The Long View: Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion By David Gelernter

Another great review by John J. Reilly. One of the things I admired about John was his ability to make you learn something useful and interesting when he critiqued a book. Many of the books he reviewed were elevated by the experience. Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion is certainly among those.

There are a couple of lines in this review that have stuck with me for years. First:

…the author is surely right in emphasizing that Puritans were “Old Testament Christians.” They understood that the New Testament is, in large measure, a system of reference to the Old, which they consequently absorbed in minute detail.

The fascination of the Puritans with the old Testament is sometimes given a neo-Gnostic gloss: they are obsessed with the vengeful demiurge of the prior dispensation. John, however, showed me how they saw themselves, and doubtless how many other generations of Christians saw themselves as well.


The book might have taken a somewhat different turn if it had considered Jesus’ remark to Pilate that Pilate would have no power over Jesus if it had not come to Pilate from above. That remark suggests a higher ontological status for the state per se than can be easily derived from the Old Testament.

I once heard a remarkable homily on this subject from a priest who was later nearly beaten to death by a robber. Fr. Terre was a gifted homilist, I was sad to see him in such a state.

Fr. Joseph Terre

Fr. Joseph Terre


The Fourth Great Western Religion
By David Gelernter
240 Pages, US$16.47
Doubleday, 2007
ISBN: 13: 978-0385513128

What we have here is an outline for a good book that would explore G.K. Chesterton’s characterization of America as a “nation with the soul of a church.” Such a book would try to show how America’s sense of universal mission relates to Christian millennialism. It would also try to determine how American political culture can be generically Christian without making America a theocracy. The book we actually have treats some aspects of these issues, but the measure of the work is that it does not cite Chesterton. There are so many omissions, in fact, that we have to wonder whether they are a feature rather than a glitch. The author is David Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale (among his other distinctions, he is a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute); he may have intended to write a brief historical appreciation based chiefly on primary sources. So, we get quite a lot of what the Puritans and Lincoln’s contemporaries had to say for themselves, for instance, and not very much of what later historians say they meant. Such a procedure is not to be despised. Nonetheless, the book’s failure to mention some fairly well known predecessors (Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation, anyone?), or even to use the conventional vocabulary for its subject, suggests that the author was ill-served by the learned worthies he thanks in the Acknowledgements for their help with the research and composition.

The book does make many valuable points, and even some original ones, but a definition of “religion” is not among them. The author contents himself with the observation that most Americans, and even some non-Americans, “believe in” America. In any case, the cultural constellation that evolved into “Americanism” does seem to be sufficiently different from the patriotisms of other Western nations to require some explanation. According to the author, this eccentric “Americanism” has two main elements: American Zionism and the Creed.

The Zionist element is not a new discovery, but the matter bears repeating. The author traces it back to the Puritans of England in the 17th century, whose apogee was the brief reign of the saints under Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Puritans tended to identify with ancient Israel, and especially the pre-monarchic Israel of the regime of the Judges. They viewed themselves as a chosen people, if not necessarily the Chosen People; this self-understanding is echoed in Abraham Lincoln’s later quip that Americans are an “almost chosen people.” In the Anglo-American context thereafter, this sentiment has usually, though not invaribly, been associated with a tradition of philosemitism. I must note that there were esoteric elements in the milieu of Cromwell’s England, but the author is surely right in emphasizing that Puritans were “Old Testament Christians.” They understood that the New Testament is, in large measure, a system of reference to the Old, which they consequently absorbed in minute detail.

All these traits were accentuated in the Puritans who settled New England. They understood themselves to be replaying the stories of Exodus and Joshua: exiled by a tyrant (with the Stuart kings doing duty for Pharaoh), they were creating a divinely sanctioned commonwealth in the face of opposition. Having such a history, they surmised, they could reasonably expect a comparable future. Their descendants would become a “light to the nations” (a phrase with resonance in both Testaments); a model nation, if not necessarily a guiding nation.

These points are reasonable enough, but it is possible to overdo the Old Testament connection. The author does not miss opportunities to point out the parallels between Puritan Zionism and Zionist Zionism, though the matter seems these days to be too embarrassing for some political scientists to discuss. (Again, we can only regret that no research munchkin at the American Enterprise Institute was well enough read to whisper the search-term “British Israelitism” into the author’s ear.) However, as the author notes, modern America is in some ways more Christian than Israel is Jewish. It is not unimportant that Puritan New Englanders had a wider range of reference than we meet with in this book.

I have not read most of the primary sources that the author cites, but I would be surprised if the Puritans’ internal discussions of godly governance did not allude from time to time to the Book of Acts and its account of the early church at Jerusalem. I am quite sure that the Puritans were aware that the principle guidance in the Christian Bible to the relationship between state and subject is to be found in Paul’s Epistles. The book might have taken a somewhat different turn if it had considered Jesus’ remark to Pilate that Pilate would have no power over Jesus if it had not come to Pilate from above. That remark suggests a higher ontological status for the state per se than can be easily derived from the Old Testament.

Whatever the correct mix of Biblical influences, the author is also certainly right in emphasizing that some such mix was fundamental to the formulation of what he calls the “Creed,” whose elements are given as liberty, democracy, and equality. The author is adamant that America is a “biblical republic,” even a “Christian republic.” He has no patience for claims in recent decades that the founding of the American republic should be regarded solely as an incident in the secular Enlightenment. In that view, the United States happened without reference to the religious history of the 13 colonies, and even in part despite that history. There are two answers to that position, both of which the author presents.

One is that the British writers of the Enlightenment who chiefly influenced the colonists understood themselves to be Protestant Christians and made their arguments in that context. The English and even Scottish wings of the Enlightenment were by no means as fundamentally anti-Christian as their French counterpart. The other answer is that, though the religion of the Founders may have been heterodox in many cases, their Christianity was an integral part of the intellectual atmosphere of the Revolution and the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. They used scriptural allusions and theologically-tinged metaphysical reasoning with great facility. (Again, one of the hair-pulling omissions from this book is the mention of the term “natural law.”) They were certainly not agnostic materialists. When they used the term “separation of church and state,” they meant nothing at all like the laicism that began to appear in constitutional jurisprudence in the second half of the 20th century.

The key point is that political culture for which the Founders created national institutions had a history with an emphatic religious component. The author points out that the liberty, democracy, and equality of the Creed meant one thing to the Pilgrims and something else again to the Founding Fathers. Indeed, “democracy” in particular was something of a term of opprobrium until the 19th century. Over time, and under the influence of historical stress, the “liberty” that had once meant chiefly the liberty of each people to determine its own confessional identity (no, we get no allusion to the Westphalian settlement) was extended to individual freedom of conscience. Democracy, which had once conjured up visions of the mob in ancient Athens and Rome, came to mean rule by elected magistrates; the Puritans believed they found warrant for “republicanism” in the Bible, where they also found a jaundiced view of monarchy. Equality, of course, never meant “equality of result,” but rather the growing understanding that people need a degree of legal recognition of their humanity if they are to act as moral agents.

So, just as the Zionist element of American culture solidified during the 17th-century Puritan era, the Creed gelled by the end of the Revolutionary era in the 18th. Americanism was not yet complete, however, because it still lacked the dynamic, missionary impulse that would later characterize it. The Civil War provided that. (If the terms “millennialism” or “millenarian” occur in this book, I don’t recall seeing them.) Oddly, an effect of the war was to end whatever residual confessional residue of Puritanism remained in American society. It was all taken up, without remainder, into the cultural complex of Americanism.

The Civil War happened under the inspiration of Abraham Lincoln, whom the author considers a genuine prophet. We get a meditation on the significance of “Abraham” as a name, almost as unusual in Lincoln’s day as now; someone might have mentioned to the author that an equally important component to the Lincoln legend is the fact he was assassinated on Good Friday. In any case, the author correctly points out that Lincoln’s personal religious views have always been opaque, but not because they lacked force. All Lincoln’s public prose rings with the cadence of the King James Bible. The greatest example of all is the Second Inaugural Address, an expression of theodicy in terms of the cunning of history that Hegel might have written, had Hegel been able to write moving rhetoric.

When the Civil War began, what had been merely implicit in the Creed had to become something close to actual if the American experiment were to survive; Americans, somewhat to their own surprise, found that they were willing to sacrifice more for that experiment than would be imaginable for any merely political enterprise. The author calls this new-found willingness “democratic chivalry.” The creation of that chivalry was the key to the way America began to act in the world in the 20th century.

This brings us to an etymological point. The author gives sporadic attention to the nature and origins of anti-Americanism, in the course of which he notes that the sort of people who opposed the Puritans later became the sort of people who were systematically hostile to America. Just as the struggle in Cromwell’s England was between Puritan Roundheads and Royalist Cavaliers, so the 20th century became in part an argument between chivalric Americans and cavalier European intellectuals. This is not an obviously happy choice of words: “chivalry” and “cavalier” have the same etymological origin. A meditation on this coincidence might have discerned deep significance in the overlap of the connotation of “chivalrous” as “quixotic” with the use of “cavalier” in the sense of “noble but irresponsible.” Alas, apparently neither think-tanks, nor publishers’ offices, nor computer departments have etymological dictionaries these days; or if they do, they lack people who consult these volumes.

Actually, “chivalry” may be wide of the mark in any case. Woodrow Wilson does not come up to Lincoln’s level of importance for the definition of Americanism, but the author does discuss him at length, since he was important for giving Americanism the international expression it has had since the First World War. Wilson makes the author’s thesis easier to argue than with any figure since the 17th century. If Lincoln was an idiosyncratic mystic, Wilson was a Presbyterian Social Gospeler of orthodox religious views, all of which Wilson thought had a bearing on foreign and domestic policy. No president until George W. Bush had such a predilection for crusader rhetoric, with the difference that Wilson wrote his own best speeches. Still, it is probably a fundamental misunderstanding to characterize as “chivalrous” Wilson’s project of making the world safe for democracy. Certainly an element of Wilsonianism is the ambition to overthrow tyranny because tyrants cause misery. However, the central rationale of Wilsonianism, at least as Wilson understood it, is that tyranny should be eliminated globally because it is dangerous, not merely because it is evil. Wilsonianism is another version of Kant’s formula for perpetual peace, though admittedly with the reintroduction of moralizing and even theological elements that Kant had been trying to eliminate from philosophy. Kant is not mentioned here, either.

The book has some discussion of the rest of the 20th century, but in some ways the story closes with the First World War. At the end of the Cold War, the author advises us, the 1920s returned. The difference this time is that America, which had largely escaped the disillusionment suffered by Europe after 1918, was suffering a somewhat similar syndrome in the wake of the loss of the Vietnam War. The author tells us that the loss of that war, and still more, the cultural reaction to it, were engineered by American intellectuals specifically in order to bring American culture into closer synchrony with its European counterpart. After 1989, the Europeans themselves were freed from the bracing effect of the Soviet threat, and therefore able to continue the slide to Hell in a hand basket that had been so rudely interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.

To this one might say it is not perfectly clear that America wholly escaped the collapse of morale that afflicted Europe after 1918. The very fact that Wilson became a byword for irresponsible idealism for several decades after he left office is some evidence of that. On the other hand, the author is correct if he means to imply that, of the two world wars, the first was the more important one. Everything that has happened since then has been merely working out its implications.

So far, in this admittedly nitpicking review, I have been noting instances where the author failed to do completely what he had plainly tried to do. Let me end by suggesting that someone attempt the book that the author did not intend to write, the one that engages the question of whether Americanism really is a religion, and if so, whether it is a form of idolatry. One aspect of that study, I think, would be an appraisal of whether the wicked Baron Evola was correct when he suggested that no state without a transcendent foundation could justly ask its citizens to die for it. These are important points, especially in an age when loyalties both above and below the nation state bid for the ultimate allegiance of men.

Just one final nit to pick: we are never told what the Third Great Western Religion is, after Christianity and Judaism.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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