Tuesday, January 12, 2010

American Exceptionalism and American Religion

It is a curious formula, that phrase “American exceptionalism.” As commonly used, the phrase suggets that the United States somehow escaped the typical patterns of history—the patterns that seemed almost inviolable and iron-clad historical laws, precisely because they appeared in one European country after another. The socialist revolutions of 1848, and the intense nationalism that escalated into the First World War, and the cultural malaise that followed the war, and the subsequent rise of fascistic movements—all of these had their American forms, to be sure. But in the United States they were always echoes, rather than originals, and they were never, in a certain sense, serious.

It takes a fantasist—determined to read American history solely by European lights—to think that the nation was ever at much real risk of having a socialist revolt in the nineteenth century or rule by homegrown fascists in the twentieth century. Philip Roth’s 2004 what-if, alternate-history novel, The Plot Against America, had elements of this fantasy, imagining a 1940s America in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president and the United States resembles Hitler’s Germany. The most interesting element of the book, however, may be its final recognition of something like American exceptionalism: Even if, by some unlikely historical contrivance, a native Nazism had gained power, the resilient nation would have managed to shrug it off fairly quickly. The whole thing is just too European, just too alien, and just too weird.

Most often, however, the notion of American exceptionalism involves talk of religion in the United States. It was sometimes heard as a boast of America’s mainline Protestants about the enduring character of the nation’s faith, but, most often, it was used as an escape hatch for historians and social scientists.

The Secularization Thesis, the idea that the rise of modernity necessitated the decline of religion, remained a fundamental postulate of European intellectual life and, in truth, of its American imitation from early in the nineteenth century through the entire twentieth century. Indeed, so fundamental was the Secularization Thesis that its failure to account for the United States could not be understood as any real indictment of the postulate. And so an exemption was carved out: American exceptionalism.

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