Puritanism reloaded

spain_protestMy dog likes me. When I enter the room, her eyes light up, her tail wags and she grabs the nearest toy, hoping to entice me into a game of tug-of-war. Perhaps it says too much about my own insecurities, but I enjoy her reaction, immensely.

If my dog should start biting me on the leg each time I feed her, I might grow disenchanted with dog ownership. The thing is, owning a dog is a lot of work, and what exactly is the point if your dog isn’t going to stroke your ego once in awhile? (This is why I could never own a cat—cats, like Hollywood divas, never think of anyone but themselves.)

Most of us like to be liked. Canadian MP Carolyn Parrish can stomp on a President Bush doll, Spanish university students can march against the Iraq war, the French can do their Gallic-sneer-shtick at all things American—and I don’t lose any sleep over it all.

But for a great many on the left, this hostility towards America is deeply disturbing. All they want is love, and George W Bush, that pistol-packin’, election-stealin’, bumpkin of a President has made us a global pariah, a laughing-stock among the nations.

Handy as it is to blame anti-Americanism on Bush, there may be something else behind all this vitriol. Prof. David Gelernter has come up with a novel explanation for anti-Americanism in a new Commentary Magazine essay, Americanism—and Its Enemies. Joe Carter, the formidable personality behind The Evangelical Outpost, has organized an online symposium around Prof. Gelernter’s paper. This post is my contribution to that discussion.

Gelernter believes Americanism can best be 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.

In other words, Americanism is a religious faith, evangelical and universal to the core. Americans believe that we have been appointed by God to spread freedom, equality and democracy to the far corners of the earth.

Gelernter traces the origins of Americanism to those first American colonists, the Puritans. He admits to advancing an “unprovable assertion,” but I think he may be on to something.

The Puritans were members of a reactionary, seventeenth-century religious movement that hoped to revive the moribund Church of England. The temptations of political power and the church’s deep connections to the English crown had caused it to drift away from the historic, pure gospel of Jesus Christ. The Puritans challenged the church to return to a simpler, truer faith.

Puritans viewed God as active in human history. Since Adam, God had maintained a covenantal relationship with humankind, a relationship in which ordinary men and women became the instruments of God’s sovereign work in history.

But the Church of England was not persuaded. The Puritans were driven out and sought refuge in the New World, a place where they hoped they might build a New Israel.

That vision never materialized, despite the leadership of Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan minister who is considered by some to be our greatest American theologian. But Puritanism’s mission to transform the world lived on:

Even after its demise as the dominant cultural force, [Puritanism] left indelible marks on the American cultural landscape. Among the latter was the idea of “manifest destiny” for American colonists and the post-Revolutionary republic of the United States—a secularized version of the Puritan vision of a godly commonwealth on earth. —Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, InterVarsity Press, 1999.

In the ivory towers of intellectualism today, manifest destiny has fallen decidedly out of favor. If Americanism is fundamentally about advancing God’s agenda on earth, postmodernism couldn’t be more different.

Where Americanism moves with determined certainty and a strong sense of good and right, postmodern political philosophies find comfort in ambiguity. Where Americanism is evangelical and activist, postmodernism embraces a laissez-faire detachment from world affairs and a strict doctrine of non-intervention.

Postmodern political philosophies cannot bear the imposition of values or judgments on others, believing that Jesus’ greatest teaching was: “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” The followers of Americanism live by a very different command: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”

These are two worldviews which were bound to collide—loudly. And so they have.

Much has been made of the influence of “values voters” in the recent elections. Much has been written about the religious divide that separates the left and right. Some on the left complain that they are just as earnest in their faith as the right. Perhaps in Prof. Gelernter’s paper, we find an important clue to what really divides us.

It seems to me that the true sons and daughters of the Puritans embrace a worldview in which God is vigorously at work in the affairs of men and in history. He is not silent. He is not missing-in-action. He is not blind, in Richard Dawkins’ famous illustration. The God of the Puritans is a Sovereign being who is at this very moment influencing history through the hands of his people.

For those who accept the Puritans’ view of God, life is a mission. Life has a purpose, God’s purpose, and we are his change agents. When George W Bush speaks of the right of all men and women to live in liberty and peace, he is not speaking in the abstract. What chills the left is the recognition that Bush is a man on a mission, intending to use his power to free the oppressed, to topple evil regimes, and to restore justice to those who suffer under tyranny. Many of us who live in resonance with the Puritans see George W Bush through the lens of the Old Testament’s Esther—he is a man brought to power by God “for just such a time as this.”

Among those on the left who claim any sort of religious faith, few would agree that God has appointed them to a mission. Thus, we have Catholic senators and congressmen who say they are “personally opposed to abortion, but…” The personally-opposed-but dodge is a perfect example of anti-Puritanism. It views power as intrinsically evil, and power that usurps personal freedoms as abusive.

Anti-Americanism is fundamentally opposed to action. It is founded on the belief that God is dead, or at least greatly preoccupied, the world is spinning out of control, and the best thing we can do as citizens of the earth is to play nice and not break anything.

Americanism is fundamentally mission-driven. It has a view of God that the Puritans would have recognized, that he is alive and active, relentlessly advancing his agenda for the nations through his people.

Thus, it is not abortion politics, or gay marriage, or the war in Iraq that has created such an outpouring of hatred towards America and the right. It isn’t even, strictly speaking, the persistent (if sadly anti-intellectual) belief in God by members of the political right. So long as faith never exerts any influence over political policy, a little faith can be a fine thing.

The Puritans believed that God had a plan, not only for them, but for the entire world. That sort of chutzpah doesn’t fly anymore. And it is precisely that sort of chutzpah that flames at the heart of Americanism.

Little wonder we make the rest of the world nervous.

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  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this subject, Charlie. Puritans weren’t the only ones who believed that God is active in history, but I expect you already know that. I especially like your contrast between the “don’t be a hypocrite” ethos of postmodern culture and the “go change the world in spite of your own flaws” brio of Spirit-filled disciples.

  2. I am reminded and inspired by this article Charlie and yes – I did notice the influence of our friend Francis Schaeffer – He is not silent.

    I’m thankful for brothers in the faith such as yourself who are not only willing but eager to tell it like it is!!