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Are Americans the Chosen People?

August 20, 2007

Tags U.S. HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

[Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. By David Gelernter. Doubleday, 2007. X + 229 pgs.]

David Gelernter starts with an undoubted fact and uses it to construct a bizarre fantasy. The origins of America have been profoundly religious; in particular, the Puritans affected American thought in pervasive fashion. Their influence long persisted their demise as a distinct movement in the nineteenth century. Thus, historians who view the Founding Fathers as creatures of a secular Enlightenment are badly mistaken.

Unfortunately, this useful theme is not enough for Gelernter. He argues that Americans, using Puritan thought as a starting point, have constructed a new religion. Abraham Lincoln ranks foremost as a developer of the new faith and as an idolatrous object of its worship. He does not stand alone: Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan are accorded lesser, but very honorable, places in the new pantheon. Franklin Roosevelt belongs among the exalted also, though he suffers from a flaw. He did not take America into war by persuasion but waited until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor left no alternative. The new religion, Gelernter holds, is a great spiritual achievement. We ought to bow down and worship according to its tenets. In doing so, we need not abandon Christianity or Judaism. Quite the contrary, the new religion is fully compatible with the ancient faiths.

As Gelernter rightly notes, "the Bible and Puritanism molded America as a potter molds wet clay. Some secularists don't like to face this fact… The Puritans who dominated those first English settlements, who did so much to shape this nation and its faith, were fiercely, fanatically dedicated to their God" (p. 9).

But did not the Founding Fathers break radically with the Puritans? Gelernter is not convinced that they did: True enough, John Locke's thought lies behind the Declaration of Independence. But the "Bible was very important to Locke's writing. Whenever he based his arguments on history and human experience, the Bible was his main source" (p. 29).

Had Gelernter expanded and documented his claims, he could have written a valuable book. Instead, he takes off into the empyrean. The Puritans, it seems, began to create a new religion. They often spoke of America as the New Israel: like the Jews of old, they were now God's chosen people. "In sum: passionate belief in the American community's closeness to God and its obligation to God and the whole world — Americans as a new chosen people, America as a new promised land — that is American Zionism" (p. 69, emphasis removed).

Gelernter fails to ask a fundamental question: when the Puritans and later writers spoke of Americans as a chosen people, how literally did they intend their remarks? Granted the Biblical orthodoxy of the Puritans, would it not have been the rankest heresy if they meant their comments as other than metaphors? What in the doctrines of any of the major Christian churches authorizes one to place America and its people above other nations? Is the matter any different for Judaism?

Amazingly, Gelernter denies the obvious point that the "religion" he expounds contradicts the teachings of orthodox Judaism and Christianity, in which particular modern nations occupy no special place. "The American Religion is a biblical faith. In effect, it is an extension or expression of Judaism or Christianity. It is also separate from those faiths; you don't have to believe in the Bible or Judaism or Christianity to believe in America or the American Religion" (p. 4). Gelernter does not tell us how an "extension" of a faith can radically change its content. Perhaps this eminent Yale professor has so capacious a mind that he can readily embrace clashing principles.

But what if this objection is right? A defender of Gelernter, if not our author himself, might respond that his new religion still remains a live option for those who do not embrace the undiluted teachings of the old faiths. This response, though, invites a further objection. Why should we think that American Zionism, with its accompanying American Creed, is true? What is the evidence that America enjoys special Divine favor? If one need not believe in a "standard" God to accept Americanism, what exactly must adherents of the new faith accept as the Power behind America's special place?

Evidence? What is that to Gelernter? From him, blind faith is enough. "The religious idea called 'America' is religious insofar as it tells an absolute truth about the meaning of human life, a truth that we must take on faith. ('We hold these truths to be self-evident,' says the Declaration of Independence. No proofs are supplied)" (p. 2, emphasis omitted). Gelernter confuses recognizing something as self-evident with blindly accepting a controversial position. Surely even he cannot seriously think that the extravagances of "American Zionism" are self-evident. If not, our question returns: why believe it?

The new religion is even odder than I have so far presented. Gelernter elevates Abraham Lincoln to Mount Olympus. Lincoln "transformed Americanism into a full-fledged, mature religion — not by causing America to embody its noble ideals but by teaching the nation that it ought to embody them. He changed Americanism by interpreting those ideals — liberty, equality, and democracy — not as words on parchment but as marching orders" (p. 105). Further, in "the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Lincoln produced the two greatest sacred narratives in the English language (outside of the English Bible itself)" (p. 106).

Nowhere does Gelernter address the most fundamental issue about Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln, by refusing to accept Southern secession, unleashed a war that led to the deaths of over 600,000 people. In the course of prosecuting the war, he interfered massively with civil liberties and acted with dictatorial power. Was his course of action morally justifiable? Readers of The Mises Review will not be surprised to learn that I think it wasn't, but how one answers the question is not the key point. Rather, Gelernter provides no arguments, e.g., that the good of ending slavery was worth the severe costs of the war, for Lincoln's policies. Instead, he offers us pseudo-religious rhetoric.

To suit our author's thesis that Lincoln's American Religion extends Christianity, it would obviously be better if Lincoln were himself a Christian. Sadly for this view, Lincoln early acquired a reputation as an infidel. As his law partner William Herndon noted, Lincoln as a young man wrote a book critical of the Bible; and well-known freethinkers, such as Robert Ingersoll and Joseph Lewis, have looked to Lincoln as a precursor. Gelernter tells us nothing of this; he confines himself to saying that Lincoln "never called himself a Christian plainly, publicly, unambiguously" (p. 134). Instead he quotes several favorable comments Lincoln made about the Bible and Christianity and stresses, a matter not in dispute, Lincoln's knowledge of the Bible. Once more, the point is not whether Gelernter is right in his assessment of Lincoln's views. It is that he does not indicate to his readers that there is a controversy over the issue. As always, rhetoric trumps analysis.

Gelernter writes: "When Lincoln was murdered, the American Religion entered a new sphere of sanctity… Lincoln's martyrdom was a human catastrophe and a political one. But in religious terms, it sealed his achievement" (pp.142–43). In what sense was Lincoln a martyr? He did not go willingly to his death for refusing to renounce his beliefs: the fact, if it is one, that he had a premonition of his own death does not make him a martyr. But what are facts to our schwärmer?

Given the grandeur of this new faith, would it not be churlish to confine it to the United States? "America had a mission to all mankind. Democratic chivalry was every American's duty. Sometimes, in fact, Lincoln seems to be prophesying an Americanism that would actively promote the Creed all over the world. Of course he did not say that America must use military force to ensure 'an equal chance' for all men. Such an idea would have been nonsense in 1861; America was no global power and had no global presence" (p. 142).

Happily, Woodrow Wilson changed matters. Though inferior to Lincoln — "Wilson has nothing like Lincoln's epochal importance to Americanism and world history" (p. 156) — he is nevertheless a major figure. He took America into World War I in order to help spread the American Religion worldwide: "Wilson insisted that America must fight for her interests and her principles… Wilson defined Americanism in religious terms that implied not just global preaching but global acting" (p. 174).

Again our usual pattern recurs. Gelernter does not rationally assess the costs and benefits of American entry into the war: Wilson's highfalutin language suffices to justify 115,000 American casualties. Gelernter might respond that our complaint ignores his remark that America must fight for its interests together with its principles: did not Wilson have to respond to Germany's unlimited submarine warfare?

But Gelernter gives a misleading account of the situation. He mentions that the British navy blockaded Germany but omits to note that, though the blockade violated America's rights as a neutral power, the Anglophile Wilson refused to press the issue with Britain. He also neglects to say that the blockade threatened Germany with starvation; hence Germany's desperate countermeasures. Wilson's unneutral policies created the very situation to which he claimed he was forced to respond. One suspects, though, that for Gelernter this is to quibble over the inconsequential: "Of course Wilson's deeper goals had to do with Americanism, with American principles rather than American interests" (p. 165).

Gelernter also errs in his contrast of European with American opinion during the 1920s and '30s. European public opinion looked on the war with guilt and misgiving, as Gelernter rightly remarks; but he thinks that in America matters were different: "Americans had done nothing … to cause the war, and they had not rejoiced when it started. They helped the Allies to win and then, for the most part, did their best to forget all about it" (p. 171).

In focusing on feelings of guilt, Gelernter overlooks a vital point. Even if Americans did not feel guilty, the American public did much more than forget about the war. Quite the contrary, there was a massive repudiation of Wilson's policies, culminating in the 1930s neutrality legislation. America answered the question posed in the title of J.K. Turner's popular book Shall It Be Again? with a resounding no.

Here for once I can help Gelernter rather than assail him. He clearly wishes unconditionally to admire Franklin Roosevelt, but an obstacle stands in the way. Roosevelt waited until the Japanese attacked before entering the World War II. "FDR was a brilliant persuader and a much-admired leader. In June 1940 he could probably have talked Congress and America into declaring war on Hitler if he had wanted to. But we'll never know for sure, because he did not want to; or at least he never tried to" (p. 184). Gelernter obviously thinks that if Roosevelt had been a true Wilsonian, let alone a Lincolnian, he would have done just that. Gelernter here underestimates the constraints under which Roosevelt labored. We can reassure our anxious author that Roosevelt was doing the best he could.

The prospects of the American Creed are bright; we today have a leader fully in tune with its demands. "The reason President Bush proposes to go forth and knock down tyrants all over the world is democratic chivalry. But whenever you hear the phrase democratic chivalry think 'American Zionism'" (pp. 35–36).

Gelernter would profit from reflecting about a remark often attributed to Voltaire: if you want to found a new religion, you should arrange to be crucified and rise from the dead on the third day. 1

  • 1. I noted a few mistakes: Barrett Wendell is called "an English historian" (p. 154), but he was a Bostonian and a professor at Harvard. "John Livingston Lowe" (p. 22) should be "Lowes."


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