Monday, January 10, 2005

Whither Americanism

My buddy Bob Andersen brings to my attention a symposium being sponsored by The Evangelical Outpost on an essay in Commentary Magazine by David Gelernter entitled Americanism - and Its Enemies.

I read the article. No, that's not quite right. I scanned the article, because the word Americanism is for me one of those buzzwords without meaning that I avoid using, and normally would avoid reading about. The word is a kind of Rorschach of North American English, evoking for both speaker and listener a host of undefined notions that each of them considers normative, although neither of them gets around to defining plainly.

Apparently Joe Carter of the Outpost would like to illustrate the power of the Long Tail, a meme and corresponding article in Wired Magazine that I blogged about a few days ago. I shall be happy to participate, not because the subject grabs me, but because I feel as though I am taking part in a technological spectacle.

As I read over the essay, I revisited a few scenes from my past that the title helped me remember. I'm sure none of what I have to add to this discussion will be germain to any thread, but I will write it out all the same, mainly for my own amusement.

Scene one...

Even before he came up with the "Contract With America" my Congressman was Newt Gingrich. I had occasion to write him a couple of times and he graciously replied. The man is very, very smart. He is the only public person I have heard make reference to Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock. That impressed me. Anyway, he mentioned he was working on an idea for either a book or something that had to do with "American Civilization." I know that is not exactly the same as Americanism but it's close enough. I didn't get around to responding to Mr. Gingrich, but if I had I would have argued that his phrase "American Civilization" made use of not one, but two buzzwords, and perhaps he could find some clearer way to express his ideas. I had in mind that there were a good many people in Central and South America who might object to his proprietary use of those words when he was really talking about the USA and something less than a Civilization. Moreover, there are populations in the USA who might take umbrage at being denied a dissenting opinion in his grand vision. I was thinking here about descendents of slavery, North American Indians and a few other minorities that have since emerged from various closets.

I knew where he was going, of course. He was articulating the Conservative agenda that would later make him Speaker of the House, and the phrase "American Civilization" had such a wonderful ring that he had to find out where it could take him. I never heard much about the topic, but we sure heard a lot about Mr. Gingrich as time went on.

Scene Two...

One of my college teachers opened a class on State and Local Government by first laying the foundation of politics in the early days of our history. Before he got into the particulars, he made certain that we grasped the idea that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the cornerstone of everything that has developed in our political and social development. He used the phrase intermittently throughout the quarter so we could never lose track of it. Massachusetts Bay Colony. It has an irresistable ring. You know when you hear it that you are hearing something important. Do a Google search with those three words and you will want to stand up and salute the monitor.

And here is where my memory and this essay converge. There is an undeniable historic connection between church and state. But my take on the connection is not the same as that of Mr. Gelernter. He frames the connection in negative terms, defining Americanism in terms of (as the title suggests) its adversaries. My take on the impact of Puritanism has more to do with how we interpret prosperity.

The Puritan view of prosperity was straightforward. God loves us and wants to see us happy. When we do His will, then He will bless us. Really bless us, materially. And if we fail to do His will, He will punish us. Really punish us. Materially. Therefore, those who are well off must be living right. And those who are poor must be failing in some way to please God, else He would be blessing them, not allowing them to be poor.

Tempered by the fires of Calvinism, the connection between hard work, prosperity and virtue took root and grew in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It set the tone for the future of the republic, and at some level most people want to believe it today. Oh, we have big hearts for the poor. Nothing is quite so satisfying as sharing our blessings with those who have not been blessed. But in the end, most people tend to measure virtue in dollars and cents.

Our predilection to equate wealth with virtue continues to be the defining quality of our society alienating a great many people. We are a new nation. People who live in places where history is measured in millennia instead of centuries have a very different view of wealth. I prefer not to argue the point. I know that mine is a minority opinion. And I still think the word "Americanism" is a buzzword. But it pleases me to be able to participate in this symposium.


Since Deborah White has linked to this post I thought it prudent to check out some authority rather than trusting my own mortal memory of a distant class in political science. In fairness to the Puritans, the reader can consult a more charitable description of their view of prosperity than I have depicted. The Puritan Mind site is heavily documented from original sources and I have no desire to pick nits with someone who is clearly an expert on the subject.

Having said that, I stand with my original thoughts. I seriously doubt that the man on the street has any appreciation for the nuances of Puritan thought, or any notion that his everyday life is connected with that heritage. Just as one doesn't have to be either Jew or Christian to buy into what is popularly called "Judeo-Christian" traditions, neither does one need to understand Puritanism to subscribe to one of it's more dubious, if misunderstood legacies.

1 comment:

Anselm said...

Well I see we might disagree on what the Puritans were all about. But you are correct to note that what we, as a society, generally percieve as the Puritan heritage, is more important in describing its influence on us. Mr. Gelernter, however, writing a puportedly scholorly piece, should know better, and he is either not a Christian, so he doesn't get the personal salvation aspect, or was a little dishonest.