Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Americanism...

As promised last week, I am throwing my proverbial hat into Evangelical Outpost's ring in response to this article.
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David Gelernter offers up a thought provoking article, Americanism-and Its Enemies in the latest Commentary Magazine. Gelernter's (paraphrased) thesis is that Americanism, as he defines it, is in fact an evolved Puritanism, ergo the anti-Americanism of today is related to the anti-Puritanism of early American history.

Gelernter describes Americanism as "the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart; the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God." Assuming this definition makes it very easy to see why "[a]nti-Americanism has blossomed frantically in recent years" as Gelernter says. Anyone holding a belief that he or she is preferred by God is rightly seen as, to be charitable, a tad arrogant.

Gelernter's discussion of Puritan thought, and the evolution of such thought in American history, is interesting. The irony is that even if Gelernter's discussion is correct, and I have no reason to think it's not, the formation of Americanist thought is based on some very tenuous Biblical interpretation.

He argues Americanism has a creed built as "one fundamental fact [that] creates two premises that create three conclusions."

"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."

While I would agree with the fundamental fact and the first premise, I have doubts about the second premise. While it is true that each member of our community has individual dignity, it is not true that the American community has a divine mission to mankind. Nothing in the Bible indicates that America has a special role to play in the world. Rather, the OT talks about Israel's role, and the NT speaks of the church's role (both testaments refer to the mission of individuals.) This change, from God dealing with the world through a nation to God dealing with the world through a church, is vitally important. God is working through a church, not a nation. The Puritan-Americanist thought equates the nation and the church in a way not indicated in scripture.

Granting Gelernter his premises, though, I still have problems with his conclusions. He claims that the conclusions are each derived from scripture. This may be, but not necessarily in an appropriate way. For instance, Gelertner says, "[f]reedom is the message of the Exodus, one of the Hebrew Bible’s great underlying themes." Actually, the message of Exodus is about obedience to God, and His sovereignty over the realms of men. God delivered Israel, yes, but the lesson to be learned isn't that God wants all nations to be free. We must be careful about believing God will deal with all nations the same as He did Israel; we're not all "the chosen people" and Israel has a unique place in scripture. Now, this isn't to say that God doesn't prefer freedom for all people (see Philemon - this does seem to be the preference.) That point can be argued at great length. But the derivation of the right to freedom is not the message of Exodus.

Gelernter's description of how equality is proscribed in the Bible indicates further interpretive problems. While it is correct to point to Genesis in regards to equality of value before God, the equality in America is not the equality talked about in scripture. The Bible speaks of our equality before God, not of our equal roles or responsibilities within society. In fact, Biblically speaking, equality is not ever proscribed for societies. Women are told not to speak in church. Jesus talks about the "least" and the "greatest" in such a way that it is clear we don't have equal roles. Gentiles were not the equal of Jews. If much is expected from those to whom much is given, and less is expected from those to whom little is given, then Jesus also is saying we don't have equal responsibilities. The Bible talks about equality of worth, not equality of people in the eyes and institutions of man. The exception to this rule is the church (Gal. 3:28.) But the church is not America; equating the two, while seemingly a cornerstone of Puritan/Americanist thought, is a mistake.

Finding democracy in the Bible is harder, as Gelernter accurately points out. And here it is somewhat problematic for the Puritans. For one thing, if the Puritans tried to emulate Israel, the Jews never lived (in Biblical times) in a democracy. The preferred society, as God Himself declares, was a theocracy (1 Sam. 8) with God as king. Since Israel wanted a human king, God provided a monarchy, which worked up until the nation was sent into captivity. Israel, if the nation was our parallel, was never a democracy in ancient times. The Jews were always led by individuals (Samuel, Moses, the judges, the kings), never by elected representatives.

The irony is that despite some reaches in exegesis, what the Puritans tried, worked. America is, in most important ways, the premier power on the planet. For the faithful, the place of America in its relatively short history is replete with the fingerprints of God, and it is obvious to Americanists that we have been a blessed people.

So why, if the founding thinkers of Puritanism/Americanism were off in their scripture interpretation, did America turn out the way it did? I believe it is because scripture is consistent in proscribing the way to blessing. Obedience to, and faith in, God keeps His hand of protection and blessing on a people. Not in every individual circumstance, of course, and not for every individual. Some "good" people suffer, and some "disobedient" people thrive. That's why I call these Biblical principles instead of Biblical guarantees. God's will is greater than we can understand. But as a general rule, obedience and fidelity lead to blessing. Turning away from God leads to trouble. Maybe not in the now, but definitely down the road.

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