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 imageā€”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.

Rome in American Exceptionalism

A constant refrain among Jason and the Callers is the notion that Roman Catholicism has one, holy, catholic, and apostolic interpretive paradigm for reading the past. (Jason has 26 posts in the category of paradigm.) I believe this is supposed to apply to the early church fathers as much as Trent, Vatican I, or the post-Vatican II church. It is, of course, a very flat view of history (and maybe the planet). As a historian, I don’t understand how this paradigm (derived from the magisterium’s dogmatic utterances almost as certainly as the neo-Calvinist w-w follows from neo-Calvinist epistemology) can actually make sense of an institution as vast and old and idiosyncratic as the Roman Catholic Church. But I am especially intrigued by the historiographical ignorance (this is Roman Catholic historiography, mind you) that claims to a single interpretive paradigm require. It is like the Landmark Baptist notion that all other Baptists, except those that trace their lineage directly to the New Testament, are not Baptists and therefore not true churches.

If Jason and the Callers read more history they might understand how far from mainstream Roman Catholic discussions of history their paradigm is. To help them out, a few excerpts from Peter D’Agostino’s important book, Rome in America:

For more than a century before Vatican Council II, American Catholics had been making two claims central to the invention of “American Catholicism.” First, like Pius IX, they demonized a vast spectrum of European liberalisms as evil, Masonic, and linked to secret and criminal forces bent on attaching the Holy Father and destroying the Church. . . . Second, American Catholics insisted that the liberal premises of the U.S. political order were profoundly different from the false, degenerate liberalism of Europe. Normative American liberalism was warm and welcoming, and it granted true liberty to the Catholic Church. In fact, Catholics argued, the natural law principles behind American liberalism and the U.S. Constitution were derived from medieval Catholicism. Both claims shaped Father John Courtney Murray’s classic essays brought together in We Hold These Truths (1960).

A new generation of Catholics who lived through, or vicariously participated in, the enthusiasms of Vatican Council II have reinvented “American Catholicism.” From Murray’s Catholic argument for an American exceptionalism, the new generation made a theological and historical leap to an environmental argument for an American Catholic exceptionalism. The unique American environment of liberty, this new generation of historians and theologians claimed, gave birth to a unique Catholicism in the history of the Church. This American Catholicism was part and parcel of the American landscape, a mainstream denomination, and not . . . a loyal minority religion operating under distinctive premises within the United States. This American Catholicism was a denomination like any Christian denomination, not “the Church.” For Ellis and Murray, it had been self-evident that the Church was a hierarchical, clerical, patriarchal, and international institution (although they might not have used those terms). Their concern had been to demonstrate that the one, holy, apostolic Church founded by Christi thrived legally and loyally within a properly ordered republic. The new generation, in contrast, claimed normative American Catholics was democratic in impulse, congregational in polity, collegial in leadership; a Catholic version of the novos ordo seclorum. (311)

This should sound familiar to Protestants in the United States who made similar intellectual moves by forgetting their European origins, conflating their churches with the American republic, and producing their own American exceptionalism. The odd feature about Roman Catholic American exceptionalism is that these Christians were supposed to be subject to a prince and prelate on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, an attachment that would supposedly undercut investing so much providence in the United States. At the same time, this exceptionalism does help to account first for Rome’s branding of Americanism as a heresy and second for the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” phenomenon where U.S. civil religion has helped Protestants and Roman Catholics forget about their differences.

But D’Agostino believes that this exceptionalism among Roman Catholics has obscured the real tensions between Rome’s antimodernism and the West’s modernization:

The two foundational claims of American Catholic exceptionalism need to be historicized and relativized . . . . First, there was no shortage of anti-Catholicism in the eighteenth century embryonic American nation. The founders, both deists and a broad spectrum of English-speaking Protestants, did not have to seriously contend with Catholicism and surely did not have to protect the new state from the instransigent likes of Pius IX. If they had, anti-Catholic fangs would surely have shown themselves more frequently. Whether or not the American Revolution was a transatlantic religious war between dissenting Protestants and Anglicans (the English approximation of “papists”), it surely drew upon cultural forces that were deeply anti-Catholic. . . .

Second, many European liberals were also liberal Catholics. The moderate advocates of Risorgimento, those men who ruled the Kingdom of Piedmont and then the Kingdom of Italy until 1876, were overwhelmingly Catholic. After they defeated their republican opponents and protected the Church in Italy from a Kulturkampf, they granted privileges to the Church and secured the safety and independence of the pope. Had the papacy cooperated with the Catholic constitutional monarchy and taken the opportunity to reform the Church’s more antiquated structures, forces that were genuinely anti-Catholic might never have won the influence they gained in the decades of the nineteenth century. (314)

In other words, the Vatican dug in against liberalism and moderate constitutional political reforms in nineteenth-century Europe as much as Vatican II made it possible for Jason and the Callers to be spirituality of the church Roman Catholics, indifferent to politics and uncomfortable with past papal pronouncements. Hitching your wagon and paradigm to the papacy means you are in for one roller coaster of a ride.