July 3, 2008


A Religious Idea Called "America": How Puritanism Created It, What It Means, Why It Matters (David Gelernter, February 13, 2006, Bradley Lecture)

Americanism, or the religious idea called “America,” seems like a secular idea. It can and has been professed by devout atheists. Its creed, a central element of Americanism, is completely secular in tone--of course there’s no canonical version, but most people would agree that it calls for liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind--or something on those lines.

I’ll argue that despite all this, Americanism is profoundly Christian in its inspiration and worldview.

It is in fact profoundly Puritan.

It is in fact profoundly Biblical.

It in fact emerged not just from the Bible, but especially from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.

It’s no accident that a seventeenth century American Puritan should have written, regarding his fellow-Puritans: “We are the children of Abraham; and therefore we are under Abraham’s covenant.”

The strongly Puritan nature of Americanism and the classical Hebraic character of Puritanism are both indispensable to a clear picture of America.

I’ll discuss a third element too. Biblical origins, Puritan teaching--and finally the emergence of full-blown Americanism in the nineteenth century. [...]

That you don’t have to be a Christian or Jew or deist or anything at all to believe in America or Americanism is important--fundamental. It’s also true that you can hum the opening measures of a Bach mass without converting to Christianity.

But of course Christianity inspired the Bach Mass. And Christianity inspired the American religion, too--in a far more direct sense.

Many people describe Americanism as a civil religion, or merely a type of patriotism. But the millions of desperate people all over the world who have said, devoutly, “I believe in America”--especially in the last 100 years or so--weren’t referring to an American civil religion or American patriotism. When they said “I believe in America,” they weren’t speaking of a nation either. They were expressing belief in a religious idea of enormous, transporting power.

Jews in pogrom-ridden czarist Russia, masses of west Europeans who turned out to cheer Woodrow Wilson, Nazi victims during the war, refuseniks and dissidents in Soviet prisons over the last decades of communist rule, Polish labor Unionists in the 1970s and ‘80s, Chinese students in Tien-an-min square--obviously America didn’t always justify these beliefs, but often it did. And by “America” these believers meant a religious ideal that told absolute truths about human life which had to be accepted--ultimately--on faith.

The American religion has two parts--not only the Creed, but a doctrine about America’s duty and her special standing and responsibilities in the world--a doctrine I’ll call American Zionism.

The Creed is a standard element in nearly all discussions of Americanism. Most definitions--mine included--say basically the same thing.

American Zionism is based on another widely recognized aspect of Americanism. In earlier centuries, the analogy between America and Ancient Israel, or the European settlements in colonial America and Ancient Israel, was heard constantly. It was derived from the corresponding analogy between England or Britain and Ancient Israel. There’s nothing new in this observation.

But it seems to me that we ought to recognize that this analogy gave rise to beliefs that are tantamount to Zionism--not to the modern version, but to biblical Zionism, which is based on two ideas: a chosen people and a promised land. Both elements were understood by the biblical prophets to imply privileges and duties. The chosen people is closer to God than any other and is held to higher standards. The promised land flows with milk and honey and must be made by its inhabitants into a beacon of sanctity for the whole world--in the end of days it shall come to pass, the prophet says, “[t]hat the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established at the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and nations shall flow unto it. . . . For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. . . . Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” (Michah 4:1-4)

In short, I’ll argue that the analogy between America and ancient Israel was no mere figure of speech. It implied a doctrine that made assertions and imposed duties. That doctrine was Zionism. Zionism, suitably adjusted, is a fundamental part of Americanism, which is another reason why the idea of Americanism as a merely secular or civil religion doesn’t hold up.

Puritanism, which is basic to my story, performed a strange historical trick. It vanished. In the early nineteenth century it seems to drop out of history. It was a powerful, robust approach to Protestant Christianity; yet the historical record shows that it simply disappears. But it might be more correct to say that it didn’t disappear, but merely changed shape.

I’ll argue that Puritanism in fact metamorphosed into Americanism. Or died and was reborn as Americanism.

Puritanism didn’t merely influence Americanism. It turned into Americanism. In a sense, the molten bronze of Puritanism became the solid metal of the American Religion. [...]

To see what the American religion is, we have to start with Puritanism. America is the Puritan nation. Europeans have always seen that clearly enough; Americans might as well, too.

Hatred of Puritanism happens to be one of the best-established bigotries of modern times. “Puritan” has been an insult for hundreds of years. It suggests rigid, austere, censorious--exactly the kind of religion secularists love to hate. Puritans were rigid and censorious, up to a point. Most caricatures are partly true. But they were much else besides. They were creative thinkers about man’s spiritual role in the modern state and the modern world.

Puritanism was a British invention of the Elizabethan age. It reflected the unhappiness of English Protestants who saw the Church of England as not really Protestant or insufficiently Protestant; who wanted a purified church with no hierarchy or no Catholic-style hierarchy, where each Christian dealt directly with the Bible and the Lord. Puritans were Calvinists who believed in predestination, in salvation through saving grace; whose faith centered on the Covenant of Grace, as they called it, that the Lord had made with Abraham--which made a pool of grace available to the “visible saints” who were predestined by the Lord for salvation.

Queen Elizabeth tolerated the Puritans. But things changed when she died and the Stuarts came to power. James I announced that he would make the Puritans “conform themselves or I will harry them out of the land.” He meant it, and persecuted Puritans set sail in rising numbers for the New World in search of religious freedom Things were even worse for British Puritans under Charles I and Archbishop Laud; Puritan emigration to America increased. By the mid seventeenth century, many Puritan settlements were solidly established in America, especially--though not only--in New England.

American Puritanism differed in significant ways from its British parent. It usually sought to be more rigorous, and to push Puritan premises to their logical conclusions. American Puritans often described their settlements as covenant communities. The community as a whole conceived itself as having a convenant with the Lord, or a vow agreed to by both sides. John Winthop wrote, for example, that “thus stands the cause betweene God and us. Wee are entered in a covenant with him for this work.” If the community behaves well, God treats it well. If the community violates the covenant, “The Lord will surely breake out in wrath against us.”

* * *

Americanism came to consist of a creed in the context of the “American Zionism” doctrine. Puritanism played the decisive role in shaping this doctrine.

Winthrop again wrote in 1630 that the Lord was “jealous of our love and obedience, just as He told the people of Israel, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for your transgressions’” (Amos 3:2). This highly significant verse--therefore will I visit all your sins upon you” is another translation--is the verse most frequently used in traditional Jewish literature to define the idea of a “chosen people.”

In the literature of Puritanism, Britain, and even moreso America, the analogy to ancient Israel recurs constantly. After all, the experience of the American Puritans really did suggest the experience of ancient Israel. These Puritans really had fled a “house of bondage” as it seemed to them, and made a dangerous journey to a pagan land where they struggled to establish themselves. American Puritans thought of themselves as ancient Israel reborn, and said so often.

Before Winthrop and his group set out, for example, John Cotton preached them a sermon on this verse from II Samuel: “Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and I will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more” (II Sam. 7:10). As God had “planted” Israel in the promised land, He would plant the Puritans in a new promised land.

Cotton’s whole sermon likened the Puritans traveling to America to biblical Jews heading for Israel. The Puritans would inhabit their new settlements, Cotton said, “as well by gracious promise as by the common, and just, and bountiful providence of the Lord.”

On the way, Winthrop himself, in his famous essay, composed an elaborate comparison between the Puritans and Ancient Israel. “Wee shall finde,” he wrote, “that the God of Israell is among us.” And there are innumerable references to this analogy in the literature of the growing Puritan settlements in America.

The eminent New England theologian Thomas Shepard wrote: “ What shall we say of the singular providence of God bringing so many shiploads of His people through so many dangers, as upon eagles’ wings, with so much safety from year to year?”

He is echoing two Hebrew verses:

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.” (Exod 19:4). And, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with the wings of eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

And he is restating the message that the Puritans of New England are ancient Israel reborn; God’s new chosen people.

There are (as I say) countless similar references. And in later generations we hear the consequences of this doctrine of American Zionism from many thinkers on many occasions.

Including Thomas Jefferson, for example, who referred to his countrymen in his first inaugural address as “possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendents to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” And in his second inaugural, even more plainly: “I shall need,” he said, “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” (An updated version of “flowing with milk and honey.” Jefferson was always up-to-date.)

In the context of American Zionism, it was natural for Americans to believe that they were setting an example for the whole world; leading the whole world out of the house of bondage into--or at least, toward--the promised land of liberty.

* * *

We hear from the Puritans not only American Zionism, but premonitions of the American creed of liberty, equality, and democracy.

These don’t emerge from the Bible and Christianity only; the Puritans were Englishmen, heirs to the tradition of English liberty and law. Both were important to Puritan thinking. But what’s often neglected is the fact that liberty, equality, and democracy all had Biblical roots, so far as the Puritans understood them.

Liberty for the Puritans meant, first of all, the kind of national religious liberty Israel had won by escaping Egypt. They believed in religious freedom--for themselves. But Roger Williams was a Puritan, too, and he founded Rhode Island as a Puritan community with a startling twist--religious freedom for everyone.

Eventually the idea of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land took on a broader meaning. Thus we have a committee of the Continental Congress made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson--they don’t make congressional commitees like they used to--asked to design a seal for the brand new United States.

Their proposed seal shows Israel crossing the Red Sea, lit by the divine pillar of fire, with the motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The seal was never adopted, but the same theme emerges repeatedly in sermons of the period, which were almost certainly more influential with the public at large than the works of British or French enlightenment philosophers.

Democracy of a sort was characteristic of several Puritan settlements. One important example: the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, of May 1638, have been described in recent decades as the “first written constitution of modern democracy.”

They were drawn up in response to a sermon by Thomas Hooker before the general assembly in Hartford. Hooker based himself on the Biblical verse in which Moses is recapitulating his instructions to Israel in the wilderness--“Take ye wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13). By “take ye” Hooker understood, as other commentators have also, some sort of democratic choice. He interpreted the verse to mean “that the choice of public magistrate belongs unto the people, by God’s own allowance. . . . The foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people.”

Pastors continued to cite this verse--in connection with the powerful denunciation of monarchy in First Samuel--to mean that the Bible required democracy. Various sermons repeated this assertion up to and during the Revolution and in the years following--for example, in the 1788 sermon before the New Hampshire General Court by Samuel Langdon, former president of Harvard, called “The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States.”

Equality is the trickiest element of the Creed to trace. American Puritans were not believers, ordinarily, in the doctrine that all men are created equal. But we do find this doctrine curiously foreshadowed by Alexander Whitaker, an Anglican rather than Puritan minister, in an essay called “Good Newes from Virginia,” which he sent back to England for publication in 1613. Whitaker asserts that American Indians must be well-treated by European settlers: after all, “One God created us, they have reasonable soules and intellectuall faculties as well as wee; we all have Adam for our common parent: yea, by nature the condition of us both is all one.”

Whitaker asserts, in other words, that all men were created by the one God, have the same rational souls, and have Adam for their common parent. Thus all men are equal--“by nature the condition of us both is all one”--both Englishmen and Indians; Christians and pagans.

So it is possible to read the Bible and find the equality of man written at the very beginning of Genesis. In fact, it’s not just possible--it’s easy. The Jewish religious tradition drew this conclusion many centuries before the European settlement of America. Novak points this out. A celebrated passage in the midrash asserts that the “greatest general principle in the Torah” is the verse that reads, “these are the generations of Adam” (5:1), because it tells us that all men have the same parents. In another midrash God says to Moses, “Do I care about distinctions among people? Whether it is an Israelite or Gentile, man or woman, male slave or female slave, whoever does a good deed shall find its reward.” Another midrash notes that men treat the rich and poor differently, but “God does not act that way; all are equal before him, women, slaves, rich and poor.”

But how did Jefferson and the founding fathers actually hit on this principle that “all men are created equal”? Enlightenment philosophy was certainly one influence and the English tradition another. But Abraham Lincoln had a different interpretation, looking back, which he gave in an 1858 speech in Illinois.

After quoting from the Declaration that all men are created equal, Lincoln said:

This was their [the founding fathers’] lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity.

This is, of course, Lincoln speaking and not Jefferson. But the fact that Lincoln supplied the explicit link between the Declaration and the Bible is, I think, suggestive and significant.

* * *

To sum up: Puritanism laid the basis for Americanism; it foreshadowed American Zionism and the American creed. It did so on the basis not of philosophical or legal argument, but of Christian belief based on the Bible. And, of course, biblical passages dealing with man and the state and the organization of a state--such as they are--are mainly located in the Hebrew Bible.

[originally posted: 6/10/07]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 3, 2008 6:23 PM

That Zionist propaganda has effectively influenced John Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers, as well as Abraham Lincoln, further proves the essential truth of Mearsheimer's & Walt's thesis (as though it actually needs proving).

The Israel Lobby will stop at nothing, I tell you!! Nothing!

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 10, 2007 8:52 AM

Sad, how Puritanism dissapated like a puff of smoke. Congregations hired tame ministers who told them what they wanted to hear, and if a few generations, it was all gone with the wind.

Every human institution has its failings. Hierarchical churches have their drawbacks, such as waste and cronyism, but at least we are still here.

Now on America as the new Israel, thnk back of that esaay we recently read concerniong European anti-Semitism. If Israel is condemned as a people of the wagon train, as trekkers-forth, how much more the new Zionists..

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 10, 2007 12:49 PM

Americans weren't chosen, we did the choosing.

Posted by: erp at June 10, 2007 5:33 PM


Posted by: Jorge Curioso at July 3, 2008 11:47 PM
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