Steven Waldman: John Adams ... God Damn America





[Steven Waldman is the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Beliefnet. Before that he was the National Editor of US News & World Report and before that the National Correspondent for Newsweek. He earlier served as editor of The Washington Monthly, an influential political magazine.]

As I alternate between reruns of Jeremiah Wrights "God Damn America" tirade and first-runs of the HBO's John Adams series, I see a surprising connection. Like many of the Revolutionary era, Adams believed that if we weren't careful, God would damn us or at least withdraw his support.

At some points during the war, Adams feared that the cause would fail because he saw too much greed and commercialism in the colonies. "I have seen all my life such selfishness and littleness even in New England, that I sometimes tremble to think that, although we are engaged in the best cause that ever employed the human heart, yet the prospect of success is doubtful not for want of power or wisdom but of virtue." During the revolution, Adams -- evoking the manner of his Puritan ancestors -- told his friend Benjamin Rush that the colonials would only have a chance of winning, "if we fear God and repent our sins." He even speculated that God might intend for America to be defeated so that its "vicious and luxurious and effeminate appetites, passion and habits" would be cleansed, laying the foundation for a more-deserved victory in the future.

Adams wasn't alone in seeing the events on the ground as a reflection -- positive and negative -- of God's assessment. One minister ascribed the Continental Army's difficulties to the presence of slavery. Noting the brutal winter, the poor crops, the loss of cattle, and the seemingly imminent collapse of the army, a Quaker farmer speculated that it was part of a divinely-ordained set of plagues. When on July 20, 1775 the Continental Congress called for a day of prayer, it was accompanied by a call for fasting, self-reflection and a unified effort to "unfeignedly confess and deplore our many sins."

I don't mean this as a defense of Jeremiah Wright (or John Adams). It's just a reminder that there's a long tradition among preachers and politicians of asserting that if God is to bless us when we're good, He may damn us when we're bad.



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