Friday, June 29, 2007

One Nation Under God

Americans across the country are stocking up on fireworks and hamburgers in preparation for Fourth of July week, and newspaper columns are taking the opportunity to reflect on the US institution as vital to the 4th of July as BBQ: the myth of American exceptionalism.

It was John Winthrop who imagined America as "the city on the Hill," a country that would be a shining beacon of liberty and hope to the rest of the world. As a nation founded on ideas rather than ethnicity, defining America's values has been both a unifying and dividing national project.

In his new book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, David Gelernter argues that because America's identity has so grounded itself in its values, Americanism, like Zionism in Israel, has come to resemble a religion.

"Most nations are based on no principles; they are based instead on shared descent or ethnicity," Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale told the Washington Post, "The United States is different. It has a religion because it must have. Without one, it is a band of displaced persons and little more."

According to Gelernter, the Bible has been the common unifying source able to bond the nation together. It is what we use to discuss how we should rehabilitate criminals (a debate that Paris Hilton reignited), approach immigration, elect our politicians, conduct business, and curb overpopulation. In fact, Gelernter believes the Bible is so essential to the US, our current state of cultural confusion and cynicism is the result of the systematic elimination of the Bible from public life.

Ann Coulter would agree and points to liberals as the culprits. "Everything liberals believe," says Coulter, "is in elegant opposition to basic Biblical precepts." In her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism, Coulter argues that liberals are attacking the Judeo-Christian roots that hold-up America. In addition to their love of Dawinism, environmentalism, and acceptance of homosexuality, according to Coulter "[Liberals] deny the Biblical idea of dominion and progress, the most ringing affirmation of which is the United States of America." (You can read chapter one of Coulter's book here.)

Actually, argues Cullen Murphy in his new book Are We Rome?, it is America's ability to adapt and assimilate to new ideas that has lead to its prosperity; our failure to assimilate to new ideas and our ignorance of the outside world will lead to our demise. (Read Salon's review of Murphy's book here).

Take the rise of Pentecostalism in Africa, for instance. The American-bread brand of Christianity, with its prosperity gospel and promise of healing diseases such as AIDS and cancer, is beginning to over shadow the European colonial religions of Catholicism and Protestantism. American evangelists come to Africa and instantly gain popularity--making a fortune on the promise to raise the fortunes of others.

According to Reuters, US politicians such as Sen. Sam Brownback encourage these missionaries to Africa as part of the biblical call to serve the poor. (As a side note, Brownback's new book From Power to Purpose: A Remarkable Journey of Faith and Compassion outlines how he was able to overcome his hatred of the Clintons and how he came to realize through studying the Bible that his only constituent was God.)

America's continual instinct to frame our interactions with the world in religious terms--from alleviating poverty in Africa to improving relations with Cuba (Bush recently said "One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away")--has also fueled the global anti-Americanism.

This is an ambivalent moment in US history. On one hand the early start of the 2008 presidential election has already revealed how important it is for candidates to tie their beliefs to the Bible. On the other hand, Christopher Hitchen's new book God is Not Great is the surprise best-seller of the summer. Yet, this struggle, which seems so critical to the future of America, has also been a part of every stage of our past.

Gelernter argues that Americans needs to unite through religion, I would argue that America thrives on the debate. On Thursday Christopher Hitchens debated Al Sharpton on the existence of God. No one made any new arguments but what was fascinating was the palpable excitement from the audience clearly loving the friction. Maybe we're not "One Nation Under God" but "One Nation that Talks a Lot About It."

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