The United States is in political turmoil today, facing not only a furiously contested presidential election but also confrontations over its core values and purpose. People pledge “one nation under God,” but is this still “one nation” with a coherent sense of itself? Is it still “under God” or even aware of what that may mean? Three new and upcoming books raise provocative questions about the meaning of nationalism and its relationship to biblical ideas. And all three authors approach the ancient text as if tells the stories we live now.
Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (Yale University Press, Jan. 5) by Leon Kass, a scholar of social thought and professor emeritus at University of Chicago, is a comprehensive commentary on the book that takes the Hebrews from a world defined by family and tribe, as told in Genesis. In the course of Exodus, they become a nation— a coherent people, freed from enslavement, charged with a set of laws for all aspects of life and aspiring to know God.
“It’s a timeless story, says Yale Press executive editor William Frucht, who edited the book. “It addresses the essentials for what constitutes a nation – a sense of self-determination, a system of justice, and a higher purpose. It turns out the essential aspect of nationhood as conceived by the Hebrews in Exodus has a very strong resemblance to the Enlightenment ideal of nationhood as it exists today.”
The Jefferson Bible (Princeton University Press, released Sept. 15) by Peter Manseau, religion curator for the Smithsonian Museum of American History, shows Thomas Jefferson—who wrote “creator” into the Declaration of Independence, a foundational document of the nation— in his retirement years methodically stripping the miraculous out the Gospels to create his personal cut-and-paste rationalist "study guide" to Jesus’ teachings.
Princeton editor Fred Appel asked Manseau to write the book for the publisher’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. Appel says, “The Jefferson Bible speaks to how religion and Christianity have been understood and received in American culture and in the beliefs of the founders. Is the U.S. a Christian nation or is it a resolutely secular nation? We are in the middle of an intense struggle over what kind of country this is and the place of religion in American life is a never-ending question.”
Here are Your Gods! Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times, (IVP Academic, published Sept. 29) by Old Testament scholar and Anglican priest Christopher J.H. Wright is the one author in this trio who makes direct links between the Bible condemnation of idolatry and the 21st century idealization of false gods. The dubious pantheon of contemporary idols in Wright’s book includes world leaders, particularly President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“This is the first time he has gone squarely at politics,” in a book that is still firmly rooted in Scripture, says IVP associate editor Anna Moseley Gissing, who edited earlier scholarly works with Wright. “But he pulls together expertise and discipleship in a way that is timely for our current political context. Many conservative Christians see themselves as people of the book and he is a trusted voice who can reach people in ways that others who have written more on politics may not be so able to do.”
A Consequential Future
Kass never mentions Trump or any modern politician in Founding God’s Nation. As a humanist (his preferred description), a scientist, physician, and philosopher, Kass approaches Exodus without an ideological or theological stance. Instead, he moves line by line through the biblical book to reveal its very modern message that Exodus is the foundational political, moral and spiritual text of the Western World.
It introduces ”the principles of human dignity and human equality; the demand for justice, tempered by mercy; the injunctions to honor one’s father and mother, to care for the vulnerable, and to respect the stranger; the summons to righteousness and holiness,” he writes. “In an age of contested national story, frayed public morality, and absent national purpose, Exodus offers thoughtful readers rich material for thinking about nation building and people formation, slavery and freedom, morality and law, man and God.”
There’s a reason this national story is retold by the Jewish people at every Passover Seder, Kass tells PW. “To renew themselves annually as a people, they remind themselves that they are here not solely by their own merit and they remember what they owe to whom. But in doing so, they also accept the personal responsibility to continue the national vocation. Every nation needs a founding narrative, especially if part of your mission is to transmit not only your gold or silver but also an elevated way of life from generation to generation.
“When the people are gathered at Sinai, God lets them know, ‘I have known you for this purpose.’ There is a promise of greatness, of a consequential future. Now, the reader has a stake in the outcome,” Kass says.
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth — the original title Thomas Jefferson gave 200 years ago to his project, known now as The Jefferson Bible —“has been given new meanings with each generation, new arguments and understandings of what Jefferson did and why,” Manseau writes in a "biography" of the historic book. “In remaking a version of the Gospels, was he defiling something sacred or creating something impelled and guided only by reason and curiosity?”
Although the singular little book was written years after the Declaration of Independence, it reveals the mindset of the man who wrote: “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…”
Who is this “Creator”? Manseau tells PW Jefferson was a rationalist who wanted to reconcile Christian tradition with the ideals of the Enlightenment, who identified a creator God without necessarily looking to the Bible for the revelation of the nature of that God. Indeed, he is saying nature is another way to learn about God. So it’s clear in his “Bible” he is not affirming the divinity of Jesus but affirming Jesus as the world’s greatest moral teacher.”
So Jefferson would be quite surprised to see himself hailed by Christian nationalists today as a founder of a Christian Nation, says Manseau. “Jefferson thought a nation — a people coming together for a common good — has great benefits in holding various beliefs that challenge and correct each other. It leads to national success and thriving.”
‘Don’t You Get the Point Yet?’
What leads to the opposite of success and thriving? Disastrous choices, says Wright in Here are your Gods! It’s a title drawn from Genesis and 1Kings where the people turned their back on God to worship a golden calf. (Note: It did not go well for them.) He tells PW that the book was triggered by two startling events – the passage of BREXIT in Britain, his home, and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.
The book, releasing the same day in both nations, has symbols like dollar signs on the cover in the U.S. edition, but glowering images of Trump and Johnson among others on the British edition. They stand for leaders — and the people who chose them — who turn their back on the principles set out for nations by a sovereign God, “who glorify their nation, who create idols that embody their own pride, greed and aggression.” says Wright.
In his book, he cited Trump’s inaugural speech: “’I am your voice,’ said Trump. ‘I alone can fix it,’ He did not appeal to prayer or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.”
His book has a grim list of ways nationalism has gone awry: Increasing poverty and inequality; sexual confusion and family breakdown, ecological devastation; the rise of extreme forms of populism and nationalism visible in the alarming resurgence of white-supremacist movements; isolationism and a war on truth. All that is in opposition to God’s must fundamental demand Justice, according to Wright.
Wright tells PW, “The whole biblical narrative takes place in the midst of the rise and fall of empires, the ebb and flow of nations and governments and whole civilizations… We watch empires rise and fall, come and go, and God seems to be saying, ‘Don’t you get the point yet?’”