Blogs > Cliopatria > Jim Sleeper: Review of David Gelernter's Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (Doubleday)

Aug 20, 2007 8:55 pm

Jim Sleeper: Review of David Gelernter's Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (Doubleday)

[Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale University, is at work on a book about the American republic's Hebraic and Calvinist roots]

"Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain," warns Psalm 127 -- as does David Gelernter, the militantly neoconservative Yale computer scientist and patriotic rhapsodist who cites that verse often in "Americanism." Many Americans do sense that a national-security state full of armed watchmen needs the chastening, hastening biblical faith that fortified Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and unsung others to uphold a distinctively American, republican way. But how to renew it?
Gelernter's claim that Americanism is itself a great religion will offend secularists and many religious people. He argues plausibly that the American creed of "liberty, equality, and democracy," seeded by Puritans and their oft-ambivalent legatees, can't be separated from biblical faith, historically or now: It "was a distillation of biblical (especially Old Testament) principles [that] created a new force in the world's spiritual history."
But Gelernter's own distillery doesn't work. His "new force" is driven by "American Zionism," our sense of ourselves as "a new chosen people in a new promised land" -- a jarring reminder to liberal Protestants that their forebears called themselves "God's New Israel," named their towns Salem, Canaan, and Sharon, and slaughtered Native Americans they called the "Amalekites." When their legatees assail Israeli Zionism now, isn't it partly out of displaced guilt? If Israel gives back the West Bank, shouldn't they give back the blood-soaked banks of the Charles?
Gelernter wouldn't restore Puritan theocracy, of course. "The Bible has no official status in America," he acknowledges; it's only "a melody that keeps running through [Americans'] heads." But we're at our best, he insists, when we move within biblical motifs of communal obligation, sacred mission, and prophetic rebuke to our high opinion of ourselves as rational actors in control of our fate.
So how would he revive the faith of Lincoln and King? Gelernter delivers contradictory answers in a rambling sermon. Like Norman Podhoretz's "The Prophets" and Elliott Abrams's "Faith or Fear," this book demonstrates that neoconservatives siphon our Hebraic and Puritan wellsprings into justifications for more armed watchmen, not a faith that "keeps the city."...

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