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The Sacred States of America

Arguing that the nation's ideals constitute a major religion

Gelernter ranks President Bush with Lincoln (shown in an 1863 photo) as an apostle of the American religion. Gelernter ranks President Bush with Lincoln (shown in an 1863 photo) as an apostle of the American religion. (AP Photo/Alexander Gardner)

Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion
By David Gelernter
Doubleday, 229 pp., $24.95

"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."

Gelernter resorts to cheap psychologizing (Lincoln's countenance was sad because his wife "proved incapable of measuring up to Lincoln's mother or stepmother"). His potted accounts of America's wars lurch into justifications for the current one. A meditation on Lincoln becomes an attack on America-hating Europeans: "It's impossible to understand Europe today without understanding Europe during the [American] Civil War," when the British, profiting from Confederate cotton, mercilessly derided Lincoln. "Compare this attitude to elite Europe's thoughts about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush." So, the Brits now profit from what American equivalent of the Confederacy?

I've sometimes suspected that inside many a neoconservative patriot is a 10-year-old boy yearning for an oath and an order. Sure enough, Gelernter offers this "parable" of America's duty:

"If you are the biggest boy on the playground and there are no adults around. . . . it is your duty to prevent outrages. . . . If [another big boy] orders you not to protect the weak lest he bash you, [then your] duty depends on the nature of the outrage that ought to be stopped. . . . That was America's position during the Cold War: our moral obligation to overthrow tyrants was limited by the Soviet threat." Today, "we are the one and only biggest boy. . . . If there is to be justice . . . America must create it."

What if our big boy goes bad? That happens often in the Bible, but never in Gelernter's book. I commend to him the Book of Amos and Jonathan Schell's "The Unconquerable World," in which humanity's true watchmen defeat great powers nonviolently -- as Gandhi did the British, King the American South, and Eastern Europeans the Soviets.

Their lessons for the grand strategists of national security are eclipsed by Gelernter's fascination with unflinching violence and his determination to rank Bush with Lincoln as an apostle of the American religion. He can't imagine that true Americanism might resist Bush, as it did King George, because it's not a religion but a republican ethos that relies on faith but not religious doctrine.

The author predicts a "great American religious revival" in colleges, where "young people want to hear this message: 'Forget your career and think about your family. . . . Forget your bank account and think about your country." Would the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute please tell Gelernter he's off message, that in AEI's America you can forget your career only if you're ensconced in a think tank?

Americans shouldn't be mainly self-marketers, speculators, or their watchmen, but faithful fellow citizens. Gelernter wants to stir us religiously to fight terrorism, but on behalf of what, besides a variant of "Survivor"? "Except the Lord keep the city" for something better, "the watchman waketh but in vain."

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.