What beliefs about God and man hold Americans together as Americans? How are these beliefs put into practice? In his book David Gelernter makes, as far as I know, the first real effort to address these questions. He shows that Americanism is Biblical: based on the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Consider how Ronald Reagan, in his greatest speech as president, at Pointe du Hoc on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, depicted the watchnight before the invasion: "General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: 'I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.'"
Yet Americans have not just one systematic way of seeing man in his relation to God and God's world, but several, which are not always in harmony. Most Americans, in fact, have two religions: as Americans, they share in the Americanism that Gelernter aims to describe; as Christians, most Americans have, in addition to their civic religion, a personal religion, faith in Jesus Christ as their personal savior, with particular doctrines about sin, redemption, atonement, and the proper organization of the Church. We ought not to be surprised if, on some practical issues, especially those related to the use of force, Americanism and the moral teachings of Christianity do not cohere completely.
Gelernter explores the "religion of the Americans" by examining some of its crucial moments. He begins with the Puritans' "errand into the wilderness" and their striving to build a "city on a hill" of godly men and women. He then gives an account of the revolutionary emancipation of the new Israel from that new Antiochus, George III, and the making of a new Covenant founded on the idea of God-given equal rights. Gelernter discusses the Civil War refounding of the Union by the greatest figure of the American religion, Abraham Lincoln, whose faith that "right makes might" was powerful enough to destroy forever the despotism of the slaveholders. He gives appropriate emphasis to the American religion's high moment, Lincoln's Second Inaugural, in which Lincoln sought to "bind up the nation's wounds" by taking upon the unreconstituted Union the sin of slavery. Gelernter considers Woodrow Wilson's attempt to reorder the world on American principles of national self-determination, democracy, and free trade. He devotes a chapter to America's 20th-century crusades against the state paganisms of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, and the present struggle against death-loving Islamism.
What, then, is the religion of the Americans as expressed in these moments of national action for a godly purpose? Faith in the God of the Hebrew Bible, faith that he rewards those peoples who serve Him by upholding justice. The reward is this-worldly, bringing the faithful into and maintaining them in a land "flowing with milk and honey," a land sufficient to support everyone who accepts the curse of Adam and is willing to eat bread by the sweat of his brow. Gelernter rightly speaks of "American Zionism," for Americans find it easy (or did until recently) to think of themselves as the New Israel, and their land as the Promised Land. If the Americans are faithful to God and uphold their covenant of justice, he will grant them victory over their enemies, peace with their neighbors, and prosperity, so that each man may dwell under his own fig tree and vine and not be afraid.
Americans aim to serve the God of the Old Testament as interpreted by Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament. Here the central teaching of Jesus, at least for the aspects of the American religion that interest Gelernter, is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which Gelernter doesn't cite even though it, too, is echoed in Lincoln's Second Inaugural. The Good Samaritan, as Martin Luther King, Jr., expounded in his final speech, is the man who, in a dangerous and forlorn place, asked not, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" but "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" This is the American missionary spirit: "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho," said President Bush in his first inaugural, "we will not pass to the other side." It is this teaching that still summons medical missionaries to perform eye operations in the slums of Mombasa or calls Princeton graduates to serve as riflemen in Iraq's Anbar province.
Gelernter calls this self-sacrifice for others "chivalry." He is right that knightly metaphors partially explain American efforts to bind up the wounds of the world. Think of Eisenhower's "Crusade in Europe," or Reagan's crusade against Communism. Yet as Gelernter himself points out, the knight engages in acts of knightly virtue to justify his claim to be mounted while others walk. The Americans who fought their way from Omaha Beach to Dachau or who held the Chinese army to a bloody stalemate in Korea did so not as crusading knights aiming to justify their privileges before God, but from a sense of what was necessary for their own security—out of love for their neighbors at home—as well as out of love for their neighbors abroad, fallen under the oppression of idolatrous despotisms. Americans, like the Good Samaritan, do not feel that their strength, health, and prosperity have to be justified as privileges. These are not privileges but blessings, worldly marks of divine favor, given to all those who serve God by loving their neighbor as themselves after the fashion of the Good Samaritan, who act not out of noblesse oblige but out of sheer neighborliness, out of the equality they recognize in the sufferer. Inquiring into the impulse behind American intervention in the protracted 20th century crisis of civilization, Gelernter asks rhetorically whether "Christianity did indeed help save the world," but he does not explain what aspect of the Gospel's teaching led to this apparently Christian intervention.
The parable of the Good Samaritan points to the fundamental tension in the American religion. The parable is Jesus' answer to "the lawyer," who wanted to know who counts as a neighbor. The lawyer wanted to know who counts as one of the persons whom God's chosen people, the recipients of the law that commands love of the neighbor, are commanded to love. In his parable Jesus contrasted the Samaritan, a member of a religious group that identified with the people of Israel but were rejected as "neighbors" by the Jewish mainstream, with the Priest and the Levite.
Americanism, in the spirit of Jesus' teaching, is a creed open to all who accept its principles. "America has never been united by blood or birth or soil," said President Bush in his first inaugural. "We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American." This of course is a paraphrase of Lincoln, who said that when immigrants
look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.
Yet the American religion is founded not just on moral principle but on two historical scriptures. The Hebrew Scripture is the tale of God's love for His chosen people, the Israelites, who are distinguished not just by their acceptance of God's law but by their descent from the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gelernter repeatedly quotes Lincoln's phrase from his 1861 address to the New Jersey Senate that the Americans are "God's almost-chosen people," but Gelernter expounds this as if it meant that if Americans try a little harder, they will be chosen. George W. Bush understood Lincoln better in his Second Inaugural, when he acknowledged that Americans do not consider themselves a chosen nation, for "God moves and chooses as He wills."
Thus to revere the Old Testament, as most Americans still do, even if that concoction is sophisticated by the deviltries of science and the seductions of modern popular culture, is to feel in one's bones the belief that the land of Israel is God's holy land, that the people of Israel are God's chosen people, and that Israel, not America, is the Israel of whom the prophets speak. Most Americans retain the childlike faith in the promise made by God to Abraham (Genesis 12:3): "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." Or in the words of Lyndon Johnson's grandfather, "Take care of the Jews, God's chosen people." To which his aunt added, "If Israel is destroyed, the world will end."
When Harry Truman said "I am Cyrus," he identified himself not with Israel, but with the Gentile ruler to whom the God of Israel had given all the kingdoms of the earth, and who therefore should requite this munificence by reestablishing a Jewish commonwealth in the land God promised to the Jews (2 Chronicles 36:23). In Wilsonian fashion Americans have endorsed Palestinian self-determination, but they are not prepared to abandon the role of Cyrus for the role of Ahasueros, and grant the ring representing American might to those who seek ill of the Jews, not least because they know that it may not be sufficient to win the favor of those cursed people who curse the Jews.
This brings me to Mearsheimer and Walt. Their book, which expands on a 2006 essay in the London Review of Books, aims to be a succès de scandale by showing that American foreign policy toward the Middle East, and in particular Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, have been dictated by a mere interest group called the "Israel Lobby," in ways contrary to America's national interest and contemporary moral standards. If this book earns back its rumored $750,000 advance, it shows that Americans are rather easily scandalized, since it builds its case against continued American support for Israel on recycled quotes from Israel's European enemies, and their Israeli and former Israeli fellow travelers. This is a large book, and yet as far as I can judge only one claim in it is novel and significant: that the American policy of dual containment of Saddam's Iraq and Revolutionary Iran adopted by the Clinton Administration was contrary to America's own national interest and pursued in support of Israeli aims. This claim is neither argued for nor factually supported.
As for the rest of the book, it simply shows that it is possible to argue for any claim, no matter how implausible, on the basis of what others have published on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Somebody somewhere can be found making virtually any claim. Among the "facts" on which their analysis is based is the charge that Israel's occupation of the West Bank has lasted longer than any other modern military occupation. Apparently Mearsheimer, once an expert on U.S.-German relations, forgot that from 1967 to 2007 is 40 years and from 1945-1990, from the beginning to the end of the Allied Four-Power occupation of Berlin, is 45. Mearsheimer and Walt assert that the West Bank and Gaza "contained few Jews when Israel captured them in 1967." Actually, these territories contained no Jews when Israel captured them in 1967, because the Arabs had, in 19 years of attacks aided and abetted by the British and (in 1948) the British-officered Transjordanian Arab Legion, murdered or expelled men, women, and children from the ancient Jewish communities of Gaza, Nablus, and Hebron; from the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, where Jews had lived since the expulsion of the Crusaders; and from the new settlements of Neve Yaacov and the Etzion Block. Mearsheimer and Walt write that Israel decided to attack Egypt in 1967 "because its leaders ultimately preferred war to a peaceful resolution of the crisis," even though Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent Israel to war only when he was rebuffed virtually universally in seeking assistance for lifting Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's closure of the straits of Tiran—an act of war—by diplomatic means. In addition to relying on dubious claims from other writers, Mearsheimer and Walt invent "facts" on their own, such as their assertion that sometime Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman's scheme for "trading portions of Israel that are densely packed with Arabs" constitutes "expulsion." This is about as sensible as saying that the U.S. retrocession of Okinawa to Japan was an expulsion of the Okinawan population from the United States. Mearsheimer and Walt compound their errors with plain bad timing, claiming that "Syria does not have a nuclear weapons program, and there is no reason to think that it will pursue one anytime soon," only weeks before a Syrian nuclear facility, operated with North Korean assistance, was destroyed by an Israeli raid. Having accumulated almost 500 pages of such borrowed and invented "facts," Mearsheimer and Walt find American support for Israel explicable only on the basis of a powerful but ill-defined "Israel Lobby." This is reasonable if one manages to include LBJ's Baptist grandfather as a member of whatever version of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee existed in the conventicles of the Texas Hill Country.
Gelernter does not inquire into the religion of the Americans out of academic or anthropological curiosity, nor primarily out of a desire to explicate the obligation most Americans feel to support Israel against its enemies. Gelernter writes out of a conviction that the American religion is endangered by its secularist enemies, especially those in America's elite universities. These are the sort of people who know what the Guardian has to say about Israel better than they know what Isaiah has to say, or the Apostle Paul for that matter, and who have not the slightest comprehension as to why most Americans still take their views of Israel and the Jews from what they heard in Sunday school rather than the BBC. Mearsheimer and Walt speak of the "religious beliefs of a bygone era" to dismiss the religious explanation of American support for the Jewish biblical republic, and think that support today comes from a small minority of "Christian Zionists." This illustrates just how wide the cultural gap is between elite American academics and the American mainstream. As Gelernter shows, support for Israel is simply the application to the Middle East of what he calls "American Zionism."
Gelernter knows, with the Psalmist, that "except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain," that without the binding faith in their biblical religion, the American people will not long preserve the stupendous blessings that faith has brought them. It is important, however, to acknowledge that some diseases of the American academy are peculiar to the academy. In American electoral politics, secularism is still as dead as the Dukakis campaign: the next president will most likely be someone, who, like George W. Bush, is unashamed of his personal faith and who is fluent in the civic invocation of the Bible's idiom. Despite the efforts of those like Mearsheimer and Walt, the next president in his concern for Israel will almost certainly resemble that Arkansas Hill Country Baptist, Bill Clinton, who in his own version of the Cyrus statement said that if need arose, "I would grab a rifle and get in the trench and fight and die" for Israel. And thank God for that.