Is Americanism the 'Fourth Great Religion'?


David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, is perhaps most widely known for having survived one of "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski's 16 attempts at postal assassination—a twisted neo-Luddite campaign that ended up killing three people and wounding 23. Suffering permanent damage to his right hand and right eye, Gelernter directed much of his understandable rage into a furious screed of a book, Drawing Life. In it, he argued that the Unabomber's actions were symptomatic of the moral decay produced by America's feckless liberal elites.

If that book was Gelernter's vision of post-'60s fallen America, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion is his hymn to an idealism that he thinks not only ennobles Americans at their finest but also constitutes a religion that attracts and inspires people around the world.

In Gelernter's telling, this religion consists of two main elements, both of which are rooted in the Bible and a culture of close biblical reading. The first is a secularized version of ancient Jewish Zionism, recast in Christian terms by 17th-century English Puritans who believed that the purpose of their journey into the American wilderness was to build a New Jerusalem—a "City on the Hill." The Puritans were not only convinced that God had sent them on this mission; they maintained that their project, if faithfully executed, would make America a light unto other nations. Those beliefs would eventually lose their original Puritan-Christian shadings and take on a more secular and nationalistic coloring (Manifest Destiny), but they continue to define what Gelernter calls the doctrine of American Zionism.

Gelernter goes even further. Implicit in the doctrine, he argues, were three ideals that constitute the other part of Americanism: liberty, equality, and democracy. Borrowing from scholars like Gunnar Myrdal and Samuel Huntington, Gelernter calls these ideals, collectively, the American Creed. But he parts ways with most other authors by insisting on the strongly biblical character of these ideals, arguing that even the late-18th-century Founding Fathers recognized the religious origins of the Enlightenment principles they embraced.

It is not easy to make this case for some of the founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, but Gelernter points out that both men were at the very least deists (or theists) who grew up in a culture that was still shaped by the Bible. And there is some merit to this argument. Jefferson may have tried to edit the New Testament to rid it of what he considered unnecessary supernatural elements, but he had to know the texts well to do so.

The ground Gelernter covers is not new. A spate of recent books (including Frank Lambert's The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America and James Hutson's Religion and the Founding of the American Republic) make the case that religion played a crucial role in America's two foundings—that is, in both the original colonial enterprise and in the creation of a new nation after the break with Britain. Others emphasize the ongoing influence of Judeo-Christian principles in our civic culture and argue that secularists go too far when they try to take all religion out of the public square. But Gelernter intends his book as a more deliberate provocation. (As almost certainly does his editor, Adam Bellow, who likes to cook up provocative books.)

Gelernter argues that the ideals that have shaped America—from their formulation by the Puritans and Founders through their subsequent refinements by leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, and Ronald Reagan—make up a religion, a secular religion, but one that is grounded in the Bible. While those are qualifications that, to some, might seem to erase all meaningful distinctions, they nevertheless define what Gelernter unequivocally calls a religion. The question is, is it useful or helpful to do so?

Rhetorically, maybe. Or maybe not. If you get people to accept that American ideals are a religion called Americanism, then maybe you can more easily make the case that expressions of the underlying Judeo-Christian creed should not be driven out of the public square. You might even find it easier to counter the secularists' claim that the First Amendment was written explicitly to keep Christmas trees and crèches out of public parks or "In God We Trust" off American currency. These, after all, are only symbols of a secular religion that has—once you understand it correctly—a biblical foundation. Argument ended.

But at what price? Have you not at least cheapened or compromised the word religion, a word already susceptible to so many different definitions and applied to so many different, if loosely spiritual, phenomena that it may be on the verge of meaninglessness? Communism might also be described as a religion, a secular religion, derived from Utopian-millenarian ideas that also originate in the Bible. Is it really helpful to put America's animating political principles into the same warm and bubbly hot tub with those of the former Soviet Union?

That isn't the only price. In the current war of ideas that lies behind the war against terrorism, ideologues of radical Islam try to make the argument that notions of liberty, equality, and democracy are not really universal principles but merely the ideological products of western (read Christian) and particularly American culture. Unfortunately, Gelernter's construction of a religion called Americanism only helps the Islamists make their case.

A man who is rightly one of Gelernter's great heroes, Abraham Lincoln, was keenly aware of the dangers of seeing divine intent behind the American project. Fondly did he hope—and fervently did he pray—that America, and particularly the Union that he sought to preserve, was aligned with God's will. But he would never presume to say that he knew it was. And the closest he came to saying that Americans were special, as Gelernter also knows, was in his use of the phrase, "the almost chosen people."

In that modesty resides a far-reaching wisdom that recognizes the dangers of declaring a nation—or any other human creation— the fulfillment of divine providence. That way lies idolatry, a worship of false gods that should be at least as offensive to the believer as it is to the one who believes in none.