Saturday, January 8, 2005


David Gelernter has a remarkable essay in Commentary which examines what he calls the religion of Americanism. Gelernter scrutinizes its origins and attributes and the reasons for the hatred much of the world has for America. Some main points follow, but it should be borne in mind that Gelernter elaborates on each of these at some length. We encourage you to follow the link and read the essay in its entirety.

Americanism is potent stuff. It is every bit as fervent and passionate a religion as the anti-Americanism it challenges and rebukes.

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.

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.

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."

The idea of an "American creed" has been around for a long time. Samuel Huntington lists its elements as "liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, human rights, the rule of law, and private property." I prefer a different formulation: a conceptual triangle in which one fundamental fact creates two premises that create three conclusions.

The fundamental fact: the Bible is God's word. Two premises: first, every member of the American community has his own individual dignity, insofar as he deals individually with God; second, the community has a divine mission to all mankind. Three conclusions: every human being everywhere is entitled to freedom, equality, and democracy.

In the American creed, both premises and all three conclusions refer back to the Bible.

When I say that Americanism equals American Zionism, I am in one sense merely adding up statements by eminent authorities. John Winthrop in 1630: "Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us." Thomas Jefferson in his Second Inaugural address: "I shall need . . . 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." Abraham Lincoln declared his wish to be a "humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty and of this, His almost chosen people."

Hundreds of other statements along the same lines might be gathered from the whole formative period of Americanism, from the early 1600's through the Civil War.

There have been at least four crucial turning points-"climacterics," Churchill would have called them-at which Americans spoke explicitly and simultaneously about the religious content and the world mission of Americanism. The first was when the colonies declared their independence.

The second climacteric was the Civil War. Lincoln's understanding of that conflict, writes Edmund Wilson, "grew out of the religious tradition of the New England theology of Puritanism." In 1862, Lincoln made "a solemn vow before God" to free the South's slaves.

World War I marked the third turning point...During Wilson's administration, Americanism accomplished a fundamental transition. It had always included the idea of divine mission. But what was the mission? Until the closing of the frontier in the last decade of the 19th century, the mission was to populate the continent. With the frontier closed, the mission became "Americanism for the whole world."

The final climacteric was the cold war-its start and its finish....President Truman announced the Truman Doctrine. From then on, the Soviets would no longer be allowed unlimited scope for their imperialist ambitions; the United States had decided to get into the game.

Truman's announcement was in the spirit of classical Americanism. It recognized America's message and duty to all mankind: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressure....The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. Although historians often skip over this point, Truman's world-view centered on the Bible nearly to the extent Lincoln's had."

The end of the cold war was presided over by Ronald Reagan, who returns us (once again) to the nation's beginning.

That Americanism is the successor of Puritanism is crucial to anti-Americanism. In the 18th century, anti-Americans were conservative, monarchist anti-Puritans. (Boswell reports Samuel Johnson's announcement that "I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.") In the 19th century, European elites became increasingly hostile to Christianity-which inevitably entailed hostility to America. In modern times, anti-Americanism is closely associated with anti-Christianism and anti-Semitism.

Anti-Americans are still fascinated and enraged by Americans' bizarre tendency to believe in God.

And we needn't go to Norway or Britain to find angry denunciations of President Bush and the Americans who support him in religion-mocking terms. The President's faith, said one prominent American politician in September 2004, is "the American version of the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, and in many religions around the world."

The speaker was former Vice President Al Gore. His comments were offensive and false. Today's radical Islam is a religion of death, a religion that rejoices in slaughter. The radical Christianity known as Puritanism insisted on choosing life. Americanism does, too.

It has become commonplace in some Christian circles to reject the notion of American exceptionalism, and for good reasons. If unchecked, it tends to foster an attitude of national infallibility and arrogance. Even so, Gelernter prods us to consider that in our commendable desire to remain nationally humble we tend to go too far in the other direction and ignore, or forget, the fact that America really is in many ways a special land.

Specialness, however, comes at a price. As Europe has become increasingly secular, and the Muslim world grows rich from the oil beneath its feet and less isolated from the West, expressions of jealousy and rage directed at nations which retain at least a simulacrum of their Christian or Jewish heritage grow increasingly frequent and virulent. Hatred for Jews has always been with us, but hatred for Christians and for America is a relatively recent phenomenon. Gelernter's point is that Christianity is an extension of Judaism and Americanism is an extension of Christianity. Together the combination is an irresistible target for the roiling animosities and resentments of secularists and Islamists everywhere, including here. Gelernter says in a footnote that, "It has been many centuries since Christians in the West have been routine objects of organized hatred; they do not even have a word for it. But they had better find one."

We should mention, too, that Gelernter is exactly right when he ascribes the creed or values of Americanism to the fundamental theism of the Founders and their successors. The emphasis in America on freedom, equality, human rights, and so, derive from only one possible source. These are not the deliverances of Enlightenment Reason, nor are they grounded in human biology or evolutionary history. They are grounded in the fact that we are created in the image of God and that we are loved by Him. Take God out of the picture, secularize the nation, scrub the public square clean of all religious residue, and freedom, equality, and human rights will, like a plane out of fuel, glide along at ever decreasing altitude until they crash to the ground. We refer you to an earlier discussion of this topic on Viewpoint here.

Evangelical Outpost has made this essay the focus of a blog symposium so one can find much more commentary and, no doubt, much more insightful analysis of it there than we're able to offer here.