America as Religion

The first chapter of Americanism is entitled “I Believe in America,” and it reveals the basic problem. A number of people have wanted to say that America is “dedicated to a proposition,” and that we are not bound together by those ties that bind other nations — things like language, culture, music, food, and common descent. Because of this assumption, believing or not believing in America becomes a choice, like a religious choice, and that means you can fault people for not making it.

Wise people have always held back from blaming others for being born and raised in a different place. The providence of God has placed us in a certain way, and we should just deal with it. But religious claims, whether we are talking about the lordship of Christ, or whether Muhammad is Allah’s prophet, or the noble eight-fold path of Buddhism — these are claims that can be adopted by anyone.

“‘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” (p. 1).

Gelernter takes this observation and makes a number of logical inferences from it. He says that “Americanism is a biblical religion” (p. 1), but note that this is a biblical religion, not the biblical religion. There are others — but it appears that they are all denominations within the broader scope of things, each with something to contribute. And it appears that compared to Christianity and Judaism, Americanism has the most of all to contribute.

Gelernter doesn’t stint. The man does not hold back. I am going to unload a good portion of the truck here, just so no one accuses me of making all this up.

“‘America’ is one of the most beautiful religious concepts mankind has ever known” (p. 2).

Speaking of Lincoln, he argues that this faith reached maturity “under the ministrations of the greatest religious figure of modern centuries — who was also President of the United States” (p. 2).

“And I will try to show that the American Religion is a global religion. Believers in America have lived all over the world” (p. 3).

And at least one unbeliever who lives right here in Idaho.

Liberty, equality and democracy (at least he didn’t say fraternity) are the possession of all mankind, according to Americanism, and “Americans have a duty not merely to preach but to bring them to all mankind” (p. 4). The Gettysburg Address is “one of the most beautiful shrines mankind has ever seen, and one of the holiest” (p. 4).

“The American Religion is a biblical faith. In effect, it is an extension or expression of Judaism or Christianity. It is also separate from these faiths; you don’t have to believe in the Bible or Judaism or Christianity to believe in America or the American Religion” (p. 4).

“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” (p. 5).

“The American Religion is neither a mere civil religion nor a form of patriotism” (p. 6).

“Christians and Jews ought not to see Americanism as a blasphemous replacement for Christianity or Judaism. Anyone can ask a theologian, ‘What does Christianity say about this problem?’ If the answer is satisfying, it is incorporated into the questioner’s religion. The American Religion is a traditional religion’s reponse to modern political reality. It is an extension to the structure of Judaism or Christianity, an extra room out back” (p. 11).

“Most nations are based on no principles; they are based instead on shared descent or ethnicity. The United States is different” (p. 15).

“Lincoln did more than anyone else to transform Puritanism in Americanism” (p. 19).

“You can believe in Americanism without believing in God — so long as you believe in man” (p. 20).

This kind of thing takes the breath away, or ought to, and the initial reaction of many Christians will be to say that Gelernter must be a lone whackadoo, and why are we paying attention to this? For several reasons. The first is that he is highly educated and competent. He is a professor of computer science at Yale, a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard, and a member of the National Council on the Arts. A number of the people mentioned in the acknowledgements are at the center of our national life, and not part of the Glazed Eye Crowd. The second reason for taking him seriously is that he is right. Americanism has become a religion, and he accurately identifies how and where it happened. Where we part company is to be found in his (religious) conviction that this development was a good thing. Faithful Christians will necessarily see it as a tragic fall into idolatry — and into one of the easist forms of idolatry for conservative Christians to be tempted by.

We can rest assured that the central mistakes made in this book will be (given the nature of the case) theological mistakes, religious mistakes. They will not belong to a class of lesser blunders.

I have said this a number of times, and I hope that my family and friends figure out a way to get some form of this point enscribed on my tombstone. Secular states that know their business want to keep their citizenry happy and busy with their religious hobbies. The ultimate decisions are made without regard to God and His law, and without taking into account the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. This is an arrangement that all empires have always wanted to make, and no consistent Christian can have anything to do with it.

Gelernter assumes this kind of religious pragmatism throughout. Whether Jesus was the Messiah of God is a matter upon which we can have different opinions. We can be faithful to the ultimate religious issues before us, and we can do this knowing that belief in God is optional. What is not optional is that necessary belief in man.

But Christians don’t get to think this way. We don’t believe in man — we believe in the one Man, the mediator between God and men. Man in his own name is all screwed up. He worships things like ideas, and air power, and propositions. I am spending time on this book because in my view it is a very dangerous book. Gelernter is not trying to sell us something that nobody ever heard of before. He is rather explaining to us a good deal of our history, and if we are humble enough to learn from him we will see that the roots of our compromise go back centuries. He is not trying to sell us something that we haven’t already halfway bought.

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