20 Jul

A Deeply Religious Civil Religion

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 07/20/07

Just before the Independence Day holiday this year, Doubleday published David Gelernter's Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a frequent contributor to several magazines, often writing about the visual arts. His new book serves as a hearty rebuttal to the claim that America is the product of post-Christian and secularist ideas. On the contrary, he insists, America is a "biblical republic," meaning at the very least that many of its social, cultural, and political commitments were pioneered and defended by thinkers haunted by the Bible. Americanism is a biblical religion although, Gelernter reminds his readers, it is not Christianity.

Moreover, being a religion "of the Book" does not render Americanism one of the great "monotheisms." Gelernter explains that "you can believe in Americanism without believing in God--so long as you believe in man." Despite the optional theism of this new religion, Gelernter insists that "Christians and Jews ought not to see Americanism as a blasphemous replacement for Christianity or Judaism." (Concerning this assurance, theologian Peter Leithart has appropriately mused whether belief in man without belief in God wasn't the original blasphemy.)

Americanism is sustained by two things: an "American Creed" and "American Zionism." By the first he means a set of beliefs that boil down to "liberty, democracy, and equality for all mankind." American Zionism he defines as "the 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" [p. 69, italics in the original].

Gelernter's book corrects much of the revisionist history of the past two or three generations which has shoved American religious history down the memory hole. But his historical sketches are so selective and tendentious as to be of no real help to Christians attempting to come to terms in theologically responsible ways with the intertwining of political and religious experience in American history. His long and sympathetic discussion of the Puritans (whom he regards as the most significant factor in giving rise to both the American Creed and American Zionism) avoids asking whether the Puritans themselves would have approved of Americanism as espoused by Lincoln, Wilson, Reagan, or George W. Bush. To take the Puritan commitment to the idea of being a chosen and covenanted people and cut it off from its essential eschatological links with the work of Christ and the mission of the Church would surely have been regarded by all of the Puritans as a blasphemous deviance far worse than the disfigurements they rejected in the Church of England or in Rome. If they had known their lives and deaths were preparing a way in the wilderness for Americanism they might never have set sail from Southhampton.

In insisting that America is "a biblical republic" Gelernter is rejecting those historians and political philosophers who have insisted that the Founding is a project of the Enlightenment. He dismisses this claim rather glibly, repeatedly returning to the evidence of the biblical ideas undergirding the work of Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and others. I am reminded of the wise observation of C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, that "in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes." To say that there were biblical themes present in the thought of architects of the American polity is not really saying very much at all. The question is whether the themes were developed well in conjunction with many other biblical themes, or whether ideas like "covenant" and "providence" were co-opted to serve ends incompatible with the religious vision of Isaiah or St. Paul.

One need not be anti-American to reject American Zionism, one need not regard America as the New Israel to love it and admire its commitments. I am worried that many patriotic Christians will read this book and not ask whether Americanism has become an alternative to the Christian religion in the lives of many who call themselves Christian. It is notable that there seems to be a correlation between a high view of America and a low view of the Church. One might begin by looking at Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, two high priests of Americanism, and ask what room there was in their belief system for ecclesiastical authority. One could continue by asking whether Independence Day or Pentecost is the more important holiday for the majority of American Christians. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, the living Stone, that has been and is being built into a spiritual house which is (in the words of the apostle Peter) "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God." There has never been a need for a third chosen nation, since the second one is still being assembled.

Gelernter's book is a helpful reminder of the religious, indeed, biblical sources of America's beliefs about itself, although it does little to invite any religiously grounded reflection on those beliefs. By denouncing the secularists and asserting the propriety of an unapologetically religious sense of civic life, he seems to assume that Christians will applaud his argument. But the Bible itself is not terribly sympathetic to religion as such, most of its pages, Old and New Testament, are devoted to denouncing false religion. For millennia, numerous belief systems have arisen which have their origins in the Bible, even in a reverent and often sincere submission to the Bible. For just as long, biblically based beliefs have been subjected to the Church's scrutiny, following St. Paul's example of exposing false gospels.

Another angle of approach in examining Gerlernter's assertion that Americanism is compatible with Christianity is to ask whether "Christianity" as we usually define it isn't already a construction re-tooled to make it more compatible with Americanism. If you read Gelernter's book (or even if you don't), I strongly recommend wrestling simultaneously with the deliberately prickly and provocative arguments made by Peter Leithart in his book Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003). Leithart argues that the Bible does not present the goal of advancing an abstract set of ideas called "Christianity." The Bible is the story of God building the Church, which is a people, a community, a city. "The Church is God's society among human societies, a heavenly city invading the earthly city." And this means that "a territorial conflict is inevitable."

Posted 7/21/07 by Ken Myers