The Allure of “Demonic Patriotism” [i]Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion[/i] - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

The Allure of “Demonic Patriotism” [i]Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion[/i]

Americanism: The Fourth Great Western
Religion, by David Gelernter (New
York: Doubleday, 2007). 240 pp.

RICHARD M. GAMBLE is the Anna Margaret Ross
Alexander Professor of History and Political Science
and Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College.
He is the author of The War for Righteousness (ISI
Books, 2003) and editor of The Great Tradition: Classic
Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human
Being (ISI Books, 2007).

Midway through a century battered by
ideological warfare, C. S. Lewis
thought it unnecessary to remind anyone that
“love of one’s country…becomes a demon
when it becomes a god.” Lewis wrote these
words in The Four Loves, one of his last books.
As a young undergraduate he had left Oxford
in 1917 to fight on the Western Front. There
he witnessed firsthand the tragedy of war
waged by demonized nations who thought
they were divine. Now in the wake of a
second global war, Western man stood sorely
in need of well-ordered loves. Love of one’s
country had to be restored to its proper place
in the hierarchy of affections. “Demonic
patriotism,” Lewis wrote, “will make it
easier for [a nation’s rulers] to act wickedly.”
“Healthy patriotism,” he hoped, “may make
it harder.”

In that hope, Lewis encouraged each
citizen to “keep a wary eye on the health or
disease of our own love of country.” A
healthy patriotism uses legends about its
heroic past to strengthen the will and imagination
and yet always bears in mind that the
“actual history of every country is full of
shabby and even shameful doings.” A diseased
patriotism misuses the mythic past to
legitimize imperialism. While Lewis thought
it “possible to be strengthened by the image
of the past without being either deceived or
puffed up,” he knew only too well that “the
image becomes dangerous in the precise
degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted,
for serious and systematic study.”

It is hard not to think of Lewis’s distinction
between healthy and diseased patriotism
when confronted with David Gelernter’s
Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.
Gelernter, a Yale computer science
professor, novelist, and contributing editor
to the Weekly Standard, mounts an impassioned
defense of America’s redemptive mission.
He seeks out a usable past to justify
current U.S. policy in Iraq and beyond,
insisting that the cynics and secularists have
gotten the American story wrong. He rallies
concerned patriots, and Christians in particular,
to defend the battlements of
Winthrop’s city on a hill. But in his zeal he
constructs just the sort of “image of the past”
that Lewis warned against, a seductive account
of America’s rise to glory that many
unguarded readers may mistake for serious
and systematic study. Gelernter may sincerely
aim to strengthen American resolve in
Iraq by drawing a straight line from modern
Baghdad back to Puritan Boston, but he ends
up with an absurdly “puffed up” caricature
of the American identity that, however unintentionally,
swells into blasphemy. He fails
to imagine a well-ordered, proportionate
love of country as a viable alternative to both
cynical apathy and nationalist idolatry.

Americanism begins with the trajectory of
American history already set and then assembles
events and people and documents to
follow that predetermined narrative. As if
stringing beads on a thread, Gelernter works
from the Puritan “city upon a hill” to the
Revolution, to the Union victory in the
Civil War, to the First World War, to the
Cold War, and finally to the War on Terror.
He reinvents the seventeenth-century Puritan
exiles into precursors of all that he admires
most in modern America: freedom,
tolerance, democracy, and equality. In what
reads at points like a satire of Whig history,
Gelernter populates his story with “proto-
Americans” who uttered “premonitions” of
and “foreshadowed” Americanism. Blessed
with the ability to “see the pattern behind”
the events of American history, he offers a
misleadingly clear and simple national epic
devoid of surprises and shadows in which
universal goodness tramples down every reactionary
foe. America’s success is ordained.
Its principles and way of life will sweep the
world. To doubt the prudence of America’s
global engagement is to doubt the will of
God—or at least the will of an immanentized
national deity.

Twin propositions guide Gelernter to his
predetermined conclusion: America is a “biblical
republic” and Americanism is a “biblical
religion.” By a “biblical republic” he means
simply a republic that “has the Bible on its
mind” (his emphasis). By a “biblical religion”
he means only that Americanism grew out of
Judaism and Christianity. Despite his claim
that “mountains of evidence” support these
two “facts,” his book never rises to the level
of a reasoned argument. He relies on repetition,
italics, and exclamation marks to make
his case for him. He winds up proving merely
that many Americans over the past four
hundred years have made extravagant claims
about the nation’s divine destiny and then
turns these claims into binding precedents for
U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century.
How anyone would go about substantiating
America’s identity as God’s chosen
people Gelernter never bothers to explain.
Proof texts from famous Americans seem to
satisfy his minimal standards of evidence.
But, after all, this is a work of pious devotional
literature aimed more at the heart than
the head. He counts on his audience being
generally uninformed about American history
and to react on cue to the “secularist”
conspiracy, confident that his readers want to
be part of the real America that feels good and
righteous about global democracy.

On nearly every page, Americanism brings
to mind Eric Voegelin’s diagnosis of the
spiritual pathologies of modern nationalism.
Gelernter sees to it that no one can possibly
miss the point that Americanism is an ersatz
religion. The book’s third paragraph begins
with a startling claim: “‘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.” Not only that,
but this religion’s political theology seems to
be a big improvement over its outdated
predecessors: “‘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.”

No doubt many Jews and Christians will
be surprised to discover that their vague faith
needed “focusing.” Gone is the otherworldliness
of historic Christianity. In its place, the
intramundane faith of “Americanism” meets
the pressing need to transform and perfect the
world. Gelernter insists that “in America
religion must be political, is in fact political; in
America religion concerns the citizen and the
city.” Conveniently, followers of Americanism
never have to choose between the things
of Caesar and the things of God. Indeed, the
religion of Americanism is so ecumenical
that the faithful don’t even have to believe in
God. Humanitarianism is its only test: “You
can believe in Americanism without believing
in God—so long as you believe in man.”

Fitting Voegelin’s diagnosis even more
closely, Gelernter adopts what the political
philosopher called a “single thread of meaning”—
the story of America’s progress—as
his sacred narrative. His entire project relies
on a systematic and comprehensive substitution
of America for ancient Israel, for the
Messiah, and for the church. As the historical
“addendum” to Judaism and Christianity—
“an extra room out back,” he quaintly calls
it—America stands today as nothing less than
the promised land, called by her own prophets
to set captives free and to be the light of
the world and a city on a hill, doing battle in
the assurance that the gates of hell will not
prevail against it. Gelernter makes one-forone
exchanges for the creed and the canon,
for articles of faith and the “new covenant,”
for prophets and martyrs, for the story of
redemption and the “new birth,” for the
church, and even for mystical ecstasy.

With numbing repetition, Gelernter emphasizes
Americanism’s creed, holy mission,
and national scriptures, and praises its greatest
prophet. There are no surprises in his
familiar neoconservative litany: the confession
of faith affirms “liberty, democracy, and
equality for all mankind”; the mission requires
“chivalric” America to carry that
creed to the whole world, even by force; and
the canon consists of the Declaration of
Independence, Lincoln’s speeches, and the
Battle Hymn of the Republic. Among these
works, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural appears
as the “holiest document in the American
canon,” the one speech that “defined Americanism
for all time.” Lincoln himself emerges
therefore as the final prophet of the American
religion, the Mohammed of Americanism,
so to speak. Father Abraham was America’s
“greatest prophet, preacher, and religious
leader,” who “completed the work of the
founding fathers” and was in fact “the last
and greatest of them.” Not only that, but
“Lincoln should almost certainly be remembered
as the most important religious figure
America has ever produced.” Indeed, “[h]is
extraordinary personality made Americanism
live. His martyrdom made it holy.”
These are but a fraction of Gelernter’s praise
for the Civil War president. At one point he
nearly swoons with ecstasy as he contemplates
Lincoln’s image: “Lincoln’s face is
America’s face. What a beautiful face it is.”

At one level, there is nothing remarkable
about Gelernter’s deliberate confusion of
religion and national identity. The Puritans
imported the habit from England, and Americans
have spent the past four hundred years
adapting it to changing circumstances. Other
nations, especially at the height of Romantic
nationalism, described themselves in the same
language and often with disastrous consequences—
a comparative perspective the author
never attempts. What makes Americanism
different from countless Fourth of July
orations over the years is the desperation
Gelernter brings to his task. He seems afraid
that America’s messianic identity has burned
itself out. The words “mission” and “destiny,”
though, have never sounded so hollow
and calculated as they do in Gelernter’s
defense of them. Contrary to his intentions,
therefore, his book will do little to re-energize
America’s messianic consciousness.
Americanism may even subvert that sense of
divine calling by making his target audience
self-conscious, perhaps for the first time,
about how sloppily politicians misuse such
phrases as “city on a hill.” Gelernter’s very
urgency may provoke readers to ask whether
the nation-state has any legitimate title to
these biblical metaphors. Once that question
penetrates the culture, America’s messianic
identity is done for.

Whether Gelernter realizes it or not, there
is something more dangerous than secularism,
and that is a nation-sate masquerading as
God incarnate. In The Four Loves, Lewis
defended the goodness of a non-ideological
patriotism rooted in the concreteness of a
shared place and culture. In a world without
a sane patriotism affixed to the particular,
national leaders will only be able to rally their
peoples in wartime with such loose abstractions
as “justice, civilization, or humanity.”
Lewis acknowledged that we might be
tempted to think of fighting for these ideals
as a mark of humanity’s ethical progress. But,
he warned, “this is a step down, not up.” “If
our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars
must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence
is given to things which are very
much of this world.” Dazzled by the false
transcendence of nationalism, Gelernter refuses
to allow love of one’s country to be
simply a thing of this world. As a substitute
religion, Americanism may well motivate
citizens to fight for their nation in times of
war. But it insults ordinary citizens to assume
they will fight for nothing else. Ideology is a
poor substitute for patriotism and true religion.
By making America our god we will
discover that we have made it our demon.

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