In “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion,” David Gelernter, a Yale computer-science professor and a versatile and prolific public intellectual, makes a provocative claim: Such professions of faith express “belief in . . . a religious idea of enormous, transporting power.” Indeed, he contends that America “is a biblical republic and Americanism a biblical religion.”
This does not in any way detract, Gelernter is quick to clarify, from America’s commitment to religious freedom: Liberty, democracy and equality constitute the American Creed [bold mine-DL]. And Americanism entails a duty to not only realize these universal ideas at home, but to spread them around the world. ~Peter Berkowitz
It’s simply appalling in so many ways that I am at first overwhelmed. In the first place, the title is a little baffling (why the fourth?), until you realise that he must mean to include Islam as the third great “Western” religion, at which point we can already take it as a given that words mean nothing to the author. Then there is this bit from his book’s description:
Gelernter argues that what we have come to call “Americanism” is in fact a secular version of Zionism. Not the Zionism of the ancient Hebrews, but that of the Puritan founders who saw themselves as the new children of Israel, creating a new Jerusalem in a new world. Their faith-based ideals of liberty, equality, and democratic governance had a greater influence on the nation’s founders than the Enlightenment.
It is hard to say which is the worse part. You have this business about “secular Zionism” that is at once religious and not religious side by side with misrepresentations about ” faith-based ideals of…democratic governance” when referring to 17th century Calvinists along with a New England-centric spin on the whole of American identity, as if the Randolphs, Jeffersons, Morrises, Washingtons, Madisons and Pinckneys of the early republican era were guided by the zeal of New England Puritanism. Whether or not I dislike many things in the Enlightenment heritage of many of the Whig ideas at the core of the political philosophy of many of the Founders (and I do), I cannot pretend that it played second fiddle to some mythical Zionism. To the extent that this did exist at all and influenced American political life, the phenomenon he describes has very little to do with the establishment of the Republic and much more to do with the “refounding” or rather destruction of the same in the War. If this Americanism has as three of its patrons Lincoln, TR and Wilson, the question is not whether it is dangerous (since it clearly is), but whether it has so entered into the mainstream of American politics that it cannot now be expelled.
If “liberty, democracy and equality” constitute “the American Creed,” I am glad to say that many of the more esteemed Americans in our early history were only two-thirds or even one-third believers in it.
Then there is another item from the book description:
If America is a religion, it is a religion without a god, and it is a global religion. People who believe in America live all over the world. Its adherents have included oppressed and freedom-loving peoples everywhere—from the patriots of the Greek and Hungarian revolutions to the martyred Chinese dissidents of Tiananmen Square.
I don’t know what to call this except insane. There was another global godless political religion that sought to spread all over creation. Perhaps Gelernter has heard of it. As its fate reminds us, the Lord does not suffer such blasphemies to long endure. You cannot serve both God and Americanism.
This claim about the other peoples of the world is also shockingly presumptuous, even for someone of Gelernter’s policy views. It is as close to someone saying publicly that “inside everyone there is an American trying to get you” as I have ever seen in real life. This idea is often implied in what many democratists say, and it can be inferred from many of Mr. Bush’s major speeches, but most have the good sense not to say such things quite so bluntly. Quite obviously, the patriots of the Greek and Hungarian revolutions “believed” in Greece and Hungary, if we must use this language of “believing in” countries. (The physical places exist whether or not anyone believes in them, and the cultural distinctiveness of Greek and Hungarian would exist whether or not any political revolutionary ever “believed” in a national cause.) The latter made the mistake of trusting the shaky promises of foolish American “rollback” advocates, but the heroes of 1956 did not “believe in America” or in Americanism. If they believed in an -ism, it might have been Hungarianism or something like it. Give Gelernter credit for a certain bizarre consistency: if all it takes to be an American is to buy into a few tired political slogans, anyone who embraces those slogans really must effectively be an American or at least an Americanist.
Then there is this last bit, which is just too funny:
Gelernter also shows that anti-Americanism, particularly the virulent kind that is found today in Europe, is a reaction against this religious conception of America on the part of those who adhere to a rival religion of pacifism and appeasement.
Or it might have something to do with prudential objections to policies that are perceived as dangerous and misguided. However, as we can all see, that’s obviously far too outlandish of an interpretation, so the “religion of appeasement” explanation will have to do. Does that mean that anti-Americans in Latin America and the Near East also belong to the broad church of appeasement? Hugo Chavez, pacifist–you heard it from Gelernter first! No wonder the description calls the argument “startlingly original.” I am startled that it even got published.