January 11, 2005


Retooling Americanism (Patrick O'Hannigan, 1/09/05, Paragraph Farmer)

Writing for Commentary magazine, computer science professor and mail bomb attack survivor David Gelernter advances the idea that Americanism, “the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart,” makes people worldwide uncomfortable because it is a kind of religion.

While commenting on the Judeo-Christian roots of this religion, Gelernter also proposes that Americanism can be understood as the ultimate flowering of Puritanism in a political context.

What makes Gelernter’s thinking more original than most is his willingness to describe Americanism in religious rather than civil terms, and his keen appreciation for under-publicized Jewish influence on the American founders.

Mr. Peter deNeeve’s seventh-grade history class at Saint Joseph’s School clued me in to colonial fondness for classical Rome (hence the applause for George Washington as “our Cincinnatus” from his contemporaries). Gelernter points out that classical influence was not alone: colonial preachers also drew parallels between the Exodus of the Israelites and their own sojourn across the Atlantic to the New World.

Gelernter’s take on Americanism has much to recommend it, but he’s on firmer ground describing Jewish influence on the Puritans than he is while discussing Puritan influence on the rest of us.

In my judgment, Gelernter overstates Puritan influence, ignores pivotal Catholic contributions to American thinking, and misreads one of Americanism’s “holiest” texts, the Declaration of Independence.

Friend O'Hannigan perhaps underestimates the Puritan political heritage himself, from John Winthrop to Jonathan Edwards and its rather direct influence on the Founders.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2005 4:21 PM

There more to America's almost immediate success than just suspicion of the fallen human person, there's an idealism of that person that seems to have created tremendous constructive energy.

You don't see many Catholic societies trying to build that "city on a hill." Nor are Catholics much advised to perfect themselves from the pulpit.

Even after Vatican II with it's emphasis on the laity, the Church remains far more hierarchy than bible study, more purple-robed nancy than evangelical outreach.

The Church sits with its indisputable truth, expecting the great round world to genuflect, like a fat sultan lumpenly awaiting his next concubine.

The energy has always been with the Protestants. They might lose every debate on their historical validity, on the Eucharist or Tradition. But hell, among the Jim Bakker's and Jimmy Swaggerts there are thousands of earnest high-energy folks exposing people to Christ all over the Globe and emphasizing the power and importance of the individual right along with it.

While we Catholics and the Jews had roles to play in the American experiment, it is indisputably a Protestant project in scope and direction. The Protestants have created the modern world, for better and for worse.

Despite the counter-reformation and the Vaticans various, the Church has yet to learn how to foster the growth and enthusiasm of the individual.

Posted by: JimGooding at January 11, 2005 5:56 PM

I don't doubt that America is, as Jim put it, a "Protestant project in scope and direction." What I do say, however, is that such energy as the Reformers had and still have is derivative. Puritans did contribute much to American history. But American history also includes people like Junipero Serra and Isaac Jogues.

Gelernter's reading of Puritan influence doesn't account for Pennsylvania, or Kentucky, or Alaska, or the whole of the American Southwest. And though there is much to decry about the state of the Catholic hierarchy, our present pope continues to set a magnificent missionary and evangelical example.

It wasn't the Puritans alone who understood the fallen aspect of human nature-- Augustine beat them to it by several hundred years, and Paul of Tarsus also knew sin perfectly well.

Posted by: Patrick O'Hannigan at January 11, 2005 7:31 PM


When the decendants of those converted by Father Junipero Serra become Protestants, as they inevitably will, the increase in their standard of living will leap exponentially, as will their knowledge of the Scriptures.

The Puritans were not unique in their understanding of the fallen nature, but they were a shining example of the Protestant invitation to stand in individual relationship with God, without the priestly bureaucracy. I grant Catholicism was given the keys to the kingdom, but the Protestants have been successfully scaling the walls despite myriad errors in dotting their "i's" and crossing their "t's."

When you give an individual the chance to own his own salvation, he starts wanting to own other stuff and markets start to explode and nobles and their lickspittle celibates quake in their silk slippers.

It doesn't matter whether Catholics beat the Protestants to, well, everything, if they continue resting on their laurels.

We Catholics have much to do to make the Church a place for individual and family spiritual growth. The Catholic culture I discovered when I became Catholic four years ago is very similar to France, it's a secular social club with a very dead God.

Posted by: JimGooding at January 11, 2005 8:29 PM


Thanks for the continued dialog. Pity you haven't found a lively parish. I've been blessed to be part of two, and neither of those was under the direction of people in "silk slippers."

Hang in there!

P.S. The Catholic attitude toward salvation is paraphrased by Saint Paul's saying that he was "working out his salvation in fear and trembing," or something close to that. Christ made this possible (per the Catechism), but don't make the mistake of thinking that the ordained priesthood as dulled Catholic ambition. Tom "Domino's Pizza" Monaghan is no Calvinist, though there is a lot to say for the so-called "Protestant work ethic" (and the Judd boys have addressed this a time or two).

Posted by: Patrick O'Hannigan at January 11, 2005 9:34 PM



Posted by: oj at January 11, 2005 11:31 PM


Hey, as it turns out, I'm currently trying to find the bucks to send my youngest to Monaghan's Spiritus Sanctus Academy. It's pricey but it sounds, get this, Catholic. One parent has told me her kids who go there are just nuts about their faith. Sent my oldest son to a well-known Catholic elementary school nearer our home, now that's he's graduated, I'm left trying to teach him something about the history and truth of his Catholic faith before he leaves home. But, back to Monaghan, there hasn't been a society of Monaghans since, when, Venice? How come?

As for the hierarchy, I think the pedophilia scandal, that is, the coverup of abuse, said all that needs saying about the current state of this institution. And when was the last time someone knocked on your door to invite you to mass, not bingo, mass, or to discuss the truths of the Catholic faith? I'm just saying there's work to be done and I don't think the celibates, god bless 'em, are up to the task or even know what the task is. In just five hundred years, the Protestant population of the world has grown to equal the Catholic population. Vector it out and things don't look good for Catholicland.

OJ: Poland is courageous as hell, a nation of with the courage of the martyrs, certainly an inspiration for the Ukraines of the world; but it's not an economic dynamo, GDP per capita $11,000, about a third of France's and half of Israel's, not breeding anywhere near replacement level, GDP growth minimal, high unemployment; Polish culture isn't exactly catching fire throughout Eastern Europe. It's still a vast union town, no? Not exactly a nation of independent free-thinking merchants or merchant wannabe's. Failure to have kids is a devastating critique of their spirtual life.

Posted by: JimGooding at January 12, 2005 10:08 AM

It's emerging from fifty years of domination by Nazis and Commies--what's Western Europe's excuse?

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2005 10:16 AM

A few hundred Billy Graham tent-revivals and Poland will be jumpstarted.

Posted by: JimGooding at January 12, 2005 10:56 AM

One clergyman signed the Declaration of Independance, The Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian.

Posted by: Dave W. at January 13, 2005 12:31 AM