What does it mean to “believe” in America? Why do we always speak of our country as having a mission or purpose that is higher than other nations?
Modern liberals have invested a great deal in the notion that America was founded as a secular state, with religion relegated to the private sphere. David Gelernter argues that America is not secular at all, but a powerful religious idea—indeed, a religion in its own right.
Gelernter argues that what we have come to call “Americanism” is in fact a secular version of Zionism. Not the Zionism of the ancient Hebrews, but that of the Puritan founders who saw themselves as the new children of Israel, creating a new Jerusalem in a new world. Their faith-based ideals of liberty, equality, and democratic governance had a greater influence on the nation’s founders than the Enlightenment.
Gelernter traces the development of the American religion from its roots in the Puritan Zionism of seventeenth-century New England to the idealistic fighting faith it has become, a militant creed dedicated to spreading freedom around the world. The central figures in this process were Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, who presided over the secularization of the American Zionist idea into the form we now know as Americanism.
If America is a religion, it is a religion without a god, and it is a global religion. People who believe in America live all over the world. Its adherents have included oppressed and freedom-loving peoples everywhere—from the patriots of the Greek and Hungarian revolutions to the martyred Chinese dissidents of Tiananmen Square.
Gelernter also shows that anti-Americanism, particularly the virulent kind that is found today in Europe, is a reaction against this religious conception of America on the part of those who adhere to a rival religion of pacifism and appeasement.
A startlingly original argument about the religious meaning of America and why it is loved—and hated—with so much passion at home and abroad.
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DAVID GELERNTER is professor of computer science at Yale University, chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies, a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, and a member of the National Council of the Arts. He is the author of The Muse in the Machine, the novel 1939, Machine Beauty, and other books, and he has written for Commentary, ArtNews, and the Washington Post, among other publications. Gelernter lives in New Haven, Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"I BELIEVE IN AMERICA"
“I believe in America.” Many people have said so over the generations. They are not speaking of a nation. They are expressing belief in an idea, and not just any idea but a religious idea of enormous, transporting power.
In this book I will argue that America is no secular republic; it’s a biblical republic. Americanism is no civic religion; it’s a biblical religion. Americanism doesn’t merely announce the nation’s ideals on its own authority; it speaks on behalf of the Bible and the Bible’s God, as Lincoln did in his Second Inaugural Address. Its goal is for America to move forward “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” as Lincoln said in that same speech. That America is a biblical republic and Americanism a biblical religion—both facts are perfectly consistent with absolute religious freedom; both are supported by mountains of evidence. So how come nobody knows them? Is the evidence secret? Hardly. But we live in a secular age. No book will change that fact, but our secular prejudice can’t change history either. If we look the facts in the face and don’t flinch, we will see America the biblical republic and Americanism the biblical religion emerge clearly.
“America” is one of the most beautiful religious concepts mankind has ever known. It is sublimely humane, built on strong confidence in humanity’s ability to make life better. “America” is an idea that results from focusing the Bible and Judeo–Christian faith like a spotlight’s beam on the problem of this life (not the next) in the modern world, in a modern nation. The ideas that emerge in a blaze of light center on liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind.These ideas are often attributed to ancient Greece and to eighteenth–century philosophy. I will show how they grew in fact from the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity. They were present implicitly (unopened buds) in the Puritan America of the early 1600s. During the revolutionary era the climate was right for the buds to bloom. And they were beautiful. But they reached maturity only decades later, under the ministration of the greatest religious figure of modern centuries—who was also President of the United States.
The religious idea called "America" is religious insofar as it tells an absolute truth about the meaning of human life, a truth that we must take on faith. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” says the Declaration of Independence. No proofs are supplied.) I will try to show that the “American Religion,” which gives “America” its spiritual meaning, consists of an American Creed in the context of a doctrine I will call American Zionism. Virtually everyone agrees on the existence if not the details of the Creed, but the phenomenon I call American Zionism has been discussed by relatively few historians. I will try to show that the American Religion incorporates the biblical ideas of a chosen people in a promised land. Those concepts are the source of America’s (sometime) sense of divine mission; of her (not invariable yet often powerful) feeling of obligation to all mankind; of her democratic chivalry—her nagging awareness of a duty to help the weak against the strong. This “chivalry” has nothing to do with knights and ladies; it is a deep sense of duty to the suffering, and comes straight from American Zionism.
I will try to show how the American Religion was shaped by American history and how it shaped that history in turn—America’s history and its religion in a centuries–long embrace.
And I will try to show that the America Religion is a global religion. Believers in America have lived all over the world. Some have believed with tormented desperation. Others have believed serenely, because the idea called “America” seemed profoundly humane and beautiful. Most did not believe in America as if it were God, but did believe as if America had chosen a divine mission and had the means to carry it out. For others the belief was more abstract: America only symbolized the facts that liberty, equality, and democracy could indeed become real on this earth and that human beings could make them real. And given the many who have believed, as well as the depth and fervor of their belief and the sublimity of the American idea (which I have yet to define precisely), this American Religion is a great religion.
No religion had ever before laid out these three political ideals as its creed: Liberty. Equality. Democracy. The great achievement of Americanism is to proclaim these three principles and their biblical origins, to proclaim them in America’s own new scriptures—especially Lincoln’s presidential speeches—and to make them real in a functioning nation. But Americanism goes further, to declare that these three principles are not the exclusive property of Americans or Christians or believers in God or descendants of white Europeans. According to the American Religion, they belong to all mankind, and Americans have a duty not merely to preach but to bring them to all mankind.
We are used to hearing the principles of this Creed described as philosophical and not religious. But no truth can be “philosophical” unless you are willing to be argued out of it. Not many Americans are willing to be argued out of their dearest national possessions. The intensity of belief in this Creed among people who have never heard a philosophical argument in their lives belies the assertion that these ideas are “philosophical.” Those who think that Lincoln at Gettysburg was offering a philosophical address when he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty" and of “the proposition that all men are created equal” and of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”are deluded. In that speech Lincoln built, out of words, a sacred shrine for America’s three fundamental ideals. It is one of the most beautiful shrines mankind has ever seen, and one of the holiest.
The American Religion is a biblical faith. In effect, it is an extension or expression of Judaism or Christianity. It is also separate from those faiths; you don’t have to believe in the Bible or Judaism or Christianity to believe in America or the American Religion. Atheists and agnostics have been ardent believers. A few have believed in America the way Jews or Christians believe in God. Muslims and Hindus, Marxists and pagans have all been devout believers in Americanism.
Of course you can hum a melody from a Bach oratorio without converting to Christianity. But there is no denying that Christianity inspired the melody, through the medium of Bach’s genius. And there is no denying that Christianity inspired Americanism far more directly, through the medium of many thinkers, patriots, and geniuses.
My topic is Americanism and not Christianity; Americanism and not America. America, the vast democratic nation north of Mexico, south of Canada, is different from Americanism—a religion proclaiming liberty, equality, and democracy. But to understand Americanism, we need to know something about America too.
Today many thinkers assert that America is a secular republic; that secularism is, in fact, one of the great ideas on which this nation is built. I will try to show that America is, on the contrary, a biblical republic.
The Bible has no official status in America and never will. You can be a loyal American and never read the Bible, or you can read it and reject it. Yet repeatedly and in many eras we find Americans with the Bible on their minds, like a melody that keeps running through their heads that they can’t shake. That’s what I mean by “biblical republic”: not a theocracy; not a nation ruled by biblical laws. My only definition is informal. A biblical republic has the Bible on its mind. A biblical republic is full of citizens who agree with Samuel Taylor Coleridge that “in the Bible, there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together.”
Philosophers sometimes debate the role of reason versus revelation in the spread of political ideas. Whatever the source of the ideas we believe in, most people have no interest in philosophical arguments, whether or not they have ever heard one.
Most of us accept an idea as true if it seems true, if we “recognize” its truth in roughly the same way we recognize a familiar face. Resonance is the physical phenomenon that makes a C string hum when the same pitch sounds nearby. When we hear an assertion that makes something within us hum, the “resonance,” that inner humming, tells us the idea is right. This internal resonance depends on how our minds are loaded: on what we experienced and were taught as small children; on our genes; and, according to the religious–minded, on our souls.
Those who accept Americanism do so mainly because we recognize its principles as true—not because anyone has ever convinced us they were true.
When people have the Bible on their minds, they are apt to “recognize” (to accept as true) assertions that remind them somehow of biblical verses, stories, ideas. It makes no difference whether the principles of Americanism came from the Bible or from philosophy—although there is plenty of reason to believe, as I’ll discuss, that the Bible was the most important source by far. But since Americans have traditionally had the Bible on their minds, they have tended to accept the principles of Americanism on biblical and not on philosophical grounds—wherever they came from originally.
Americanism is often introduced as a religion—only to be demoted immediately to the s...
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