God’s Hand on America:
Divine Providence in the Modern Era
By Michael Medved
A review by Dwight A. Moody
Best-selling author and syndicated radio host (from Seattle) Michael Medved has published a very interesting and well-written book about eight episodes in American history. He contends that these episodes, most of which turn on surprising coincidences or unexpected decisions, demonstrate that God’s hand is still on the nation—the United States—in a providential and thus special way.
I’m not so sure his evidence can bear the weight of his conclusion.
The eight episodes are:
• The purchase of the Alaska territory
• The completion of the trans-continental railroad
• The election of Abraham Lincoln
• The survival of Theodore Roosevelt
• The survival of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
• The US victory at the Battle of Midway
• The decision to run Harry Truman as vice president
• The death of Martin Luther King Jr.
For the most part I was familiar with all eight of these episodes although not with the details that Medved highlights. In fact, that is his basic strategy: find rather obscure details of these events (or of episodes leading up to these events) and connect them to the outcome of these more public—and rather more important—events.
In other words, he finds small incidents that, had things gone in a different way, would have changed (we think) the course of larger events. For instance, had Teddy Roosevelt been killed as he led his famous Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba, he would not have become President of the United States.
Medved wrote of that epic battle and of Roosevelt’s survival when so many around his were dying of fever and firepower: “In this case, as in so many others, that survival seemed to serve a larger purpose…. The other deaths surrounding his ascent [to political power]—of his father, of his wife and mother … and of the vice president and then the president of the United States … seemed to indicate that destiny had marked [Roosevelt] as necessary survivor.”
Well, of course, that goes without saying; and it can be said of any event anywhere in the world: had John met Mary instead of Susan, Bill would not have been born and thus this or that event would not have taken place. Or had this soldier been killed attacking up this hill instead of that soldier, so much would have been different.
But I don’t see how that sort of observation supports a conclusion of divine watch care over anything (except in the larger sense that God’s providence guides or may permit EVERYTHING that happens—if, indeed, that is what “providence” means!). Some people survive disease, danger, and deathly situations and some don’t; and those that survive go on to raise families, write books, discover cures, sing music, and take office.
This is true throughout the United States and also throughout the world, even throughout history. Does Medved’s ability to find these common episodes of survival preceding events in American history mark out the United States as the bearer of special graces from God?
There are another things in his narrative that trouble me (even as I enjoyed reading his historical vignettes).
So many of the episodes recounted by Medved involve death—this person died, and this person did not. He counts these survivals as miracles of God, as the intervention of God, as signs that the hand of God is directing the United States history. Are death and/or survival the only means by which God guides a nation?
Furthermore, the episodes he relies upon to tell his story all involve white men who hold political or military office. Isn’t that strange? None of these stories involve women, or native Americans, or artists, or inventors, or doctors. Only one involves a person of color—Martin Luther King, Jr—and his story fits into the narrative strangely: he died rather than survived! And one other thing about King: Medved spends an inordinate amount of text describing the sex life of Reverend King and in ways that do not seem to advance his thesis. It is odd and unsettling.
As a reader of the Bible and as a Christian theologian, I am pulled toward assessing God’s activity in human events in conjunction with such things as peace, justice, and love—not war and death and survival. The Hebrew prophet famously identified the work of God as doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God; and the Christian apostle had his trilogy of virtues: faith, hope, and love. But none of these six play any role in this effort to drape the providence of God over the history of the United States.
In fact (and with this I will close), the completion the railroad so extolled by Medved occurred in January of 1863, the very year that Lee failed in his three-day battle at Gettysburg and Lincoln succeeded, five months later, in his speech of 271 words also at Gettysburg. To find God’s providence in a railroad rather than in a war to free slaves, save the republic, and articulate the great calling of our nation is peculiar in the extreme.
In the end, I appreciated a fresh reading of these eight episodes of American history even as I question if and how they demonstrate anything about God and God’s purposes in the world.
(December 2019, all rights reserved)