Living in Europe, I’m in the sometimes uncomfortable position of seeing my country from afar—literally, and through the eyes of Europeans. I, like most Americans, often engage in a knee-jerk defense of the motherland, because, quite clearly, outside opinions are based on limited knowledge. Few of these people have walked the streets of my home, and it’s fair to say that none are familiar with the actual texture of American culture, particularly the culture of mid-America, that bastion of white-wood churches and prayer meetings.
But whenever I return home, it becomes obvious to me that my defense is really just an innate response. I don’t agree with many of my government’s policies, either foreign or domestic, and like many people within its borders, I’m terribly worried. When I return to my family’s residence in Texas, all the extremes of the religio-politic Fundamentalist culture are in my face, and I feel as if I’m on another planet. Really.
What is it? Is it a hatred of religion? Though I’m not a fan of organized religion, I’ve long outgrown any passionate distaste for it. Religion exists in many cultures without interfering with the rule of law, but in America this is less and less the case. The growth of Fundamentalism and its power over national progress and the definition of American nationalism—they scare the pants off of me.
Enter Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, recently reviewed at the New York Review of Books. I’m eager to get hold of this one, despite the fact that it will be ridiculed in America as the product of yet another “atheist” European.
Brian Urquhart’s review is praising and sharp, drawing attention to the book’s flaws and successes, and should be read from beginning to end. But for those of you not willing to make the leap, here are a few excerpts dealing with the notion of the Enlightenment, and its position in contemporary America:
[Lieven] quotes a survey from 2000 which found that white evangelical Protestants made up 23.1 percent of the population; Catholics, the largest Christian group, were 27.3 percent. The first figure is certainly larger now. Fundamentalist evangelical beliefs, Lieven argues, are pre-Enlightenment in origin and anti-Enlightenment in substance. Both modern science and a rational basis for human discourse are highly suspect in these circles. Treacherous East Coast liberal and intellectual elites, atheist Europeans, the godless UN, and others who have proudly embraced the Enlightenment are particular villains.
In his recent book on the Scottish Enlightenment James Buchan writes of Edinburgh in the early eighteenth century, “Men and women were coming to suspect that knowledge acquired through skepticism might be more useful in this world below than knowledge ‘revealed’ by scripture.” It is a painful thought that in the United States in the twenty-first century we might be turning away from the world of the Enlightenment which inspired the Founding Fathers. Of all the thoughts provoked by Lieven’s book this is the most disturbing, both for America and for the world. Since religious freedom and popular elections are both sacrosanct rights of the American people, it is a particularly delicate one. Is it possible that America could eventually vote to go back on the Enlightenment?