The Iraq war has raised huge questions about America's self-understanding and intentions. The overtly religious rhetoric that was woven into the public pronouncements of President Bush may not have come as a surprise, but it does raise questions about the source and the depth of the messianic tone that lies beneath the surface of the American psyche.
Mark Noll's America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln is an indispensable aid in any attempt to address such questions.
Contrary to what we might expect, Noll does not think that economic reasoning is the key to understanding American theology. Rather, the first key is the emergence of the theocentric evangelical-republican synthesis in America. And the second key is how such a theocentric perspective shifted into an anthropocentrism that rendered American religion incapable of providing a clear Christian response during the crisis of the civil war.
Noll argues for a quintessentially American synthesis between evangelical thought - with its emphasis on the Bible, conversion, pious activism and the cross - and the Enlightenment. As he puts it: "The synthesis was a compound of evangelical Protestant religion, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning." And even though Noll's history ends with the 1860s, he suggests that this synthesis explains much of what was to follow.
Instead of the synthesis being a weaving together of three discrete elements, it was syncretistic and dynamic. Noll, with exacting historical detail, shows how evangelicals redefined the contours of evangelical thought for America, negotiating what remained largely unnegotiable among Protestants elsewhere. While scripture, for instance, would remain central, it "was interpreted by hermeneutical canons arising from... commonsense and republican conventions of thought". The shift from traditional historic authority for the interpretation of scripture towards an emphasis on democratic, evangelical personal judgement led ultimately to a belief in the trustworthiness of (universal) human consciousness as a source for reading God's purposes.
Again, while the Protestant focus on the atonement remained central, there was a gradual shift from a focus on personal repentance to a particular American emphasis on the "governmental" view of the atonement, where Jesus'
death was seen as necessary because "God is not arbitrary", where his death was seen as a sin-offering that revealed God's righteousness, "a moral governor of beings". In that way, the governance of the republic mirrored divine governance or - as happened gradually - the mirroring occurred the other way around.
Noll argues that this redefinition of evangelical religion did not, in the main, occur anywhere else, not in Scotland, Ireland or even Canada. Indeed, he describes the US development as an oddity - it is the curious circumstances that led to this that give his book its shape and draw the reader in.
For instance, republicanism was hardly championed by the Reformation; for republican thinking had largely been linked to theological heterodoxy. That Americans could so thoroughly link religion with republicanism is not to be explained by recourse to Reformation theology but to the particular political circumstances in the US.
Again, when the colony became detached from historical sources of cohesion, when establishment no longer provided the social glue, when churches were without external religious/moral authorities, these particular circumstances led otherwise evangelical Americans to seek another source of cohesion. Embracing the Enlightenment more than their European cousins, they came gradually to espouse a universal moral sense. Theologically surprising though it might have been, it was evidently the basis for the kind of virtue that undergirded republicanism: an appeal to a natural, intuitive, self-evident, commonsense and universal morality - one that could provide the basis for law and good governance.
Such shifts would have been unthinkable to evangelicals elsewhere. To argue on the basis of such a natural, instinctive moral sense was to be directly at odds with the Augustinian and Calvinistic view of fallen nature, where intellect and will were both fallen, where knowing, willing and doing "the good" were all due to grace, not nature. But American evangelicals gradually left this Reformation hallmark behind, becoming decidedly Arminian as they emphasised an active and determinative role for the human will in the reception of grace. It was as though, having decided that God had "revealed" republicanism, God must necessarily have provided the natural means to sustain it, and he must have given human beings a natural predisposition not simply towards freedom but, equally importantly, towards responsibility and virtue.
Noll explains another oddity. Evangelism was not in the ascendancy in the early days of the republic; and yet this novel synthesis was to become not just a theological theme, but the very definition of the nation. That this was an exclusive definition is argued by comparing the different contexts and theological developments in other nations, both to "underscore the importance of context for the writing of theology" and to underscore again the uniqueness of the US context.
In the end, the synthesis that had been so helpful in defining the nation between the revolution and the civil war was not up to the theological and political task. Neither the commonsense moral reasoning nor the reformed and literal biblical interpretation, once so powerful because so simple, had anything to say during the greatest crisis that ripped the country apart - the civil war - a crisis that evangelicals, Noll suggests, "as much as any other group, had created".
Evangelical Protestants had been so successful "because they could demonstrate how their form of faith could vivify, ennoble, and lend transcendent value to the most influential ideological engines of the nation: republican political assumptions themselves, democratic convictions about social organisation, scientific reasoning pitched to common sense, and belief in the unique, providential destiny of the United States".
And the success was real. Evangelical Protestantism was "triumphant" and helped construct "a great Christian civilisation", to quote Noll. Yet, as Noll argues with strong hints of regret, "evangelical Protestantism... was also domesticated". It worked too well, and it led to the theological puzzle over slavery that lay behind the civil war, where "commitment to that very civilisation would... trivialise the Christian theology that had brought it into existence". Perhaps the greatest irony was that the leaders best able to address the moral juggernaut turned to theism, completing the journey from the early universalising impulse that so marked the unique American synthesis.
It would be misleading to suggest that Noll's book is just a discussion of such theological shifts. His attention to detail, his astute descriptions of Jonathan Edwards and a host of others, his locating of theological positions in particular institutions, his charting of denominational battles within Calvinism, his revealing analysis of US Methodism - these are all interesting and penetrating studies in their own right.
Noll is writing intellectual history, studying what he calls "formal religious thought". While other historians will want to focus on more bottom-up, less formal and more marginal accounts, this is a sweeping, magisterial work that cannot be ignored. As a history of American theological thought, America's God is not likely to be bettered for some time to come, and it will commend itself to historians and theologians alike.
Joseph Cassidy is principal, St Chad's College, Durham.
America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
Author - Mark A. Noll
ISBN - 0 19 515111 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 622