Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Americanism

There's a stirring piece in Commentary on the American creed, or Americanism, as the author David Gelernter calls it. Here's a key part, but one should really read the whole thing.
The idea of an “American creed” has been around for a long time. Huntington lists its elements as “liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, human rights, the rule of law, and private property.” I prefer a different formulation: 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.
I've been mulling over this for a while now. Am I an Americanist? I certainly believe that "freedom is God's gift to mankind," but, repeating myself somewhat, Christianity does not mandate a particular political system ("render unto Caesar..." and all that). My support for democracy is not based on a special revelation like the Bible, but on the general revelation of history and human nature.

Moreover, I don't think Gelenter's above formulation of Americanism is historically or contemporaneously typical of Americans. Things like the American Revolution and Manifest Destiny were not simply premised on Biblical exegesis. They were at least as much (I'd dare say primarily) interpretations of events in terms of divine providence. I can't count how many times I've heard Christians say how they interpreted events in their life as an message from God and how they then acted upon that message. (Of course, the Bible informed their interpretation.) I certainly see God's providence in my life and in the life of this nation.

Of course, events can be easily misinterpreted, so one should be careful. (See John 9:1-3.) In the absence of special revelation, I try to keep my own interpretations of events tentative, and pay attention to new events, recognizing that at a fundamental level I'm ignorant of God's plans. (For example, what role, say, 9/11 plays in God's grand scheme remains a very speculative question for me; I once rebuked someone who seemed all too sure that 9/11 was God punishing us.) Finally, keeping the above cautions in mind, we must also be wary of ignoring what God is telling us through events, especially when it's something we don't want to hear.

2 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

You're assuming a very active God, moreso than I generally do. This, of course, may reflect theological differences. You seem like a very convinced Protestant in theological terms, whereas I wound up Moravian largely because their atheological perspective on religion allowed me to hold many of the ideas I gained reading in Orthodox theology without the problems I have with that denomination's current earthly manifestation.

Back to the point, however, you're opening yourself up to the criticism that if God meant for the U.S. to rise, then God also meant for most of the human race to live in relative poverty where they have to engage in fights over glasses of tapwater. Human free will also plays a role here, something God chooses to allow because it is something a flawed humanity needs to accomplish our part in the divine plan.

1/18/2005 10:51 PM  
Blogger Dave Milovich said...

God is very active, and in my experience, rarely coercive. So, yes, our free will is an essential part of God's plan.

As for God's relationship to human suffering, I refer you to my post on theodicy from a few weeks ago.

As for my "Protestant" theology, I'm guessing what you mean is that I'm a Calvinist. (Though I might wish otherwise, only a fraction of Protestants are Calvinists.) If I were Catholic I'd call myself a Thomist and have the same theology as before. There are fine distinctions to be made (example), but as I understand the matter, it's just splitting hairs. The reason I'm not Catholic is my views on Papal authority.

1/19/2005 12:30 AM  

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