Culture At Large

Is God directing American history?

Andy Rau

When you look at the history of the Christian church, or Europe, or the United States, or anything else you can think of, do you see the hand of God's providence intervening at critical moments and steering history in a certain direction?

An article at Touchstone is raising these questions by looking back at The Light and the Glory, "one of the most widely read nonfiction Christian books of all time." I've not read it, but apparently it retells the history of the United States from a "Christian view"—that is, it interprets US history as the story of God actively intervening to shape and preserve a particular nation and way of life. Christopher Columbus stumbled across North America not by luck, but at the urging of the invisible hand of providence. American victories in the Revolutionary War weren't just the result of human cleverness or luck; they were instances of God nudging history in the right direction.

The Touchstone article describes at length The Light and the Glory's role in the "culture wars"—specifically, as a vehicle for reclaiming American history for conservative Christians at a time when the liberal/conservative culture clash was really starting to heat up.

Now I really want to track down a copy of this book. Not because I think I'd agree with it—on the contrary, it honestly sounds a little alarming. It's one thing to believe (as most Christians do) that God oversees and controls events throughout history, but there's a certain presumptuousness in claiming to be able to recognize not just patterns, but specific points at which God stepped into human affairs and pushed things in the right direction. And then there's the subtle implication that God's sovereignty plays out not through a divine authority over all of human history, but through a series of brief interventions interspersed with long periods of presumed inactivity. Here's how Touchstone sums it up:

Can a Christian claim to know God’s purposes in history in the way that Marshall and Manuel suggest he can? I remain skeptical. If God’s rule extends over all of history, and his providence subsumes all events, then how can we say that some events—such as those that led to the development of the United States—are more providential than others?

For example, many eighteenth-century Protestants (as well as many contemporary Protestants) believed that God intervened in human history on the side of Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers. Is this true? Perhaps.

But to suggest that the Reformation was an example of God’s providential intervention in the affairs of mankind is to also suggest that God was not overseeing human history before he had to “intervene” at Wittenberg in October 1517.

I'm interested in reading more, but I think The Light and the Glory's approach should at the very least set off warning bells in our minds. It's especially suspicious when your vision of providential history coincidentally casts your own country and society as the God-ordained protagonist.

What do you think? Have you read the book? Did it affect the way you interpreted history and America? And do you think that it's treading on dangerous theological ground, or do you think it's a Biblical way to understand history?

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books, News & Politics, History