Puritanism and Americanism

Evangelical Outpost is hosting the first quarterly EO Blog Symposium. The topic for this month’s symposium is an article written by David Gelernter entitled “Americanism—and Its Enemies” which appears in the most recent issue of Commentary magazine. Gelernter writes about Americanism which he defines as “the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart; the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God.” His thesis “is that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism. Puritanism and Americanism are not just parallel or related developments; they are two stages of a single phenomenon.” Thus Americanism, as we see and experience it today is the direct successor of Puritanism. Americanism did not replace Puritanism; rather, Puritanism grew naturally into Americanism. It follows logically from his argument that the anti-Americanism that is so rabid in the world today is the same hatred that was expressed against the Puritans in days of old.

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The author admits that his proposition is unprovable. Of course this is not unusual in history, for many historical developments can be logically deduced but never proven. Still, because there is no firm proof, we must regard this argument with skepticism and it is right that we question it.

Gelernter belives American can be best understood as 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.

Thus Americanism, founded on the Scriptures, sees value in both individualism and in community. As the world grows into a global community, Americans feel it is their responsibility to extend the privilege to individual rights of freedom, equality and democracy to every corner of the earth. So sure is Americanism of its moral foundation, that adherents will fight and die to extend these truths to others. Clearly Americanism has the qualities of religion more than mere politics or conviction.

History has taught us that the Puritans, having been driven from England, arrived in America intending to build a New Israel. Within only a few short years they had established churches, societies, laws, schools and universities (Harvard was founded only six years after the Puritans arrived). They truly believed that God was going to build an earthly kingdom in the New World and that they would prove to be God’s new chosen people. Ultimately, and despite their best efforts, they failed. Or did they? Gelertner would have us believe that while their influence decreased and as a cohesive unit they largely disappeared, that their roots were so firmly planted in America that their legacy lives on. The seeds they planted in the nation have slowly grown so that the Puritan worldview has shaped the American worldview. Of course there were many other factors and to ascribe all of Americanism to the Puritan influence would be a gross oversimplification. We cannot toss away the influence of the Germanic people and their role in shaping the country, nor that of even the Roman Catholics who arrived on America’s shore from numerous European nations. America was a melting pot in terms of both people and ideas.

While there is something satisfying in the author’s argument that the Puritan influence went far in shaping Americanism, in the end I believe his argument is simply too illogical to take seriously. Essentially he says that Americanism is Puritanism because they resemble each other, but this is a great leap in logic. Two systems of belief or worldviews may bear a resemblance, but this does not make them equals, especially when both derive from a common ancestor in Judeo-Christian beliefs. He also simplifies anti-Americanism into one all-encompassing category and seems to believe that only religion could inspire such hatred. Yet in Canada I see several types of anti-Americanism and not all are based on religion. Religious convictions constitute one of the categories and is most prevelant in people who recently immigrated to Canada, bringing with them their anti-American beliefs fostered in their homelands. A second category is jealousy, not of what America has or stands for, but more for the self-assurance Americans have. People resent America’s conviction that she is morally superior, but at the same time are jealous of it, wishing they had such self-confidence as a nation. And there are others. Clearly, though, grouping all anti-Americanism as religious bigotry is irrational.

I do believe that the Puritans played a role in shaping America and it stands to reason that their influence has not entirely disappeared. One would expect that as a cohesive group with strong principles their influence would have been ingrained in the very fabric of the nation. But I do not believe Gelernter has captured the essence of their contribution. For a short but penetrating analysis of some of the factors that shaped the country, I suggest reading Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey. In this book she offers fascinating analysis on how the Puritans influenced American culture and beliefs, both immediately and through those who followed them.