Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/24/2010

God’s “Providence” as Political Cudgel, from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to christian Terrorism in Uganda

. . . a very significant movement within [the military ]that sees [it] as a Christian institution. They see themselves as Christian warriors. They see themselves as responsible for protecting and defending America’s tradition as a Christian nation and representing that overseas. . . There’s a sense in which the military is now the only safe place to be. In the military, homosexuality is illegal. . . Arguably, the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It’s the easiest place in America to be a Christian. —Jeff Sharlet (1)

no favored nation of God

no favored nation of God

The Founders (that mythological homogenous group of straight—how do we know?—white males) signed their names to the Declaration of Independence immediately below the sentence,

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Many Americans assume the use of the phrase “reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” is proof that the Founders were christians—and intended the Declaration to be a christian document.

The King James Version of the Bible (the translation of the Founders) uses the word “providence” only once:

And after five days Ananias the high priest descended with the elders, and with a certain orator named Tertullus, who informed the [Roman] governor against Paul. . .  Tertullus began to accuse him, saying, “Seeing that by thee [the Roman governor] we enjoy great quietness, and that very worthy deeds are done unto this nation by thy providence, We accept it always, and in all places, most noble Felix, with all thankfulness”( Acts 24:1-3).

The Divine “Providence” is, in the King James Bible, the “Providence” of the Roman Governor of Jerusalem circa 70 CE—the “Providence” that has guaranteed the peace and has done worthy deeds for the Jews (not for long, we might note).

“God’s Providence,” is not biblical.

I first discovered the absence of “Providence” in the Bible when a student challenged a scholarly article I had assigned for reading which says the Declaration of Independence contains no specifically christian language. I did what any teacher would do: look up the “christian” words in Strong’s Concordance.

The next logical step was to investigate the most obvious use of “providence” in the United States—the capital of Rhode Island.

In 1652 Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, published his book, The Hireling Ministry None of Christs, in whichhe made a theological argument with political implications for the settlement of the New World” (2). The argument is that

Nations being meerly and essentially civill cannot (Christianly) be called Christian States, after the patterne of that holy and typical Land of Canaan [because it was] a None-such and an unparalel’d Figure of the Spirituall State of the Church of Christ Jesus, dispersed, yet gathered to him in all Nations. (3)

A “nonesuch” is “something ‘unparalleled’ or unique” (think the “Royal Nonesuch” in Huckleberry Finn, a play like no other). Williams’ further

. . . posited the unrepeatability of a phenomenon, a temporal uniqueness that isolated an event in history—in this case. . . . England and its colonies were no second Israel, no exceptions on earth, and no favored nation of God, because there was no parallel for a state’s protection in the New Testament. . . . (4)

In her comprehensive book Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), Alexandra Walsham traces the evolution of the idea of “providence” from spiritual concept in common belief, to a major component of the theology of John Calvin, to one of the foundational ideas of English Puritanism, both religiously and politically. In another article Walsham examines the Protestant and Catholic reactions to a 1623 tragedy in which many Catholics were killed in the collapse of a building where they were holding an illegal prayer service. She says her goal is

to examine in some detail the providentialism that underlay early Stuart* responses to this suburban tragedy, and to locate these interpretations within a cultural climate that nurtured an unruly and elastic cluster of assumptions about the active interference of God in the created world. (5)

This “unruly and elastic cluster of assumptions about the active interference of God” eventually evolved into doctrines resembling “God is on our side, and his Providence will protect and bless all that we do.” And the side God was on was the Protestant/Puritan side—to wit, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. What I am writing here is, of course a GROSS over-simplification of historical studies of Walsham and others, but it is not as far-fetched as it seems.

The Puritan and the king he killed

The Puritan and the king he killed

Walsham avers that

If anti-Catholicism was a fundamental common denominator in post-Reformation religion. . . .so too I suspect were shared assumptions about God’s propensity to meddle directly in earthly affairs. Providentialism was possibly one more respect in which Protestantism, far from smothering and eradicating “superstition,” helped in fact to sustain and intensify it, and to reinforce key elements of an older cosmology. (6)

“Providence” became, in the English Reformation, as much a political concept as a religious one. If God is on one’s side, one is, of course, RIGHT. And one can with impunity wage war against those one sees as on the opposite (Satan’s) side.  In his review of Judy Sproxton’s book, Violence and Religion, Geoffrey Parker explains her most important contribution.

Perhaps her most interesting chapter concerns Beard. . . whose Theatre of God’s Judgements (1597) argued that men possessed the potential, through their understanding of God’s will, to achieve a ‘conversation with life’- that is, to act in response to God’s perceived directives. Beard espoused Providentialism: ‘Nothing in this world cometh to pas by chance or adventure but only and alwaies by the prescription of His will’, he wrote, urging his readers to search History and Scripture for examples of God’s direct intervention in human affairs, the better to recognize similar occasions in the future. (7)

The idea that one can have “understanding of God’s will” and wage war to force it upon others (think the Cromwellian Revolution) is terrorizing. Americans who proclaim the “terrorization” of so-called Islamicists might do well to consider the fearsomeness of an American military that sees itself as “responsible for protecting and defending America’s tradition as a Christian nation.” This assurance of the knowledge of God’s will has managed to defeat the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell,” and perhaps wields an inordinate power over the shaping of the American military ethos (see ** below).

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Onward, Christian Soldiers

The reach of fundamentalist providentialism goes beyond a military that sees itself as advancing the will of God as it understands it. A close ally in this understanding is “The Family,” the powerful and fanatically fundamentalist christian group influencing the centers of power in Washington, D.C. It has had, for example, a decisive role, in the infamous anti-gay legislation in Uganda that calls for the death penalty for homosexuality (8).

Roger Williams, as I think is obvious, would have asserted a vast difference between God’s providence as expressed in the familiar “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me,” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

Far from a set of bizarre phobias and irrational beliefs, providentialism. . . on occasion [operates] as a coherent and unifying force. . .it [can] also contribute to the creation of a dangerously polarized urban political scene. Indeed. . . providence, as a concept, was no longer politically benign. . . application of God’s judgements [was] generating conflict and exacerbating divisions at the highest levels of church and state. (9)
___________
(1) Sharlet, Jeff. Interview with Terry Gross. Fresh Air. NPR. KERA Dallas. 23 Sept. 1010.
(2) Cohen, Matt. “New England, Nonesuch.” Early American Literature 45.2 (2010): 281+.
(3) Roger Williams, quoted in Cohen.
(4) Cohen, idem.
(5) Walsham, Alexandra. “’The fatall vesper’: providentialism and anti-popery in late Jacobean London.” Past and Present 144 (August 1994), 36+.
(6) Walsham, idem.
(7) Parker, Geoffrey. “Violence and Religion. Attitudes Towards Militancy in the French Civil Wars and the English Revolution.” The English Historical Review 112.447 (1997): 745+. Reviewing: Sproxton, Judy. Violence and Religion. Attitudes towards Militancy in the French Civil Wars and the English Revolution. London: Routledge, 1995.
(8) Sharlet, Jeff. Interview with Terry Gross. Fresh Air. NPR. KERA Dallas. 24 Nov. 2009.
(9) Walsham, idem.
* The royal house of England from the death of Elizabeth I to the death of Queen Anne, minus the years of the Puritan Commonwealth.
** For information about fundamentalist christian proselytizing at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, see http://pluralism.org/research/reports/davis/afareport.php

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Responses

  1. In my lovely mountain village there is a church that has traditionally been non-demoninational. It has bells that ring at noon and at 5 PM with snatches of music. The rotation often features Onward Christian Soldiers. I can’t help but have the words sing through my mind each time they ring. The tune is fine, but the words put my teeth on edge.

    Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a bit of loathsome policy that never should have been enacted. But, what I don’t understand is why gays would want to be in the military in the first place?

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    • This gay, as you know, would not want to serve. But everyone ought to have equal freedom and opportunity to do ridiculous things.

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