Religious Studies 375

RELN 375: Religion and American Nationalism

Prerequisites: 3 hours in Religious Studies

Credit Hours: (3)


This course is an examination of the historically powerful public belief that America is a nation “chosen” by God to carry out a divine mission.  Through careful reading of letters, sermons, presidential addresses, and popular literature, this course will explore the history, components, and implications of the myth, as well as the myth’s role in shaping America’s political landscape today.  


Detailed Description of Course

The roots of the public belief, i.e., myth, of America’s “chosenness” run deep through the nation’s history.  Nearly every American president has referred to the myth in his inaugural address, and many of America’s most influential writers, theologians, and public intellectuals have drawn on its imagery and power. 

1)      The first unit of the course will examine the myth’s development throughout American history.  This unit will consist of four sections; Puritan, Revolutionary, Civil War, Post World-War I. 

A)  Section one carefully examines the Puritans who believed they were establishing a “new Israel” in America.  They, like the Israelites, had made a covenant with God; if they lived righteously as individuals, God would reward them as a whole and their endeavor would succeed.  If they lived sinfully, God would punish them and the “city on the hill” would slide tragically into the sea.  Prior to America’s status as a sovereign nation, the myth was cautiously optimistic about the future. 

B)     Section two examines the myth’s transformation during and immediately after the Revolutionary War.  Following the revolutionaries “miraculous” defeat of the mighty British, the myth’s cautious optimism gave way to heightened confidence that the nation was indeed blessed by the hand of God and on the road to greater things. 

C)     Section three examines the myth’s role during the Civil War, and the half-century that followed.  As the slavery debate grew in America and arguments on both sides of the issue became increasingly framed in religious terms, the myth began to take on sectional hues.  Did God’s plan for America include slavery?  What does the Bible say about the institution?  How do you properly read the Bible?  The answer to these questions largely depended on one’s address.

  • The War’s outcome added more explicitly Christian themes to the myth of American chosenness.  The “sacrificial” death of Lincoln and his message that the War redeemed the national sin of slavery became part of America’s story. Memories of the war were quickly replaced by dreams of America’s manifestly ordained destiny.                

 D)  Section four examines the fate of the myth during the twentieth century.      Through two successfully won world wars and the nation’s current status as   the world’s only superpower, the myth of America’s blessed standing is alive and well. 


2)  The second unit of the course will survey several intersecting points of religion and politics. 

        A)  Section one will examine the struggle to separate church and state by looking at the historical arguments and the courts’ rulings on several contested issues.

        B)  Section two will examine the rise of the evangelical right in American politics since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. 

        C)  Section three will examine politician’s use of the myth of American chosenness and other strategies by which they attempt to appeal to religious voters.  


Detailed Description of Conduct of Course

The course will be conducted through lectures, discussions, films, and student presentations. Students will be required to present to the class an interpretation of a primary reading, providing insight and analysis of the use of religious myths and metaphors. 


Goals and Objectives of the Course

1) Students will gain experience and competency in reading and discussing primary texts in American religious history. 

2) Students will understand the power of myths to contribute to the formation of national identity and to shape human behavior.  

3)  Students will integrate different academic disciplines – religious studies, history, and sociology – into a general investigation of the religious elements of American nationalism.  

4) Students will understand the various ways American nationalism is a form of religion.

5)  Students will organize and communicate both abstract and concrete ideas in written papers and oral presentations.

6)  Students will understand the religious underpinnings of the country’s deadliest conflict – the American Civil War.

7)  Students will better understand American culture, and how to participate more fully as citizens. 


Assessment Measures

Grades may be derived from exams, class presentations, group projects, and a research paper. 


Other Course Information



Review and Approval

February 2009