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“I believe in America.” Many people have said so over the generations. They are not speaking of a nation. They are expressing belief in an idea, and not just any idea but a religious idea of enormous, transporting power.
In this book I will argue that America is no secular republic; it’s a biblical republic. Americanism is no civic religion; it’s a biblical religion. Americanism doesn’t merely announce the nation’s ideals on its own authority; it speaks on behalf of the Bible and the Bible’s God, as Lincoln did in his Second Inaugural Address. Its goal is for America to move forward “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” as Lincoln said in that same speech. That America is a biblical republic and Americanism a biblical religion—both facts are perfectly consistent with absolute religious freedom; both are supported by mountains of evidence. So how come nobody knows them? Is the evidence secret? Hardly. But we live in a secular age. No book will change that fact, but our secular prejudice can’t change history either. If we look the facts in the face and don’t flinch, we will see America the biblical republic and Americanism the biblical religion emerge clearly.
“America” is one of the most beautiful religious concepts mankind has ever known. It is sublimely humane, built on strong confidence in humanity’s ability to make life better. “America” is an idea that results from focusing the Bible and Judeo–Christian faith like a spotlight’s beam on the problem of this life (not the next) in the modern world, in a modern nation. The ideas that emerge in a blaze of light center on liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind.These ideas are often attributed to ancient Greece and to eighteenth–century philosophy. I will show how they grew in fact from the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity. They were present implicitly (unopened buds) in the Puritan America of the early 1600s. During the revolutionary era the climate was right for the buds to bloom. And they were beautiful. But they reached maturity only decades later, under the ministration of the greatest religious figure of modern centuries—who was also President of the United States.
The religious idea called "America" is religious insofar as it tells an absolute truth about the meaning of human life, a truth that we must take on faith. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” says the Declaration of Independence. No proofs are supplied.) I will try to show that the “American Religion,” which gives “America” its spiritual meaning, consists of an American Creed in the context of a doctrine I will call American Zionism. Virtually everyone agrees on the existence if not the details of the Creed, but the phenomenon I call American Zionism has been discussed by relatively few historians. I will try to show that the American Religion incorporates the biblical ideas of a chosen people in a promised land. Those concepts are the source of America’s (sometime) sense of divine mission; of her (not invariable yet often powerful) feeling of obligation to all mankind; of her democratic chivalry—her nagging awareness of a duty to help the weak against the strong. This “chivalry” has nothing to do with knights and ladies; it is a deep sense of duty to the suffering, and comes straight from American Zionism.
I will try to show how the American Religion was shaped by American history and how it shaped that history in turn—America’s history and its religion in a centuries–long embrace.
And I will try to show that the America Religion is a global religion. Believers in America have lived all over the world. Some have believed with tormented desperation. Others have believed serenely, because the idea called “America” seemed profoundly humane and beautiful. Most did not believe in America as if it were God, but did believe as if America had chosen a divine mission and had the means to carry it out. For others the belief was more abstract: America only symbolized the facts that liberty, equality, and democracy could indeed become real on this earth and that human beings could make them real. And given the many who have believed, as well as the depth and fervor of their belief and the sublimity of the American idea (which I have yet to define precisely), this American Religion is a great religion.
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, to proclaim them in America’s own new scriptures—especially Lincoln’s presidential speeches—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.
We are used to hearing the principles of this Creed described as philosophical and not religious. But no truth can be “philosophical” unless you are willing to be argued out of it. Not many Americans are willing to be argued out of their dearest national possessions. The intensity of belief in this Creed among people who have never heard a philosophical argument in their lives belies the assertion that these ideas are “philosophical.” Those who think that Lincoln at Gettysburg was offering a philosophical address when he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty" and of “the proposition that all men are created equal” and of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”are deluded. In that speech Lincoln built, out of words, a sacred shrine for America’s three fundamental ideals. It is one of the most beautiful shrines mankind has ever seen, and one of the holiest.
The American Religion is a biblical faith. In effect, it is an extension or expression of Judaism or Christianity. It is also separate from those faiths; you don’t have to believe in the Bible or Judaism or Christianity to believe in America or the American Religion. Atheists and agnostics have been ardent believers. A few have believed in America the way Jews or Christians believe in God. Muslims and Hindus, Marxists and pagans have all been devout believers in Americanism.
Of course you can hum a melody from a Bach oratorio without converting to Christianity. But there is no denying that Christianity inspired the melody, through the medium of Bach’s genius. And there is no denying that Christianity inspired Americanism far more directly, through the medium of many thinkers, patriots, and geniuses.
My topic is Americanism and not Christianity; Americanism and not America. America, the vast democratic nation north of Mexico, south of Canada, is different from Americanism—a religion proclaiming liberty, equality, and democracy. But to understand Americanism, we need to know something about America too.
Today many thinkers assert that America is a secular republic; that secularism is, in fact, one of the great ideas on which this nation is built. I will try to show that America is, on the contrary, a biblical republic.
The Bible has no official status in America and never will. You can be a loyal American and never read the Bible, or you can read it and reject it. Yet repeatedly and in many eras we find Americans with the Bible on their minds, like a melody that keeps running through their heads that they can’t shake. That’s what I mean by “biblical republic”: not a theocracy; not a nation ruled by biblical laws. My only definition is informal. A biblical republic has the Bible on its mind. A biblical republic is full of citizens who agree with Samuel Taylor Coleridge that “in the Bible, there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together.”
Philosophers sometimes debate the role of reason versus revelation in the spread of political ideas. Whatever the source of the ideas we believe in, most people have no interest in philosophical arguments, whether or not they have ever heard one.
Most of us accept an idea as true if it seems true, if we “recognize” its truth in roughly the same way we recognize a familiar face. Resonance is the physical phenomenon that makes a C string hum when the same pitch sounds nearby. When we hear an assertion that makes something within us hum, the “resonance,” that inner humming, tells us the idea is right. This internal resonance depends on how our minds are loaded: on what we experienced and were taught as small children; on our genes; and, according to the religious–minded, on our souls.
Those who accept Americanism do so mainly because we recognize its principles as true—not because anyone has ever convinced us they were true.
When people have the Bible on their minds, they are apt to “recognize” (to accept as true) assertions that remind them somehow of biblical verses, stories, ideas. It makes no difference whether the principles of Americanism came from the Bible or from philosophy—although there is plenty of reason to believe, as I’ll discuss, that the Bible was the most important source by far. But since Americans have traditionally had the Bible on their minds, they have tended to accept the principles of Americanism on biblical and not on philosophical grounds—wherever they came from originally.
Americanism is often introduced as a religion—only to be demoted immediately to the status of a “civil religion” to be trotted out on public occasions, or a mere expression of patriotism. The American Religion is neither a mere civil religion nor a form of patriotism. We can tell by reflecting on the millions of people over the last hundred years who have said “I believe in America” with religious ardor although they were not Americans and lived far away. They were not expressing belief in some foreign country’s public ceremonial or patriotic display.
Russian Jews in 1910, desperate to escape vicious state–sponsored Jew–hatred. Cheering French throngs in 1919, waiting to see President Woodrow Wilson go by, having just been released from an endless–seeming, grinding, murderous war, courtesy of American troops. Nazi victims in a dozen countries. Starving Europeans in the late 1940s. Berlin residents blockaded by the Soviets, dependent on a round–the–clock American airlift. Russian refuseniks rotting in prison. Polish labor leaders challenging the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. Millions of Iraqis—Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis—this very day. “I believe in America” was a statement of religious faith among all these peoples, and others too. Of course American loyalists in South Vietnam also said “I believe in America.” Chinese students demonstrating against Communist tyranny in Tien–an–men Square said “I believe in America.” Hungarians rebelling against communism did too, in 1956. Their beliefs were tragically misplaced. America let them down, cruelly. Yet for most of those who believed, America came through. Believing in America, these downtrodden, battered human beings were pledging allegiance to a theological idea of great depth and beauty and power.
If belief in America has inspired countless non–Americans, it has inspired innumerable Americans too—or settlers in lands that would one day be part of America. It has inspired them differently but just as deeply. Belief in America has inspired all sorts of remarkable feats over the roughly four centuries of American and proto–American existence.
You would need some sort of fierce determination to set off in a puny broad-beamed, high–pooped, painfully slow, nearly undefended seventeenth–century ship to cross the uncharted ocean to an unknown, unmapped world.
You’d need remarkable determination to push westward into the heartland farther and farther from settlement and safety.
You’d need ferocious bravado to provoke the dominant great power of the day on the basis of fairly flimsy excuses and ultimately declare war and proclaim your independence.
You’d need powerful, practically incandescent determination to keep fighting the Civil War after the South had won major battles and slaughtered vast numbers of Union soldiers and gained the sympathy of both leading western European powers. The Civil War cost more and more money, energy, and blood—and the Union just kept on fighting.
You’d need enormous determination to turn your back on the isolationism and antimilitarism that comes naturally to Americans and butt into World War I—and eventually to reject isolationism for the indefinite future, for the long twilight struggle, when you accepted the challenge of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
The freedom and independence of Greece and Turkey occasioned America’s entry into the Cold War. Neither one is a pressing American interest, not exactly. And what on earth made that Idaho or Nebraska farmer—the one whom British prime minister Tony Blair spoke about so feelingly in an eloquent address to Congress—believe that he was responsible for protecting the Iraqi people and the world from Saddam Hussein? What did it all have to do with him? Americanism connected that farmer to Saddam Hussein and Iraq: the hatred of America it occasions, the American chivalry it inspires.
Americanism is potent stuff. But exactly what is it?
Explaining the American Religion—how it developed, what it asserts and why—is my first goal in this book. Most thinkers say that Puritanism disappeared hundreds of years ago. I believe they are wrong. Puritanism turned into the American Religion, and it survives today in this altered form. Our quest to know the American faith must begin with Puritanism.
I will show how Americanism carried forward Puritan ideas about the new Israel, Puritan fascination with the Bible, Puritan intensity—and added new ideas that emerged from the old ones.
My second goal is to show how the Bible and Puritanism molded America as a potter molds wet clay. Some secularists don’t like to face this fact. Others face it eagerly and respond with hatred; they call America the Puritan nation, the nation of religious fanatics.
They are right, and we should acknowledge the fact: America was indeed founded by religious fanatics. The Puritans who dominated those first English settlements, who did so much to shape this nation and its faith, were fiercely, fanatically dedicated to their God. They burned with the desire to live right and be near Him. Religious fanatics have a bad name nowadays. Muslim fanatics murder men, women, and children at random, with jagged shrapnel packed into bombs designed to cause the greatest possible pain and misery. And they claim to be doing God’s work—a slander on every religious believer who ever lived.
But the Puritans who settled the New World were fanatics of a different order. They came to America because they chose not to fight it out in England; they did not want to foment rebellion or cause bloodshed. They were convinced that the English monarchy was corrupt—and that their duty was to save it, not destroy it. They would save it by setting up a model society that England and the whole world could copy. These were men and women with ordinary human affections who did not believe that those affections should be suppressed for God’s sake. Just the opposite: God, they believed, was all for them.
The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 were “separatists,” Puritans of the most fanatic type. They were so fanatic, so intolerant, that in 1621 they held a feast and invited the local pagans to share it with them. There was a great thanksgiving celebration, wrote the Pilgrim Edward Winslow, “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoyt with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”
From the Hardcover edition.