Monday, January 10, 2005

Americanism - A Grand Creed

“This is not everything that has to be said about religion under the Constitution. The point also has to be made – in fact, it has to be emphasized – that the Founders did not attempt to discourage religious belief; on the contrary, within the limits imposed by their Lockean principles, they intended to promote and protect it. They did so because they had reason to believe that, in certain important respects, the religious make better citizens than do the irreligious. This was likely because, having been taught by Jesus to love their neighbors as they love themselves, and by Paul (in his Epistle to the Romans) that they are “members of one another.” Christians (and most Americans were Christians) are more likely than the irreligious to come to the aid of their fellow citizens in time of need and, generally, to see themselves as members of a community to which they have obligations.”

-Walter Berns – “Making Patriots”

I am undertaking this essay with some trepidation. Upon reading Professor David Gelernter’s piece I immediately recognized that I was a junior partner in this literary conversation. I’ve had the feeling before, as I’m sure you, dear reader, have had as well.

I’ll describe my first encounter with someone like the good professor to give you some sense of what I’m feeling right now, and will then launch out into the deep. When I was a teenager I had the good fortune to land a summer job at a YMCA camp called Sandy Island, a family camp on Lake Winnipesauke, New Hampshire. During my second summer season there I was assigned to work for a master mason named Baldwin Steward. Well there’s no sense beating around the bush. I was his flunky; I carried his tools. To be honest I was quite satisfied with the position. I did not have then, nor do I now, any interest in things mechanical. As Nancy, my wife, has observed, “Slick, you’re head is always in the clouds.”

I must say that Baldy (as everyone affectionately called him) was more than patient with me. But there are those times that even test the patience of saints. His test came when he began working on a project to refurbish the overhead doors to the camp’s main lodge. The doors were large and heavy, and lifting them into the overhead position required three or four people. Baldy’s task was to put them on overhead rollers, the type that garage doors are typically mounted on. Our day began with Baldy taking measurements, “eyeballing” the situation, and occasionally pulling a hanky from his pants pocket, wiping the sweat off his brow, and punctuating it all with a nod of his head and a low pitched “Hurumph.” I would do my job as well. I’d nod along with him and pass him the tools he needed. After about fifteen minutes of this dance Baldy asked me to “Go up to the infirmary and get me a scale.” Without hesitating I went upstairs. When I got to the infirmary, though, a mild sense of panic set in. “My God,” I thought to myself, “What on earth does he want?” I suppose I should have gone back downstairs to ask, but I didn’t. I stood there for a few minutes and thought the situation through. “Baldy’s a great mind, so he must want something very, very complex. That’s it! I’ve got to find something that looks mysterious and that will take care of it.” I looked around for another few minutes and saw nothing that seemed to fit the bill. Then, I opened a closet door and saw the box. It was about five or six feet long, about a foot in diameter. I looked it over and saw the word “scale” printed on one side. “There it is, I’ve found it.” I took the box and brought it downstairs handed it to Baldy and proclaimed proudly, “I got your scale, Baldy.” He took the box and cradled it in his arms for a few seconds, then twitched his lips, which in turn caused his handlebar mustache to move up and down. He never shouted or seemed to get upset, but I got the point. “No you blockhead!” he exclaimed. “I wanted the bathroom scale. I just want to weigh these things, that’s all.”

After reading “Americanism and its Enemies” I have a bit of the same sense. It’s clear to me that Professor Gelernter is, in his field, a man much like Baldy, patient, longsuffering, brilliant, a man who takes the complex and simplifies it. I think I’ve understood him, but as I said before, I have a sense that I may be, in a sense, running around an infirmary right now looking for something complex when I should be looking for a bathroom scale.

With that said, I now launch out.

Professor Gelernter’s words struck a real chord with me. He has, for me, outlined the nature of American citizenship almost perfectly. I’ve come to the place over the past five years or so to see that my Christian faith and American citizenship are married. I’ve even come to see that my conversion to Christianity years ago was a natural outgrowth of my view of American citizenship. Some may disagree with what I’ve said, but no matter. Everything I’d been taught as a young man about liberty, justice, and equality led me to the Bible and the truths it contained. Those truths, in turn, led me to the Cross.

The Professor’s insight into “Americanism” is right on target. He posits that it’s the modern day successor to Puritanism and is, more than anything:

“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.”

That begs a question that Professor Gelernter asks on behalf of his readers – “Can you be an agnostic or Buddhist or Muslim and a believing American too?” His answer is resoundingly affirmative:

“In each case the answer is yes. But to accomplish that feat is harder than most people realize. The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism forth. It is the energy source that makes it live and thrive; that makes believing Americans willing to prescribe freedom, equality, and democracy even for a place like Afghanistan, once regarded as perhaps the remotest region on the face of the globe. If you undertake to remove Americanism from its native biblical soil, you had better connect it to some other energy source potent enough to keep its principles alive and blooming.”

As I read Professor Gelernter’s words I thought back to my youth. I knew that the principles I was taught to live by were right and that they had to have come from somewhere. First, I knew they were right because the mere mention of the words welled up within me when I heard them. They had the power to capture me - words like freedom, justice, equality before the law. On the other hand other words, hostile to that Americanism, made me bristle - words like tyranny, subjugation.

What was it about these words that captured my heart? I believe now that, while the words are human abstracts and inventions, the principles are, as Professor has so eloquently said, God-given.

I think that, having felt as I did about these grand principles, I’m now grasping what the Professor was trying to demonstrate in his piece. Americanism is more than just a man-made creed. The search of my youth for the perfection of the principles declared by our Founders found their roots in Biblical truth. He put it into what he calls a “conceptual triangle in which one fundamental fact 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.”

So that’s it. That’s why, in my youth, I so loved the words of John F. Kennedy, words like, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His help and blessing, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own” or words like these from his inaugural address:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage -- and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.””Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

What I find so amazing is that Americans of all stripes believe as deeply as I do in this unique worldview. Americans, like Abraham of old, are looking, in one way or another, for a “city whose builder and maker is God.” That is, even the most “secular” of us in the American family are engaged in this search. This is, I believe, uniquely American. Walter Berns, who I cited at the beginning of my essay, put it this way:

“The terms “Americanism,” “Americanization,” and “un-American” have no counterparts in any other country or language. This is not by chance, or a matter of phonetics – Swissism? Englishization? – or mere habit. (What would a Frenchman have to do or believe in order to justify being labeled un-French?) The fact is, and it was first noted by the Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, the term “Americanism” reflects a unique phenomenon.”

If I read Professor Gelernter correctly, he takes the idea one step further. Americanism is not just political thought; it is metaphysical thought. Further, if I’m not stumbling around in the infirmary, I believe that, for me, it means that “it’s in the genes.” It’s part of my American character. Part of it has been taught and part of it has been assimilated. It’s been taught in the classroom. It’s been assimilated in the sanctuary.

In that way I believe I’m rooted with and linked to my American Founders. The principles of John Adams are mine too. He made the following profound reflection on religion and citizenship:

“one great advantage of the Christian Religion is that it brings the great Principle o Law of Nature and Nations, Love your neighbor as yourself, and do unto others as you would that others should do to you, - to the Knowledge, Belief and Veneration of the whole People, Children, Servants, Women and Men are all Professors in the science of public as well as private Morality. No other Institutions of Education, no kind of political Discipline, could diffuse this kind of necessary Information, so universally among all Ranks and Descriptions of Citizens. The Duties and Rights of The Man and the Citizen are thus taught from early Infancy to every Creature.”

I, like multitudes of Americans, am a product of that thought.

In the second half of his essay Professor Gelernter speaks of “American Zionism.” This creed, he declares, goes further than a creed of “freedom, equality, and democracy for all.” The other integral part of this creed “deals with a promised land, a chosen people, and a universal, divinely ordained mission.” In this layman’s terms it all means that we Americans are “believers” who have a mission to fulfill and places to go.

It’s that sense, he says, that has enraged by those in the world he calls “Anti-Americans.” I agree. In polite company it manifests self like this. “If you would stop insisting on trying to democratize and evangelize the world things would be alright.” Some even try to separate me from my roots. “I like your thinking, but I don’t like the thinking of your leaders.” Sometimes it comes in the form of a full frontal assault. “Phil, you’re okay, but your George Bush is a right-wing religious fanatic.”

None of this works. I am an American, rooted as my leaders are, to the principles we have been taught and have assimilated in our sanctuaries for close to four centuries now. The chord is stronger than its detractors. It is the metaphysical glue that binds us together. We cannot escape it.

The Professor’s essay closes on an ominous note, warning that “Christians in the West” need to expect to be ostracized for their beliefs that seem to be too firmly held. Citing John Winthrop’s 1630 mediation, he closes by saying:

“No Saudi fanatic, no Kashmiri fanatic could have written those words. John Winthrop was a founder of this nation; we are his heirs; and we ought to thank God that we have inherited his humanitarian decency along with his radical, God-fearing Americanism.”

I subscribe whole-heartedly to the good professor’s words.

I feel I’ve said as much as I can for now. Professor Gelernter has said it all much better than I ever could, but I felt compelled, in my own way, to add my “amen” to his eloquent words. I only hope that I haven’t just wandered around the infirmary like a blockheadfor a few hours.


Bob said...

Well written. Kind of a kick in the teeth to those who try to argue for the seperation of church and state. I love your anylysis.

Anonymous said...

The HUMAN PARADIGM Psalm 25:12 - Intro

The way we define 'human' determines our view of self,
others, relationships, institutions, life, and future.
Important? Only the Creator who made us in His own image
is qualified to define us accurately. Choose wisely...
there are results.

Many problems in human experience are the result of false
and inaccurate definitions of humankind premised in man-
made religions and humanistic philosophies.

Human knowledge is a fraction of the whole universe. The
balance is a vast void of human ignorance. Human reason
cannot fully function in such a void, thus, the intellect
can rise no higher than the criteria by which it perceives
and measures values.

Humanism makes man his own standard of measure. However,
as with all measuring systems, a standard must be greater
than the value measured. Based on preponderant ignorance
and an egocentric carnal nature, humanism demotes reason
to the simpleton task of excuse-making in behalf of the
rule of appetites, desires, feelings, emotions, and glands.

Because man, hobbled in an ego-centric predicament, cannot
invent criteria greater than himself, the humanist lacks
a predictive capability. Without instinct or transcendent
criteria, humanism cannot evaluate options with foresight
and vision for progression and survival. Lacking foresight,
man is blind to potential consequence and is unwittingly
committed to mediocrity, averages, and regression - and
worse. Humanism is an unworthy worship.

The void of human ignorance can easily be filled with a
functional faith while not-so-patiently awaiting the foot-
dragging growth of human knowledge and behavior. Faith,
initiated by the Creator and revealed and validated in His
Word, the Bible, brings a transcendent standard to man the
choice-maker. Other philosophies and religions are man-
made, humanism, and thereby lack what only the Bible has:

1.Transcendent Criteria and
2.Fulfilled Prophetic Validation.

The vision of faith in God and His Word is survival equip-
ment for today and the future.

Man is earth's Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by nature
and nature's God a creature of Choice - and of Criteria.
Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and definitive characteristic
is, and of Right ought to be, the natural foundation of
his environments, institutions, and respectful relations
to his fellow-man. Thus, he is oriented to a Freedom
whose roots are in the Order of the universe.

See the complete article at Homesite:
"Human Defined: Earth's Choicemaker"

CG-59 said...

Patiently, patiently, patiently ... that's the way Christians have got to get the point across.

Considering Luke 16:19-31, we should not be surprised that there will always be unbelief.

It's a battle that will never end, as there will always be anti-Christian forces at work. But you can never know when the right word or action can turn a soul to his maker.