Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Americanism: Religious Descendant of Puritanism?

David Gelernter has written an article on the religious nature of Americanism. His article is 6000 words. In PDF form this translates to about 8 pages. He doesn't start getting to the point until page 3. My college English 110 professor called this writing technique of rhetorically circling your topic "buzzarding." You can probably guess that she didn't like it very much. Gelernter is a computer science professor at Yale though, so I suppose I should be thankful he was this comprehensible and not written in algorithmic symbology or as an obfuscated Perl script.

Oh and after getting halfway into writing this post I really wished he had changed his name to Smith or Jones sometime in his wild Computer Science past. Something straightforward and hopefully mono-syllabic would be good. "Gelernter" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue or the fingers. I think I'll just call him "Dr. Dave" from here out. Hopefully I'm never jumped by an angry comsci prof in a shadowy New Haven alleyway.

What is his point? Firstly:
From the 17th century through John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Americans kept talking about their country as if it were the biblical Israel and they were the chosen people.
Secondly that the basic tenets of Americanism (individuality and individual dignity, community, freedom, equality, and democracy) can be derived from Christian thought. Dr. Dave does this as follows:
The fundamental fact: the Bible is God’s word. Two premises: first, every member of the American community has his own individual dignity, insofar as he deals individually with God; second, the community has a divine mission to all mankind. Three conclusions: every human being everywhere is entitled to freedom, equality, and democracy.
Lastly, that Americanism demanded outreach. This originally took the form of Manifest Destiny spurring the drive across the frontier. But with the end of the frontier:
The United States believed that American moral idealism could be extended outward, that American Christian democratic ideals could and should be universally applied...
I think Dr. Dave is at least half right.

Puritans have long been given the short end of the stick in America. They are portrayed as joyless bigots perpetually dressed for any opportune funeral. Usually so they can intone on the sinful state of mankind. These thoughts are usually expressed by people like Ivy League academics who wouldn't exist if the Puritans hadn't built their universities in the first place.

It would be wise of historians to note that this explosion of freedom and democracy happened in Western Europe, home of the religious humanism and the Reformation. Or, going back further, that the stature of Greek philosophy might have something to do with the how the Church adopted their methodology into our own theology early in the Patristic Period. Dr. Dave is dead on about some of the philosophical connections. It would also be wise to note the importance of both the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment on American culture.

This last bit is the shortcoming of the article in my view. Its nice to give the Puritans and religious folks a good pat on the back. Thanks, we don't usually get that from academics. But in doing so he misses the great confluence that is America.

The American Ideal was formed back when America was still the great melting pot. The ideas of the prophets of the Great Awakening were melded with the thoughts of philosophers from the Continent like Locke and Rousseau. Dr. Dave never mentions those guys. That has long been the great strength of America, that we take the best of all these concepts and simmer them together into a delicious stew. Unfortunately we don't do that anymore which brings us to the present day...

In general I think he misses the point of resistance to Americanism. One of the main reasons religion is singled out was not because of its deep connection to the topic but because of its availability. Pro-religious and anti-religious rhetoric is easily. Just look at any liberal blog's post-2004 election coverage for great anti-Christian terminology that was whipped up on a moments notice. But that is rarely the heart of the conflict. For instance current problems in the use stem from the modernist/post-modernist clashes over the "universal applicability" (see the third quote from Dr. Dave) of the American ideal. Older criticisms were often about more practical matters of who controls the government.

Long story short, the article is worth a read if you are a Puritan needing a pick-me-up (or a liberal needing something to get angry about) but somewhat one sided.

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