Commonly misunderstood Bible passages: Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah 29:11 reads (NRSV): ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope’.

Other translations render ‘plans for your welfare’ as ‘plans to prosper you’.

This text is very popular among evangelical Christians, who take it as a promise that God’s plan is for them individually to be safe, financially prosperous, and to have a great future ahead of them. Unsurprisingly, it appears on merchandise aimed at Christians, such as decals for office walls, bracelets, and even pillow cases, presumably to reinforce the motivational message first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Here’s a typical Internet graphic referencing the text:

I’m not going to get into questions regarding how compatible such a statement is with the kind of promises Jesus made to his followers about their future (e.g. Matthew 10:22 and Matthew 24:9), but will look at whether or not Christians are justified in taking this quote to refer to them.

First, here is how Jeremiah 29 opens:

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

– Jeremiah 29:1-3 (NRSV)

And here’s Jeremiah 29:11 in context:

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

– Jeremiah 29:10-14 (NRSV)

The promises made in Jeremiah 29:11, then, do not stand alone as universal promises, and are certainly not promises aimed at Christians. Instead, these promises are part of a very specific message delivered at a specific time to a specific people – the Israelites who were being held captive in Babylon.

The full list of promises made by the God of Israel to these Israelites in Babylon is that:

    • After 70 years in captivity they will be released and returned from their exile.
    • God has a plan for these captives’ futures, which will improve their lives.
    • If the captive Israelites seek the God of Israel, he will undo their misfortunes and return them from the diaspora.

These promises are all given to a particular group of people in a particular place and time, and they stand together. There is no logical justification for ripping one of these promises out of its textual and historical context and claiming that it applies to modern Christians. This is not a message aimed in any sense at modern Christians. It is not even aimed at the modern descendants of the Israelites (Jews).

Contemporary Christians have every right to believe that God wants them to prosper and has a great future planned for them, but Jeremiah 29:11 simply doesn’t say that or refer to that in any way.

Commonly misunderstood Bible passages: Joshua 24:15

Joshua 24:15 reads, in part: ‘but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (NRSV), or ‘but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’.

This truncated Bible verse is very popular among evangelical Christians, and can be found on numerous products marketed at Christians, including fence post art to display outside one’s house, door matswall decals, decorative wall crosses, decorative wooden signs, framed posters, mugs, ceramic platters, and so on.

From all this, it’s clear that the quote is being taken to mean something along the lines of: ‘This is a Christian household’, ‘Our family are Christians’, ‘Our family believes in God’, and perhaps, ‘You can believe what you want, but in this family we believe in [the Christian] God’.

While Christians have every right to declare that they and their family are proud to be Christians, does the quote in question actually have any relevance to that?

It’s hard to see how it could.

The (partial) quote is taken from a section of the Book of Joshua in which the Israelites were gathered together and chided for reverting back to the religion of their forefathers instead of the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Joshua reminds the people of the pagan religion followed by their ancestors and then goes on to demand that those who have returned to the old religion must abandon it once more. The tribes agree to this and renew their covenant with their God.

Joshua 24:1-2:

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.’

Joshua 24:14-15:

14 ‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’

Joshua 24:24-28:

24 The people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.’ 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. 26 Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.’ 28 So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

The passage in question occurs in the midst of a purportedly historical account of goings on in the ancient world related solely to a specific people – the Israelites – and related to their covenant with the God of Israel – a covenant that Christians specifically believe they are not bound by as it is ‘obsolete’ (Hebrews 8:13) and replaced by a new convenant:

But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.

– Hebrews 8:6 (NRSV)

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’

– 1 Corinthians 11:25

Given the very specific historical context of the book in question, given it was delivered as part of a speech to a specific people (the Israelites, not Christians), and given it refers to a covenant which Christians do not believe they are a party to, there is no logical justification for ripping a single quote from it out of its context and then claiming that somehow it can stand alone as a Christian affirmation of faith. The fact that a string of words which sound appealing to modern Christians – ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ – can be found within a book in the Bible does not justify taking those words completely out of context. While the inclusion of a Bible reference beneath a quote may seem to lend that quote a greater air of authority and importance, if the quote is being used in a way that bears no relation to its original meaning, then the inclusion of that reference is ultimately inauthentic and reduces biblical texts to little more than random soundbites that can effectively mean anything you want them to.

Commonly misunderstood Bible passages: Philippians 4:13

Philippians 4:13 reads: ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’.

The ‘him’ is, of course, Christ, and the quote is often rendered: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’.

This quote is incredibly popular among evangelical Christians (and others), who usually interpret it as meaning: With Jesus’ help, I can overcome obstacles and achieve my personal goals.

That this is a common interpretation of, or use of, this biblical quote is evident from its ubiquity in products aimed at a Christian audience. Products emblazoned with the Philippians 4:13 text include necklaces for players of American football and baseball, vinyl wall decals for gyms, running shirts, and iPhone cases. Here’s a typical poster aimed at young people:

Lifeposters, an e-commerce site selling Christian posters, says of this product:

This is a very popular Christian poster for youth. It speaks to them in a language they understand. “If God helps me and gives me strength in all things, then He also helps me in my favorite sport.”

A nice message, but does it actually bear any relation to the meaning of the biblical quote?

Absolutely not.

Here’s the Philippians quote in its wider context:

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

– Philippians 4:10-14 (NRSV)

Philippians is a letter written by Paul to the church at Philippi, while he was in prison. In the section in question, Paul, who has received a gift from the Philippians, assures them that it is their concern for him that is of paramount importance, and that he is not ‘referring to being in need’ of their financial support. Rather, he is grateful for their ‘sharing his distress’. Paul goes on to tell his readers that he has ‘learned to be content with whatever I have’, whether that is comfort and plentiful food, or the hunger, need, and distress of places such as the prison. The ‘secret’ of being content in all circumstances, Paul says, is to rely on Christ, through whom he ‘can do all things’ (remain faithful in all things) and who gives him strength – the strength to be faithful and content in times of plenty and to remain faithful even while enduring suffering, as he was when he wrote the letter.

This text is not, therefore, about overcoming obstacles and achieving personal goals but rather about being content through one’s faith, come what may. Applying this text to a modern scenario, it’s not, “Through Christ, I can get a promotion,” but rather, “Through Christ, I will be content if I get a promotion, but I will also remain content even if I lose my job.” The difference is significant.

For more on this text, see Matthew Henry’s and John Darby’s classic commentaries.

Up the Hudson River by train

During my first trip to NYC, I wanted to spend some time outside the city and in New York State. I chose a trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line and certainly wasn’t disappointed.

On boarding the train at the iconic Grand Central Terminal, the passenger is soon transported through the urban landscape of Harlem and the Bronx and, after a mere 11 miles, the line then follows the Hudson River all the way to Poughkeepsie. The 73.5 mile journey takes passengers along the river through Westchester County and on into Putnam and Dutchess counties and the beautiful Hudson Highlands.

After a 1 hour 46 minute journey, the Metro-North train terminates at Poughkeepsie, ‘The Queen City of the Hudson’.

From the station, it is only a short walk to the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The Walkway is a formerly disused rail bridge which once carried freight trains high over Poughkeepsie and across the Hudson to Highland in Ulster County. The impressive bridge has now had its track removed and been converted into the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, providing a 1.28 mile walk which offers views up and down the Hudson River, as well as the sight of freight trains making their way along the CSX River Subdivision.

Having arrived at the Highland end of the bridge, a short walk down wooded back roads leads to the waterfront and views across to Poughkeepsie, prior to making the journey back.

NYC

Memories of my first trip to the great New York City, May 2014.

All photos and video © Edmund Standing 2014

The Theology of Americanism

The Declaration of Independence famously asserts:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This statement summarises the philosophy upon which American values were built and underpins the ‘American Dream‘: ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’.

American religion – and the American approach to religion – as envisaged by the Founders bore no relation to the kind of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism which is often erroneously seen as being the majority belief system in the United States.

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who famously lived by the maxim ‘God helps those who help themselves’, is an archetype of the American Dream, being a self-made man with a rags-to-riches story. In his autobiography, he describes his religious views as follows:

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.

Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States, said the following in his First Inaugural Address:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…

Despite the vocal nature of America’s Christian Right, a look at the values and beliefs held by Americans today shows a striking continuity between America’s foundational principles and its contemporary outlook.

AMERICAN VALUES

In an oft-cited article, L. Robert Kohls, Director of Training for the U.S. Information Agency and Executive Director of The Washington International Center, listed the following as ‘The Values Americans Live By':

  • Personal control over the environment
  • Change
  • Time and its control
  • Equality/Egalitarianism
  • Individualism and privacy
  • Self-help concept
  • Competition and free enterprise
  • Future orientation
  • Action/Work orientation
  • Informality
  • Directness, openness, and honesty
  • Practicality and efficiency
  • Materialism and acquisitiveness

Charles H. Tidwell, Professor of English, Communication, International Business at Andrews University, offers the following as ‘10 Core American Values‘:

  • Individualism
  • Equality
  • Materialism
  • Science and technology
  • Progress and change
  • Work and leisure
  • Competition
  • Mobility
  • Volunteerism
  • Action and achievement oriented

The family also remains a core American value, with recent surveys showing that 78% of American adults rate marriage as important to society and that 77% say a two parent home is very important for children. Indeed, 79% of American adults ‘view the harmonious balance of career and family as being the ultimate success in America, over power, possessions or prestige’.

Patriotism continues to be a core American value. 88% of Americans completely agree (52%) or mostly agree (36%) with the statement ‘I am very patriotic’. 32% consider themselves ‘extremely patriotic’.

AMERICANS’ RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

While the results of polls and surveys can vary significantly, and fluctuate regularly, they nonetheless provide a useful insight into the beliefs of everyday Americans. The following statistics from recent polls of American adults give an indication of America’s true religious outlook:

  • 76% identify themselves as Christians (50% identify as Protestants) and about 6% of Americans identify with a non-Christian religion.
  • 74% state a belief in God.
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death.
  • Most American Christians do not believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit exist.
  • More than half (53%) of Americans in 2014 reported attending religious services at least monthly, including 41% who attended weekly or almost every week.
  • The Bible continues to be named as America’s most popular book and 88% of households own a Bible. 50% of all adults agree that ‘the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life’, although only 37% of US adults read the Bible once a week or more.
  • Only 28% of Americans profess the fundamentalist belief that ‘the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word’, and a mere 9% give assent to six core fundamentalist Christian doctrines (even among ‘born again Christians’, less than one in five held such beliefs).
  • Less than half (43%) were able to name the first five books of the Bible.
  • 82% believe ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse and a majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.
  • 60% believe God wants people to be wealthy.

From 2001 to 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton carried out a research project on the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents, the results of which were published in their book Soul Searching. When all the data had been analysed, Smith and Denton concluded that a belief system they termed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ is the predominant religious viewpoint held by American teenagers of a variety of religious backgrounds. The basic beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are said to be the following:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In an article summarising the findings, Smith writes of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

It believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful […] It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

Smith and Denton found that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not a belief system solely of those with a Christian background. In fact, it is more simply an American belief system:

This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own. So its adherents must be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists […] In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths. For, in fact, we suggest that many of them actually share the same deeper religious faith: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is there to have conflict about?

Despite Smith and Denton’s study being focused on American teenagers, they do not believe that this is merely a belief system followed by adolescents:

[W]e are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.

Looking at American Christianity, this is arguably the case.

THE AMERICAN GOSPEL

Joel Osteen is the Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church, America’s largest Protestant megachurch. The Houston Business Journal reports that Lakewood has a weekly congregation of 45,000 attendees and that Osteen’s sermons, delivered in a 16,000 seat former sports stadium, also reach a television audience of 10 million Americans each week. Osteen is the author of five books, each of them a number one bestseller. Worldwide, they have sold 10 million copies.

Osteen, alongside his wife Victoria, preaches a positive, upbeat message of the transformative power of faith in everyday life:

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people.

It’s time to use our words to declare good things! Speak blessings over your life and your family. Throughout the day, say things such as, “I have the favor of God. I am strong and healthy. I’m well able to do what I need to do.” … Friend, if you’ll do your part and speak words of victory, God will pour out His favor in exciting, fresh ways in your life, and you will live the abundant life He has in store for you.

Instead of focusing on the human as fallen and sinful, Osteen highlights human potential:

There is a winner in you. You were created to be successful, to accomplish your goals, to leave your mark on this generation. You have greatness in you… Put your shoulders back. Hold your head up high. Walk with confidence. Winning is in your DNA, and it’s about to come out in a greater way.

Winning is in your DNA. The most high God breathed His life into you. You’ve got what it takes. This is your time. This is your moment. Shake off doubts, shake off fear and insecurity, and get ready for favor, get ready for increase, get ready for the fullness of your destiny. You can, you will!

Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now, looks at how to:

  • Enlarge your vision
  • Develop a healthy self-image
  • Discover the power of your thoughts and words
  • Let go of the past
  • Find strength through adversity
  • Live to give
  • Choose to be happy

The basic message is that God created humans with the intention that they should thrive, prosper, and enjoy life. As such, the Osteens’ preaching focuses on getting the most out of life in the here and now, rather than dwelling on what happens after death. What matters in the preaching of the Osteens, as in the lives of most people, are matters such as realising your full potential and having a happy marriage and family life. Victoria Osteen writes:

In many relationships, after time, people neglect to walk in love. One day, they realize that their hearts have changed. You hear it all the time: “We just grew apart.” Joel and I remind ourselves often that God brought us together. He’s got a good plan for our marriage. You need to remind yourself that God has put that person in your life, and He’s got good things in store. If you will do your part by being kind, respecting one another, treating each other the way you want to be treated, God will do His part, and you can live in love!

The Osteens are far from alone in preaching such a message. Joyce Meyer, for example, a hugely successful televangelist and author, argues:

Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.

In Look Great, Feel Great, she writes:

God has a great future planned for you and you need to be ready for it! You need to look great and feel great, ready to do whatever God asks of you.

God cares most that you go forth clothed in righteousness. But righteousness plus a nice outfit never hurt anyone. If people see that you respect yourself, they’ll respect you too.

Such a message is uniquely American, and its claim to being ‘Christian’ at all is unsurprisingly widely questioned.

The Osteen and Meyer style of Christianity is not, as some might assume, relatively marginal. Historian Kate Bowler argues that the message of such preachers ‘has consecrated America’s culture of optimism’ and ‘become the foremost Christian theology of modern living’. Conservative Christian commentator Matt Walsh agrees, stating that ‘the Osteens do not represent the theological fringe. They are as mainstream and common as can be’.

On the question of whether this theology is Christian at all, Michael Horton writes:

I offer statistics supporting the remarkable conclusion that those who are raised in ‘Bible-believing’ churches know as little of the Bible’s actual content as their unchurched neighbors. Christ is ubiquitous in this subculture, but more as an adjective (Christian) than as a proper name. While we swim in a sea of ‘Christian’ things, Christ is increasingly reduced to a mascot or symbol of a subculture and the industries that feed it. Just as you don’t really need Jesus Christ in order to have T-shirts and coffee mugs, it is unclear to me why he is necessary for most of the things I hear a lot of pastors and Christians talking about in church these days.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues:

The Osteen message does not differentiate between believers and unbelievers — certainly not in terms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In their sermons, writings, and media appearances, the Osteens insist that God is well-disposed to all people and wills that all flourish, but there is virtually no mention of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No reference to sin as the fundamental issue. No explanation of atonement and resurrection as God’s saving acts; no clarity of any sort on the need for faith in Christ and repentance of sin. Instead, they focus on happiness and God’s “immeasurable favor” to be poured out on all people, if they will only correct their thinking.

Jason Byassee, pastor of Shady Grove United Methodist Church, states of Joel Osteen:

One doesn’t doubt that his counsel helps people to have better marriages, careers, families and lives. Salespeople, whom Osteen often addresses, will indeed perform better with more upbeat, self-confident attitudes. These claims are true, as far as they go. But that doesn’t make them Christian.

In an article for Charisma News, Joseph Mattera contrasts American and Biblical Christianity:

Much of the preaching in American churches regarding faith has to do with using faith so we can have a nice car, home, job, financial security and comfort. The biblical focus on faith is on risking our physical health and material goods to promote God’s Kingdom […] Americans shop for a church today based on what meets their personal and family needs the best. It is almost like a supermarket mentality of one-stop shopping. While it is good if churches attempt to meet the practical needs of families and communities, the focus should be upon equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.

Christian Smith argues:

[W]e have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of ‘Christianity’ in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear … to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.

Succeeding in life, having good marriages, families, and careers, living comfortably, having a positive outlook, being thankful for blessings, being kind and respectful to others: these are the things that lie at the heart of the message of a major and very successful brand of Christianity in America. All of those things are good, and all are a part of the American Dream and fit into the American value system, but none of them are specifically or uniquely Christian or Biblical. In reality, much of what comes dressed as Christianity in America is nothing of the sort, and is, rather, a uniquely American religion; a religion arguably rooted in the foundational principles of the United States.

AMERICAN CIVIL THEOLOGY

A comparison of the religious views of Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with those of so-called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism demonstrates striking similarities. There is arguably a strong philosophical continuity between their ‘benign religion’ and what Smith calls the ‘alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness’ of contemporary Americans.

Benjamin Franklin:

  • A Deity exists, who made the world and governs it by his Providence.
  • The most acceptable service of God is doing good to others.
  • Our souls are immortal, and all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.

Thomas Jefferson:

  • There is an overruling Providence, which delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.
  • Religion should inculcate honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of others.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Jefferson stated that America was:

enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…

Of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Smith argues that it:

mirrors and may very well interface with American civil religion at the highest level by providing the nation’s inhabitants a parallel and complementary common, unifying, functional faith that operates at a more apolitical, private, and interpersonal level of human life.

Franklin said of his stripped down version of religion:

These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.

Smith notes, of those who live by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, towering figures in the foundation of modern America and its philosophy on life, would surely be pleased to see that so many Americans today continue to share and promote ideas on religion which so closely mirror their own. The religion scornfully dubbed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ by Smith and Denton is not, as they contend from their traditional Christian perspective, ‘pathetic’, but is, rather, a truly American religion.

THE THEOLOGY OF AMERICANISM

America – or Americanism – can be seen to be underpinned by, and sustained through, a unique theological conception, based partly on biblical visions of a promised land, partly on the values of the Enlightenment, and partly on an ideology of living free, working hard and enjoying the fruits of one’s labours. This theology presents a God who is largely concerned with this world and this life, and who calls the American people forward to ever greater things. This vision of God is of a God who has filled humans with the potential for success and wills that they should prosper and seek enjoyment in life, and do so in a state of freedom. This is the God of a proud people, filled with the conviction that theirs is the greatest nation on earth and convinced that their values offer hope for a better, freer, more prosperous and peaceful world. While, for many, Christian fundamentalism and the Religious Right are seen as the ‘public face’ of American religiosity, the actual theological basis of Americanism has very little in common with the worldview of the New Testament and arguably constitutes a theology birthed in modernity.

European-American Folk Traditions

When settlers from the British Isles and Germany arrived on the shores of North America, they brought with them not only Christianity, but also a variety of folk beliefs and practices related to every aspect of life and death.

To Appalachia was brought a belief in signs and omens, numerous proverbs, and folk healing practices centred on ‘Granny Women‘. Three fascinating posts on Appalachian folk magic can be read here, here, and here.

To the Ozarks came a form of folk magic very firmly grounded in Protestant Christianity, while holding much in common with other folk religious and magical systems. A helpful glossary of Ozark folk magic can be found here.

Meanwhile, the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ brought from Germany a magico-religious systemknown as brauche, or ‘powwowing’. Powwowing is rooted in German esoteric traditions and makes use of both the Bible and material derived from European grimoires. Even today, the practice persists, albeit often still under a veil of secrecy. A good website providing information on the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions can be found here.