Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy Birthday to the American Messianic Dream

Solomon Schindler (1842-1915), a German Reform Rabbi who immigrated to the United States, ended his book on Messianism, Messianic Expectations and Modern Judaism, with the following declaration:

At the very moment when the old bellman's grandson shouted up the belfry, "Ring, ring, grandpa! Oh, ring for liberty!" and when the old state-house bell of Philadelphia spread with its metal tongue the news that the United States had declared their independence, the Messianic idea heaved its last sigh. At that auspicious moment its soul passed away, and what was left of it was a lifeless corpse, which has for some time lain in state, but which is buried for good.

Schindler would, at the end of his life, such views as he turned toward a more traditional brand of Judaism.

Much of my work with messianism can be seen as my attempt to come to terms, not only with the fact that such a view of modernity is flat out incorrect, but also why. This is the same American society that produced Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk, a pair of Christian missionaries who traveled to Palestine, not only in hopes of converting the Jew, but of restoring him to his homeland in Palestine. A task which Parsons and Fisk believed was necessary for bringing about the Second Coming. Parsons and Fisk were pioneering figures in an Anglo-American Christian Zionism that continues to this day. Surely American messianism should take its place at the heart of the American narrative as part of what moves this country.

In looking out onto the world of the twenty-first century, one of the questions that has to top our minds is why has messianism, in all of its various forms, not died out. A good place to begin is precisely that Liberty Bell and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The United States does not just represent the secularization of society or even the continuation of messianism by secular means, like Marxism; the United States represents a blending and reconciliation of religion and secularism and a means of bringing religious messianism into the realm of secular politics.

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