I spent the last couple of days at Duke University where I gave a lecture at a really interesting conference on the Bible in the Public Square. The conference was sponsored by the Duke Department of Religion, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, and Southern Methodist University.
What I found particularly interesting about the conference was that many of the speakers assigned with the task of talking about the role of the Bible in public life were scholars of Judaism. As a result, most of the talks emphasized the influence of the Old Testament on American culture. (Very little was said about the New Testament). There were sessions on DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” Psalm 137 and American culture, the Hebrew Bible and the American imagination, and Christian support for Zionism and Israel.
Having been to a few conference where evangelicals and other Protestants have addressed the Bible’s role in American history and culture, I found this Jewish Studies emphasis refreshing. There was, however, one theme that kept coming up during the conference that raised some red flags. Almost everyone who talked about the Old Testament influence on American life simply assumed that America was New England writ large. Indeed, the 17th century Puritans believed that they were a “New Israel,” trained their ministers in Hebrew, and thought that they were God’s new chosen people. One scholar even argued that if Israel did not exist, Americans would have to invent it. Sacvan Bercovitch’s book, The American Jeremiad, was cited by several speakers.
What do you think? Is the United States New England writ large?