David Gelernter in his “Americanism—and Its Enemies” (Commentary, January 2005) claims that the anti-Americanism of our time is not aimed merely against American tastes, style, culture, or patriotic devotion, but more deeply against Americanism, that is, against “the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart; the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God.”
To identify the character of anti-Americanism, Mr. Gelernter focuses on the character and history of Americanism. Following G.K. Chesterton, who famously remarked that America is a “nation with the soul of a church,” Mr. Gelernter argues that Americanism is a religion—and not a mere secular ideology or civil religion, but instead a biblical religion, the direct continuation of 17th century Puritanism, with the Bible as its source of energy.
As the creed of Americanism, Mr. Gelernter identifies “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.
As the biblical sources of these conclusions, Mr. Gelernter identifies Exodus for freedom, Genesis and its idea of humans being created in the image of God for equality, and Deuteronomy (in particular Deuteronomy 1:13) for democracy.
In adition to this creed, a key element of Americanism—according to Mr. Gelernter—is its transposed zionism: the idea of being a chosen people, a unique collective instrument of God in the affairs of the nations, with a distinctive divine mission in history, but now applied not to the people and land of Israel but instead to the people and land of America.
Mr. Gelernter traces the historical development of Americanism succinctly but persuasively, showing how its biblical roots manifest themselves again and again in American political rhetoric, and summarizing how its commitment to liberty, equality, and democracy and its sense of divine mission expressed itself at four turning points in American history—at the time of America’s declaration of independence, during its Civil War, in its emergence as a global leader during World War I, and in its leadership in the Cold War against (primarily Russian) communism. As an aside he mentions its continuing potency in the political rhetoric of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Based on his analysis of Americanism Mr. Gelernter claims that anti-Americanism is most deeply rooted in opposition to biblical revelation and its God, and as a consequence is a species of hatred of the same genus as anti-semitism and anti-christianity. He concludes by claiming that anti-Americanism, and in particular Islamic anti-Americanism, is a religion of death, while Americanism—as a continuation of the biblical religion of Puritanism—is a religion of life.
I love America. I was not born in America and I do not live there now, so my affection and admiration is not that of a patriot. It is perhaps more like that of the young American intellectuals and aesthetes who loved France a century ago. I love America for reasons perhaps not shared by many Americans: I love America for the moral and intellectual seriousness of its founders, for the bitter-sweet complexity of its political thought and life—in particular during its Civil War and Civil Rights struggles, for the vigor although rarity of its high arts, for its momentary achievements of an exuberant urbanism, for the generosity of charitable giving by Americans in the service of emergency relief and development aid, and for the golden vein of biblical Christianity that runs through its history and has funded so much of the missionary expansion of the Christian faith around the world during the past hundred and more years.
There can be no doubt that America has been a blessing to the nations, measured against any just standard of political history. In its founding America pioneered modern democracy, forging a regime that sets an example that continues to have a rippling effect around the world. In its Civil War it broke the ideological back of both slavery and its foundational racism, at least within the sphere of influence of biblical Christianity and secular modernity. As of its participation in World War I, and even more significantly in its participation in World War II and the Cold War, America has done the heavy lifting on behalf of fundamental human rights and against modern tyranny.
While I think that there is a cultural or aesthetic anti-Americanism and an anti-capitalist anti-Americanism that deserves separate attention, it is clear that the most powerful anti-Americanism of our time is indeed aimed against the creedal Americanism identified by Mr. Gelernter. It is an anti-Americanism I cannot support and for which I feel disdain in its small-minded envious forms and disgust in its raveningly malevolent forms.
Mr. Gelernter in large part gets Americanism right in his analysis—and more’s the pity, because much as I love America, I must denounce Americanism. Americanism is not a straight-forward continuation of 17th century Puritanism, at least not in terms of the faithfully biblical aspects of that Puritanism. Instead, Americanism is an idolatry.
Americanism is a curious political idolatry in that it does not make a god of the nation or the state itself, or of the ruler, as various nationalisms, fascisms, and imperialisms have done through the ages. But it misidentifies the true God no less seriously, and it misidentifies the people of God even more extravagantly.
The god of Americanism is not the God of the Bible. Instead, he is the god of the philosophers—a god that can be known by philosophical reason, but as a result a god whose involvement with history is not that of a passionate embrace or even of a critical intervention, but rather that of a distant providence. He is a vague enough deity to be acknowledged, even served, by all men of reason and good will, provided they are not too closely attached to the particularities of a given revelation. He is a god who works in history, but who does so mostly by the almost mechanical maintenance of his laws, and a god who requires not adoration but rather the discovery of his laws in nature (and perhaps above all in human nature) and their implementation in history. To be the elect people of such a god is to be no more and no less than a people who live according to the laws of nature and nature’s god.
Gelernter has it right that Americanism has its roots in Puritanism, but it is not a simple continuation of Puritanism’s biblical Christianity. Instead it abstracts certain key elements from Puritanism—its emphasis on liberty, equality, and democracy; it exagerates and reconfigures a key error of American Puritanism—its identification of the Puritan Pilgrims with the elect people of God; it reduces the Puritan idea of an intimate and personal trinitarian God to a rational and distant unitarian deity.
Gelernter gets it almost right when he writes that “If Americanism is a religion, this [Lincoln’s Second Inaugural] is its holiest document after the Bible and the Declaration; and Lincoln is its greatest prophet.” He gets it completely wrong in claiming that Americanism is other than a civil religion. Americanism is a civil religion, and the Bible functions in it only at a distant remove. As such, Americanism is not a biblical religion, and for Christians offer—in its highest forms—no better than a subtle temptation to deny the true God and his trustworthy revelation.
If anti-Americanism must be rejected, while Americanism cannot be embraced, the task must be to forge some kind of anti-anti-Americanism on a more sound foundation than that of Americanism itself.
The core difficulties with Americanism is that it recognizes a false god, identifies the American people with the elect of that god, seeks revelation nowhere beyond the laws of nature, and as a result misunderstands the nature of the American mission in the world. Biblical Christianity has the responsibility to pose as an alternative to Americanism the worship of the true God, the true identification of both the people of God and the American people, the exposition of the true revelation of God, and as a consequence the reorientation of the American mission. The kind of anti-anti-Americanism we need now must be based on a correct identification of what and who America is, and what its mission in the world might be.
Because of the way in which ordinary life consists of a complex, interwoven fabric of relationships and events and things it is difficult to untangle some of the complexities that make up “America.” When people talk about “America” they might of course refer to the Americas as continents, although that is rather rare in our time. They might be talking about that conglomeration of fashion, sports, advertising, popular music and television that makes up the mass culture which has been exported around the world, and which has provoked intensely negative responses from localists, nationalists, traditionalists, and various kinds of religious people around the world—often with considerable justification. They might—with less justification—be referring to the internationally active corporations whose brands originated in America. They might be referring to the United States of America as a political entity—a federation of states on the North American continent, organized to give expression to a form of public justice that is inspired by the American Declaration of Independence and guided by the American constitution. Or they might be referring to any combination of these and several other different meanings that can be assigned to the name “America.”
I think that most of the anti-Americanism in our time is aimed at a conflation of the popular culture that eminates from North America and the political entity of the United States of America. I believe this anti-Americanism is inspired (with some justification) by distaste for American popular culture combined with a vehement opposition against the American political creed identified by Mr. Gelernter as Americanism.
I will make no attempt to provide a defence of American popular culture here. It is necessary to acknowledge that anti-Americanism is often provoked by the excesses of this pop culture. And it is understandable that people might react negatively against the pervasive presence of a globally hegemonic popular culture that has often managed to displace local cultures, often significantly affected traditional cultures by shaping hybrid cultural expressions, and that very often gives crass expression to a depraved and exhibitionist sexuality, a greedy and wasteful materialism, and a coarse, brutish vulgarity. It is wise for any anti-anti-Americanism to admit the shortcomings and perversity of American popular culture, and to acknowledge the culpability of American cultural leaders responsible for the shape of much of global popular culture.
While I cannot subscribe to the Americanism identified by David Gelernter, I do think it is necessary to join in the defence—at least intellectually—of America against its international enemies and detractors. While it is not the American people who are the chosen people of God, and while the god of Americanism is not the true God of the universe, America’s historical commitment to liberty, equality, and democracy—especially when compared to almost all other political communities around the globe and throughout human history—deserves on balance a positive assessment against the creation norms for public justice, both in its domestic and in its foreign affairs.
America is a nation among the nations of the world. It is a political community subject to the same norms for the organization of administrative and military power in the service of public justice as all other states. It is not exceptional in the sense of having a special mission from a god that would elevate it in principle above the other nations in the world. It is not a “nation […] superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God.” It is exceptional in being in a position at the present moment of unequaled political and military power, with which comes certain unique responsibilities, at least for the time being. In the affairs of the nations it has historically played a largely salutary role, partly by means of its opposition to the greater tyrannies of the twentieth century and partly by means of the example of its democratic regime and its domestic subjection of governments to the rule of law as embodied in the American constitution.
A Christian anti-anti-Americanism in our time would be critically supportive of American international political activity. It would be critical in that it would measure American actions against the same biblically-oriented norms for justice as it does the actions of all other nations, even holding America to a higher standard for the time being, because of its current hegemonic power and military supremacy. It would be supportive insofar as American actions are guided by its own laws and its explicit international treaties and other commitments. It would be particularly supportive insofar as America is taking responsibility to combat tyranny and gross human rights abuses. It would make the case against any extreme anti-Americanism that encourages or condones acts of terror against American civilians, in particular the Islamic jihadism that found such horrifying expression in the attacks of 9/11. It would also make the case against anti-Americanisms that are inspired by an ideological opposition to the political liberty, equality, and democracy that is indeed warranted by the books of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the rest of biblical revelation. But in making the case against anti-Americanisms of these kinds it would not succumb to the idolatry of Americanism.
This blog essay is written in response to Joe Carter’s first Evangelical Outpost Blogger Symposium. For other essays in the symposium see Mr. Carter’s list.