America the Messianic

Anna Speckhard

Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003). Review originally published on the Westminster Seminary California Blog.

America has always thought of itself as special. In many ways, it is. And this is not really a problem until “special” becomes confused with “messianic.” Richard M. Gamble, a history professor at Hillsdale College, has written a book about America’s “complicated messianic identity,” (17) and how progressive clergy used that messianic consciousness to encourage America to enter World War I.

Gamble explains that at the turn of the nineteenth century progressive Christianity was changing the American religious landscape. Progressive clergy emphasized corporate sin and redemption instead of old-fashioned notions like personal salvation. Progressive seminaries shifted their focus from Hebrew, Greek, and theology to disciplines like sociology and psychology, which were thought to be more helpful for alleviating the plight of man. Progressive Christians threw their weight behind massive reform efforts against alcoholism, illiteracy, unhealthful eating, and every other social ill. Progressive Christianity, led by her audacious clergy, was going to Christianize America by making her moral. From there it was a quick jump to deciding that America, though not yet perfect (but progressing all the time!), needed to remedy the ills of the entire international community. This would be accomplished through war, because war was the most effective means of establishing a righteous justice. A just world could then support a permanent peace that would usher in the literal Kingdom of God by way of the League of Nations.

Thus the progressive clergy completely identified the mission of Christ and his Church with the mission of America; the jurisdictions of the City of God and the City of Man overlapped entirely. Gamble writes, “They fused sacred and secular history into a quest for temporal salvation and redirected the historical process toward the goal of an everlasting Golden Age” (35).

The theology and rhetoric that the progressive clergy used in urging America to accomplish this goal has to be read to be believed. A particularly egregious example comes from Harold Bell Wright: “A man may give his life for humanity in a bloody trench as truly as upon a bloody cross. The world may be saved somewhere in France as truly as in Palestine” (176). And there are plenty more statements like it. One of the great strengths of the book is that Gamble quotes the main players extensively, the quotation marks reassuring my raised eyebrows and stunned silence (punctuated by audible groans and the occasional yelp) that Gamble is not painting them in an unfair or unflattering light. These are the things they really said, and truly believed, leading to the downfall of orthodox Christian faith in many of the mainline denominations.

Fully appreciating how far these statements deviate from orthodoxy requires an understanding of orthodox Christianity to serve as a baseline. Gamble assumes this knowledge in his reader when he critiques the theology and practice of the progressive clergy. He also occasionally critiques their theology through the voices of their contemporaries. One critic referred to such views as “the cheekiest buncombe” (165). Westminster’s own J. Gresham Machen makes several appearances as a voice of sanity in the growing cacophony of nationalistic hysteria.

The history of this cheeky (yet deadly serious) theological buncombe is arranged chronologically. It begins by finding the source of the progressive worldview in Puritan oratory about the holiness of the American cause. This sense of providential uniqueness was later supplemented by heavy doses of evolutionary biology and the social gospel. Gamble traces the ideas of the progressive clergy about America’s place in the world before and during World War I and up to the failure of the League of Nations and the death of Woodrow Wilson. Even World War I could not cure the clergy of their optimism that the Kingdom of God would arrive sooner than later because of their efforts. Heterodoxy is tough to shake. Because of their obstinate adherence to bad theology, at times the rhetoric of the clergy can be a little repetitive and tedious. But it is astounding how many ways they found to express their ideas, each more offensive to the true Gospel than the last. Heresy comes in infinite varieties.

Or perhaps heresy is really just infinite variations on common themes. Christians have always struggled to identify what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Americans have wrestled with this issue in unique ways and they continue to do so. The War for Righteousness gives guidance in these matters by providing a stark cautionary tale against confusing Christ and his kingdom with a nation, a confusion that robs Christ of his glory and gives it to another. I highly recommend this book to all Christians, that they might more faithfully defend the glory of Christ and his Church against those who would usurp this glory for temporal, earthly “Kingdoms of God” that God did not promise and man will not honor. Such fool’s errands lead only to ruination and despair. So take a stand against ruination and despair, and read The War for Righteousness. J. Gresham Machen would be glad you did.

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