Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tomdispatch Interview: James Carroll, American Fundamentalisms

James Carroll
I am reading this very enlightning interview (have been reading in between errands today) that Tom Engelhardt had with James Carroll regarding American fundamentalism. Not only does it give a great background setting as to the why's of american fundamentalism, but also shows the similarity between american secularism and fundamentalism. This notion of American liberators, bringing freedom to the rest of the world. Excerpt:

The City on a Hill

For our conversation, fundamentalist Christianity is a perfect paradigm within which to understand what's been happening in America, a profoundly Christian super-culture. America is also a secular nation, of course. The separation of church and state was a critical innovation, giving us this special standing as a people. The separation's purpose was to protect the conscientious freedom of every individual by making the state neutral on questions of religious conscience. An absolutely ingenious insight.

It's important, however, to understand the profoundly American origins of this insight. The argument began in the first generation. John Cotton, a Puritan preacher, embodied the first idea America had of itself, captured in the image his colleague John Winthrop used in defining the new settlement as "the city on a hill," a phrase that's fodder for political speeches every four years. Americans don't generally like to think this way, but the United States of America is more descended from Massachusetts than Virginia -- an important distinction because the people who settled Virginia were adventurers and entrepreneurs. The people who settled Massachusetts were religious zealots who had left England as an act of dissent against the Church of England, which they considered too Popish. Their dissent was against a certain kind of religion, but not in favor of religious freedom. They came to America assuming the power of the state over the religious convictions of the civic body.

...The point here is that the initial city-on-a-hill impulse has never stopped being part of our self-understanding -- the idea of America as having a mission to the world or, in biblical terms, a mission to the gentiles. "Go forth and teach all nations," Jesus commands. This commission is implicit in George Bush's war to establish democracy -- or "freedom" -- everywhere. When Americans talk about freedom, it's our secular code word for salvation. There's no salvation outside the church; there's no freedom outside the American way of life. Notice how, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet system, there is still something called the "Free World." As opposed to what?

...This missionizing in the name of freedom is a basic American impulse. Lincoln was the high priest of this rhetoric, "the last best hope of mankind." The United States of America is justified by the virtue of its mission. The entire movement of American power across the continent of North America was a movement to fulfill the "manifest destiny" of a free people extending freedom. Because this is understood as a profoundly virtuous impulse, we've seldom criticized it. As a nation, we have begun to reckon with the crime of slavery, but we haven't begun to reckon with the crime of genocide against the Native-American peoples. That's because we haven't really acknowledged what was wrong with it.

...Think of that phrase -- "manifest destiny." A key doctrine in what I am calling American fundamentalism. It remains an inch below the surface of the American belief system. What's interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts across the spectrum -- right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives -- because generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II is that our wars -- Vietnam then, Iraq now -- represent an egregious failure to live up to America's true calling. We're better than this. Even antiwar critics, who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing impulse. You don't get the sense, even from most liberals, that -- no, America is a nation like other nations and we're going to screw things up the way other nations do. (emphasis added by me)

I'm reading and thinking. Do some thinking of your own and read the interview in full. The main point Caroll makes explains a lot to us non-Americans who shake their heads at the collective bravura coming out of this country as if Christians here and/or this country here are the 'chosen' one. One last excerpt:

Carroll: If I have a point to make, it's this: The religious tradition of Christian fundamentalism is one thing; the tradition of American exceptionalism another. They both have their roots in the same experience. They were separated. Under George Bush they've been brought together.

Oh lordy lordy. Of course, Bush and Rove could not have accomplished this if it weren't already present in the American psyche/culture. That is why Hitler was successful, not because he preached hatred, but because he tapped into a current in society and enabled it to be magnified.

Click on title for reading the complete interview.

House of War

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just goes to show what mankind can come up with when they have too much time on their hands.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous opwater said...

I've actually read this book, very good...

6:26 PM  
Blogger Ingrid said...

opwater, thanks for visiting. I can imagine it being good because James Carroll seems very thoughtful and has had quite a life experience to back him up. So many good books, so little time for me to read, sigh,

1:44 PM  

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