The Theological Roots of Everything Ugly About America
How the toxic roots of puritanical ideas
poisoned a potentially beautiful thing
By Stephen Van Eck
Liberals are often accused of "hating America" by so-called conservatives. This accusation stems from the fact that liberals aren't reticent about finding fault with American culture — something conservative moralists do as well (it's just a different array of faults they find.) So, at the risk of reinforcing a popular rightist calumny, I will proceed to find fault with American culture. And, to make things worse, I will trace the theological roots of all of these faults, something sure to make the moralists indignant.
The American mentality has long had a pseudo-libertarian strain bordering on anarchism. To a large degree, this attitude derives from the solifidianism of born-again religion and its concomitant antinomianism. This theological principle that one is saved by faith alone, and not by obedience to "God's law" (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16) tends to create contempt for law in general and thus produces a political corollary.
This rejection of law is intensified by the dualistic belief common among fundamentalists that worldly governments are the domain of Satan (Ephesians 6:12). As a result, many Americans have a gut-level distrust of and resentment toward the government and are impatient with rules and regulations. They feel that once they've been reborn in the Spirit, they should be able to be instinctively moral rather than under the constraint and compulsion of tedious rules (I Cor. 6:12). In practice, this leads to predictable lapses, even reckless abandon, underscoring the need for a well-developed and established system of law.
Americans have a free-floating paranoia that from time to time latches on to some convenient object. From nativist bigotry to a Commie under every bed to the relatively negligible threat of terrorism (to any particular individual), Americans get into blind, unreasoning panics that distort all politics. The theological root of paranoia is the belief in the reality and imminence of Satan. All of the objects that paranoia gets attached to are self-generated incarnations of the devil.
I'm not aware of any studies on this subject, but I'd confidently bet that the more someone thinks that the world is the realm of Satan, the more likely they are to succumb to such panics. The moral here is, look for the devil everywhere and that's exactly where you'll "find" him.
It's not unusual for the citizens of a country to prefer that country and have pride in it. But ordinary patriotism in exaggerated form becomes national chauvinism, and this has long infected many Americans. It leads to the attitude that only America is worth a damn; every other country sucks. It leads to an insular attitude that is grossly ignorant of the rest of the world. (A shockingly large percentage of Americans cannot locate important foreign countries on a world map.) It leads to the current conservative insistence on American exceptionalism, which can more accurately be characterized as American exemptionalism: we're the Big Bad U.S. of A, we do whatever we want, and we don't have to care what the rest of the world thinks. If the chauvinists resent the rest of the world for resenting us, well, sometimes we give the rest of the world good reason to.
The chauvinist goes beyond the essentially narcissistic basis of ordinary patriotism. An essential part of it is the conceit that America is God's chosen nation, the New Jerusalem. We are an island of self-congratulating "righteousness" in a sea of "evil." Everything but America becomes contemptible.
Americans are suspicious of and resent intellectuals, even while benefiting from their output. This negativity goes back to the Puritans. They had a piety that deemed us all "worthless sinners" and rejected anyone being puffed up with their own merit (Romans 12:3, Ephesians 2:8-9). The notion that we are justified by faith alone creates a spiritual egalitarianism that undervalues any personal distinction like braininess, which in terms of salvation is irrelevant (I Cor. 1:20, II Cor. 11:3).
Intellectuals have been disparaged as "eggheads," "nerds" and "pointy-headed." The real hate comes from the fact that intellectuals often reject and, even worse, contradict people's precious traditional attitudes and theological views. It's no wonder that in America, many people traditionally "don't cotton to none of that fancy book-learnin'." A large percentage of the population in early America was illiterate, and if not for the desire to read the Bible, they would have been happy to remain that way.
Americans are not at all embarrassed to flatly deny scientific fact when it contradicts their personal preferences. This is especially so when it comes to a conflict between science and religion. In such case, the science must be wrong, so that religion — which need not prove anything — can remain "true." It's a form of "wishcraft."
Puritanism carries abundant meanings, but the very word is most closely associated with sexual hang-ups. While intrinsic paranoia is amplified by the Christian dualism of spirit versus flesh (Galatians 5:17), prudery owes most of its existence to it. Christianity makes a big point about the physical body being evil (Romans 8:6-8), so much so that sex tends to become almost the sole essence of sin to the Puritan (Galatians 5:19, II Cor. 12:21). You can screw anyone you want in business, just as long as you're sexually repressed (righteous). Ultimately sex itself, even when sanctified by religious ritual, is undesirable (I Cor. 1:7,17).
Theology is sufficient to explain why Americans complain about sexuality in popular culture, while we have far less than Europeans, who are far more comfortable with it; why we do an inadequate job in terms of sex education (conning ourselves that preaching abstinence is sufficient); and why we have few nude or even topless beaches. Breasts still cause Americans anxiety — just ask Janet Jackson.
Greed is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Unfortunately, it's the one that religious conservatives are most accepting of. In fact, they often make it a positive good and resent any effort to restrain it. This failure has had serious consequence for American society.
The initial theological root comes from Genesis (1:26), where God gives man dominion over the Earth. This gives some all the excuse they need to adopt an exploitive approach, one that rejects conservation and is blithe about environmental degradation. (In a world running out of time, preserving anything makes no sense anyway.)
This heedless attitude is compounded by the Calvinist ethic that uses worldly success as an indication of being among the elect. It's a small step from that to the sick attitude that money is how we keep score: the more you have, the more superior a person you are. One deadly sin leads to another — pride.
A prominent consequence of the Calvinist measuring stick is a lack of empathy, even contempt, for the poor. If worldly success is a sign of God's favor, it stands to bad reasoning that poverty indicates a curse from God. Poverty is an inherently negative reflection on a person's worth as a human being. And furthermore, to the Calvinist, government should never do anything to help the less privileged. To do so would only be enabling those moral failings that cause their poverty to begin with. It's up to them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (even if they don't have boots). Above all, they need to "get right with God."
A distinctive American innovation is the prosperity gospel: the idea that God wants his people to be rich (I Cor. 8:9) and the Bible contains overlooked information on how to succeed in worldly financial terms. Give to God's selfappointed spokesmen and they'll explain it all to you. God is almost a sure-fire slot machine to followers of the prosperity gospel — keep giving tithes and you'll be rewarded tenfold!
America's God, unknown to them, is named Mammon.
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Due to getting in on the ground floor, and to sheer force of numbers, Puritanism formed the national psyche. Their influence was infectious and continues to this day, even among the mildly religious and the non-religious as well. America is not perfect, and the pretense otherwise is a manifestation of the problem.