Sunday, January 09, 2005

Americanism: a Virtual Symposium...

Joe Carter is running a virtual symposium over at Evangelical Outpost, asking for submissions regarding an article in Commentary written by David Gelernter. In Americanism – and Its Enemies, Gelernter defines Americanism as
the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart; the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others— morally superior, closer to God.
and then presents his thesis
that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism. Puritanism and Americanism are not just parallel or related developments; they are two stages of a single phenomenon.
Gelernter concludes by linking the roots of anti-Americanism to the same hatred found towards Christianity,
Anti-Americans are still fascinated and enraged by Americans’ bizarre tendency to believe in God. In the months before the Iraq war in spring 2003, a Norwegian demonstrator waved a placard reading, “Will Bush Go to Hell?” An expatriate American wrote recently (for the FrontPage website) of being instructed by Londoners that “the United States is one giant fundamentalist Christian nation peopled by raging Bible-thumpers on every street”; that America is “running wild with religious extremism that threatens the world far more than bin Laden.”
I am intrigued by Gelernter’s thesis and conclusions. While I agree that Americanism, as he defines it, exists, I am less inclined to link its genesis strictly to Puritanism. Regardless, what should be evident, from even a cursory analysis of American history, is the fact that America’s genesis is so firmly rooted within the Judeo-Christian ethic. Whether or not this ethic manifested itself in sincere Christian belief is not the point; that the ethic was the basis for a particular worldview is. Indeed, this point is entirely missed by many critics of the idea that America traces its roots back to Judeo-Christian origins. In a favorite quote of mine we see, however, that the point was not missed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his book Ethics, he compares the foundation of the French Revolution, which was based on an inherently naturalistic view of man, with the foundation of the American Revolution. He said,
The American democracy is not founded upon the emancipated man but, quite on the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God. It is indeed significant when, in contrast to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, American historians can say that the federal constitution was written by men who were conscious of original sin and of the wickedness of the human heart.
With this understanding in mind, one can see that the question at hand is not Were the founding fathers believers? but, Did the founding fathers understand who they were and who God was? Thus, when analyzing the motives and intentions of someone like Thomas Jefferson, we are not so much concerned as to his belief in the doctrine of the Trinity as we are with his belief that we have been granted inalienable rights by a Creator. Regardless of the theological stance of our founding fathers, we need to understand that they chose to let the Judeo-Christian ethic shape their Enlightenment Worldview. I would argue that such a worldview was, in reality, a “religiously” Enlightened ethic whose structural integrity came from that which we can'’t not know. Once we understand that many of America’s founding fathers, while born out of the Enlightenment, chose to hold a worldview ethic shaped by a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality, we can more easily understand why their views contrasted with those individuals of the same era who chose to reject the same Judeo-Christian ethic. Additionally, by understanding the roots of Americanism, we can better appreciate instances of those individuals who have expressed a fuller understanding of those roots. That Lincoln’s second inaugural speech is enriched with Biblical references, and that Wilson, Truman, and Reagan were so familiar with the Bible are but a few examples which validate the claim that Americanism derives itself, at least partly, from Puritanism. Understanding the basis for Americanism also helps us understand what drives the fervor of anti-Americanism as well. A “secularly” Enlightened culture is one which sees the conclusions of religious conviction as unnecessary at best and wicked at worst. Much like a mirage in the desert, an imaginary chasm - a false dichotomy, is presented as looming before us, pitting reason against faith, the physical against the spiritual, and the natural against the supernatural. That which we cannot empirically verify with our senses is deemed subjective – and personal; while that which is empirically verifiable is declared objectively true. Although I believe that the evangelical community shares in some of the responsibility for the construction of this false dichotomy, its tenets are sometimes preached with no greater fundamental rage than as is found from within the ranks of diehard naturalists. The very thought that the Judeo-Christian ethic could have some – any – objective influence on society at large infuriates the secularly Enlightened individual. It is at this point we must address probably the most intriguing characteristic of the Judeo-Christian ethic as expressed in its fullest form – that of its “worldview” application. Ron Nash, in his book Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith, states,
Christianity is simply not a religion that tells human beings how they may be forgiven. It is a total world- and life view. Christians need to recognize that their faith has important things to say about the whole of human life. Once Christians can understand in a systematic way how the options to Christianity are also world-views, they will be in a better position to rationally justify their choice of Christianity.
While secular culture views the religious experience as simply one of many optional aspects of the life of “self,” the Biblical Worldview sees the many aspects of an individual’s life as being driven by and encompassed within the will of God. Understanding that God has a Plan and that our purpose is subject to Him means that we also understand that we have obligations to Him. The consequences of such an understanding of God cannot be manifested through purely private and subjective means. The free exercise of Christianity or, I would submit, any significant aspect of its ethic, must involve outward action. The underpinnings of Christian virtue entail social justice juxtaposed with the gospel. While Christ commanded us to make disciples he also informed us that, after loving God, the entire Law hinged upon loving our neighbor. That some Christians have perverted the manner in which the Biblical Worldview should be lived out does not negate the fact that the Biblical Worldview exists. We happen to be living at a time and place in which Christians can influence change on the culture at large through democratic means. Yet the United States is not governed by a theocracy, as that of Israel in the Old Testament. And while Christians should shape their lives to conform to the Biblical Worldview, those individuals who are merely influenced by such a worldview are under no such obligation. To what extent, therefore, should we expect the influence of Christianity to be felt on a democratically run culture? Americanism, if it truly exists as Gelernter defines it, may well be a historically unique experience. We, as Christians in America, have not only the power to influence change, we can do so with an immense amount of personal freedom. The first Christians were not so lucky. Yet the change they influenced on society has yet to be matched. Is the power we wield, from the freedom we enjoy, meant for us to horde or to share? If we are now harvesting the fruits from that which the Puritans helped to establish, then what should we make of this unique responsibility?

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