Puritanism and America

America is unpopular around the world because its national soul is too Puritan, claims David Gelernter in a article in Commentary. Anti-Americanism around the world is a reaction to American arrogance grounded in a religion called Americanism, which has replaced Puritanism, he writes.

My critique of this article begins with the first word. I don’t agree with the premise of broad anti-Americanism. Although there are “lesions of hatred” toward America, as Gelernter calls them, I believe this is largely official hatred toward America, not popular sentiment. (I’ve traveled to dozens of foreign countries and I have been surprised by the warmth with which I have been welcomed). Except those who get riled up in the Muslim world and liberal Europeans, the people of the world do not hate the American people. It is important to ask why there are those who do hate us, but we suffer when our leaders pursue a co-dependent foreign policy based on making sure people like us.

(It may be that we simply help other nations too much. “Why do you hate me?” the Chinese proverb goes. “I didn’t give you anything.” Moral debt can create animosity).

Although he tries hard to support his premise that Puritanism has become Americanism, and that Americanism is the new religion, the arguments are porous. The most important statement in the article, which must be heeded by those who seek to obliterate religious influence from the public square, reads:

“The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism forth. It is the energy source that makes it live and that thrive and 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.”

Religious faith has influenced American leaders at every juncture, and even leaders of marginal personal faith have used the religious imagery that has become a part of the lexicon of American politics. Gelernter cites many instances of these expressions of civil religion. While this is often reassuring to believers, it no more defines the true devotion of national opinionmakers than other rhetoric that is designed to capture the hearts of special interest groups.

Certainly the whole of biblical teachings, Old and New Testament, were an important part of the lives of our founders and of some of our leaders over the centuries. Christianity has had a profound impact on every institution. But our problem today is not that we are too much like the Puritans; it is that we are not enough like them.

Puritan thought is captured by the father of American congregationalism, John Cotton (1584-1652), whose writing on purposeful living was later secularized and distorted in such themes as “manifest destiny” and “the American dream.” He wrote:

“Even then when he serves man, he serves the Lord; he doth the work set before him, and he doth it sincerely and faithfully so as he may give account for it; and he doth it heavenly and spiritually. He uses the world as if he used it not. This is not the thing his heart is set upon; he looks at the world as at heaven. And therefore—that which follows upon this—he doth all comfortably, though he meet with little encouragements from man, though the more faithful service he doth, the less he is accepted; whereas an unbelieving heart would be discontented that he can find no acceptance, but all he doth is taken in the worst part.”

It is a word of encouragement for the Christian believer who in serving others is rejected by them. It is a directive to live for the Audience of One. And as America reaches out to the world, even today extendng hands of comfort to Muslims in Indonesia who tomorrow may wave fists of hate toward us, it is a good Puritan word to the nation.

–James Jewell

About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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