God Bless America

“I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

Alexis de Tocqueville

The international view of Bush’s election was nicely summed up by the reaction of a group of my students from China. I teach economics at university part-time, and many of my students are from China. Lest you think their judgment clouded by communist ideology, please note the many Chinese students studying in Canada come from that country’s bright, hardworking business class in the so-called New Economic Zone. American visions of rabid communists in China are as uninformed as American visions of realities in most places. These are practical, sensible people.

The topic of the election came up during a break, and the genuinely puzzled looks on the students’ faces were remarkable. How could America elect such an ignorant man? was asked by several. To reassure them, I explained that America, like a frightened puppy, was still clinging to the first human leg it had grabbed in the darkness.

The explanation, though accepted with some laughter, was incomplete, but only in detail and not in substance. It is certainly closer to the mark than many sad efforts in America which hold that the nation has become somehow a very different place than it was. While all human institutions change under the influence of economic growth, there is little evidence of sudden change in America, only of continued movement in long-established directions.

One of those directions is a divergence in social values between society at large and Christian fundamentalism. When societies grow, when new wealth accumulates, traditional values always come under great stress. This shows in countless ways, from the changing nature of marriage customs to the institutions by which a nation is governed. Were this not so, we would still be employed building pyramids for dead pharaohs.

America’s traditionalists in religion are disturbed by the social effects of economic growth, although they do not understand the connection with economics and hold to superstitious notions of people giving themselves over to evil. Short of a new Dark Ages taking hold in America (an idea novelist Margaret Atwood toyed with in The Handmaid’s Tale), these social changes are not reversible, but that fact has little impact on the intense, driving needs of those who base their lives on narrow interpretations of ancient texts they can’t even read.

There is considerable evidence that fundamentalists are people who suffer from greater-than-average levels of defects like anxiety and paranoia. You only have to consider all the screaming, spewing revivalist sermons about damnation and the twisted nightmares of the Book of Revelations and parts of the Old Testament to understand the role of fear in fundamentalism. Of course, superstition itself is just fear’s way of explaining the unknown.

Not all Americans are fundamentalists, not even a majority, but there are enough of them (something like 40% claim to be “re-born”) to form a powerful swing group in American politics. While America was founded under the leadership of non-Christian Deists and Skeptics (the true source for the best part of America’s written, although often-abused, freedoms), fundamentalism has long provided a howling background chorus.

There were two so-called Great Awakenings in early America, one in the colonial period during the 1730s and 1740s, and a second in the early Republic at the beginning of the 1800s. A broad view of history interprets the first of these as reaction to the influence of eighteenth-century Europe’s new freethinking and skepticism. The second, something of an echo of the first, was fired to life by fear of new science and technology and the impact of the Industrial Revolution, to say nothing of intense dislike for foreigners with different views and Catholicism in general.

The Great Awakenings were periods of intense evangelical fervor in America, the nation being then pretty much a backwater where many people lived fairly isolated lives with attitudes inherited from Puritan forefathers. New thinking, progress, and change pretty much kept going forward in the world despite these frenetic crusades, although people in America often did not feel free to speak their minds during the worst furies.

The social and economic implications of the Great Awakenings were at odds with another of the nation’s hottest interests. Americans were often described as crazed over any chance to make money, de Tocqueville, for example, observing, “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men.” Making money is not a pursuit that sits well with setting the clock back, although it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that Freud explained how a great a role ambivalence plays in human minds.

We are definitely in a new period of backlash against social change in America. People want the physical benefits of change and growth–television, jet travel, electronic organs, and credit cards (the complete toolkit of modern corporate evangelism)–but they also want to enjoy these with social relationships frozen in time, established before these things existed.

There would be nothing disturbing about such confused, hopeless intentions were the people involved content to follow their chosen path without trying to drag others along, but they are not. They do not build Mennonite-like communities to separate themselves from unwelcome modern influences. No, they insist on changing the country to suit themselves, and increasingly exhibit a lust to change the entire planet to the same purpose.

Some have characterized the Bush victory as marking the beginning of a third Great Awakening. I think there is some truth in this observation. America’s fundamentalists want to escape the social consequences of such inevitable developments as gay marriage, abortion, and scientific research that begins to peel back the mysteries of Creation. And the events of 9/11 only reinforced long-standing suspicion and even dread of foreigners with markedly different cultures.

God Bless America is a favorite expression of Bush’s, as well as, judging from their bumper stickers, the more belligerent class of truck drivers. One wonders in Bush’s case whether the words represent a habit akin to saying God Bless when someone sneezes, a habit he might have acquired during his years of snorting cocaine with its well-known consequence of nasal irritation. Of course, the association of Bush and belligerent truck drivers is not coincidental. Didn’t the Teamsters embrace Nixon as their man?

It is difficult for many outsiders–and that includes a substantial number of Americans–to understand the use of this totemic expression. Is God being called upon to give something He otherwise would withhold, or is he being commanded? In either case, the words resemble the prayers of the selfish and arrogant.

I think what is intended is simply the constant association of God with America, at least certain people’s idea of America, those who embrace vengeance, intolerance, xenophobia, and the beauties of extreme selfishness. Cynics might describe the habit of muttering the words as an unrelenting marketing campaign to make the unholy seem holy.

Whatever the case, it does seem God has been handing America something other than blessings recently. Events from 9/11 to the black comedy of Bush’s re-election after his getting the nation mired in a protracted and pointless war do require descriptions other than blessings.

But for American fundamentalists, the words affirm that a genuine man of God is in office at last, most of them being blissfully unaware that the job of President is just that, a job, not a religious ministry. Most of them also are blissfully unaware of how hard their ancestors fought for genuine religious freedom–their chief ally in the battle being the religious skeptic Jefferson. Two centuries later, America’s fundamentalists are perfectly ready to do unto others what was previously done unto their ancestors, that is, to impose their beliefs, views, and attitudes on others.

The fit of fundamentalist attitudes with America’s position in the sphere of world affairs is perfect, having moved in two centuries from a nation opposing a distant, arrogant imperial power to being the world’s distant, arrogant imperial power. American fundamentalists’ determination to judge and interfere with the private lives of others, their insistence in believing they hold the only truth–these attitudes perfectly support the interests of a smaller, far more privileged group of Americans who claim B-52s serve as tools for democracy and enlightenment.

Bush may have spent most of his life peeing on other people, doing drugs, making money in crooked deals, and generally displaying contempt for exactly the class of people now devoted to his welfare, but to the fundamentalist mind the greater the stack of evidence for a destructive and undisciplined life, the greater is the blessing of its miraculous turnaround. It’s quite a mysterious and unshakeable way of thinking.

As I said, fundamentalists do not make a majority in America, but when their numbers are combined with the interests of those now benefiting from astronomical tax cuts and military contracts, they make a winning coalition. The Republicans’ firm hold on the South–the Ripley’s Believe It or Not of Christianity, being the location of the most bizarre experiments in fundamentalism–is little more than a long-term backlash against civil-rights laws of the 1960s. The same folks (they like that word), when called Southern Democrats, were just as intolerant, obsessive, and xenophobic.



John Chuckman lives in Canada.