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There is something more dangerous than secularism, and that is a nation-state masquerading as God incarnate…

Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, by David Gelernter (Doubleday, 2007)

Americanism- The Fourth Great Western ReligionMidway through a century battered by ideological warfare, C.S. Lewis thought it unnecessary to remind anyone that “love of one’s country… becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Lewis wrote these words in The Four Loves, one of his last books. As a young undergraduate, he had left Oxford in 1917 to fight on the Western Front. There he witnessed firsthand the tragedy of war waged by demonized nations who thought they were divine. Now in the wake of a second global war, Western man stood sorely in need of well-ordered loves. Love of one’s country had to be restored to its proper place in the hierarchy of affections. “Demonic patriotism,” Lewis wrote, “will make it easier for [a nation’s rulers] to act wickedly.” “Healthy patriotism,” he hoped, “may make it harder.”

In that hope, Lewis encouraged each citizen to “keep a wary eye on the health or disease of our own love of country.” A healthy patriotism uses legends about its heroic past to strengthen the will and imagination and yet always bears in mind that the “actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings.” A diseased patriotism misuses the mythic past to legitimize imperialism. While Lewis thought it “possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up,” he knew only too well that “the image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic study.”

It is hard not to think of Lewis’s distinction between healthy and diseased patriotism when confronted with David Gelernter’s Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Dr. Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor, novelist, and contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, mounts an impassioned defense of America’s redemptive mission. He seeks out a usable past to justify current U.S. policy in Iraq and beyond, insisting that the cynics and secularists have gotten the American story wrong. He rallies concerned patriots, and Christians in particular, to defend the battlements of Winthrop’s city on a hill. But in his zeal, he constructs just the sort of “image of the past” that Lewis warned against, a seductive account of America’s rise to glory that many unguarded readers may mistake for serious and systematic study. Dr. Gelernter may sincerely aim to strengthen American resolve in Iraq by drawing a straight line from modern Baghdad back to Puritan Boston, but he ends up with an absurdly “puffed up” caricature of the American identity that, however unintentionally, swells into blasphemy. He fails to imagine a well-ordered, proportionate love of country as a viable alternative to both cynical apathy and nationalist idolatry.

Americanism begins with the trajectory of American history already set and then assembles events and people and documents to follow that predetermined narrative. As if stringing beads on a thread, Dr. Gelernter works from the Puritan “city upon a hill” to the Revolution, to the Union victory in the Civil War, to the First World War, to the Cold War, and finally to the War on Terror. He reinvents the seventeenth-century Puritan exiles into precursors of all that he admires most in modern America: freedom, tolerance, democracy, and equality. In what reads at points like a satire of Whig history, Dr. Gelernter populates his story with “proto-Americans” who uttered “premonitions” of and “foreshadowed” Americanism. Blessed with the ability to “see the pattern behind” the events of American history, he offers a misleadingly clear and simple national epic devoid of surprises and shadows in which universal goodness tramples down every reactionary foe. America’s success is ordained. Its principles and way of life will sweep the world. To doubt the prudence of America’s global engagement is to doubt the will of God—or at least the will of an immanentized national deity.

Twin propositions guide Dr. Gelernter to his predetermined conclusion: America is a “biblical republic” and Americanism is a “biblical religion.” By a “biblical republic” he means simply a republic that “has the Bible on its mind” (his emphasis). By a “biblical religion” he means only that Americanism grew out of Judaism and Christianity. Despite his claim that “mountains of evidence” support these two “facts,” his book never rises to the level of a reasoned argument. He relies on repetition, italics, and exclamation marks to make his case for him. He winds up proving merely that many Americans over the past four hundred years have made extravagant claims about the nation’s divine destiny and then turns these claims into binding precedents for U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century. How anyone would go about substantiating America’s identity as God’s chosen people Dr. Gelernter never bothers to explain. Proof texts from famous Americans seem to satisfy his minimal standards of evidence. But, after all, this is a work of pious devotional literature aimed more at the heart than the head. He counts on his audience being generally uninformed about American history and to react on cue to the “secularist” conspiracy, confident that his readers want to be part of the real America that feels good and righteous about global democracy.

On nearly every page, Americanism brings to mind Eric Voegelin’s diagnosis of the spiritual pathologies of modern nationalism. Dr. Gelernter sees to it that no one can possibly miss the point that Americanism is an ersatz religion. The book’s third paragraph begins with a startling claim: “‘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.” Not only that, but this religion’s political theology seems to be a big improvement over its outdated predecessors: “‘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.”

No doubt many Jews and Christians will be surprised to discover that their vague faith needed “focusing.” Gone is the otherworldliness of historic Christianity. In its place, the intramundane faith of “Americanism” meets the pressing need to transform and perfect the world. Dr. Gelernter insists that “in America religion must be political, is in fact political; in America religion concerns the citizen and the city.” Conveniently, followers of Americanism never have to choose between the things of Caesar and the things of God. Indeed, the religion of Americanism is so ecumenical that the faithful don’t even have to believe in God. Humanitarianism is its only test: “You can believe in Americanism without believing in God—so long as you believe in man.”

Fitting Voegelin’s diagnosis even more closely, Dr. Gelernter adopts what the political philosopher called a “single thread of meaning”—the story of America’s progress—as his sacred narrative. His entire project relies on a systematic and comprehensive substitution of America for ancient Israel, for the Messiah, and for the church. As the historical “addendum” to Judaism and Christianity—“an extra room out back,” he quaintly calls it—America stands today as nothing less than the promised land, called by her own prophets to set captives free and to be the light of the world and a city on a hill, doing battle in the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Dr. Gelernter makes one-for-one exchanges for the creed and the canon, for articles of faith and the “new covenant,” for prophets and martyrs, for the story of redemption and the “new birth,” for the church, and even for mystical ecstasy.

With numbing repetition, Dr. Gelernter emphasizes Americanism’s creed, holy mission, and national scriptures, and praises its greatest prophet. There are no surprises in his familiar neoconservative litany: the confession of faith affirms “liberty, democracy, and equality for all mankind”; the mission requires “chivalric” America to carry that creed to the whole world, even by force; and the canon consists of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s speeches, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Among these works, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural appears as the “holiest document in the American canon,” the one speech that “defined Americanism for all time.” Lincoln himself emerges therefore as the final prophet of the American religion, the Mohammed of Americanism, so to speak. Father Abraham was America’s “greatest prophet, preacher, and religious leader,” who “completed the work of the founding fathers” and was in fact “the last and greatest of them.” Not only that, but “Lincoln should almost certainly be remembered as the most important religious figure America has ever produced.” Indeed, “[h]is extraordinary personality made Americanism live. His martyrdom made it holy.” These are but a fraction of Dr. Gelernter’s praise for the Civil War president. At one point he nearly swoons with ecstasy as he contemplates Lincoln’s image: “Lincoln’s face is America’s face. What a beautiful face it is.”

At one level, there is nothing remarkable about Dr. Gelernter’s deliberate confusion of religion and national identity. The Puritans imported the habit from England, and Americans have spent the past four hundred years adapting it to changing circumstances. Other nations, especially at the height of Romantic nationalism, described themselves in the same language and often with disastrous consequences—a comparative perspective the author never attempts. What makes Americanism different from countless Fourth of July orations over the years is the desperation Dr. Gelernter brings to his task. He seems afraid that America’s messianic identity has burned itself out. The words “mission” and “destiny,” though, have never sounded so hollow and calculated as they do in Dr. Gelernter’s defense of them. Contrary to his intentions, therefore, his book will do little to re-energize America’s messianic consciousness. Americanism may even subvert that sense of divine calling by making his target audience self-conscious, perhaps for the first time, about how sloppily politicians misuse such phrases as “city on a hill.” Dr. Gelernter’s very urgency may provoke readers to ask whether the nation-state has any legitimate title to these biblical metaphors. Once that question penetrates the culture, America’s messianic identity is done for.

Whether Dr. Gelernter realizes it or not, there is something more dangerous than secularism, and that is a nation-state masquerading as God incarnate. In The Four Loves, Lewis defended the goodness of a non-ideological patriotism rooted in the concreteness of a shared place and culture. In a world without a sane patriotism affixed to the particular, national leaders will only be able to rally their peoples in wartime with such loose abstractions as “justice, civilization, or humanity.” Lewis acknowledged that we might be tempted to think of fighting for these ideals as a mark of humanity’s ethical progress. But, he warned, “this is a step down, not up.” “If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.” Dazzled by the false transcendence of nationalism, Dr. Gelernter refuses to allow love of one’s country to be simply a thing of this world. As a substitute religion, Americanism may well motivate citizens to fight for their nation in times of war. But it insults ordinary citizens to assume they will fight for nothing else. Ideology is a poor substitute for patriotism and true religion. By making America our god we will discover that we have made it our demon.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Volume 50, Number 1, Winter 2008). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Well, this is a marvelous read.

    As an aside, I have always found it difficult to read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as anything but a repudiation of unhealthy patriotism. The speech takes a tragic view of the war and the state of the Union which had led to it. Its’ aim is to accept the wages of American sin and seek reconciliation, not bask in victory or energize hatred.

  2. I agree that this is a danger, and it seems to me that secularism may end in the same place. Humanity must take its moral guidance from somewhere, and as cultural and religious guidance becomes increasingly marginalized in the public square, the highest power left standing fills the void, even as it distances itself from religion. I recently finished writing my undergraduate thesis on Just War Theory, and most of the justifications offered by the United States for its Rules of Engagement are framed in terms of legal positivism or practicality, with no appeal to natural law. However, when trying to make decisions in the heat of battle, or to cope with their effects afterwards, we as humans need more than simply “it was legal,” and so we end up giving heavier weight to legality than it would otherwise have, and it begins to become a final authority in its own right. If we kill God, eliminating the particularity of culture and religion from the public square, perhaps it is inevitable that we ourselves “must become gods simply to appear worthy” of setting societal norms and laws.

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