America and Its “isms”

David Gelertner’s Commentary article, “Americanism—and Its Enemies,” brings to light a number of elements that form the impetus for the American ideal of democracy for all mankind. Gelertner’s premise is that Americanism is a religion unto itself—the modern-day incarnation of Puritanism, as a matter of fact. Gelertner buttresses a pedigreed Americanism against the tide of anti-Americanism that is so rampant in today’s world.

Americanism is indeed a religion—insofar as it consists of the typical traits of a religion. As Gelertner adeptly observes, it has a core set of beliefs, “religious texts,” and a belief in the moral superiority of Americanism. The integration of Americanism with many Christian and Jewish groups is evidence of its wide-ranging appeal and adaptability. After all, who has been in an evangelical church where an American flag (along with the “Christian Flag”) wasn’t displayed prominently within the sanctuary?

Gelertner writes:

But Americanism is not (contrary to the views of many people who use these terms loosely) a “secular” or a “civil” religion. No mere secular ideology, no mere philosophical belief, could possibly have inspired the intensities of hatred and devotion that Americanism has. Americanism is in fact a Judeo-Christian religion; a millenarian religion; a biblical religion. Unlike England’s “official” religion, embodied in the Anglican church, America’s has been incorporated into all the Judeo-Christian religions in the nation.

Here is where Gelertner’s thesis breaks down. Americanism is a secular ideology. While it may not be “merely” secular, its integration into Judeo-Christian religions in America does not give it a spiritual aspect. Many secular philosophies and ideologies are incorporated (usually wrongly) into churches today—pragmatism is rampant, as is dualism and most recently, postmodernism. Mere incorporation doesn’t baptize these philosophies as religion.

Americanism also doesn’t have the international transcendence found in religion. Christianity can exist in its purest forms in places as diverse as China, the Sudan, and America. While Americanism seeks to be applied internationally, it is difficult to imagine its application without intense hybridization. Americanism can only work in the fertile soil that is America. Democracy can work elsewhere, such as in the Middle East, but never is it pure Americanism—e.g., Israel’s socialist democracy.

The premise that Puritanism morphed into Americanism is likewise suspect—a point that Gelertner concedes is impossible to prove. While Americanism may have adopted traits from Puritanism and to a great degree informed it, to say that it supplanted it is a stretch.

It’s more likely that Puritanism morphed into modern Christian fundamentalism (a term as nebulous as Puritanism itself) and even evangelicalism to an extent. These two offsprings share a continuity of faith with Puritanism that is lacking in Americanism.

The strength of Gelertner’s thinking lies in that it exposes how much we take for granted how extensively Americanism is integration into our nation’s actions. It sheds much light on why Americanism has its enemies. Because it is so transformative, Americanism makes demands upon all nations to surrender to freedom. Tyrannical despots, of course, do not share this love of democracy that threatens at all times, regardless of whether or not we are at war. Because it is based solidly upon foundations that do not move, Americas enemies chip away at the foundation—only to find that their chisels aren’t sharp enough.

This post is part of Joe Carter’s blog symposium on Gelertner’s article at EvangelicalOutpost.com, visit EO to see other responses to Gelertner’s article.

4 thoughts on “America and Its “isms”

  1. Pingback: Blind Mind's Eye
  2. I liked your post. I don’t agree with you, though, that international appeal should be one of the tests for religion status. Many religions, I feel, are nation, culture and place specific. Surely you agree that Naziism was a religion? And Japanese Emperor worship? What about the Aztec death cults?

    The problem with defining what is and isn’t a religion is that man is a religious being, apt to fill that space with not just the sublime, but also the bizarre and the mundane.

  3. Leo, you’re right that many religions are culture-place specific. I was thinking more on the level of the “first things” that religion typically deals with. These “ulitmate questions” (where do we come from?, what are we here for?, whence knowledge?, etc.).

    National socialism, emperor-worship, and Aztec death cults probably fall within the same realm of religion as Americanism to some extent — a “second-order,” if you will. I guess the difference is that Puritanism (and likewise Christianity in general) differs in that it is not tied to a specific geographic region or culture.

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