As we mull Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” theory, it’s worth remembering that in an earlier era, politicians routinely talked in these terms. During the revolutionary era, there was an assumption that God was paying attention and, thanks to the nobility of our cause, intervening on the side of the Americans. But when things were not going well, speculation would bubble up that perhaps God was damning America because of our bad behavior.
At some points during the war, John 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.”