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1.08.2005    |    American Creed
David Gelernter has written a brilliant, provocative, yet almost self-intuitive essay in Commentary that links the Puritans with modern-day Americanism. The essence of his argument would not surprise most Protestants -- America is the "new Israel", the shining city on the hill, and the source of our polity is nothing more nor less than the Bible. Both Testaments. Mr. Gelernter, properly, refers to this as our Judeo-Christian heritage. His thesis, however, is no paean to multiculturalism. He grounds his faith, and mine (Protestant), and our shared political faith, in Scripture. It was the faith of the Puritans; it remains our national faith to this day. And it helps explain why America is so hated.

The Puritans have become symbols for most Americans, and, except at Thanksgiving, not usually good ones. Yet it was the Puritans, and their descendants, who were the ones who gave us our freedom from England, and then led in extending that freedom to all Americans. Not exclusively, of course. The cause of American liberty was just as much at home in Church of England Virginia as it was in Congregationalist Boston -- yet it was the northerners who had the more radical view of individual liberty (with no disrespect to Patrick Henry or TJ, of course). This would be the natural result of a brave people, the Puritans, who had crossed the ocean just for the chance to be free of an established church and its intermediaries between the citizen and God.

Mr. Gelernter reminds us of some basic history of the Puritans in America, which many Americans either have forgotten or were not taught in the first place. After all, those Puritans do not measure up to our oh-so-advanced understanding of morality. They actually enforced morality. And burned witches (well, some did). I never said that Puritans were modern in everything, but since their justice was rooted in Scripture, as opposed to mortal man, a citizen at least knew what was expected. Puritans are widely misunderstood, and, let's be frank, they weren't always willing to accept those whose salvation focus was on free will:
Puritanism had two main elements: the Calvinist belief in predestination with associated religious doctrines, and what we might call a “political” doctrine. The “political” goal of Puritanism was to reach back to the pure Christianity of the New Testament—and then even farther back. Puritans spoke of themselves as God’s new chosen people, living in God’s new promised land—in short, as God’s new Israel.

I believe that Puritanism did not drop out of history. It transformed itself into Americanism. This new religion was the end-stage of Puritanism: Puritanism realized among God’s self-proclaimed “new” chosen people—or, in Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable phrase, God’s “almost chosen people.”
As a Baptist, I can attest that the essence of religious Puritanism was the rejection, as being Biblically unsound, of the forms and hierarchy of the established church (Church of England for the Puritans, but also Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches). Since we don't need a priesthood to properly worship God, does not this form also one of the pillars of the so-called secular Enlightenment? The primacy of the individual and his conscience? I'd say yes, and for this reason alone one may see a direct and iron-like connection between the Puritans and the American experiment.

Mr. Gelernter expands on the development of our American creed, based on Scripture:
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.

In the American creed, both premises and all three conclusions refer back to the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. Americans have defined the “community” of the premises more and more broadly over the years, until it has grown to encompass the whole population of adult citizens—thus bringing the premises gradually into line with the universal conclusions. Today there is pressure to define the community more broadly still, so that it includes (for example) illegal as well as legal residents.

Freedom, equality, democracy: the Declaration held these truths to be self-evident, but “self-evident” they were certainly not. Otherwise, America would hardly have been the first nation in history to be built on this foundation. Deriving all three from the Bible, theologians of Americanism understood these doctrines not as philosophical ideas but as the word of God. Hence the fervor and passion with which Americans believe their creed. Americans, virtually alone in the world, insist that freedom, equality, and democracy are right not only for France and Spain but for Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's fascinating, isn't it, that the American creed, directly traceable to folks we would label as "fundamentalist" Christians today, have their modern echoes among the camp of those pesky Jewish (many, not all) "neoconservatives." After all, to listen to some, such as Pat Buchanan, one might conclude that our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq are solely the work of American Jews who are, in Pitchfork Pat's indomitable words, members of Israel's "amen corner."

The Jewish connection is emphasized in the article, and rightly so. It was up to Protestants generally, and Puritans in particular, to restore the Hebrew scriptures to their rightful, foundational place in Christian history. In fact, it's been often said, usually by enemies of Christianity from within, that Martin Luther and John Calvin and other early Protestants were "Judaizers."

This theme is expanded upon by the author, who, for example, notes that "[T]he Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, often called the “first written constitution of modern democracy,” were inspired not by democratic Athens or republican Rome or Enlightenment philosophy but by a Puritan preacher’s interpretation of a verse in the Hebrew Bible". And, although this might surprise and even offend some nominally Christian Americans (not to mention millions of non-Americans), he further traces our liberty directly to the Old Testament:
...classical Israel’s (and classical Zionism’s) contribution to Americanism is incalculable. No modern historian or thinker I am aware of—not Huntington or Morison or Perry or Mead or Perry Miller or even Martin Marty or Sydney Ahlstrom—has done justice to this extraordinary fact. They seem to have forgotten what the eminent 19th-century Irish historian William Lecky recognized: that “Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy.”
The author's principal contribution is, therefore, to make a bridge that spans the gulf from the ancient Israelites, to Protestant Christians, to modern Americans. Something that most evangelical Christians know already, but might have forgotten. And something that the rest of us should take notice of. Our Savior was a Jew; a rather devout one in His secular life. He lived His life immersed in Scripture; the Author was His Father, after all. This was, of course, no accident, and was fortold by the very Hebrew scriptures that so many in the high churches seemed to have left behind. Jesus' message of human dignity, captured in the recapitulation of the Torah's "love thy neighbor as thyself", itself forms one of the bases of our democratic republic. Jesus' death gives us our salvation; His life gives us a way to live in freedom with dignity afforded to all.

I would like to end with this delightful extract from the article, which once again emphasises the strong cords that bind the modern Christian (or Jew) with what is of the essence in the American experiment. It concerns life and death, and it is worthy of full consideration any time we get too full of ourselves and think that we've somehow got the "right" to end another's life, born or unborn:
Puritans took to heart these famous words from the Hebrew Bible: “I have set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life and live, you and your children” (Deuteronomy 30:19). On board the Arabella, John Winthrop closed his famous meditation of 1630 by citing that verse from Deuteronomy, centering his words on the page for emphasis:

Therefore let us choose life
that wee, and our Seede,
may live; by obeying his
voice, and cleaveing to him,
for hee is our life, and
our prosperity.


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About this site and the author

Welcome. My name is John Luke Rich, (very) struggling Christian. The focus here is Christianity in its many varieties, its fussing and feuding, how it impacts our lives and our society, with detours to consider it with other faiths (or lack thereof).

Call this blog my way of evangelizing on the internet.

Putting it differently, we're only here on this earth a short time. It's the rest of eternity that we should be most concerned about. Call it the care and feeding of our souls.

I was born Jewish, and born again in Christ Jesus over thirty years ago. First as a Roman Catholic; now a Calvinist by persuasion and a Baptist by denomination. But I'm hardly a poster boy for doctrinal rigidity.

I believe that Scripture is the rock on which all Christian churches must stand -- or sink if they are not so grounded. I believe that we are saved by faith, but hardly in a vacuum. That faith is a gift from God, through no agency on our part -- although we sometimes turn a deaf ear and choose to ignore God's knocking on the door.

To be Christian is to evangelize. Those who think it not their part to evangelize perhaps haven't truly understood what our Lord told us in Matthew 28. We must preach the Gospel as best we are able. Using words if necessary.

Though my faith waxes and wanes, it never seems to go away. Sometimes I wish it would, to give me some peace of mind. But then, Jesus never said that walking with Him was going to be easy...

Final note: I also blog as Jack Rich on cultural, political and other things over at Wrong Side of the Tracks

Thanks for stopping by.