Beyond exodus: Christian faith and the American Revolution

Let us face this reality with honesty, grace and a sense of history not distorted by an out-of-date and insecure apologetic stance.

American, Israeli flags. (photo credit: REUTERS)
American, Israeli flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Let us take a moment to honor these heroes – all of them Jews – of the American Revolution: Francis Salvador, Benjamin Nones, David Salisbury Franks, and Haym Salomon. Salvador was one of the first Jews to join Washington’s Continental Army and fell in battle. Nones, a Jew born in France, joined the forces of liberty, rising to the rank of major. Franks, born in Philadelphia, served with honor as the aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Benedict Arnold and was exonerated after his commander’s treason. Haym Salomon – the Polish-born financier of the Revolution – is well-known today, his legend growing with the great wave of Jewish immigration to America from Eastern Europe over a century ago.

We honor our heroes. As the son of an infantry sergeant in the US Army – my father fought in battles in Germany and Bohemia in the last months of World War II – I am proud of my father’s service to America. Yet, when we acknowledge the role of Jews in the American Revolution, we must understand that this acknowledgment is tinged by apologetics and revisionist history.
The American Revolution was very much a holy and just religious war. Certainly this was so in the eyes of the Protestants who founded our nation and fought on the field of battle.
We often believe that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was the sole spark that exploded into colonial rebellion against King George. In fact, as demonstrated by Professor James P.
Byrd of Vanderbilt University Divinity School in his recent study of sermons delivered by ministers before, during and after the revolution, Christian clergy had great impact in inspiring the colonists to fight – and often to die – for their country.
Yes, as American Jews repeat often, the colonists had a strong sense of being the “New Israelites” and the basis of many of the sermons were stories of David and Deborah in the Hebrew Bible. Moses and the Exodus from Egypt were events in Israelite history that encouraged and emboldened the clergy and the Continental Army to rebel. But we must be much more honest about the role of Christian Scriptures – including “the New Testament” – in the religious rhetoric of what the fighters considered a war against demonic evil. The American Revolution – for many but not all of those who fought the British – was very much a “Christian War” fought by a “Christian Nation.” Every American – and anyone interested in the roots and history of the United States – should read Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. I would not dare summarize the complexity of author Byrd’s thesis in the space of this essay.
I was brought up believing that America of the revolutionary period was a “religiously neutral” nation. In fact, the reality of the American Revolution should make some American Jews – and a few secular humanists – a bit uncomfortable. Byrd devotes most of his study to the Hebrew Bible’s impact on pastors.
Byrd’s analysis of the sermons of the Revolution would not please Jewish apologists who would never admit to being “latecomers” to American soil who were not the prime founders of a country of Protestant Christians who, more than anything else, were followers of the militant Christ of Luther, not the Enlightenment God of Locke. The Vanderbilt divinity professor provides many examples of Christian Scriptures and their impact on Americans fighting a crusade. No, the Revolution was not just a fight against “taxation without representation.” It was a struggle with demonic forces in a religious – and sometimes apocalyptic – scenario.
This is seen most clearly in American ministers’ use of the book of Revelation in their sermons. While the apocalyptic book of Christian Scriptures was not the main source for the preaching of church sermons, it did play a critical role in inspiring men to fight the British. Revelation remains today a bizarre book with an array of strange images that have confounded readers and believers for millennia. Professor Byrd delves into Revelation as a source for Revolutionary sermons.
In an attempt to convince Americans that Jesus never condoned pacifism, ministers cited Revelation 19. This particular chapter features Christ as the “militant victor.”
This was a Christ wielding “a sharp sword” that would “smite the nations” in judgment, laying down “the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” King George embodied the demonic enemy who fought “Christ the Warrior.” During the Revolution, ministers invoked the “Christus Victor” of battle and violence to inspire their flock to fight. Americans martyred themselves on the field of battle, inspired by the image of a Jesus who fought evil, not a meek, “turn the other cheek” teacher.
The reality that Christian faith bolstered and emboldened the emerging nation of America in 1776 should be a threat to no one’s religious liberties today in the United States. It is simply a fact of history. But it is hard for American Jews to grasp this, especially when the Jewish experience historically in Christian lands has been an experience often of persecution and Jew hatred. The Christ as “militant victor” is the same force that persecuted Jews as the “sons of the Devil,” in the extreme hatred of Jews evoked by Luther in his later writings. To believe that the revolution which founded a nation based in freedom of religion was rooted in the same forces that represented anti-Jewish animus is a hard reality to swallow.
As well, American Jews are the most secular ethnic group in the US. Some Jews want to rewrite the narrative of American independence devoid of God. They are not comfortable with the reality that Christianity has played an important role in the development of our nation. Finally, while the masses of Jews came from Russia and Romania to America in the millions more than a century ago, American Jews still need to stake a claim in America’s founding to “fit in” and legitimize Jews as true Americans. While this is a legitimate enterprise, it should not be done at the risk of rewriting America’s history in Orwellian fashion.
Admitting that America emerged as a “Christian nation” with Christian founders – that many American colonists sacrificed their lives on the battlefield in the name of a Christian faith that promoted liberty and freedom from tyranny – in no way detracts from the heroism of the small Jewish population in colonial America in the War for Independence.
As for Moses in American lore, the picture is far more complex than that posed by American Jews who are proud of our country’s “Exodus Heritage.” In one of his few references to Judaism is his private correspondence, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson writes in 1820 to fellow patriot William Short: “Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence.”
Jefferson’s portrait of Moses is not flattering.
Jesus is Jefferson’s hero. Not a comfortable image for American Jews to find in the literature of a Founder of this great nation – but a real one embodied in our country’s history.
Let us face this reality with honesty, grace and a sense of history not distorted by an out-of-date and insecure apologetic stance.
The writer is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.