David Gelernter really celebrates the Puritans
“To understand America and Americanism, you must understand those Puritans. They are a difficult proposition, an intellectual handful. They were religious fanatics. But their intolerance gave birth to toleration; their quest for religious freedom yielded freedom in general; and their devotion to the Bible and the biblical idea of covenant contributed significantly to the modern liberal state” (p. 38).
This is all quite true, but when it comes to making a case for “Americanism” it is completely beside the point. If I might, I would start my critique of this chapter right out of the blocks. The Puritans did in fact shape the American personality. But personality is not the same thing as character. Two men can have an outgoing personality, with one of them honest and the other treacherous. Two men can be quiet and withdrawn, with one of them a rock of integrity and the other a knave. We do share certain personality features with the Puritans, attributes we inherited from them. But inheriting a personality like this is not the same thing as inheriting their character.
To hear praise of the Puritans like this is like hearing the Prodigal Son raise a toast in some seedy tavern (Distant Country Ale House) in honor of his father, who supplied him with all this great money. Just like in the parable, there will come a day when we run out of all that “great money” that the Puritans supplied us with. We may already be there — the pig food is starting to look pretty good.
But still, Gelernter is onto something. “Puritanism ranks with the half dozen decisive forces in the shaping of the modern world” (p. 40). True again. And the New England Puritans, with their insistence on the “New England Way,” limiting church membership to that small number who could give “convincing public accounts of the entry of God’s ‘saving grace’ into their lives” did cause a host of insoluble problems for themselves and others (p. 41). But that notwithstanding, the Puritans exhibited an “incandescent, subversive genius” (p. 43). The Puritans had a “wide-ranging, surprising . . . contribution to America’s personality” (p. 43). Gelernter makes it really difficult for me, because anybody who praises the Puritans this much and with this much understanding is most of the way to having my enthusiastic agreement. But he still manages to lose me, and lose me drastically.
In this chapter, Gelernter gives us a short course in the history of Protestant Calvinism, and points out some helpful connections. For example, why has America been relatively free from certain viral attitudes that have afflicted Christendom in old Europe?
“But Calvin’s influence also paved the way for English and (even more) American affection for the Old Testament; for English and (far more) American resistance to anti-Semitism.”
Some wit once said that Scots Presbyterianism was “pork-eating Judaism,” and the Scots and Scot/Irish who streamed to the New World in the eighteenth century supplemented the Puritan affection for “Old Testament Christianity.” Americans have historically been biblicists, and they have included both testaments in this.
Gelernter also points to specific characteristics of the Puritans that contributed greatly to the American personality. The most striking is the emphasis on simplicity.
“Simplicity as a worldview was especially important in America. Reinforced by the natural limitations of New World life far from European craftsmen, models, and materials, restrained simplicity emerged as the American style — an aesthetic with theological roots” (p. 54).
Incidentally, this passion for simplicity brought a fatal temptation with it. It is one of the reasons for the precipitous fall of New England Puritanism into Unitarianism in the 19th century. The Trinity is more complicated than the “simplicity” of Unitarianism. Gelernter sees this decline, but has an odd response to it.
“When the bright blaze of Puritanism was replaced by the pale flicker of Unitarianism, a spiritual vacuum appeared on the American landscape. Eventually it was replaced by Americanism itself. The American Religion was the true heir of Puritanism” (p. 56).
What he doesn’t see is that, biblically speaking, his Americanism is just another pale flicker, a candle guttering in front of yet another idol. The solitary monad god of the Unitarians was an idol — one that not very many people wanted to worship because doing so unfortunately involved spending time with Unitarians. The solitary monad god of American civil religion, the one invoked on our money and in our pledge of allegiance, is in principle the same kind of idol. But this idol is a lot sexier, and has a lot more enthusiastic (camp) followers, mostly because the American economy churns out goods and services in a vast torrent, and we musn’t leave out American military firepower and throw-weight. Chicks dig an armed guy in uniform with lots of cash. The prophet Ezekiel describes a very similar fascination that the “Chaldeans in vermilion” managed to create in their day. “For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses” (Ez. 23:20). It gives new meaning to Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Nothing succeeds like success, and power and wealth are sexy enough to turn weak heads. Americanism is therefore an idolatry that appears to have a lot going for it. But Christians who worship the triune God will refuse to worship any idol, whether it is the nerdy monad of the liberal bedwetters, or the gonad monad of the American neo-cons.
Gelernter says that Americanism consists “of American Zionism and the Creed” (p. 57). American Zionism is postmillennial wine turned to vinegar, and the Creed is a bastardized attempt to apply certain blessings found only in Christ to a civil order outside of Christ, a civil order which rejects Christ.
First, the Zionism. The Puritans thought of themselves as a new chosen people, settling into a new promised land. They held this in the context of a postmillennial vision of the gospel extending to the ends of the earth. This Zionistic impulse is why Americans tend to think that events on the other side of the world are somehow our business, and if our business, then shortly thereafter the business of the American military. The Church believes this rightly, because Christ told us to take the gospel to all nations. But secularize the doctrine and you have Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy, which incidentally has been the foreign policy of virtually all modern presidents. If you want to know what postmillennialism looks like with Jesus taken out of it, look no further than George Bush’s Second Inaugural.
The Creed, as Gelernter presents it, is “liberty, equality, democracy” (p. 69). But if this is being presented to us as a series of answers to basic religious questions, we need to be prepared for the follow-up questions. Why should men be free? Why should they be treated with equity? Why should we govern ourselves democratically? The answers will vary depending on whether you believe that we evolved out of the primordial goo, or God put us here. They will vary according to whether you believe in the Supreme Court or the Supreme Being. Religions don’t do well suspended in mid-air. Why should men be free? Who makes them free? How can they be free when they are slaves to sin?
If an Americanist evangelist shows up at your door with free literature (perhaps around election time), I would suggest raising such questions and pressing them home. “Why should we fight for liberty? Why should we care?” The apologist for any new religion will have to do better than “three hundred and fifty years ago there were some people on the east coast who used to believe in God and His Son, Jesus Christ. We don’t anymore, of course, but they really inspire us with their up-beat, can-do attitude.”
It reminds me of the old joke about the apostle Paul, apostle of depravity and sovereign grace, and Norman Vincent Peale, apostle of Uplift. A fellow was asked to compare them and he said, “I find Paul appealing, and Peale appalling.” Paul is profound, and consequently overflowing with good news, and those who heal the wound of the people lightly will always be dabbing around the edges of a festering wound. Deriving shallow inspiration from those who used to believe something deeply is just that — shallow. You cannot have it both ways. One of the books I try to be reading all the time is The Pilgrim’s Progress. Just this morning I read this, and it seems pertinent to this discussion somehow. “Yea, many of them that are resolved never to run his hazards, yet have their mouths water at his gains.”