Islamists and neo-conservatives concur in calling “Americanism” a religion, the “worst-ever theology” in the view of the former, but according to the latter, “the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others – morally superior, closer to God.” The quotations come respectively from Abid Ullah Jan at the Tanzeem-e-Islami website, and from Professor David Gelernter in the January 2005 Commentary magazine.
America stems from a religious movement and displays a marked religious character, but its actual religious life is splintered among scores of major denominations. Gelernter wants to lump it all into a generic American religion. He is just as wrong as the Islamists. Both confound American religion with the Bush administration’s strategic agenda. American Christianity at once is more personal and strategically more powerful than either the Islamists or the neo-conservatives imagine.
The neo-conservatives are ideologues, not God-fearers, and they habitually confuse their political agenda with the kind of religious conviction that transforms the world. In an August 10, 2004, essay I attacked the idea that Islam was a political ideology rather than a religion. More than a billion people embrace Islam with a passion because it is indeed a religion, promising continuity to fragile societies beset by global pressures. Islam’s genius, I contended, is to promise to remake the world in the image of traditional society through jihad (Islam: Religion or political ideology?). What America offers Muslims by way of social progress – shopping malls, broadband Internet, and voter registration drives – represents a deadly threat to traditional society.
Religion proposes not to create a more perfect union, nor to safeguard individual rights, but to vanquish death. America never has had a dominant religion. On the contrary: America has had to rediscover Christianity every few generations, in the form of new “Great Awakenings” (see What makes the US a Christian nation, Nov 30, 2004). The first Great Awakening made the Revolution, and the second made the Civil War. Today’s evangelical Great Awakening well may spill out of its American confines and change the course of the world.
Gelernter is a distinguished computer scientist, sadly a victim of the Unabomber, who now has become an amateur theologian. Religion absorbs the aging neo-conservatives, and Gelernter shows an authentic interest in matters spiritual. One cannot dismiss him as another acolyte of Leo Strauss promoting religion as a useful public myth. But a tin ear for matters of the soul afflicts Gelernter along with other neo-conservatives. In 2003 I drew attention to a volume on the Hebrew prophets by Norman Podhoretz, Commentary’s editor-at-large (Neo-cons in a religious bind, Jun 5, 2003). Podhoretz, a literary pundit and promoter of single-issue causes, imagines that the prophets were pundits like him promoting a single-issue cause (“the war against idolatry”). Now Gelernter avers, “Americanism is in fact a Judeo-Christian religion; a millenarian religion; a biblical religion.” This is utter and complete rubbish.
Gelernter retreads the often-told story of the Puritan Fathers’ desire to become (as he puts it) “God’s new chosen people, living in God’s new promised land … God’s new Israel.” He concludes:
To sum up Americanism’s creed as freedom, equality, and democracy for all is to state only half the case. The other half deals with a promised land, a chosen people, and a universal, divinely ordained mission. This part of Americanism is the American version of biblical Zionism; in short, American Zionism.
America has deep roots in the Hebrew Bible (Mahathir is right: Jews do rule the world, Oct 28, 2003), but Gelernter has misread them. Islamists misread matters the same way, for what that is worth. Abid Ullah Jan complains:
Radicalism, fanaticism and fundamentalism are the terms exclusively used for religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism. But the worst form of fanaticism that we witness today is of the American domination theology, which is even worse than a cult … Americans who note that America is a bastion of democracy and country of peace and tolerance are right, but only in a narrow bookish sense which hides the facts that America’s foundations lie in the genocide of natives and 100 years of lynchings. Other than that, the history of US invading and terrorizing other states, carving state territories from other’s land and imposing its hegemony dates as back to the day when America came into existence.
That the Puritan founders of America spoke of a New Israel founding a new Promised Land is well known; readers who wish to learn more about biblical religion in the American Colonial period would do well to consult the work of Michael Novak, a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University, or Paul Johnson’s History of the American People.
The trouble, as Gelernter is aware, is that Puritanism melted away into Unitarianism at the turn of the 19th century, leaving hardly a residue of its old Zionist attitude. “Where did all the powerful religions’ passion go?” asks Gelernter. “Puritanism did not drop out of history. It transformed itself into Americanism.” Americanism, we are led to believe, came from Puritanism, but when Puritanism was no more, it turned into Americanism – a mode of reasoning that would be circular were it not so elliptical.
Gelernter simply ignores the central fact of American religious history, namely that each Christian revival occurred among different people than the previous one. “Different people than the original Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were swept up in the First Great Awakening, and yet another group of Americans, largely Westerners, joined the Second Great Awakening during the 19th century. Yet another group of Americans joined … [the]Third Great Awakening of 1890. If the rapid growth of born-again denominations constitutes yet another ‘Great Awakening’, as some historians suppose, the United States is repeating a pattern of behavior that is all the more remarkable for its discontinuity,” I observed in the cited November 30 essay.
The trouble is that Gelernter is a secular Jew with a midlife curiosity about matters of the soul, but no inner sense of what religion means. The motivation of religious Americans is too trivial to register on his ideological Richter scale. That motivation is redemption from sin. It may seem trivial to point out the obvious, but Christianity, as opposed to Gelernter’s fleshless and bloodless American religion, has to do with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross to redeem mankind from original sin. The Great Awakenings of American religion do not begin with a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, but with a return in fear and trembling to the Cross. Religion first of all is personal – deeply and searingly personal – and political only as an afterthought.
Sin, Gelernter would know if he bothered to read St Paul, means death. During the Great Extinction of the Peoples ensuing the fall of Rome, Christianity called out of the nations individuals who wished to belong to a New Israel, a people of God beyond ethnicity with the expectation of eternal life beyond the grave. The Gentiles understood original sin, I have argued in the past, to mean the sin of having been born Gentile, that is, into a people doomed to extinction.
Christ sacrificed himself, Christians believe, because man is too depraved to redeem himself. Christianity demands that each individual turn his back on ethnicity and tribe, and accept Jesus in a discrete act of faith. For the endangered nations of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, Christianity promised a new life, as it does today to hundreds of millions in the southern hemisphere whose existence is no less precarious than that of earlier converts.
Few Christians are quite satisfied with the promised Kingdom of God beyond the grave, and therefore demand something in the present life. Europe’s Christians never quite shed their pagan (that is to say national) roots, worshipping their own ethnicity in images of Jesus, the Virgin and the saints. That flaw, in my view, ultimately destroyed European Christianity (Why Europe chooses extinction, Oct 8, 2003).
The Puritans who settled America, as Gelernter observes, looked backward “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.” The Puritans tolerated none of the old pagan devices to pad the Kingdom of God with corporeal consolations. But they did not abjure the world this side of the grave. Rejecting the old pagan devices, the Puritans instead adopted a Hebrew one, that is, a temporal order in emulation of Israel.
New Israel, namely those called to the Cross from among the nations, has no kingdom of this Earth. Old Israel, by contrast, is quite at home in this world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the sage of postwar Conservative Judaism, observed that Judaism is not a concept, but rather a life, that is, the continuation of the life of Abraham. The Jewish people are redeemed by virtue of Abraham’s covenant with God, in recognition of the Patriarch’s righteousness as well as his absolute faith. To the Christian these are promises of things to come; to the Jews this is mere family history.
To stretch the point, one might say that that the United States is founded on a Judaizing heresy. Christianity struggles to find a place for human initiative. If man is so depraved that he cannot save himself, what role can he play in his own salvation? To establish an earthly regime in pursuit of grace is more a Jewish than a Christian project. In Christian terms, God’s grace, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, is a free gift to man, who otherwise has no way to save himself. If depraved humans can do nothing for their own salvation, it is nonsense to attribute to man free will, as Martin Luther lectured the Catholics. God will decide who will be saved (the “predestined” Elect) and who will burn in hellfire.
The Reformation rejected Free Will, but the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony undertook one of the boldest acts of will in human history, namely to seek redemption by becoming a new People in a new Land. Argues Gelernter:
When I say that Americanism equals American Zionism, I am in one sense merely adding up statements by eminent authorities. John Winthrop [governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony] in 1630: “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.” Thomas Jefferson in is 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 necessities 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.”
Lincoln’s ironic characterization of Americans as God’s “almost chosen people” is to the point; for America to draw inspiration from the Hebrew Bible is salutary, but for Americans to regard themselves as God’s chosen is idolatrous. Megalomania of this ilk infected Europe, beginning with Richelieu’s France in the 17th century, and then Nicholas II’s Russia and later Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the 20th (The sacred heart of darkness, Feb 11, 2003), with apocalyptic consequences. (Jefferson, of course, was a Deist who expurgated the New Testament of reference to the divinity of Jesus.)
Again, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Luther spoke of “two kingdoms,” namely the political life of the corrupt world in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven. To conflate them in the form of a “New Jerusalem” broke not only with Christian tradition, but beggared Christian doctrine, for it presumed that man might redeem himself. If that is true, why did Jesus need to sacrifice himself? That, I believe, is what led to the extinction of Puritanism. Christians do not join the New Israel through their mere presence in a polity, but by personal faith in God’s Kingdom.
Christianity, that is, belief in the redemption of mankind through Christ’s sacrifice, all but disappeared from Massachusetts in the decade after the American Revolution. All but one of Boston’s churches and Harvard College officially had turned Unitarian by 1800. John Winthrop’s descendants found themselves redeemed from earthly tyranny, and promptly became the Brahmins of Boston, a byword for the arrogance of inherited wealth. Without the benefit of the Puritans’ accumulated wisdom and with no help from the faculty of Harvard, Americans of the frontier revived Christianity, making Methodism and Baptism the dominant US denomination by the fourth decade of the 19th century. Not the American Puritan religion, but the transplanted denominations of the English working class prevailed.
From this milieu (the “second Great Awakening”) came Abraham Lincoln, the self-educated frontiersman who would join no Church, yet spoke in near-prophetic tones of the mingling of divine will in the affairs of men. The religious crusade that was the civil war achieved its goal, redeeming the United States from slavery, at which point Christianity dissipated, just as it had after the Revolution.
America provides uniquely fertile ground for Christianity, because immigrants to America leave behind the pagan elements that corrupted European Christianity. But that is mere potential, not religion. Man does not live by the American Dream alone. American evangelicals, whose appearance on the political scene has caused so much consternation on the left, spent decades cultivating personal piety, defending hearth and home against the septic tide of popular culture, long before circumstances pressed them into the world arena.
The trouble is that Christianity cannot resolve the conundrum of free will and original sin. A handful of Christians, eg the Mennonites, will form small communities apart from the world and wait for divine grace to find them. That leads to irrelevance. Most Christians will go out into the world and reform it so that it is more amenable to grace, reverting, as it were, to the Hebrew roots of Christianity. Puritan emulation of the Hebrews, once it achieved its earthly goals, led to Brahmin arrogance. America’s tragedy, one hears, is to win the war and lose the peace. In the 18th, 19th, and again in the 20th century, the United States achieved its dream, but lost its soul.
Today’s evangelicals have risen up against soulless secular culture, not against worldly evil. President George W Bush and his neo-conservative counselors believe that the US will engineer democratic regimes throughout the world; in this, I believe, they will fail. Despite their failure, American religion yet may play the decisive role on the world stage. As I observed last year (Ask Spengler, Jun 2, 2004), Professor Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University reports that US Christian denominations are at the forefront of an “historical turning point” in Christianity, “one that is as epochal for the Christian world as the original Reformation.” In the October 2002 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, he wrote, “In the global South (the areas that we often think of primarily as the Third World) huge and growing Christian populations – currently 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia, compared with 260 million in North America … It is Pentecostals who stand in the vanguard of the Southern Counter-Reformation. Though Pentecostalism emerged as a movement only at the start of the twentieth century, chiefly in North America, Pentecostals today are at least 400 million strong, and heavily concentrated in the global South. By 2040 or so there could be as many as a billion, at which point Pentecostal Christians alone will far outnumber the world’s Buddhists and will enjoy rough numerical parity with the world’s Hindus.”
As Asia Times Online reader Douglas Bilodeau of Indiana observed, “If Mecca is ever razed by an invading army, it will not be Israeli or American or European, but will march up from Africa south of the Sahara.”