“The Most Biblicist National Culture in the World”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Sam Goldman’s very stimulating new book, After Nationalism. In the book, Goldman narrates three different conceptions of American national identity: the Covenant (c. 1630-1830), rooted in New England Protestant identity; the Crucible (c. 1830-1930), which saw America as an ethnic melting pot, but still dominantly white and Christian; and the Creed (c. 1930-1990), which celebrated America as a nation dedicated to the ideals of freedom and pluralism. While honest about the strengths of each, Goldman thinks the only form of nationalism still retrievable is what he calls “constitutional patriotism,” which is more or less a variant of the Creed model. In my review, I expressed skepticism “that a watered-down constitutional creed can sustain a polity through the generations,” and argued that although it may prove harder to recover, the more robust foundations of the Covenant will prove far more durable if the can be retrieved.

In a podcast interview for Providence‘s “Foreign Policy ProvCast,” Goldman expressed his polite incredulity over this suggestion:

“He concludes by saying that he thinks that the resources of 18th-century British Protestantism are not only necessary to understanding the past of America, but are the key to its future, or at least will be the key if we are to have a bright future. And I just find that absolutely implausible. I’m not a prophet, I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m pretty sure that 18th-century British Protestantism is a dead letter as a widespread social, political, and cultural movement.”

Now, a number of things might be said in response, and I may say several of them on this blog over the coming weeks and months. But one thing to say for starters is that it seems to me that Goldman significantly overstates the demise of “British Protestantism’s” influence in American culture and political life. Despite recent declines, America remains one of the most robustly Protestant countries on earth, and British forms of Protestantism still comprise the dominant feeder streams even to this increasingly Americanized folk religion. Even where orthodox faith has been abandoned, Puritanical religious zeal continues to inform American morality and politics, even on (especially on?) the woke Left, as Joshua Mitchell has argued compellingly in his recent work. American legal and political institutions are still constructed in the image of 18th-century British models, and despite 250 years of evolution have never manifested a radical break from those foundations. And of course, American popular culture is still obsessively Anglophilic, as any supermarket-checkout tabloid will prove.

But that gets us somewhat far afield from the central point, which is the British Protestantism at the root of American national culture. To make this point for me, I appeal to no less an authority than Michael Lind (himself no friend of Protestant Christianity):

“The American national grammar is just as conservative. The American Revolution changed the government and its iconography without fundamentally altering the inherited Anglo-American culture. By way of Euro-America we have inherited a culture which, in its deep structure, remains ‘Anglomorph’ (I owe the term to Richard Grenier) and ‘Protestantoid.’ It must never be forgotten that the greatest influence on the American mentality has not been the mass media (whose messages, at any rate, are filtered differently by members of different cultures) but rather four centuries of Protestant preachers irrigating the continent, week after week, with sermons and prayers. After the preacher, the county judge, for centuries, was the second great intellectual force in American society. Generations of European immigration, and now immigration from other parts of the world, have not changed this as much as one might expect; America has a way of turning Greeks, Mexicans, Swedes, Chinese, and Polish Jews into reincarnations of seventeenth-century Englishmen.

“Calvinism and the common law together have produced what is, perhaps, the most biblicist national culture in the world. For Americans, all moral revolutions begin with reading or rereading some set of scriptures—the True, Uncorrupted, Ancient Gospel—and all political revolutions are presented, in seventeenth-century English Whig fashion, as a return to the True, Uncorrupted, Ancient Constitution. This text-obsessed mentality is shared even by would-be American radicals. Every national grammar contains within it an understanding of how revolutions are made. In Mexico, you put on a bandana and issue an ephemeral manifesto named after a particular town (the Plan de Whatever). In Russia, you stage a coup in Moscow or St. Petersburg. In China, idealistic young scholars sacrifice themselves in protest against abuses of power by imperial ministers. Only in the United States, which is unique in this respect even in the English-speaking world, do radicals—true to the spirit of John Knox and Edward Coke—think that the way to start a revolution is to revise the curriculum of public education, the ‘canon’ (the very term evokes the Protestant Reformers). Apart from the substitution of Maya Angelou for Julia Ward Howe in classroom recitation, what could be more Anglomorph, more Protestantoid?”

The Next American Nation, 271-72.

This gets at a lot of the point I was trying to make in my Goldman review. Of course, I would go further than that. Normatively, since I believe that Protestantism is objectively true, and the British inflection of it the source of much cultural and political good, I would champion the retrieval and revival, as much as possible, of this tradition in America, rather than merely recognizing its influence as a historical fact. It may be that such revival is quite unlikely at this stage of history, but if so, I would submit, pace Goldman, that it is hardly because this tradition has been dead and gone for 200 years. On the contrary, it seems clear to me that it still remains, in however moribund or fevered a state, the single most dominant ingredient in the bubbling cauldron of contemporary American culture.


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