Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review - American Zion, by Eran Shalev

A subject often glossed over in discussions about  the ideas, concepts, and imaginations of early Americans in regards to their society and politics is the influence of the Jewish scriptures, particularly in regards to the Israelite's governmental structure of the pre-monarchical period.

This subject is treated exceptionally clearly in an appropriate follow up to Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic, in which Eran Shalev detailed the extent to which War of Independence-era Americans thought of themselves as contemporary versions of  Romans of the Republic and Greeks of the Polis.

In American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War, Shalev again puts us in the mindset of early Americans who, steeped in a largely Calvinistic approach to the Old Testament, saw their society as a reincarnation of the ancient Hebrew State and the latter as a perfect republican form of civil government. This "biblical republicanism" would work alongside the societal and  civic concepts borrowed from the Romans, Greeks, and early Anglo-Saxons and would become a part of the fabric of the new nation.

In the Book of Judges, Americans found in Gideon the scriptural counterpart of Cincinnatus, the ancient Roman who exemplified the war leader who would surrender his authority while at the zenith of power. Here too they saw thirteen tribes in a federal structure that were mirrored by the colonies-turned States, sovereign entities that would coalesce into a nation without surrendering their freedom entirely to the new federal government. Regions settled by those fleeing religious persecution were seen as second Israels, places of refuge that would, if only the people would not abandon God, avoid the pitfalls into despotism and moral decay that plagued earlier Republics.

In a society raised on the King James Bible, Americans were more than comfortable with expressing themselves in the that manner of writing. Shalev argues convincingly that this phenomena set the stage for the founding of Mormonism, an American-made religion that held that biblical inspiration was not restricted to the Near East and the Mediterranean world. 

As slavery was becoming called into question by more Americans, we are provided examples of how both abolitionists and those who supported the "curious institution" wrestled to gain the support of the scriptures for their respective side. American blacks, held in bondage and forced servitude in a country far from their own origin, identified with the Hebrews under the Pharaohs and prayed for their own Exodus into freedom. This outlook was to continue until the Civil Rights Era.

Several early American commentators went to great lengths to argue that the Native Americans were in fact the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This was taken as proof-positive by some that the second Israel status was beyond question. It was only with the advent of solid historical research and the passing of gratuitous conjecture that this idea would be quietly tucked away. 

A failed attempt to found a refuge in New York State for Jews would result in the dropping of that idea by its advocate, Mordechai Manuel Noah, in favor of a call to encourage the creation of an autonomous Jewish homeland in the region that had come to be referred to as Palestine, then still under Ottoman rule. I found it striking that the the same Noah advocated what would come to be known as Zionism long before that concept arrived on the political scene.

Another shift for American Christians treated in the book was the move from concentrating mainly  the Hebrew scriptures to a focus on the New Testament. Early American Protestants, having come from societies that had sought to return to a  Hebrew-influenced austerity and lifestyle and to excise all remnants of Catholicism, had given much attention to the Old Testament. One can see that only after this process was complete could American Protestantism comfortably bring back a focus on the New Testament and a return to center stage of its Redeemer. 

Although not argued in American Zion - and as a major digression from the book, I would find that it is ironic that the modern Evangelical movement, having risen to a sort preeminence in the Protestant world, is presented by its adherents as focusing on Jesus in contrast to Catholicism when in actuality this focus had its origins in a lack of stress on the Savior in the American Protestantism of its time. This parallels the Pentecostal movement, itself not a reaction against the belief in the direct action of the Holy Spirit - something strongly supported in Catholicism, but in stark contrast to the prevailing outlook in much of Protestantism, which restricted belief in direct action of the Holy Spirit to the eras of the scriptures. Like movements such as Methodism, in which the Calvinistic, God-ordained temporal condition mindset was abandoned for a  responsibility of the believer to help the less fortunate, the Azusa Street Revival may be seen as a return to a partially Catholic outlook once it was safe to do so.

I strongly recommend American Zion for anyone who desires to learn about this facet of American History, both from the religious and strictly civic point of view. An added benefit for the reader is that, unlike works or articles from radical Atheists or Christian Fundamentalists, each of which strive mightily to present the Founders in their own light, American Zion provides a tremendously clear picture of a United States at once religious and not; a nation that would not allow a institutional church or creed but would operate with the understanding that virtually every citizen would be guided by, if not Christian beliefs, at least a Judeo-Christian outlook. It was envisioned by many as a nation that was unique in having a chance to find that coveted middle ground between a theocracy and a nation devoid of any religious thought. One would have to look hard for early Americans that did not have some impression that God was working in some way with the founding of the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment