Saturday, January 8

On "Americanism - and its Enemies"

David Gelernter has written an article about Americanism. He traces its roots and discusses how its origin influences how Americanism is seen today. Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost has challenged bloggers to write insightful essays on this article.

Mr Gelernter is a Computer Scientist hailing from Yale who also acquired some notoriety as a surviving victim of a Unabomber assault. He now can be numbered among the leading conservative intellectual voices in the Academy.

In brief, the main thrust of the argument in his paper proceeds as follows:
  • First he both establishes what he means by Americanism and how it polarizes those who believe in it against those who hate it.
  • He then makes an initial connection between Americanism and the drive for Manifest Destiny in the 19th century with its origin in Puritan thought. It might seem that Puritinism was a strong movement which simply vanished, but Mr Gelernter proposes that it didn't vanish, but that it was assimilated into American culture en masse.
  • Next he identifies some parts of the Puritan beliefs which were assimilated into Americanism. He feels Americanism derives two premises from Puritanism, that (1) each person has individual dignity derived from his relationship to God and that (2) our community has a divine mission with regards to mankind.
  • From this we get the rights of man: freedom, equality, and democracy.
  • He then shows how these rights are derived from Biblical authority.
  • But that derivation is perhaps less important than the "American Zionist" movement which is another part of the Americanism thought. That is the feeling that our Nation is divinely meant to be the promised land and an instrument of God's will in the world.
  • He then traces the "America as Zion" thoughts as they historically moved from 1st covenant ideas of the promised land to modern ideas of Wilson, Truman, Reagan, and our current President which are more like those of the 2nd covenant, that America is to take her ideals and spread them to the "gentiles" (other nations)
  • This last mission of course has developed those, especially in Europe (and at home), who oppose this idea bitterly.
  • This idea, while opposed, may be correct nonetheless.

Comments? I'll start with one small quibble, I understand this was based on a lecture and converted to a magazine article. But when posted on the web, it would be nice to include links to supporting material, for it is obvious from some of the quotes and comments in this article is not based on pure supposition and guesswork but that real research into the historical sources and commentary lies behind many of Mr Gelernter's claims. On the other hand, the broad thrust of Mr Gelernter's arguments are compelling. Puritanism, or at least a religious origin of the thoughts of our leaders, throughout the centuries certainly has had a strong influence on our Nation. Manifest Destiny in the last century and our belief in our role in the world in this century certainly undeniably are strongly believed by many and just as strongly hated.

Mr Gelernter may be right about the origin of much of the hate of America amongst the intellectuals in Europe (and between our shores). The question is how to use this knowledge. The creedal confidence of our people is seen as religious arrogance by those who do not share it. Should we tone down our "zeal" or go forth proudly? We certainly could consider how we feel about these roots once exposed. The un-examined life, as they say, isn't worth living. This essay provides a insightful look into the origins of some of the patriotic fervor of many. It may help them to examine their beliefs. Once examined, those beliefs can be cherished and strengthened by being exposed and accepted, or by choice rejected. That remains the choice of the reader.

One amusing speculative note, perhaps an Americanist could feel that Joan of Arc received divine revelation so that France could become a nation, not for the sake of France, but so that Messrs Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin could persuade France to rescue our nation in her time of need in the 1780's. Then France could fade in to relative obscurity, her job done. In this century, two World Wars propelled us to global prominence. 9/11 and the recent Boxer's Day Tsunami may be the spark to urge us to get off our duff and spread the message of freedom, equality, and democracy to a savage pagan world. I'm not going to say I'm a proponent of that point of view, but thoughts like that are probably those that keep the opponents of Americanism awake at night.

Finally, welcome to all symposium readers. I'd like to take the chance to point out a project I'm working on now. It consists of a series of posts in which I'm engaging in an effort to follow the same path those Puritans trod. To whit, I'm thinking about Christian theories of government. If you're interested, look here, here, here, here, and here.