My friend John F just drew my attention to this 2003 piece that I found most informative. Thanks John.
In 1956, President Eisenhower issued a decree making “In God We Trust” the motto of the United States of America. We in Britain probably thought the change either sentimental or cute, but certainly not significant. That is because we are wholly ignorant of America’s religious history and, come to that, largely ignorant of our own. All we know is that the US constitution proclaims the separation of church and state. The fact that the vast majority of Americans go to church every Sunday is an anomaly waiting to be explained.
But there is indeed a semi-official American religion and it is called – wouldn’t you know? – “Americanism”. It believes America – “one nation under God”, to quote the Pledge of Allegiance – is best, because God chose it to be best. Unless born into it, to join this “religion” of Americanism you have to go through a rite of passage which changes you into a different sort of person, an American.
The first settlers to go to America from England were Protestants. They took with them the conviction that God had a unique role for England in world history. England was to be the site of the New Jerusalem, and the English stood in the steps of the ancient Israelites as God’s instrument, his Chosen People. The Old Testament was not just their guide to morality. It was God’s side of the bargain, telling them for instance that they could take whatever land they wanted (even if that meant turfing out the original occupants) just as the Israelites were told in the Bible they could have the Land of Canaan, and never mind the Canaanites.
By the time of the War of Independence, most Americans saw Britain as their oppressor, just as the Egyptian Pharaoh had oppressed the Israelites at the time of Moses. So the break with Britain was exactly like the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, the working out of God’s will for his new Chosen People. America was their Promised Land. “Americanism” is the belief – exactly as George W Bush displayed in his inaugural address – that God is still in charge of America’s “manifest destiny”. Whether we lesser mortals like it or not, the domination of the world by America, and American values, is what God wants.
The modern and more inclusive form of all this is often called “American exceptionalism”. That makes it less off-putting to Jews, Italians, Irish and other non-Protestant immigrants. But it is still that original English Protestant nationalism in disguise. It has crossed the Atlantic and been given an American accent.
Now I freely admit that, even as a Catholic, many of the things America stands for, I approve of. When I was writing a book on the Chosen People phenomenon last year, I felt increasingly ambivalent – both repelled and attracted – for I belong to the generation that saw British and Americans working side by side to rescue Europe from Nazi tyranny. Without this conviction of being a nation with a unique calling from God, would America have made the enormous sacrifices? I doubt it. Without it, would America be bothering with Iraq? I doubt that too.
Whether you like what America is doing or not, it helps to know where they are coming from. America believes it has a divine mandate to lead the world. Just about oil? I don’t think so.”
- Clifford Longley’s book Chosen People (Hodder & Stoughton) appears in paperback next month (2003 reference).