Christians – had a higher claim on fellow believers than did Southern slaveholders considered as fellow American citizens. Rather, by overriding his commitment to standard Reformed theology, Stuart’s strong sense of American national messianism constrained his interpretation of Scripture. Even for this rightly honored defender of strict biblical exegesis, race exerted a powerful sway. White fellow Americans counted far more than black fellow Christians. Analogical Israel meant more than Spiritual Israel. A dubious theological warrant (treating America as the chosen people) exerted more force than a strong theological warrant (including blacks in the fellowship of the Church.” (Noll, p. 61)