Were FDR, JFK, and LBJ Dispensationalists?

Maybe if being dispensationalist means going by three initials.

But I worry that Donny Friederichsen is barking up the wrong tree when he blames those Scopes Reference Bible-thumping end-of-time worriers for American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States is better and more blessed than other nations:

The belief in American exceptionalism was wedded to the growing theological movement known as Dispensationalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Dispensationalism, a novel theological movement that was popularized by J.N. Darby and C.I. Schofield, convinced Christians that they could most certainly find American exceptionalism in the Scriptures. Through the vehicle of Dispensationalism, America became the pinnacle of Christendom, the “City on a Hill,” but not in the manner it was originally used by John Winthrop when he quoted Matthew 5:14 in 1630. Winthrop argued that the eyes of the world would be upon their colony and if they dealt falsely with God, then God would make them a byword. Winthrop saw no special virtue or exceptionalism in his colony, rather he used it as a call to actually live out their Christian faith in spite of their inherent sinfulness. Instead, American evangelicals began to see the United States as THE beacon of God’s divine light and the highpoint of humanity. For example, the fiction series, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins presents a Dispensational view of the end times, which makes clear that the US and the modern nation-state of Israel are the principal players in God’s great redemptive plan of history. Any attitude that suggests that the US has a divine right to global supremacy, is pervasive.

The thing is, American exceptionalism was (and is) mainstream. Dispensationalism was and is not. Listen to FDR:

We are fighting today for security, for progress, and for peace, not only for ourselves but for all men, not only for one generation but for all generations. We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.

Our enemies are guided by brutal cynicism, by unholy contempt for the human race. We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “God created man in His own image.”

We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God. Those on the other side are striving to destroy this deep belief and to create a world in their own image—a world of tyranny and cruelty and serfdom.

That is the conflict that day and night now pervades our lives.

No compromise can end that conflict.

Or what about JFK?

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

And don’t discount LBJ.

We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance. Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Viet-Nam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next. We must say in southeast Asia–as we did in Europe–in the words of the Bible: “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” . . .

We may well be living in the time foretold many years ago when it was said: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

This generation of the world must choose: destroy or build, kill or aid, hate or understand.

We can do all these things on a scale never dreamed of before.

Well, we will choose life. In so doing we will prevail over the enemies within man, and over the natural enemies of all mankind.

Of course, Bible-believing Protestants have a lot for which to answer. But a POTUS who uses the Bible and doesn’t believe the passage he invokes, may have more answers to give. And if he believes those passages, said POTUS may be a bigger fool than President Trump.


11 thoughts on “Were FDR, JFK, and LBJ Dispensationalists?

  1. Read “The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy,” by Walter McDougall for explanations of American civil religion.


  2. Probably much better to state this intersection of opinion and theology this way:

    “The long held belief of many American Christians: that being American made them exceptional, in the mid 20thC found fresh theological legs from pushing for support of the nascent Israeli state. Being on God’s Side in this venture, and having this marvelous insight (growing out of 200yrs of worthiness) merely made the USA into the ESA, the Exceptional States of America.”

    I like that. Copy Boy!


  3. But “dispensatianalist” is such a handy scapegoat to blame things on , everything from Arminianism to those “hyper” folks who equate election with the new covenant! It would not be convenient for those who use the dispy insult to notice the difference between dispies who say “anytime maybe a long time” and those who “update their prediction books for each new generation”.

    The “dispensationalist” as “other” rhetoric also does not attend to the difference between John Winthrop exterminating Native Americans for the sake of the city on the hill which fulfills Genesis 17 and the “amill” folks who now teach both a future for ethnic Israel AND AT THE SAME TIME the need for the American empire to to serve Zionism (but in a secular not for Jesus kind of way)

    Brandon Adams—The people and the land aspects of the kingdom are in fact correlative and not to be wrenched apart. Together they represent the twin cultural task of filling the earth with people and subduing the kingdom realm as that creational program gets taken up into redemptive history. Land and people promises must therefore be kept together within each level, whether in the typological embodiment of the cultural program in the old covenant kingdom or in its new covenant version. A hybrid combination of old covenant people and new covenant land violates the conceptual unity of these two cultural components of the kingdom, while at the same time ignoring the discreteness of the typical and antitypical kingdoms. In addition to the hermeneutical inconsistency…. there is also the problem that it too contradicts the Bible’s insistence that in Christ the privilege of offspring according to the flesh ceases with respect to kingdom inheritance.

    Brandon Adams–You don’t start with Genesis 17 and look at the promise God made to Abraham and then insist that that reading of the promise overrides everything that comes subsequent to that. You look at the offspring promise in Genesis 17 – repeated throughout 12, 15, 22, on and on and on and say, “How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the offspring promise? How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the Abrahamic Covenant?”

    Genesis 17:14 “If any male is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that man will be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

    David Gordon—-“John Murray and his followers)implicitly believe that the only relation God sustains to people is that of Redeemer. I would argue, by contrast, that God was just as surely Israel’s God when God cursed the nation as when God blessed it. God’s pledge to be Israel’s God, via the terms of the Sinai administration, committed God to curse Israel for disobedience just as much as to bless her for obedience. In being Israel’s God, God sustained the relation of covenant suzerain to her; God did not bless or curse any other nation for its covenant fidelity or infidelity. In this sense, God was not the God of other nations as he was the God of Israel. (p 120 “By Faith Alone”)


  4. BA via McM: . A hybrid combination of old covenant people and new covenant land violates the conceptual unity of these two cultural components of the kingdom…

    This is the perennial error that seemingly resists all attempt at correction.

    As Paul makes abundantly clear, Abraham was not under the Old Covenant. Abraham’s people — which explicitly include those in Christ — are not an Old Covenant people.


  5. Just adding a bit to what Jeff said:

    The more I read Scripture, the more I am convinced that Old Testament believers were actually new covenant saints who lived in the “wrong” era, as it were. They were new covenant saints who lived under the administration of the old covenant.

    If salvation is only in Christ, I don’t see how it’s possible to conclude otherwise.


  6. Believe me, I get what you are saying. Anybody who doesn’t agree with you (on the theonomy side or on the credobaptist side) does not see that Abraham was not Moses…therefore Abraham was new covenant.

    So the people cut off from Abraham’s covenant (Genesis 17) were cut off from grace? Or were they never Abraham’s people? Were the Americans deported from the world’s most exceptional nation never really Americans in the first place?

    Liam Goligher—-“All future covenants will be variations of the covenant with Adam…. Adam was in a state of rectitude, perfectly capable of obeying this law, and this law is not a terribly restricting law…If Adam had obeyed, he would have presumably gone on to have children for many years and then presumably, at some point, Adam and his children would have been granted access to the tree of life and given transformed eternal glorious bodies….” God, Adam and You, Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, P and R, p 73-

    Vos—We find that there is real gospel under the theocracy. The people of God of those days did not live and die under an unworkable, unredemptive system of religion, that could not give real access to and spiritual contact with God. Nor was this gospel-element contained exclusively in the revelation that preceded, accompanied, and followed the law; it is found in the law itself. That which we call ‘the legal system’ is shot through with strands of gospel.”

    Vos–If there were no conditions in the covenant of grace, there would be no place for threats, for threatening only makes sense to those who reject the conditions. If there were no conditions, God alone would be bound by this covenant, and no bond would be placed on man. Thereby the character of the covenant would be lost. All covenants contain two parts.”

    Vos—The presumption is always that the children of the covenant, who are under the covenant bond, will also be led into covenant fellowship. Election is free, BUT it is not on that account ARBITRARY. Therefore, we say–of those born under the covenant, not only is it required with double forece that they believe and repent, but it is likewise expected with a double confidence that they will be regenerated in order to be able to believe and repent. If for a long time he remains unconverted and unbelieving, the covenant relationship does not immediately end, and the requirement also does not cease, and the comfort likewise is not removed. But for the person himself, by his unbelief and impenitence, that comfort DIMINISHES with every moment.


    David Gordon — They refer again and again to “the covenant,” as opposed to some particular covenant (e.g. the first Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant with the Levites to be priests, the covenant with David to build God’s house, the Sinai covenant, the New Covenant,). I must say that I never know what they are talking about when they say “the covenant.” Do they mean the Sinai covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the New Covenant? Do they mean the (confessional-but-not-very-biblical) “covenant of grace?”

    The Bible frequently refers to “covenants” in the plural, or to some particular covenant, but never refers to “the covenant,” without an immediate context that delineates the specific covenant being referred to. Why this neologistic reference to some nebulous, unspecified “the covenant?” Because, like their not-too-distant progenitor John Murray, the Auburn theologians are deeply driven by an anti-dispensationalist agenda; and therefore, like their more-proximate progenitors, Norman Shephard and Greg Bahnsen, they shy away from using language that candidly recognizes the plurality of biblical covenants. For all the Auburn approval of a kind of biblicist using of biblical terms in a biblical manner, their oft-repeated but lexically unbiblical “the covenant”is a profound exception to their profession. And for all their professed interest in the biblical narrative, they remove from that narrative one of its most important features–that it is the narrative of a succession of different historical covenants that God has made with a variety of different parties, for different proximate purposes, though the same distant end (the redemption of sinners in Christ).


  7. John Owen, comments on Hebrews 8:6-13—No man was ever saved but by virtue of the NEW COVENANT, and the mediation of Christ in that respect

    john Owen–The Sinai covenant thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, OR perished for ever, but not by virtue of this Sinai covenant. IT…. was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the NEW COVENANT, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law to Adam.


    Ligon Duncan defending the Mosaic covenant as an administration of “the covenant of grace”– “So as far as Moses is concerned, there is no radical dichotomy between what God is doing with His people in the time of the Exodus and what God promised to Abraham. In fact, he says that the reason God came to His people’s rescue was because He remembered the promise He had made with Abraham. .. God went out of His way to tell Abraham about the oppression of Israel in Egypt and about the fact that He was going to bring them out of Egypt as a mighty nation, and that He was going to give them the land of Canaan. And so, Moses goes out of his way in both Genesis 15 and in Exodus 2 to link the Mosaic Economy with the Abrahamic Covenant, so that the Mosaic Economy isn’t something that is replacing the way that God deals with His people, under Abraham; it is expanding what God was doing with His people through Abraham.”

    Robert Rayburn refuses to make any distinctions between covenants—for Rayburn , Hebrews is only about the correct understanding of gospel grace and not about old and new covenant. Rayburn does not think redemptive history has anything to do with understanding or not understanding the gospel.


  8. Perhaps it’s not helpful to notice that those who invaded New England were paedobaptists using the land and people of Israel as their model for government Now we think that “we are all anabaptists when it comes to liberty because we don’t kill in our role as Christians but in our role as humans”

    Douthat–“Saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, need to be transcended. ”

    Whether Jesus had in view only his elect for lasting life, or all those in the Roman Catholic visible church, or all those born in Protestant visible churches …

    Richard Gamble– “Jesus clearly did not address the metaphors of salt, light, and city to the Roman Empire of his day…. Others living during roughly the same era did just that. A century earlier, the Roman statesman Cicero combined two of these three images when he warned his fellow Senators at the time of Catiline’s conspiracy that he “seemed to see this city, the light of the whole world and the fortress of all the nations, suddenly involved in one general conflagration. Pericles had praised his city as a model to all the Greeks. …But it became commonplace to talk about America as the embodiment of Jesus’ hilltop city.”

    Jonathan Edwards–“Some are distinguished of God as a Covenant People. God entered into Covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and brought them out of Egypt and in a Solemn manner entered into Covenant with them and separated them from other nations on the earth to be a peculiar People to the Lord. Exodus 19:6, “if you keep my covenant ye shall be unto me an holy nation.”

    Charles Hodge: “It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one, Abraham’s natural descendants through Isaac were constituted a commonwealth, an external, visible community. By the other, Abraham’s spiritual descendants were constituted a visible church…”

    Scott Clark—“By the end of Hebrews 11:24, attention has moved beyond the contrast between Moses and Sinai to a broader contrast between ALL the typological elements and their reality in Christ. If we follow Scripture in our inquiries after the origin of the covenant of peculiarity made with Israel after the flesh, Scripture will guide us to that covenant which God made with Abraham for his natural offspring and sealed by circumcision.”

    Peter Leithart–As Israel was a federation of semi-independent units, so were the “United Tribes of America.” An economy that rested on the sturdy backs of Jeffersonian yeomen synced with the Hebraic system of land tenure.
    But by the 1820s, a shift was underway, not away from the Bible but within the Christian canon. Jesus and the New Testament worked their way into the minds of new Israelites. When Washington died, only 7 percent of the texts used in eulogies came from the New Testament. When Lincoln was assassinated, that number was 24 percent. Still a Hebrew republic, America was becoming Jesus-centered. The shift to the New Testament was partly due to the fervor of the Second Great Awakening.

    Leithart–“Debates about slavery are complexly implicated in the process. Abolitionists liked to cite Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth (“proclaim liberty to captives”), and Southerners defended slavery from the Old Testament. But Theodore Weld’s The Bible Against Slavery showed that ancient Israelites knew nothing of chattel slavery, and pro-slavery writers pointed out that Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon. African-American hymns turned the old Puritan narrative upside down. America had become Egypt, white rulers Pharaohs, slaves the oppressed Israelites who would be liberated by bloody plagues sent from heaven. Pseudo-biblical history is hard to find, but Peter Marshall and David Manuel have collaborated on a providential history of early America. The Hebraic tradition is alive and well, now standard fare for Christian homeschoolers…. It’s ironic that those most attuned to the Hebraic sources of the American system are often considered a threat to that system.”



  9. DGH, your review is behind a pay wall. I get the dead tree version of the WSJ sporadically, must have run on a day I missed. I do have McDougall’s latest on my Kindle, though, and it is next up on my serious reading list. If you can, email me a copy of your review.


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