In his new book, “God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era,” Medved explores U.S. history in search of divine intervention in the progress of the nation. He finds that what might look like happy accidents or random occurrences to some, are, in his eyes, quite simply signs of heavenly favor. America is not just exceptional, it is God’s chosen nation.
Other providentialist popularizers have focused on God and country, among them the Christian nationalist David Barton and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. But Medved is a more careful and thoughtful writer. His prose, whatever one thinks of the message, brings worrying scenes and critical ordeals from America’s past to life. Medved, who has spent time writing for film and television, demonstrates his narrative skills.
His cinematic chapters take us to moments in the Civil War, the westward expansion, World War II and the modern civil rights movement. Medved recounts key episodes in the lives of Lincoln’s secretary of state, William H. Seward; Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt; Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
Medved takes special interest in how fate or providence operated for the good of the country. That mostly has to do with how esteemed figures narrowly escaped death. With every bullet that didn’t hit an intended target and every carriage or car accident that did not end in a fatality, he sees the hand of God. Medved’s brand of civil religion is most concerned with this protective aspect of divine favor. The formula usually goes: If X had died, then X could not have accomplished Y. Had Seward’s would-be assassin killed him in 1865, for example, Seward would not have negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Without that divine protection, Medved claims, the Cold War would have turned out quite differently.
Medved focuses on the signs and wonders of national righteousness. A giant cross that was once clearly outlined by nature on the side of a mountain in the Rockies, Medved writes, “served as the country’s ongoing reminder of an unbroken covenant.” The cross, first photographed in the 1870s, fell victim to the elements during the 20th century. Medved sees special significance in the decline of the cross. He writes that the “message from the mountainside seemed unmistakable: just as some vast power had once carved a benediction, that identical force now engraved a warning of collapse and confusion.” Other signs of the divine were more immediate. For example, Teddy Roosevelt’s folded speech and glasses case, which slowed a gunman’s bullet in 1912, could not have been a stroke of luck, Medved insists.
It’s one thing to appreciate how religion or ideas about providence inspired Americans in the 1860s or the 1890s. It’s quite something else to say that modern Americans should read the distant past as confirmation of the nation’s divine appointment. Medved wonders why Americans are not more thankful “for winning life’s lottery through your American birth or upbringing.” America being blessed by God, he writes, may defy “the ordinary odds but conforms to our lived experience.” That perspective, while full of hope and optimism, amounts to a selective reading of the past. It ignores a large segment of the U.S. population such as African Americans and Native Americans whose lived experience often has not felt like winning a lottery.
Medved’s style of popular conservative history is in large measure defined by what he leaves out. The shameful, racist, violent aspects of the American narrative are swept away or excused. He gives little attention to the treatment of Native Americans, the crucial role slavery played in the country’s development, wars of imperial expansion and colonial acquisition, and the horrors and follies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
In his celebration of the glories of the Transcontinental Railroad, Medved makes little or no room for discussion of the exploitation of workers, unfair and criminal business practices, the destruction of wildlife and natural habitats, or discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Those, too, are essential parts of the story. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigration of Chinese laborers, is not even mentioned. How should modern Americans read these episodes, which earlier Americans explained and justified in explicitly religious terms?
Americans today are sharply divided along partisan lines, Medved acknowledges. But he sees hope in his version of the country’s past. “Despite disillusionment over present predicaments,” he asserts, “Americans retain an instinctive affinity for the old faith in providential protection, and an honest examination of our history ought to make the case for its reclamation.” Medved hopes his book will reach a wide audience and help bridge the yawning gaps that mark our current political landscape. Yet, for good or ill, the book will mostly appeal to listeners of right-wing radio and viewers of Fox News.
In a book that focuses so much attention on the singular importance of American presidents, Medved plays down Donald Trump’s significance in the direction of the United States. He is dispirited by the nation’s polarization, which “both sides impute to a single flawed and fascinating human being.” In Medved’s view, Americans have placed too much emphasis on Trump. “In truth,” he writes, “Donald Trump can neither solely save nor single-handedly savage the most powerful nation on Earth.”
We live in an era when America is increasingly isolated from other countries and when world leaders are literally laughing at the president. Perhaps what’s needed is greater humility and the courage to address the many flaws of the nation. In his “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin declared, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” As Baldwin knew, American history is filled with stories of triumph and heroism, but it is also marked by tragedy, greed and an arrogance that came with a sense of divine favor. We need more history books that match that complicated and messy reality.
Divine Providence in the Modern Era