August 22, 2007
America is a religious idea. America is a biblical (not secular) republic. Americanism is a biblical (not civil) religion. America and Americanism were shaped by Christianity, especially Puritan Christianity. Puritan Christianity was shaped by the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. The idea that liberty, equality and democracy were ordained by God for all mankind, and that America is a new promised land richly blessed by and deeply indebted to God—that is Americanism.
— David Gelernter, “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion”
This captures the heart of David Gelernter’s important new book, “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion” (Doubleday, 2007). And I do mean “heart,” for Gelernter’s book is no dispassionate essay on the meaning of America. Rather, with all the zeal of a Southern Baptist preacher at a summer revival meeting, Gelernter expounds his understanding of the American Gospel.
Gelernter unabashedly adopts biblical language to introduce the reader to terms such as “American Zionism” (the idea that America is a chosen people in a promised land), the “American Creed” (consisting of the “three-point sermon” of liberty, equality and democracy) and “Biblical Republic” (seeing the American Creed as more rooted in the Bible than the Enlightenment). In short, “The American religion is a biblical faith. In effect, it is an extension or expression of Judaism or Christianity.”
Gelernter, of course, is not the first in recent years to articulate the meaning of America in religious language. Michael Novak (“On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding,” 2003); Samuel Huntington (“Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity,” 2004); and Neil Baldwin (“The American Revelation: The Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War,” 2005), among others, have sought to highlight the religious ideals that animate America. Where Gelernter’s contribution is unique is in the evangelistic note he strikes:
No religion had ever before laid out these three political ideals as its creed: Liberty. Equality. Democracy. The great achievement of Americanism is to proclaim these three principles and their biblical origins…and to make them real in a functioning nation. But Americanism goes further, to declare that these three principles are not the exclusive property of Americans or Christians or believers in God or descendants of white Europeans. According to the American religion, they belong to all mankind, and Americans have a duty not merely to preach but to bring them to all mankind.
And, according to Gelernter, bring them we have. With a sweeping view of American history beginning with the Puritan colonists and proceeding through the Revolution, Civil War, World War I, Cold War and our current fight against Islamic radicalism, Gelernter seeks to demonstrate the development of Americanism and its expansion for the world’s good.
While Gelernter admits he is not a historian (in fact, he is a computer science professor at Yale University), he describes his method as one of “folk philosophy”: “But this is neither a history book nor a group portrait. It is an essay in ‘folk philosophy,’ it uses the past to illuminate the present.” And his goal is “to put right a drastic imbalance in our view of America and Americanism”—an imbalance that distorts America by understanding it as merely a secular, philosophical idea without global implications. For Gelernter America truly is, in the words of Lincoln, “the last best hope of Earth.”
One of the strengths of Gelernter’s book is its emphasis on what holds America together, namely, shared principles. Gelernter explains: “Most nations are based not on principles but on shared descent or ethnicity. The United States is different. It has a religion because it must have. Without one, it is a band of displaced persons and little more.” And these principles that constitute the American Creed—liberty, equality and democracy—are timeless. The ideals that shape America are not faddish or culture bound.
A second strength to Gelernter’s work is his recognition that we cannot assume these principles are universally known in America. In fact, we can assume they are not. Gelernter warns against our collective amnesia:
A religion must be taught to each new generation or it disappears. American culture used to teach implicitly what “I believe in America” means. American schoolchildren used to learn the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. They used to sing, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” No longer.
In the spirit of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” Gelernter offers his work as a fearless discussion on the meaning of America—a discussion that must occur lest Americanism become a “dead dogma” rather than a “living truth.”
There are concerns, however, with setting up Americanism as religion and America as a biblical republic.
First, by calling Americanism a religion Gelernter risks cheapening or compromising the word religion by diluting it of its sacred connotation. Religion is far more than mere nationalism—and for the Christian, understanding the difference is vital. Gelernter recognizes this objection and responds: “Christians and Jews ought not to see Americanism as a blasphemous replacement for Christianity or Judaism …. The American Religion is traditional religion’s response to modern political reality. It is an extension to the structure of Judaism or Christianity, an extra room out back.” But more than an extension, Americanism has the potential to distort Judaism and Christianity by stripping them of their dogmatic and sectarian elements. Samuel Huntington observes: “While the American Creed is Protestantism without God, the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.” And, of course, Christianity without Christ is really no Christianity at all.
Second, by defining America as a biblical republic, Gelernter risks cheapening or compromising the Bible. The Bible is not merely a “springboard” for the ideas of liberty, equality and democracy; rather the Bible is the living Word of God to man for salvation—and not salvation from earthly tyranny or ill-advised forms of government. The Bible speaks of a salvation from sin and death and the wrath of God that abides on all those living apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible points ultimately to the sacred and eternal, not the common and temporal.
In short, by invoking religious language Gelernter elevates the importance of the idea of America. But in doing so, he (unintentionally) lowers the importance of biblical faith.
With the shouts still echoing from the recent illegal immigration bill debate, “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion” is a must-read. Its strengths outweigh its weaknesses and it serves to remind us of the ideals that make our nation great.
Mike Pohlman is editor for National News and Public Affairs at Salem Communications. Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.