July 4, 2010


Americanism—and Its Enemies (David Gelernter, January 2005, Commentary)

That Americanism is a religion is widely agreed. G.K. Chesterton called America “the nation with the soul of a church.” But Americanism is not (contrary to the views of many people who use these terms loosely) a “secular” or a “civil” religion. No mere secular ideology, no mere philosophical belief, could possibly have inspired the intensities of hatred and devotion that Americanism has. Americanism is in fact a Judeo-Christian religion; a millenarian religion; a biblical religion. Unlike England’s “official” religion, embodied in the Anglican church, America’s has been incorporated into all the Judeo-Christian religions in the nation.

Does that make it impossible to believe in a secular Americanism? Can you be an agnostic or atheist or Buddhist or Muslim and a believing American too? In each case the answer is yes. But to accomplish that feat is harder than most people realize. The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism forth. It is the energy source that makes it live and thrive; that makes believing Americans willing to prescribe freedom, equality, and democracy even for a place like Afghanistan, once regarded as perhaps the remotest region on the face of the globe. If you undertake to remove Americanism from its native biblical soil, you had better connect it to some other energy source potent enough to keep its principles alive and blooming.

But is it not true that the Declaration of Independence—one of America’s holiest writings—treats religion in a cool, Enlightenment sort of way? It does. But we ought to keep in mind an observation by the historian Ralph Barton Perry. The Declaration, Perry reminds us, was an ex post facto justification of American beliefs. It was addressed to educated elite opinion, especially abroad; it was designed to win arguments, not to capture the essence of Americanism as Americans themselves understood it. That essence emerges in the less guarded pronouncements of the Founding Fathers and many other leading exponents and prophets of Americanism, from Winthrop and Bradford through John Adams and Jefferson through Lincoln and Wilson, Truman, Reagan.

Few believing Americans can show, nowadays, how Americanism’s principles are derived from the Bible. But many are willing to say that these principles are God-given. Freedom comes from God, George W. Bush has said more than once; and if you pressed him, I suspect you would discover that not only does he say it, he believes it. Many Americans all over the country agree with him. The idea of a “secular” Americanism based on the Declaration of Independence is an optical illusion.

Suppose you were to put together a bookful of pronouncements and predictions about America’s destiny, ranging over four centuries. What title would you give it?

Such an anthology did appear in 1971; it was edited by an associate professor of religious studies and subtitled “Religious Interpretations of American Destiny.” The book’s main title was God’s New Israel. From the 17th century through John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Americans kept talking about their country as if it were the biblical Israel and they were the chosen people.

Where did that view of America come from? It came from Puritanism—Puritanism being not a separate type of Christianity but a certain approach to Protestantism. And here is a strange fact about Puritanism. It originated in 16th-century England; it became one of the most powerful forces in religious if not all human history. It consistently elicited bitter hatred—and was directly responsible for (at least) two world-changing developments. It provoked the British Civil War (in which the Puritans and Parliament asserted their rights against the crown and the established church), and the first settlements by British religious dissenters in the new world.

And then it simply disappeared. In the late 1700’s or early 1800’s, Puritanism dropped out of history. Traces survived in Britain and (even more so) in America, in the form of churches once associated with it. But after the 18th century, we barely hear about Puritanism as a live force; before long everyone agrees that it is dead.

What happened to it? In a narrow sense, Puritan congregations sometimes liberalized and became Unitarian; the Transcendentalists, prominent in American literature from roughly 1820 through 1860, are often described as the spiritual successors of the Puritans. But Puritanism was too potent, too vibrant simply to vanish. Where did all that powerful religious passion go?

Puritanism had two main elements: the Calvinist belief in predestination with associated religious doctrines, and what we might call a “political” doctrine. The “political” goal of Puritanism was to reach back to the pure Christianity of the New Testament—and then even farther back. Puritans spoke of themselves as God’s new chosen people, living in God’s new promised land—in short, as God’s new Israel.

I believe that Puritanism did not drop out of history. It transformed itself into Americanism. This new religion was the end-stage of Puritanism: Puritanism realized among God’s self-proclaimed “new” chosen people—or, in Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable phrase, God’s “almost chosen people.”

Many thinkers have noted that Americanism is inspired by or close to or intertwined with Puritanism. One of the most impressive scholars to say so recently is Samuel Huntington, in his formidable book on American identity, Who Are We? But my thesis is that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism. Puritanism and Americanism are not just parallel or related developments; they are two stages of a single phenomenon.

It can be a painful experience to read an Andrew Delbanco, Richard Rorty, Peter Beinart, Michael Tomasky, or other folk of the Left as they wrestle with their need to live Americanism without embracing its Puritanical source. But, as George McKenna points out in his great, Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, they are just experiencing what Cotton Mather defined as "adherent grace":
[T]he stark logic of Protestantism seemed to rule out infant baptism: if sacraments do not give grace, then why baptize a newborn baby, who obviously has not undergone a conversion experience? Cotton's reply was that church membership entails a "double state of grace," adherent grace and inherent grace. Adherent, or "federal," grace is the grace that belongs to all the children of believing parents. [...] Infant baptism does not, of course, give saving grace to the baby, but it admits him or her into the community's collective covenant with God. This covenant thus includes both those who have undergone a faith experience and those...who have not.

For the Decent Left, adherent grace allows for what Rorty refers to as their "freeloading atheism" until they grow up. In the meantime, they are covered by the American covenant even though they don't understand it.

Posted by at July 4, 2010 4:06 AM
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