So here’s another fragment for my ISI lecture. Be assured this isn’t my view. And I’m getting around to the Declaration of Independence:
Some conservatives say that what distinguishes America is that ours is the most modern and untraditional or unhinged country.
Certainly there never was a pre-modern America. Americans have no experience of the medieval village that gets Mark Henrie all nostalgic. Americans have no experience of the Aristotelian agrarian polis that Alasdair MacIntyre says is indispensable for human flourishing. Although the agrarian localist Wendell Berry sometimes writes about the unsettling of America, hes also written that Americathe country or projectwas born unsettled. As Tocqueville explains, America was founded by those sophisticated egalitarian idealists the Puritans and by the adventurers who showed up Virginia in pursuit of big bucks without hard work.
What about American religion? Well, most of it has been Christianthat is various forms of Christian heresy.
Consider the ridiculous and tyrannical Puritans who wanted turn every sin into a crime, the hyper-emo and semi-illiterate evangelicals, the Mormons, the incomprehensible tongue-speaking Pentecostals and the holiness snake handlers. The New Agey, Wiccan stuff thats popped up among our sophisticates in hardly any better and is not even in any way Christian. Meanwhile, our mainstream Protestants have madefrom the beginning—too many compromises with modern individualism to have served effectively as counterweights to the extremes of pantheistic, self-expressive, sexed-up atheism and of unhinged enthusiasm thats characterized our beliefs. To some extent, I exempt here the Calvinistswho with the southern Stoic gentlemen may be the two most credible forms of American counterculture. You can also exempt here, to some extent, the religion of our immigrantssuch as the Catholics and Jews. But lots of conservatives complain that America has changed Catholicism a lot more than Catholicism has changed America.
Ross Douthat recently published a book called BAD RELIGION. His claim is that American religion has become badthat is, self-indulgently hereticallately. Critic after critic has responded: Dont you realize American religion has always been heretical and has often been flaky? The self-helpy theology of that silly movie Eat Pray Love that Douthat spends so much time deconstructing seems plenty sensible compared to what a lot of those Transcendentalists were thinking and doing.
As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote over 180 years ago, the Americanshaving rejected the intellectual and emotional resources of tradition and deference to personal authorityfind it hard to think and act reasonably. The Americans are characterized less by reason than by will, and so they full of exaggerations: At one moment vainly overestimating the significance of who they are and what they do, and in another paralyzed by the perception of the puny insignificance of any particular being.
The Americans in one mode really are the imperialist transhumanists those American conservatives hateattempting to impose themselves not only on everyone on this planet but, as we see on STAR TREK, every being in the cosmos. And theyre always in process of changing nature itself into nothing but a resource to serve their liberated personal convenience. In another mode, the Americans are ready to listen to their scientists who say theyre nothing but insignificant specks or conscious rocks or really smart and ultrasocial forms of species fodder.