Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Fifth "E": Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism is difficult to define. But it has to do with the sense that Americans are qualitatively different from other people. We think of ourselves as especially blessed or chosen. In some way, God has called us to be the "city on the hill" the "light to the nations" and so forth.

God blesses us, uniquely. God might bless Argentina, too, but God really blesses us. God has a plan for America.

That exceptionalism has always been part of our collective mythos, but no one has exploited that mythos for political gain better than our current administration.

Why do evangelicals vote for him? It seems that he speaks their language. Does he really believe what evangelicals believe, or is he taking them for a ride? What is it that evangelical Christians believe anyway?

The linked document does not speak for all evangelicals but a particular camp within the PC(USA) called New Wineskins. These essential tenets describe their evangelical faith. Here is a list of basic beliefs from the webpage of the Southern Baptist Convention. There are differences but they all affirm the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible (that somehow this collection of writings has supernatural origin). Both creeds affirm exalted language for Jesus and that salvation comes only through him. Both creeds affirm that Jesus will return at some point in history to straighten things up.

I am curious. Is it good or bad for a president to have these beliefs? Many evangelicals believe that unless you are a Christian you will spend eternity in hell. I would be uncomfortable if the President of the United States really believed that. Many evangelicals believe that the Bible is more authoritative than the U.S. Constitution. I would be uncomfortable if the President of the United States really believed that. Many evangelicals believe that Jesus will return to set up his kingdom on Earth. They don't believe that this language is metaphorical but is something that will really happen and soon. I would be uncomfortable if the President of the United States really believed that.

Evangelicals have some very specific beliefs. I wonder if they think that the President of the United States shares these beliefs. I wonder what the President of the United States really believes. I don't, of course, care about what he believes as an individual, but as the leader of a country with the most sophisticated military technology on Earth (including a nice little collection of nuclear warheads), those beliefs do matter.

Does our President get his mandate from the Bible or the Constitution?
Are Muslims going to hell?
Will current wars in the Middle East usher in the Second Coming of Christ?

What do you believe, Mr. President?

Are you just faking it to get the vote or do you really believe what evangelicals believe?

Your evangelical constituents and I would like to know.


  1. Is it American Exceptionalism or American Evangelicalism that you mean to critique in this post? Or are they, in your mind, of a piece?

  2. Thanks Chris,

    My critique is how our current administration is using Evangelicals to further American Exceptionalism, particularly to further the administration's military adventures. Wrapping the Bible with the flag.


  3. The ideas that you lament in the New Wineskins essentials piece about the authority and origin of Scripture and the bodily return of Jesus are really basic Christian belief. They are identical to the faith of the catholic church that confesses the 'faith once delivered'. (Jude 1:3)

    If you, as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), do not personally believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God, then you are in violation of your ordination vows.

    Why not just be honest and join the Unitarian Universalists?

  4. My, my, such threats. Sorry, Toby from Texas, I fully affirm my all my ordination vows. I am curious how you new wineskinners regard the Confession of 1967?

  5. John,
    I didn't see that Toby issued a threat -- but he did issue a challenge to your integrity. Two different things (in this case, a challenge being simply asking the question and leaving matters in your hands; a threat being an indication of punitive action taken based upon your response)

    Just putting in my two cents


  6. I am not one who files charges against people in the church who I do not know personally and who are not in my presbytery, so my comment was no threat.

    I DO have the concern that you are not being honest in your vows, as you serve a denomination that has the stated belief that the Bible is God's Word and that the Bible is being truthful in its assertions that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead.

    If a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) believes and teaches that one can be saved from sin apart from the atoning work of Christ received by faith and if that minister also believes and teaches that Jesus never rose bodily from the dead, then that minister is in violation of our doctrine and our vows.

    Are you that kind of minister or not? And if you are, then why continue to violate the church's standards for its ministers?

    I think that's a fair question.

  7. Fine, Russell, we can play games. I find it curious that some of my colleagues rather than discuss the issue as presented, jump right to the old "violation of ordination vows" argument. What is the point of saying that except to threaten?

    It goes both ways. Members and/or promoters of the so-called New Wineskins club may be in danger of violating their ordination vows if they elevate their confession above the authority of all of the confessions in the Book of Confessions.

  8. Well, Toby, I have a concern that you are not honest in your vows as you serve a denomination in which ministers of the Word and Sacrament are to be guided by all of the confessions in the Book of Confessions (including the Confession of 1967). Are you bound by the Confession of 1967 or are you not? If not, why continue to violate the church's standards for its ministers? I think that is a fair question.

  9. Wow - this thread is getting vicious!

    C'67 says: "The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel."

    You've advocated the work of Westar as an exemplar of Christian scholarship. How does their (and your?) assertion of the primacy of the Gospel of Thomas work with the witness non pareil of the canonical Gospels in C'67?

    Similarly, you scoff at the idea of the Scriptures having divine origins. Yet C'67 calls them a faithful witness to the message of the prophets and apostles. Further, the Brief Statement explicitly says that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    John, as an evangelical (and - truth be told - a fundamentalist), I have to question how it is that you are reading C'67. I'm warned by the preface to the BoC that these standards are subordinate to Scripture. Thus, you'll see that the Reformed Creeds are diligent in pointing out how their theological world view is drawn from, and supported by, Scripture and assumes (if not outright declares) the necessity of the preceding ancient symbols. (We may charge them with "proof-texting," but it will be a difficult charge to maintain.)

    I think it's also important to note that C'67 and Brief Statement come after a 300+ year silence, where the Westminster Standards had defined Presbyterianism in the English-speaking world (and its missionary enterprises). Before the Creeds of the Reformation and Reformed Scholasticism (and I hope you'll grant me latitude to take them of one piece), there was an 1,100 year silence.

    Why the short history lesson? I think that if you were to ask the framers of any of these confessional standards whether or not they were self-consciously refuting the previous standards, they would say "no." (Perhaps C'67 framers might answer differently, but Nancy Ramsey - the only writer of Brief Statement with whom I am personally acquainted - said that they were longing for the brevity of the ancient symbols with a flavor of the theological impulses that guided WCF & C'67 for the newest statement of Presbyterian reunion.)

    It should also strike us that there is a rather forceful historical particularity about Barmen & C'67 that give us some idea of the purview of their addition to Reformed theological identity. They are held up as models of articulating the "faith once for all delivered to the saints" within a particular historical crisis, rather than a dogmatic statement intended to formulate a confessional identity for the Church.

    While the Westminster Standards address some issues of historical location (calling the Pope the antichrist and speaking of then-current practices of usury and civil government), there is a timelessness to the faith therein confessed that has passed the testing of time. Reformed people the world over have looked upon it and said "There is no disagreement." (For instance, adherents to the Three Forms of Unity - while recognizing subtleties of inference, hermeneutics, and emphasis - still recognize a clear picture of their faith in the WCF.) The same cannot be said of the products of the last 65 years.

    So as we read the confessions, there exists a priority:
    1) The Scriptures
    2) The Ancient Symbols
    3) The Reformation Confessions
    4) The Westminster Standards
    5) The Modern Confessions

    Anything that contradicts something from the former (rather than complements it or shifts an emphasis) can - and should - be read as anomalous and a matter of dispute.

    All of this is to say, I don't think your reliance on C'67 is as consistent with participating in our confessional identity as you might think. The further back we go in the BoC, the more we agree upon with Christians throughout all times and all places. And it is the disagreements you have with the plain text of the Apostles Creed (not to mention the NT account of Jesus' resurrection) that most concerns many of your "oppositional" readers.

  10. Actually, Chris, the Confession of 1967 is key to our PCUSA self-understanding, as well as the inclusion of all of the confessions when we adapted the Book of Confessions at that time.

    One of the key paragraphs is 9.29:

    "The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God's work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, hisotry, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary andhistorical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture."

    The PCUSA is not a fundamentalist church because we interpret the scriptures using the tools of modern historical and literary criticism.

    This is what is taught in any PCUSA seminary. Fossilizing an ancient cosmology is not being faithful to our tradition.

  11. This will be my last comment. I do not want to monopolize your blog.

    You have yet to answer the accusation: How can you be a Presbyterian minister, holding the views that you have repeatedly stated?

    Is Jesus' body rotting in a grave?

    Is there any other name by which people can be saved from their sins?

    The 'burden' is on you, not the faith and those who hold to the teachings of Scripture. Don't hide behind our seminaries and your faulty interpretation of how 'progressive' our denomination is.

    For you and your readers here know the truth, that you do not hold the same beliefs as the church that you claim to represent.

  12. An "accusation" is it?

    No, I may not believe the same things you do or express them in the same manner. But you do not represent the PCUSA. Nor do you speak for it.

    I hide behind nothing. You can read my blog; you can read my sermons and articles. They are open for anyone.

    I have carefully explained my understanding of these and other issues.

    Go ahead, make your accusations. In the meantime, I will hold the banner of the PCUSA proudly as I seek to understand the work of the Spirit in the church and in the world in the 21st century context.


  13. John,

    I appreciate your work in wrestling with the issues of American exceptionalism. I'm one of those "crunchy cons" - I geuss - who's always muttering about how arrogant Americans can be.

    However, I find a great deal more arrogance in the Westar Institute and their claims of the superiority of the Thomas texts. If you'll reread my last post, you'll see that I asked you to help me understand how your advocacy of their work - and explicitly the privilege they give to gnostic texts - "jives" with your reading of C'67. I am still awaiting an answer (not that I think you are accountable to me to give one).

    I realize that I made a mistake in using the loaded words of evangelical and fundamentalist - they carry distracting connotations in our denomination as well as the culture at large. Still, I think it is similarly misleading to equate a fundamentalist (or, better, paleo-orthodox) approach to Scripture with an absence of critical approaches to interpretation. Please remember that it was the Reformers - strongly inerrantist - who revived the tools of criticism. The validity of certain reader-response approaches doesn't negate the historical veracity of the Scriptures... ESPECIALLY on something so "fundamental" as the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.


  14. Thanks Chris,

    I appreciate your willingness to dialogue with me. You mention a number of things, but I will offer my thoughts regarding the Gospel of Thomas.

    There is debate regarding the dating of Thomas. Some date it late (second century) some date it early (first century).

    Thomas did not make it into the canon. Does that make a difference or not? Some say yes, others no.

    I have no desire to place Westar on any pedestal. Many of the scholars associated with Westar place Thomas as an early document, as early as the four canonical documents for historical reasons. We can certainly debate that.

    I am not an historical scholar. I have no advanced degree in either biblical studies nor the scholarship of early Christian origins.

    I try to keep up as a non-professional. Yet, from what I have read as a non-professional it seems historically plausible, if not probable that Thomas represents an early stream of early Chrisitanity.


  15. I have no doubt that it represents a fairly early tradition. After all, scholars have long argued that the Johannine letters were a response to urGnosticism.

    But the question becomes one of priority: It seems that you are willing to place this gospel on par with the canonical ones. This is clearly against C'67 - as well as any other confessional statement that mentions the Scriptures. Or at the very least, I've seen examples in your writings of a willingness to use critiques largely drawn from assumptions of Thomist priority to critique particular readings of the gospels. Historical plausibility is not the same as historical probability. When that is combined with our confessional materials (as well as the overwhelming evidence in favor of the canon), it leaves me a little confused about the purpose of bringing these folks into your church. (Not into our area, or to a lecture hall, or to a university classroom but the PCUSA congregation in Elizabethton, TN.)

    How do you maintain confessional integrity? How does this serve to edify your congregation or your readers?


  16. All right, Chris.

    I am not going to defend myself or my ministry or (my confessional integrity) to you.


  17. John,

    Why do you think it's a fair question to ask Toby about his ordination vows in an accusatory way, but when I ask in a calm (and, I hope, respectful) tone how you reconcile seeming inconsistencies with the confessional fortitude you used as a base for critique, you say that you have no intention of doing so.

    I've tried to avoid captious phrases here because I really want to understand the place of GoT and the presuppositional framework of the Westar group (which you publicly advocate) with the Confession of 1967 (which you also publicly advocate). Is that a fair question?

    I reiterate: You aren't accountable to me (at least, not anymore - or less - than I am accountable to you). But we are both - by virtue of our ordination vows - accountable to the the Confessions and - by our common baptism - to Christ.


  18. Hi Chris,

    If you read through the comments you will find that Toby said the following:

    "If you, as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), do not personally believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God, then you are in violation of your ordination vows.

    Why not just be honest and join the Unitarian Universalists?"

    I simply turned the tables on him.

    A violation of one's ordination vows can take many forms.

    As you enter the ministry, you will discover that those of us who live in glass houses ought to use care before we throw stones.

    I have said before and I will say one final time to you: I fully uphold all of my ordination vows. My views, in my opinion, are consistent with the PCUSA.

    If you disagree, fine. I will not argue the point further.

    I do invite you to get on topic with the rest of us. What do you think about what I have said regarding Empire, war, etc.?

    Do you think Jesus would be in favor of the U.S. war in Iraq?


  19. Such fun I've been missing.

    John, I, as a past member of your congregation , and now as a fellow traveler, have never ever doubted you, your vows, your beliefs, your intentions...

    Straining at gnats (albeit large ones), stone throwing, etc. are just not in keeping with good dialogue, something which, if anything, your are devoted to.

    Now. Jesus, I am sure does certainly hate all war. Even a just war sucks. Jesus, too, hated the attack of 9/11/01. He hated the barbarism of Iraq. He hates the Jihaad of the radical Islamists. He loves us grandly, though!

    I am not in the least worried about George's beliefs anymore than I worry about my neigbor's, school superintendent's, your, my, or any on your fine reader's. George is doing a job, we seperate our jobs from our beliefs (well, you don't, but..) to a large degree. I really don't think George is a Christian apologist nor is he working out a Christian agenda. He is simply doing what ultimately benefits George the most. Now if he held these beliefs and felt compelled to act upon them, then we would be up a creek. He undoubtedly would not like the stance of us American Baptists at all.

    Did I ramble again? Sorry. I deeply appreciate you posting your thoughts so publicly, and having the opportunity to "talk" to you. Something I wish I had done more of when we could be face to face.


  20. John,

    I have no desire to argue over your readings of our current geopolitical situation. It's not that I'm disinterested in the topic or don't have a well-reasoned position that is guided by an informed faith. But it is not central. You and I being on opposite ends of a spectrum on global issues of how to approach the world's problems - while important - is a secondary matter.

    We both want the world to be a better place. I want wars to cease - as do you. I want every mouth to be fed - as do you. The logistics of achieving those ends are important, but they don't have to divide us.

    Motivations might divide us. From the content of your previous posts, it seems as though you regard a conscious existence after death as either a hopeless anachronism of theology or an escapist trap of wishful thinking. In that case, the only justice and mercy people will experience is in this existence.

    I don't believe that. I believe it's a privilege to give a cup of water in Jesus' name. But I know that a day is coming when a great distance will be placed between those in the bosom of Abraham and those in hell - and Jesus revealed that I will not be able to cross that gap and quench their thirst. It would be a sorry job, indeed, if all I gave was hope for this world (1 Cor. 15:16-19).

    And that's the crux of our disagreement (and, I imagine, the disagreement of many people who found your blog via presbyweb). You don't believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus or anyone else in any historically Christian identifiable sense. You take numerous opportunities to publicly undermine the credibility of the Scriptures in their claims to historicity and true narrative. And in your most recent sermon post, you seem to hold out an image of God that at least borders on pantheism, if it doesn't plunge right over the cliff. It seems to deny that humankind is the unique image-bearer of God.

    What is worse, you neglect to mention the most important reasons that Jesus was crucified - namely, that God's righteous justice would be made known (Rom. 3:21-26) and that by his shed blood we have peace with God through the forgiveness of our sins (Col. 1:13-23). Jesus himself said that he wasn't being arrested for trouble-making but that he was being arrested, betrayed, and crucified as a fulfillment of prophecy (Mt. 26:52-56)! His death was "according to the Scriptures" as was his resurrection.

    Ultimately, this isn't about C'67 or any other confession that is unique to Presbyterianism or Reformed Christianity. Instead, it strikes to the very heart of biblical faith. If I'm wrong here, please tell me how.


  21. Well, I’m not a minister (far from it), but if I can jump in for a second here, I have to say, Chris, your comment illustrates “faith gone wrong 101” to me. You have allowed your faith to make concerns over your fellow man “secondary.” This kind of attitude really turns off most reasonable people, and I don’t think it’s helpful. The logistics of how to make the world a better place must be discussed, the logistics of a your “litmus test of belief” sounds like spiritual narcissism to me.

  22. Hi A.!

    Thanks for your thoughs. I will have to think more about having beliefs vs. acting on those beliefs. I have to say, though, if we have beliefs that are core to our being, and we do not act on them, are they really beliefs, or are we going against ourselves. To be integratd, our beliefs, our actions, and the public reasons for our actions and beliefs make us integrated people.

    Politics, of course, is game of mirrors I suppose.


  23. Hi Chris and Bobby,

    What we are experiencing seems to me to be expressed in Marcus Borg's Heart of Christianity. In this book he compares the conventional Christian way of thinking vs. what he calls the emerging Christian way of thinking.

    It helped me to understand our different approaches.


  24. Well, you had to go and be a nicer guy about this thread didn’t you, John? Well, if somebody’s going to take the high road, I’m glad to see it’s the fearless leader of 1st Presbyterian. As to the actual topic of the thread, I’m not really sure what President Bush really believes, but his Christian allusions do scare me, because I’ve never gotten the sense that he is overly thoughtful about anything, and to be the guy who clearly likes war, with his finger on the button, to casually believe that God is working directly through him as he has suggested, yikes, that’s scary! Further, it strikes me as ridiculous on the face of it that Jesus would be in favor of an elective preemptive war based on lies and false assumptions, or any war for that matter.

  25. Hi Bobby!

    Yeah that is me, Mr. Nice Guy! I am sure many folks are about ready to crucify me after my views on religion and politics! I haven't insulted people about sports yet. Maybe I'll say something about the Vols or Nascar.

    Even though I directed this post at the President, it is bigger than that. Leaders use whatever they can get to help. Constantine supposedly had a vision in the year 312 in which Christ appeared to him and said, "Under this sign, conquer." The sign, of course, being the Christian cross. Not long after that the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire.

    The emperor used Christians and Christianity for his own ends. I think in the process this vastly twisted the message of Jesus, I would add, to the point of being unrecognizable.

    When Constantine gathered the council in 325, it was to unify Christianity. It was too diverse to be a good empire religion. So they come up with this creed which in reality says nothing about Jesus. It is about the Christ mythology, born of a virgin...crucified, risen, ascended to heaven.

    There is nothing there about how he lived or what he taught. You could subsitute Zeus and Ares, for Father and Son and the creed would make sense (except for maybe crucified under Pontius Pilate).

    My point being, that Empire twisted Jesus and the church let it happen. They turned Jesus into Empire's Ares (the god of war) and forgot all about Jesus who taught us to love our enemies.

    The point of this post is that I think our President is simply doing what leaders in war do especially in the Christian tradition. You connect your secular vision with a divine institution and mandate. In this case, Christian evangelicalism fits with America's military adventures.

    This president is particularly successful at this. In his speeches you hear allusions to hymns or scriptures that connect with evangelicals. Even Condleeza Rice used a phrase during the Israel/Hezbollah conflict. She said these are "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." Birth pangs come from the apocalyptic statements of Jesus (whether or not they really go back to Jesus or are a creation of Mark is debatable. I tend to think they are Mark's words) regarding the "end of things." (Mark 13) A phrase that evangelicals pick up on. I grew up in the evangelical/fundamentalist tradition so I pick this up, too.

    Again, I am not picking on the President. I simply want to point out how Christianity and politics in America are so enmeshed and it is the result of a long history of linking empire with the church.


  26. Well, I was trying to pick on the President a bit, so once again I cede the high ground to you. I didn’t catch the “birth pangs” reference in recent news, but see, call me crazy, those kinds of references are just disturbing coming from those in power in our government. Very thoughtful commentary on Jesus and Empire, thanks!