E Pluribus Unum

Ginny’s post cites to a very good article by David Gelernter entitled ” Americanism—and Its Enemies”, which I commend to you as very much worth reading. Gelernter discusses very acutely the religious dimension in America’s self-understanding over the centuries, which he believes is still pervasive. I agree in general. In particular I concur that the ideal of American exceptionalism is rooted in a notion of America as a new “Israel” or God-chosen nation which is meant to be a light to the world, and that this is among the strongest Puritan-derived notions still evident in American. Nonetheless, I think Gelernter oversimplifies an important point.

This passage I believe captures the essence of Gelernter’s position.

Many thinkers have noted that Americanism is inspired by or close to or intertwined with Puritanism. … [M]y thesis is that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism. Puritanism and Americanism are not just parallel or related developments; they are two stages of a single phenomenon.

Gelernter adds that “[t]his is an unprovable proposition.” Actually, there is a lot of evidence regarding the influence of Puritanism on the subsequent development of American life and America’s self-image.

A point Gelernter does not focus on, which was highlighted by Tocqueville and by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed, is that it was the New England Yankee element in American life which was most strongly influenced by Puritanism — and that this Yankee cultural stream was one of several cultures within America. The Yankee element did, by and large, become the predominant element in American culture, as Tocqueville foresaw. However, there are other religious visions in American life which draw on the same biblical language, and which were highly influential. Fischer discusses the religious life of the Quakers of the Delaware Valley, the Anglicanism of the Chesapeake bay region and the Ulster- and Scots Border-derived religion of the backcountry. There were others in addition to these main four, to say nothing of the Catholics and Jews and others who came along after 1776. Maintaining national unity required that the public use of religious images be sufficiently general that they could appeal, if not to everyone, then to large majorities, and not violently alienate any of these groups.

Gelernter notes that the Declaration uses muted, Enlightenment era religious language, but explains this seeming contradiction to his thesis by asserting that “It was addressed to educated elite opinion, especially abroad; it was designed to win arguments, not to capture the essence of Americanism as Americans themselves understood it.” This is the one point where Gelernter appears to be mistaken. Fischer’s new book Liberty and Freedom describes the Declaration being read aloud all over the country in public meetings, and being greeted with cheers. The Declaration was very much a document meant for domestic and demotic consumption, as well as an appeal to trans-Atlantic elites. No, the Declaration is muted in its religious phrasing because it had to appeal to all sections of the country and do so in a way that would paper over their distinct political and religious views. Jefferson, the primary drafter, was himself an Enlightenment thinker, but more importantly he was a brilliant practitioner of coalition politics. The Declaration is a masterpiece of rhetorical generality, allowing the broadest possible number of people, both in America and abroad, to rally to it.

The political use of religious symbolism in a non-specific or coded or understated fashion has been a technique used by (successful) American politicians ever since. The Declaration is our ur-document in this way in addition to many others.

My point is that Gelernter errs to the extent that he posits a unitary “American” culture derived from Puritanism. Puritanism and its heir, Yankee culture, has arguably been the predominant motif in the American symphony. But American culture is an amalgam of regional and ethnic cultures. This aggregation exists under one (pluralistic and decentralized) political order. But it is held together culturally by a few unifying ideas, images, documents and historical narratives held in common. The struggle over the meaning of these ideas and images and the interpretation of these documents and the content of these narratives is as old as the country itself, or even as old as the initial English settlements. A continent-sized country could not be united into a functioning community in any other way. The struggle will not and cannot end. This ongoing struggle of self-interpretation is a significant part of what has given America its dynamism.


I went looking for Prof. Gelernter online, to send him an email. I found this, but no email address. I was surprised to find that he is a professor of computer science. I also found this remarkable essay entitled ” The Second Coming — A Manifesto”. Which looks fascinating upon a quick perusal. It is unusual to see a combination of expertise in a technical field and an interest in the religious and cultural roots of American exceptionalism. The only similar example I can think of is the combination of techno-futurist prediction combined with historically-based cultural analysis which is the essence of Jim Bennett’s new bookThe Anglosphere Challenge. I’d very much like to see Gelernter’s take on Bennett’s book … .

5 thoughts on “E Pluribus Unum”

  1. Gelertner is definitely an interesting character. It might interest you to know that he was seriously injured several years ago by the Unabomber. Gelertner wrote about this experience in his 1997 book “Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber.” Here’s the link:


  2. The generic-religious language of the American Founding is derived substantially from that of Freemasonry, which over the previous century had had to deal with the problem of a moral and communitarian rhetoric able to encompass Anglicans, Prebyterians, Dissenters, and Deists. After independence, the founders had to quickly develop a non-monarchical ceremony and ritual; most of them were Masons, so they modified Masonic ritual and language for that purpose. See particularly Walter McDougall’s interesting book Freedom Just Around the Corner for more on this.

  3. Another & useful perspective is Himmelfarb’s emphasis upon the religious component of the British & American Enlightenments.

  4. I am going to have to read the Himmelfarb book. I liked her book Victorian Minds, and her biogarphy of Lord Acton. Walter Russell Mead gives the new one a very favorable review in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

  5. Gelernter is a very prolific writer with a wide range of interests. He is (I believe) a practising Orthodox Jew, and many of his articles in Commentary (to which he is a frequent contributor) draw on Judaism and Jewish history. I have not yet read his latest article which you discuss, but I am wondering whether his Jewishness predisposes him to focus on the Puritan element in American culture. Both cultures are steeped in the Old Testament and there is an affinity between one chosen people and another. This affinity did much to help produce relatively good relations between Jews and gentiles in England (starting with Cromwell’s decision to let the Jews re-enter England) and, eventually, was a factor in the Anglo-Zionist alliance. Perhaps Gelernter’s slant on American cultural history is the flipside of this coin.

Comments are closed.