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America’s Long Argument With God

A new play explores how we came to see ourselves as a chosen people.

The Book of Joshua reports that when the people of Israel crossed the river Jordan into Canaan, the Lord ordered them to take twelve stones from the riverbed and place them in the promised land. One for each tribe, the stones were to provide a reminder of God’s fulfillment of the covenant so that “all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the Lord your God for ever” (Joshua 4:24).

Such is the biblical account of the monument at Gilgal, a word that means “circle of stones.” Another explanation is that the story about Joshua was developed to provide a sacred origin for a ritual site that predated the Israelites’ presence in the land. Either way, those obelisks are no longer to be found on the banks of the Jordan. Contrary to the expectations of their makers, whoever they may have been, words have proved more enduring.

John B. Henry is obsessed with the relation between words and stones. A lawyer and businessman descended from the patriot Patrick Henry, Henry has devoted years to building in stone on his farm in rural Virginia. Henry’s works include a circle of twelve standing stones that may look a bit like the biblical Gilgal did. The most impressive, however, is an amphitheater that evokes Athens more than Jerusalem.

In early September, the amphitheater was the setting for Henry’s most recent production. A work of what might be described as theologico-political community theater, “Arguing With God” retells parts of the Old Testament as a morality play in which freedom and justice are pitted against divine sovereignty. For Joshua and his warriors, Yahweh was a military commander and occasional weapon of mass destruction. For Henry, the God who leads the conquest of Canaan is a tyrant whose commitment to a chosen people belies his claim to be the loving father of all men.

These are heady topics for an amateur production—even one whose cast includes members of the Committee for the Republic, a group founded in 2003 to oppose the Iraq War. Fortunately, Henry leavens his interpretation of the Bible with musical numbers and a selection of costumes that might have been acquired at a particularly opulent rummage sale. In a vote at the end of the September performance, the audience chose overwhelmingly to affirm the freedom to have fun over the claims of either justice or order. The outcome reflected the mood at the amphitheater, where people sipped beer and munched barbecue while considering the travails of Adam and Abraham, David and Solomon.   

But  “Arguing With God” is not simply a lark. In an email interview, Henry explained that he regards the history of Biblical religion as a process of development in which a tribal deity is transformed into a universal God. In Henry’s view, our recent foreign policy represents a reversion to the bad old model. “Yahweh symbolizes the American presidency with unlimited power,” he wrote. “It is the chosen people narrative that makes that power so dangerous to others.”

The Puritans bear a disproportionate role in this critique of American exceptionalism. Identification with Biblical Israel, Henry maintains, led the settlers of New England into a “theological train wreck.” Because they believed themselves to be a modern chosen people, the Puritans ignored the doctrine of original sin—and its implication that all nations stand equally guilty before God. “You can’t believe in original sin and believe in ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’,” he explained in an email.

There are echoes of Reinhold Niebuhr in Henry’s descriptions. In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr wrote that our “pretensions of innocency” make it difficult for Americans to exercise power responsibly. Unable to recognize the evil in ourselves, Niebuhr contended, we are inclined to exaggerate the evil of our adversaries. As a result, mere conflict of interest become moral crusades in which God is assumed to be wholly on our side.

Henry is to be commended for raising these issues in an accessible and undeniably entertaining manner. Because meaning is made with words rather than set in stone, retelling and discussing the stories of Israel is not simply a gloss on an authoritative text, but an element of the text itself. Jews are accustomed to this exercise, known as midrash. It is less familiar to many Christians, for whom the Bible is the inerrant word of God rather than one element of a larger and partly oral tradition.

But Henry’s interpretation suffers from several problems. One is historical. In the 1950s, the Harvard historian Perry Miller popularized the idea that the Puritans regarded New England as an “American Israel.” Since then, generations of scholars have pointed out the limits of this characterization.

In fact, the New England Puritans were keenly aware of the problem of evil. One reason for their obsession with the biblical Israel was that it reminded them of the terrible fate that awaited peoples that defied God. Puritans’ comparisons of themselves to Israel were rarely exhortations to enlist in the armies of the Lord. More often, they were jeremiads against their own terrible sins.

The sense of political destiny Henry criticizes has more to do with the Second Great Awakening than the Puritans. It was not until classical Calvinism, with its emphasis on man’s absolute depravity, declined in influence that Americans could believe that they were children of light pitted against forces of darkness.

Another and more serious problem is theological. In his email comments, Henry praised the traditions of dispute with and about God that characterize postexilic Judaism. Nevertheless, his presentation of the story of Israel resembles the progressive philosophy of history in which religion becomes increasingly reasonable and humane as it moves away from its Hebraic origins.

This philosophy is a secularized expression of “supersessionism”— the view that the Christian church replaced the descendants of Abraham and Isaac as God’s people. Although it relies on a contrast between particularism and universalism rather than a revised understanding of covenant, it too implies that Judaism is a throwback to more primitive times. In its milder forms, the progressive theory has been used to encourage Jews to assimilate to norms set by liberal Protestantism. In harsher versions—like those deployed by Voltaire and Kant—it has justified if not racial anti-Semitism, then a kind of intellectual anti-Judaism.

National and religious particularism have provoked—and often deserved—much criticism. But ostensibly enlightened universalism has its own pathologies. Perhaps the greatest is that it makes it difficult to understand attachment to one’s own people, land, or culture as anything better than irrational prejudice. The universalist may adhere to principle, but has trouble loving a specific community.

In an essay for the online magazine Mosaic, the Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony recently suggested that Christianity shares part of the blame for this alienation. The God of the Old Testament ordained differences between nations and set territorial boundaries for their residence. The New Testament, by contrast, suggests that these distinctions are irrelevant in the kingdom of God. According to Hazony, this tendency toward abstraction is the source of Western imperialism. The fatal temptation is not the belief that peoples are different from each other in significant ways, but the conviction that they are same.

The dialectic of chosenness that characterizes biblical Israel provides a warning against this danger. Rather than a crude doctrine of superiority, the divine covenant means being both better and worse than other peoples, called to a higher purpose and burdened with greater responsibility. Jews’ millennia-old argument with God is about how to uphold that covenant in a world where other peoples have legitimate national and religious identities. Maybe Yahweh knew what he was doing.

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. The opinions expressed do not represent his employers.