Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

You can believe in Americanism without believing in God -- so long as you believe in man

Patriotism takes religious shape Reviewed by Josh Green Sunday, July 1, 2007 Americanism The Fourth Great Western Religion By David Gelernter DOUBLEDAY; 227 Pages; $24.95
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times for patriotism in this country. The collective national malaise today casts a long shadow. With a war that the majority of Americans don't agree with, a president with approval ratings approaching Nixon's during Watergate and a creeping sense we are hated and targeted by too many around the world, the American belief that we are a "city on a hill" for the world is a tough sell.
On the other hand, perhaps it is when we are at our lowest point, when circumstances are most desperate, that we must reach for the best in American ideals and find a renewed patriotism. There's nothing more American than finding optimism in a seemingly hopeless situation.
In "Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion," David Gelernter writes for an audience that wants to rediscover what deserves to be glorified in American cultural and political tradition. The trick, he says, is seeing the set of American ideals we sometimes call a "creed" for what it really is: a religion. He isn't about to concede that this is simply a convenient metaphor or useful analogy; he means it.
"Americanism," he writes, is actually a religion in every way -- better yet, it is open to atheists: "You can believe in Americanism without believing in God -- so long as you believe in man." But he's quick to point out that even the atheists will have to realize that "America and Americanism were shaped by Christianity, especially Puritan Christianity," and that this type of Christianity finds its roots in the Old Testament. It's unclear how an unassuming atheist can accept this proposition without believing in Christianity's principles, and still be one of Americanism's faithful.
Gelernter's argument is not unique, but his terms certainly are. He calls America a "biblical republic" and Americanism a "biblical religion." Can you see a pattern? The Bible looms large for Gelernter -- it is in fact the central building block of American history and thought. We might expect such an argument from an evangelical minister, but not from a Jewish computer scientist from Yale (he has two degrees in Hebrew literature).
Perhaps even more provocative, Gelernter chooses to portray the Puritan dream for America as "American Zionism," purposely joining Israel and the founding of the nation. Puritan zealotry was the soil in which democracy was born, according to Gelernter, and this should be a source of national pride.
The rest of Gelernter's book is a chronological Disney World ride through American history, only it's nowhere near as fun and sing-songy as Pirates of the Caribbean. World War I, the Cold War and World War II are dispensed within 60 pages -- a poor man's history, to say the least, but Gelernter isn't pretending to be a historian. All of his historical accounts are bent toward one notion: Americanism will win out. Yes, he's talking about the war on terror, too.
One can read the entire book and still be puzzled by one question: Why did Gelernter feel compelled to write this? Hidden in the tedious history and trumpetings about Americanism, a familiar strain is heard. Gelernter directly addresses the "modern secularists," whom he believes have taken over the country and nearly ruined the solid foundation of the biblical republic.
"For all Christians facing the dauntingly powerful secularist culture of the modern United States: be strong and of good courage." He decries what he calls a "fanatical careerism -- the enemy of spirituality -- that has gripped this country by the throat." We want to know more, but he doesn't elaborate on this mysterious enemy. Ralph Reed (pre-scandal) and the Christian Coalition had the anti-secularist rhetoric down to a science years ago, and Gelernter isn't much of an imitator.
Gelernter is walking on the knife's edge by agreeing that freedom of religion is a founding principle but promoting a religiously centered approach to political thought. "(Religious) freedom doesn't imply indifference," he writes in perhaps one of the most lucid moments in the book. " 'I won't interfere' doesn't imply 'I don't care.' Perhaps I have no right to interfere; nonetheless I may strongly prefer one choice or dislike another. ... The American public is not unconcerned about whether you choose to be religious or an atheist."
The idea that we can have freedom of religion while still having a preferred religion, as if it is the nation's preferred language, is one that needs more argument. But Gelernter chooses instead to persistently hack away at his themes of a biblical republic practicing Americanism.
Some may remember Gelernter for being one of the Unabomber's mail bomb victims in 1993, an incident in which he suffered permanent damage to his hand and eye. One wonders if this painful episode, as often happens, brought him closer to God. Perhaps in some way, given his belief in the divine inspiration of democracy, this newfound religion also rekindled a love of his country that inspired him to write this book. Gelernter may be Americanism's most passionate acolyte. Josh Green is a Berkeley writer. This article appeared on page M - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle SFGate

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