In many evangelical circles, it is still assumed that conservative theology means conservative politics. And to be fair, the same could be said of the “Evangelical left” and liberal politics. But when politics and theology are seen as synonymous, it is typically not theology that is primary.
The reason for this is simple: a robust biblical theology does not support the hyper-individualism and consumerism needed to maintain public interest in today’s modern politics. Nevertheless, modern politics needs to be cloaked in religious language in order to carry the necessary gravitas. The end result is that theology becomes the handmaiden of political agendas. In turn, patriotism becomes one and the same with Christianity for so many. Among the multitude of factors that have given rise to this fact in the United States is the combination of American exceptionalism and Dispensationalist theology.
American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States is qualitatively and fundamentally different and better than other nations. The reasons behind this widely held belief are varied. The amalgamation of a Puritan history, Protestant work-ethic, manifest destiny, and a general pragmatism have all helped shape the belief that God has, in fact, blessed the United States in a way that He has not blessed other nations.
The belief in American exceptionalism was wedded to the growing theological movement known as Dispensationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dispensationalism, a novel theological movement that was popularized by J.N. Darby and C.I. Schofield, convinced Christians that they could most certainly find American exceptionalism in the Scriptures. Through the vehicle of Dispensationalism, America became the pinnacle of Christendom, the “City on a Hill,” but not in the manner it was originally used by John Winthrop when he quoted Matthew 5:14 in 1630. Winthrop argued that the eyes of the world would be upon their colony and if they dealt falsely with God, then God would make them a byword. Winthrop saw no special virtue or exceptionalism in his colonyl; rather he used it as a call to actually live out their Christian faith in spite of their inherent sinfulness.
Contrary to Winthrop’s original meaning, American evangelicals began to see the United States as THE beacon of God’s divine light and the highpoint of humanity. For example, the fiction series, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins presents a Dispensational view of the end times which makes clear that the US and the modern nation-state of Israel are the principal players in God’s great redemptive plan of history.