For Zion's Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture

For Zion's Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture

by Fuad Sha'ban
Pub. Date:
Pluto Press


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For Zion's Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture

This book explores the role of religion, especially religious extremism, in American culture. In particular, it examines the development of the Judeo-Christian tradition, its impact on America's self-image, and the way it has influenced America's attitude to the Arab World.

The Christian Right has become a very powerful force in American politics. Its basic belief in Christian Zionism has resulted in a steadfast commitment to the establishment of the state of Israel and to its aggressive expansion, and has made Zionism a central part of government policy, for both Republicans and Democrats.

Fuad Sha'ban shows how this is not a new phenomenon: what he terms the 'Vision of Zion' in American life has its roots in literature, the arts and internal politics from colonial times until today. Looking in detail at a wealth of resources, including religious and literary texts, as well as official political statements, he pieces together a subtle account of how America's Puritan roots have fostered a specifically religious political culture that encourages hatred and suspicion of the Muslim World in domestic and foreign policy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745322377
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/14/2005
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Fuad Sha'ban has held many senior academic posts and has lectured widely at universities in the Arab world, India and the USA. Born in Damascus, Syria, he received a Ph.D. in English Literature from Duke University, and has taught at the universities of Damascus, Riyadh, Duke and UAE. He is currently Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Petra in Jordan.

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Christopher Columbus and the Quest for Zion

Christopher Columbus, "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," has been traditionally portrayed — especially in popular works — as an adventurer who sought by exploring undiscovered regions of the world to obtain power, fortune and fame. Like his contemporaries, Columbus believed that there was in the Orient a "Great Khan" whose country held the prospect of inexhaustible gold and riches for whoever arrived there first.

He insisted that if he sailed west across the Atlantic, he would eventually reach the Orient by circumnavigating the earth. Columbus spent several years trying, without success, to convince the kings and princes of Europe of the possibility of his scheme, and to get the necessary material and political support for his "Enterprise of the Indies." Eventually, his proposal found favor at the court of Spain, his adopted country.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to support and finance his voyage, and, in return, Columbus promised the Spanish monarchs sovereignty over the lands and peoples he would discover. His reward, Columbus stipulated, would be stewardship for him and his offspring over these newly discovered territories. The four voyages made by Columbus, his discoveries and his subsequent life story have all been amply described and documented in hundreds of books and papers. What had not been as well studied and documented until recently are the deep religious beliefs and motives which prompted Columbus to venture on his "Enterprise of the Indies." And it is these beliefs and motives that concern us here because of their relevance to the "quest for Zion" in Western culture. In his letters and journal entries, Columbus expressed pride and satisfaction in his maritime adventures and voyages which, he said, took him to all corners of the known world. He also prided himself on his skills as "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" and on his extensive knowledge of geography and astronomy and all the sciences which were necessary for arduous voyages.

Yet all of these skills and all the maps and aids he took with him were secondary to the most useful guide on which Columbus depended throughout his life: the Bible and the prophecies of the sacred text, and the firm belief that God had chosen him as an instrument to fulfill these prophecies. He said once: "God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John [Rev.21:1] after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it."

The principal factor which governed Columbus's life and motivated his activities was — as he put it in a letter to the Spanish monarchs — to spread the light of the Gospel throughout the world and to enlist the newly converted peoples in the life-and-death war with the empire of Muhammad. His ultimate goals included the "recovery" of the Holy Land, especially Jerusalum, in preparation for the Kingdom of God. In fact, it was his deep religious convictions in prophecy which, according to The New Millennial Manual, enabled him to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to finance his "Enterprise of the Indies." And the "Enterprise" was to be the first stage in a new Crusade which would enable the Spanish monarchs to "recapture" the Holy Land and restore the Christian faith there. Throughout his life, Columbus insisted that Providence was always guiding his steps and directing his efforts.

In fact, at the end of his first voyage, and in a letter to the Spanish court dated February 15, 1492, Columbus said that the Bible was his lifetime roadmap for the fulfillment of divine prophecies and the rebuilding of Zion. This letter was subsequently printed and translated into many European languages. In it, Columbus summed up his global program "to conquer the world, spread the Christian faith, and regain the Holy Land and the Temple Mount."

During the last voyage (1502–04), Columbus recorded in his journals that he heard voices and saw visions of God urging him on to carry out His mission. This belief in a Providential mission is what motivated Columbus to so relentlessly pursue his project of the "Enterprise of the Indies." He wrote:

Who would doubt that this light, which urged me on with a great haste continuously, without a moment's pause, came to you in a most deep manner, as it did to me? In this my voyage to the Indies, Our Lord wished to perform [a] very evident miracle in order to console me and others in the matter of this other voyage to the Holy Sepulchre [Jerusalem].

To realize the originality as well as the significance of Columbus's missionary efforts and zeal to fulfill the "prophecies," one should remember that his campaign preceded the Protestant Reformation and the resulting emphasis on Old Testament prophecies and missionary drive. This zeal and the literal interpretation of sacred text prophecies led Delno West to describe Columbus as "the first American hero with all the rights and privileges, myths and legends, and criticisms the title carries."

In his obsession with the rebuilding of Zion and the preparation for the Coming Kingdom, Columbus anticipated the early Puritan settlers in the New World, the nineteenth-century end-times churches and missionary establishment, and the present-day American grand plans for the world. In essence, Columbus's program is a roadmap for the modern campaign of the Christian Right in America today. Indeed, his plans have been recognized by successive generations of Americans, from Samuel Sewall's suggestion in 1697 that the immigrants' new home be called "Columbia" instead of America, to the song "Columbia, Columbia, To Glory Arise" chanted by American troops in the Revolutionary War, to President Reagan's description of Columbus as the "inventor of the American dream" on October 3, 1988 when the President signed the "Columbus Day Proclamation."

Columbus's contemporaries recognized the religious factors which motivated his efforts and maritime adventures. His son Ferdinand, for example, recognized his extreme obsession with the fulfillment of sacred prophecies, describing him as "so strict in matters of religion that ... he might be taken for a member of a religious order." One of his contemporaries, Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, spoke admiringly of his deep faith and frequent prayers and confessions. He also recorded Columbus's claims to a divine mission to fulfill the sacred prophecies. Commenting approvingly on Columbus's Providential mission, Bishop de las Casas said: "But since it is obvious that at that time God gave this man the keys to the awesome seas, he and no other unlocked the darkness, to him and to no other is owed forever and ever all that exists beyond those doors."

Recent studies of Columbus's life and career have recognized these aspects of his faith. Samuel Eliot Morrison, for example, wrote that "this belief that God destined him to be the instrument to spread the light of Christianity was much stronger than his quest for fame and riches." Kay Brigham also stated the belief that he knew what God had predestined him to do within His plan for the world. Following his last voyage, Columbus wrote in a letter to the Spanish monarchs suggesting that he would be the best guide to lead a "fifth Crusade," adding that

Jerusalem and Mount Zion are to be rebuilt by the hands of Christians as God has declared by the mouth of His prophet in the fourteenth Psalm [vv. 7–8]. The Abbé Joaquim said that he who should do this was to come from Spain; Saint Jerome showed the holy woman the way to accomplish it; and the Emperor of China has, some time since, sent for wise men to instruct him in the faith of Christ. Who will offer himself for this work? Should anyone do so, I pledge myself, in the name of God, to convey him safely thither, provided the Lord permits me to return to Spain.

The divine mission to which Columbus alluded in his letters and journals came to him through visions of the Holy Ghost telling him that "God will make your name known through the world, and shall give you the oceans which were closed to others." To support these claims, Columbus often cited Psalm 2:6–8:

Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.

During Columbus's lifetime Europe was witnessing many great events, the most important of which was the European conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the expulsion of Muslems and Jews from it. According to Columbus, 1491 was truly a "Wonderful Year," simply because these events were indications of the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. These were "signs of the times," and Columbus and many of his contemporaries saw in them the hand of God working out the events of history within His overall plan for the world.

Columbus also saw the hand of God working in the accession to the Spanish throne of the truly faithful Ferdinand and Isabella. For, had not the Abbé Joachim of Fiory predicted that the restoration of the Holy Land would happen at the hand of a Spaniard? If the Spanish monarchs were willing to take up the task, Columbus proposed, he would be willing to equip an army of 1,000 horsemen and 50,000 soldiers. "Victory will be yours if you are believers," he told them.

Columbus drew an analogy between himself and King David; just as David left Solomon great treasures to build the Temple, he, Columbus, wanted to finance and guide a final Crusade to liberate Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. From the Temple, said Columbus, the Messiah would rule the Kingdom, and thus "the New World will save the Old City, the City of David."

Columbus was so certain of his role in God's plan that he wrote to the Spanish monarchs in his later years about the success of his first voyage:

I spent six years here at your royal court, disputing the case with so many people of greatest authority, learned in all the arts. And finally they concluded that it was all in vain, and they lost interest. In spite of that it later came to pass as Jesus Christ our Savior had predicted and as he had previously announced through the mouth of His holy prophet ... I have already said that reason, mathematics, and maps of the world were of no use to me in the execution of the enterprise of the Indies. What Isaiah said was completely fulfilled.

Columbus wrote in detail about his beliefs and his sacred mission in his only (incomplete) book which he gave the significant title: Libro de las Profecías (The Book of Prophecies). Adopting the title of the last book of the New Testament which was mainly prophetic in nature, Columbus compiled in this work many texts from scripture to support his claim to a Providential mission. When Columbus sent this book to the Spanish monarchs, he wrote them a letter asking them to ponder the prophecies which he cited, especially those concerning the conversion of heathens and regaining the Holy Land.

According to Delno West,

Christopher Columbus' attraction to prophetic interpretation of events set the stage for New World eschatology ... He came to the conclusion that his discoveries were providential and part of a broader scheme which would lead to a final series of historical events including the recapture of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the temple, and the salvation of all Jews, infidels and pagans.

These firm beliefs in a Providential plan and Columbus's role in it are the antecedents of one of the strongest formative factors of American culture, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the quest for Zion. This mission is summed up in a passage from a letter Columbus wrote to the tutor of Prince John of Spain explaining the significance of October 12, 1492, the day on which his crew spotted land on his first voyage: "God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth of which he spoke in the 'Apocalypse' by St. John, after having told of it by the mouth of Isaiah; and He showed me where to find it."

The zeal shown by Christopher Columbus to discover a Western route to the Orient may have been partly motivated by material considerations. Nevertheless, contemporary accounts as well as Columbus's numerous statements prove that his overriding purpose was to play a principal role in regaining possession of the Holy Land and prepare for the millennial reign of Christ.

In this, Columbus can be considered the beacon which he inadvertently placed in the New World and which generations of Americans have used as a model for their endeavors to fulfill the same goal.


A Place for My People: The Pilgrims in the New World

I will appoint a place for my people Israell, and I will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their owne, and move no more. (Second Samuel; 7:10)

John Cotton, "God's Promise to his Plantation," 1619

Puritan beliefs and the Puritan way of life have had a continuous and lasting influence on prevailing American religious, as well as secular, tendencies and in the shaping of American history. This influence can be seen in the evolution of the American governmental system, in social behavior and habits, in the various religious movements such as the Great Awakenings and the Revivals, in the missionary tendencies of the American nation, and in the sociopolitical attitudes of Americans toward the "others," — Muslems and Arabs in particular. The influence of Puritanism on the development of American thinking is best described by the modern American religious historian Sidney E. Ahlstrom, who says that "the architects of the 'Puritan way' [were] ... in a very real sense the founders of the American nation," and that "Puritanism, for weal or woe, provided the theological foundation and molded the prevailing religious spirit in virtually all the commonwealths which declared their independence in 1776. With lasting effects and hardly less directness it conditioned the people's social and political ideals."

It is indeed in the Puritan beginnings of the American nation that we should look for the formative factors which shaped America's image of itself, its self-awareness and analysis, and, by contrast, its awareness of and attitude towards the Arab World, its land and people.

It is unnecessary for the present study to relate the story of the settlement of the New World and the subsequent religious, political and social developments of the American people. The story is well-known and has been documented many times over by able historians. However, it is important to examine a number of ideas and themes in order to explore the way in which they contributed to the shaping of the American concept of Arabs, Muslems, and their part of the world. This selection is not the result of a random process, neither is it inclusive; only a few of the most influential and popular ideas will be treated. The aim of this analysis is to show how these ideas have influenced, in varying degrees, the basic attitude of Americans toward the Arabs and Muslems, and how this attitude shaped their behavior on coming in contact with them.

Briefly, the selection includes the following ideas:

(1) The existence of an overall Providential plan within which the Puritans and Pilgrims saw their immigration to the New World and the role which was assigned them by God.

(2) The conviction that those Protestants who emigrated from Europe (especially from England), and settled in the New World were God's people, chosen by divine ordinance to escape the corruption and iniquities of the Old World.

(3) The settlers in America enjoyed a covenantal relation with the Creator and were thus partners in a divine mission.

(4) As covenanted people, Americans saw their religious community as the Church of Visible Saints and considered the members of that community to be citizens in the Kingdom of God.

(5) Partnership in the covenant implied the awesome duty of enlightening and saving the rest of the world.

Although these ideas are by their very nature visionary and idealistic, they continue to shape the behavior and attitude of American private individuals and public figures. Furthermore, in spite of an idealistic and visionary nature — perhaps one should say because of it — these ideas have frequently resulted in encouraging a superior, sometimes racist, attitude towards the rest of mankind.


The principle of a Providential plan is a central concept in Puritan theology and behavior. Puritans saw every detail in their daily life, indeed in life generally, as the unfolding of a Providential plan which existed from the beginning of time. That is to say, the hand of Providence governs their actions and their destiny, as well as the shape and existence of things in the universe. Nothing happens in vain; everything leads to a preconceived goal. In Puritan diaries and journals — Samuel Sewall's Diary is a good example — it can be seen to what extent the belief in Providence influenced the thinking of the Puritans and their way of life. It was within the framework of this Providential plan that the Pilgrims saw their journey to the New World. As agents of God's will, the Pilgrim Fathers considered the founding of their communities in the New World as a sign of manifest, divine election and favor.


Excerpted from "For Zion's Sake"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Fuad Sha'ban.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Dr. Louis J. Budd
Introductory Essay by Dr. Ralph Braibanti
Part I - In the Beginning: Christopher Columbus and the Quest for Zion
Part II - Zion in America
1 - A Place for My People
2 - The Star in the West
3 - The Great Seal of the United States of America
4 - The Vision of Zion: The American Myth of the City on a Hill
5 - Zion and the African-American Experience
Part III - The Promised Land: American Travelers in the Orient: The Quest for Zion
Part IV - Religion in America
1 - The Judeo-Christian Tradition: Prelude
2 - The Role of Religion in American Life
3 - America and the Millennial Fever

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