Ok, the Evangelical Outpost is hosting a blog symposium. The subject of this symposium (and, incidentally, most symposiums should have a subject…) is David Gelernter’s article – “Americanism—and Its Enemies“.
Before I go on, however, I want to point out a couple things.

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science – but that’s not all he does. He writes op-ed pieces all the time. Go do a Google search on Mr. Gelernter. Not only is he a computer scientist – and a very good one, but he is also an accomplished writer. (However, he doesn’t live up to his usual standard, in this piece.)

Edge says: “The day I met him, he walked into my office and began to lecture me on the problems with current theories of consciousness. “The discussion of consciousness is dominated by two opposite positions,” he said, starting to pace back and forth in front of my desk. “On one side you have your friend the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who, in Consciousness Explained, presents his reductionist agenda for thinking about the mind. On the other, there are the holistic ideas of the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind.” He stopped, turned, and faced me. He looked me in the eye and in a very measured and direct tone said, “They’re both full of crap!”” and… David is The Conservative. He’s a contributing editor at the City Journal and National Review, a contributor to Commentary, and an art critic at the Weekly Standard. He has also put in appearances as token conservative or technology pundit at The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Feed, a Web magazine.

He is featured in the book “Digerati”.

He was one of the targets of the Unabomber, also – in case you’re wondering where you’ve heard the name.

So, I don’t think this is a case of “one shot at the limelight”. He writes on social issues rather frequently, and from a uniquely Jewish perspective. He’s not a flash in the pan, or someone who just “decided to write about social issues”, and got noticed, because this particular thesis was controversial. He writes a lot – and, after reading some of his other work… he writes rather well. That doesn’t mean I agree with it all. I don’t. However, he is very bright, and a very good writer.

So, let’s put that aside, ok? Attacking the “new guy” just won’t jive. His credentials suffice – in fact, they runneth over. Focus on the merits of his thesis – or the lack thereof.

Which, I do believe, I’m going to proceed with.

In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt said

Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.

This is the trap we fall into, when we start to make “liberty and democracy” our creed – or even “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – as laudable as they may be. As a nation, we “hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal”. However: We no longer, as a whole, believe that we are “endowed by our Creator” with those unalienable rights. We simply believe that they are our rights.

Now, much of his article is correct – but, much is not. For example – his treatment of Puritans, and Puritanism in general, is at the heart of his thesis. This treatment is the demise of his thesis – and of his supposed connection between Puritanism, and Americanism (Or New Zionism, for that matter.).

Back to “Americanism”, for a moment.

Nationalism makes “nation” and “national history” into objects of religious worship. In that sense a “secular” nationalism is not less religious than a Hindu or Muslim one.

– Peter van der Veer

Now, although “Americanism” has been flavored very strongly with Christianity – I find that this is no longer the case, in most respects. In the past? Quite likely, Christianity and “Americanism” were complimentary. In some respects, they still are. However, most of today’s “Americanism” is simply the exaltation of “The American Ideal” to demi-religious status. We are far, far away from the days of “One Nation Under God”, in anywhere but Christian circles. The majority of America is no longer Christian. The majority of American “Christians” are not Christians in the true sense of the word. Are many traditionally ‘”chuchgoing”, or “religious”? Yes. Perhaps even the majority. Are they “Christian”? No. Part of that is the growing movement away from Biblical foundations in the church, and in society as a whole, as we are influenced more and more by the inroads that secular humanism has made into mainstream culture.

“Americanism” is simply the value judgements we make about world affairs. This, in international circles, is simply “not done”. We are hated, because we continually judge, by our own standards, the actions of other nations – without even a pretense of apology for it. This, the secular world, as a whole, cannot abide. Is this because of our ingrained “New Zionist” tendencies, or because we still bear the stamp of our Christian heritage in many respects, despite the erosion from within?

Of course, not all of America believes we can, or have any right to, judge the conduct of nations by our standards. This portion of America is called “liberal”. It bears the same ideological stamp as the nations who are aghast at our “value judgements”, and our “cowboy mentality”. These, also, are the elements, both at home, and abroad, that are disgusted by religious influences, cannot abide those who follow their religious princples, and who are shocked by the tendency of the “other half” to act on those principles – without apology, without pretense, without qualm, and without “consensus”.

That segment – which we will call “liberalism” (secular humanism, more precisely), can be described as follows:

Their consciousness hardly exists apart from the social atmosphere that surrounds them. And of course we have contrived that their very language should be all smudge and blur; what would be a bribe in someone else’s profession is a tip or a present in theirs. The job of their Tempters was first, or course, to harden these choices of the Hellward roads into a habit by steady repetition. But then (and this was all-important) to turn the habit into a principle — a principle the creature is prepared to defend. After that, all will go well. Conformity to the social environment, at first merely instinctive or even mechanical — how should a jelly not conform? — now becomes an unacknowledged creed or ideal of Togetherness or Being Like Folks. Mere ignorance of the law they break now turns into a vague theory about it — remember, they know no history — a theory expressed by calling it conventional or Puritan or bourgeois “morality.” Thus gradually there comes to exist at the center of the creature a hard, tight, settled core of resolution to go on being what it is, and even to resist moods that might tend to alter it. It is a very small core; not at all reflective (they are too ignorant) nor defiant (their emotional and imaginative poverty excludes that); almost, in its own way, prim and demure; like a pebble, or a very young cancer.

– C.S. Lewis – “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” – afterword, “The Screwtape Letters”

This view places restrictions on social conformance, creates out of the liberty only the “equality”, with none of the liberty involved in true liberty. Well, perhaps I’m being too vague.

Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.
You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided.
The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.

– “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

See, when we venerate “democracy”, but pervert it to only encompass the “equality”, and never the “participation in our own governmental process, by means of a voting process, by which we direct and select the government we wish”, we run the real danger of this “Americanism” – the leftist “Americanism”. You do know, don’t you, that there are two Americanisms? One version promotes “the ideals of America” – by which they mean “the behaviour that democracies like”. Another version promotes “the behaviour that will preserve a democracy.”

The distinction is profound – yet it goes directly under our radar – because it is couched in the terms of “patriotism”, “democracy”, “liberty”, “equality”, “freedom”, and “ideals”. Words. Words pregnant with meaning – and infuriating, when heard promoting the very antithesis which the opposing version espouses. Now, the opinions will always vary, on both sides of this issue – but the basic principles remain the same. One school of thought believes that “being like folks” is the supreme acheivement of societal evolution. It’s no accident that “diversity” is simply a comical farce of the word’s definition. It is “being like folks” – en masse. Another school of thought believes that “the underpinnings of society are in it’s moral values, and the application of those values”. These are the “cowboys”, the “just not done” – in short – the people that the ones who hate us really hate. They hate our moral codes, our moral decisions, and, most of all, our actions based on moral principles.

The word thrown around to describe the Iraq war by the anti-Americans was “unilateral”. When your goal is “to be like folks” – what could be more of an anathema than not receiving their sanction – and doing it anyway! That is not being like folks!

The religious adherents that follow the school of thought which requires morality based action are the especial targets of those who want “like folks”. One of our central doctrines is “do not be conformed to this world”. What could make them an enemy faster?

Americanism, when it comes down to it, is religious in form, yes. In practice? Not always. There is always form – even in the worship most dead to spiritual things. Americanism, in most practical ways, is dying to the secular cancer eating her soul, and replacing it with zombielike “like folks”. The form still exists – and is still vibrant, in many ways – but the majority of it is only the reflexive twitches of a man in his sickbed, fighting the fever that will eventually cost him his life. He fights, and fights because it is not only wise, but healthy to do so. Inaction is certain death – action is his only response, whether he believes he will live, or not.

But, we’ve covered Americanism, to a point.

When he equates Americanism with Puritanism, he makes several critical errors. They are small errors, but, unfortunately, they are errors in the very foundations of his thesis. When, as a Christian, you read through his article the first time, it leaves you really, really, wanting to agree with him. The emotional impact of it is quite powerful, when you’re coming from that worldview. Conservative Christianity has always had a soft spot for the Puritans. Why? Most of us are descendants, denominationally, of the Puritans! The Mayflower, Thanksgiving, Jonathan Edwards, John Adams… hours of preaching, detailed attention to the Old Testament. We don’t agree with them on many things – but their serious, dedicated attention to God’s word, and to their spiritual “link” to God leaves us in awe – regardless of their theological inconsistencies and practical failings.

When Gelernter uses Puritanism as his foundation for modern “Americanism”, he is using only one aspect of Puritanism as his “connection”. “The “New Israel” metaphor. In the larger scheme of things, Puritan “New Israel” thinking was a minor, minor point of their beliefs. In fact, I would make the case that it was only a very minor subset of their overall “theology”. In modern America… it does not even exist. We still support Israel… but we do nto consider ourselves a “chosen people”. The metaphor has been used – and it was just as wrong then, as it is now.

We are not the “New Israel”. Abraham Lincoln’s quote is particularly apt – “almost chosen”. Are we unique? Yes. Are we powerful? Yes. Are we chosen? No. We had no Moses. We had no pillar of fire. We had no plagues. We had no parting of the Red Sea. We had no Sinai.

We are not chosen, any more than any other Christian, or any other nation. We are merely blessed – because for a time, we really were, perhaps, the closest to a Christian nation the world has seen. Are we, though? No. Were we? Like Abe said – “almost”. “Almost.” Is this essay right? “Almost.” He gets most of the facts right – except for the parts he needs for the connection.

His thesis:

But my thesis is that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism. Puritanism and Americanism are not just parallel or related developments; they are two stages of a single phenomenon.

There are several things wrong with this. The first directly follows his thesis: This is an unprovable proposition. But as a way of looking at things, it buys us something valuable…

Wishful thinking buys us nothing. Nothing whatsoever. A wish that something were true, yet cannot be proven, or even connected properly, is nothing of value.

The claim that “Puritanism” disappeared has no substantiation – in the article, or in the facts. It is purely specious. Puritanism was the particularly English (mostly) expression of the Reformation. Was a large percentage of Christian America Puritan? Yes. So, how did they all just “disappear”? Furthermore, why was this bald-faced assertion made with no substantiation? I don’t get it – or his connection with Americanism, which rests on this assumption. It is written as if the disappearance of Puritanism gave rise to “Americanism” – yet, he gives no substantiation for this, aside from anecdotes from famous figures in history.

That’s all well and good… but where is the connection? Biblical references do not “New Zionism” make, nor does a claim that Puritanism “disappeared” mean that Americanism is an extension of Puritanism – especially when, if you use the generic “Puritans”, you cover just about the whole gamut of Protestant denominations in America – from Quakers to Baptists, to Presbyterians, to Congregationalists, to Pilgrims. Talk about painting with a wide brush!

Then, to top it off, the supposed connection between Americanism and Puritanism, we are told, is that the “Puritans” all “disappeared”. Well… as this covers a good chunk of current-day evangelical denominations… I find that hard to swallow. Very. So, we have a significant stretch to make Puritans “New Zionists” (when, as we all know, Israel is merely the OT forerunner of Christianity’s “body of Christ” concept – and is often used as a metaphor for everything and anything… since it’s the whole focus of the New Testament, and all…), then, we stretch to say that Puritanism is “Americanism” – then, we say that Puritanism “disappeared”, even though it has done nothing of the sort. The thesis has a Mack truck-sized hole directly in it’s foundation.

Instead of making a questionable stretch to a political/religious movement stemming from Protestantism, and calling IT the basis for our “American Exceptionalism” – THEN extending it to a “New Zionist” mentality…

How about we call a spade a spade – instead of calling it “an earth extraction device” – and creating a “new definition” for it – shall we?

My alternate thesis is as follows:

The overtly Christian beliefs of a large number of America’s citizens and leaders, over a long period of time, have manifested themselves countless times. In both the public, and private lives of both groups, this influence has been clearly seen, and identified.
HOWEVER! Instead of trying to make all these semi-mystical connections between Zionism, New Zionism, Puritanical thought, and Manifest Destiny…

Is it perhaps possible that large swathes of public and private policies have simply been shaped by the beliefs of Americans? Does there have to be a “New Puritan”, or a “New Zionist”? Could it be – just maybe – that many Americans are simply Christians – and attempt to reflect their beliefs in their actions, both public and private?

I find that an unbelievable amount of time is spent, (as is the case throughout history) labeling “movements”, linking “ideologies” together, finding “trends”, and the like – that could much, much, more easily be explained by a simple “at face value” assessment.

Like this one: “In a nation with many Christians – Christian viewpoints will be plainly on display, and be reflected in its history, in many respects”.

It’s not really that hard. Making some connection that doesn’t exist, to fit a theory which has no basis in fact… it really isn’t that tempting after all. After the first blush.

It looks really nice – tempting, in fact – when you read it through the first time. The second time… you see the BIG, HUGE, GAPING HOLE that is dead center of the foundational assumptions in Gelernter’s thesis.

His statements on Americanism have merit – but. The but is the problem. So what? Americanism exists, and has religious overtones. But, what is the point? That doesn’t mean Puritanism grew into Americanism (not to mention the supposed “New Zionism” connection…). He never successfully gives us the transition that results in this change – and, the statements he uses to say so, are incorrect. Multiple historical references won’t change that lack of a suitable transition.

The summary?

Just learn to call a spade a spade. Don’t try to call it a garden hoe, and use historical anecdotes to tell us how much better that is – how much more valuable it is to think we’re the “heirs” of Puritanism.

Or tell me that a replacement for real Christianity – which is what “Americanism” as a religion really is – is a good thing. Americanism, when practiced by Christians is one thing. Americanism being equated with, and replacing Christianity is quite another.