I had a fantastic social studies teacher in high school, who assigned the class reading materials that were way more critically developed than he had any right to get away with giving to us.
Two pieces from that class that always stay with me are excerpts from Harold Bloom’s “The American Religion”, and a Harper’s piece from September 2002 by Mark Slouka, titled “A Year Later”.
Having been not yet six years old when Newt Gingrich ascended to Speaker of the House, the political era of my youth was fully defined by Republican narrative dominance, craven exploitation and hypocrisy, and ultimately, crowned by the re-election of George W. Bush.
It’s worth remembering back to that re-election, what with it happening in the midst of the still-ongoing military actions in Iraq of which we no longer speak in polite American society. It is difficult for me to remember this era without my blood boiling in the recollection of W. jokingly looking under White House furniture for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
That came before his re-election.
Golly, remember those times? It seems hard to, and like it gets harder to remember as time goes by. Believe it or not, the deceptively motivated, machinated and marketed invasion of Iraq, and the torture of Brown terrorists, used to be the gravest and most serious threat to our national integrity that we knew of.
How the goalposts move.
It was in those more idealistic times, as a later-stage teenager with a profound sense of political despair and an associated contempt for my political elders near and far, that I came to Bloom’s “The American Religion”, and gained a sense of clarity about how American Christianity and American patriotism had come to inform one another as they do today.
As a teenager whose upbringing encouraged a general aversion to collectivist notions such as faithful religious practice and patriotic values, Bloom’s work was revolutionary for me in understanding and relating to both individual Americans and the United States of America as a whole.
Through it, I came to recognize, within American Christianity, a solipsistic entanglement which seeks to situate the individual as isolated, helpless, and in submission to the greatest authority figure, the Holy Father.
Harold Bloom is a figure of some controversy as an academic; looking at his Wikipedia page, he seems to make a point of being a troublemaker. One such instance, “The American Religion”, was in exploring how Christianity works in the modern-day United States of America.
Quoting from Wikipedia:
In this book, Bloom begins [his] practice [of his newly created analytical genre named ‘religious criticism’] by looking at religious groups in the United States of America. Bloom identifies Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James as previous scholars who practiced religious criticism of American religion.
He concludes that in America there is a single, dominant religion of which many nominally distinct denominations are a part. Among these he identifies Mormonism, the Southern Baptist Convention, Pentecostalism, and Seventh-day Adventism. To a lesser extent however, he also includes nearly all “Christian” denominations in America, including mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
Bloom’s view is that all of these groups in America are united by requiring that each person may only truly meet with the divine when experiencing a “total inward solitude” and that salvation cannot be achieved by engaging with a community, but only through a one-to-one confrontation with the divine.
Bloom’s book was driving at the essential hypocrisies and deceits within American Christian practices that will drive most readers of this blog crazy among ‘the faithful’ – the false pretenses of humility and God-fearing worship, the refusing to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and the prosperity gospel that’s become the logical end result of American Christian practice.
These analyses have been made many a time on the left since then, though perhaps in mostly fragmented and incoherent ways. I’ll decline to explore them in detail, because I don’t wish to cause that sort of trouble here.
Instead, I’ll turn our focus to Bloom, through his portraits of Christian practice in the United States of America, illustrating the historical contradictions of our country – the Christian nation without a formal religion; the practice of Christianity as a form of patriotism; the contradictions of being a Christianity-tending country which was founded on colonialism, genocide, and chattel slavery. However, he appears to have been too conservative to engage with those contradictions as directly and/or honestly as one might have wished him to.
What truly solidified the lessons of Bloom’s book for me is the Harper’s article that was published in memoriam of the September 11 terror attacks of 2001, titled “A Year Later”.
In the piece, Mark Slouka gives a viscerally moving critique of, most prominently, the suspiciously self-centered existential crises of many liberals following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also describes his life’s struggles as a second-generation Central European immigrant in coping with, to turn a phrase, ‘the unbearable lightness of being American’.
Some passages (with one sentence re-formatted for emphasis:
It seems almost trite to say it: Whatever else last September’s events have done, they have forced on us–or will, eventually–a revolution in seeing. It will take time to understand what we have been shown; as of yet, the work of re-vision has hardly begun. Still, a few facts seem to be taking shape. A few truths, even. The first is that, despite the muzzy pap of the globalists, who never tire of limning their vision of a borderless, friction-free world, we remain strikingly–even shockingly–tribal. The second is that the source of this tribal identity–the three-century-old myth of American exceptionalism–is alive and well. And not just alive and well but ruddy-cheeked and thriving. Quieted for a time by prosperity, it has revived under stress.
Some years ago, at the University of California, San Diego, a young woman raised her hand in the middle of a seminar I was then teaching on the first century of Rome and the dawn of the Christian Era. She seemed genuinely disturbed by something. “I know you’re all going to think this is crazy,” she said, “but I always thought Jesus was an American.”
A lovely moment. What she had articulated, as succinctly as I had ever heard it articulated, was the spirit behind three and a half centuries of American history: America as an elect nation, the world-redeeming ark of Christ, chosen, above all the nations of the world, for a special dispensation. What she had expressed, with an almost poetic compaction, was the core myth of America. Had John Winthrop been sitting at the table with us that foggy day in La Jolla, he would have understood what she was saying, and approved of it. As would Harriet Beecher Stowe. And Ronald Reagan. And, apparently, Attorney General John Ashcroft.
I had occasion to recall all this more than once last fall. I remembered it when I read that the sales of millennial tracts across the nation were going through the roof because, according to biblical prophesy, the last days were to be preceded by great sorrow (as though only our sorrow would weigh in the record), when educated friends explained to me, with a kind of tragic gusto, that their entire worldview had been convulsed by the tragedy (and implied that it was vaguely un-American of me that mine had not), when a minister acquaintance confessed to undergoing a crisis of faith so severe that he was considering leaving the Church.
When I wondered aloud to another acquaintance how it was possible for a man’s faith to sail over Auschwitz, say, only to founder on the World Trade Center, I found myself quickly taken to task for both my myopia and my callousness–the product, he implied, of my excessively European sensibility. He himself had been in a state of crisis for two months, he said. He slept badly, struggled with depression. His children were afraid to get in the subway or walk past a tall building, and there was nothing he could tell them. He was considering leaving New York and moving to Mexico. “How can you not see that everything is different now?” he concluded. “And anyway, who are you to decide when it’s right for someone to have a crisis of faith?”
The answer to the second question was easy enough: no one, though I did reserve the right to wonder at the minister’s timing, or where his faith might have been hiding when half a million human beings were being massacred in Rwanda, not a few of them in churches. But the first had me stumped. Simply put, I did not believe that everything was different now, particularly not in the ontological sense in which my friend intended it. Nor did I understand his apparent eagerness to proclaim it so.
Mark Slouka’s piece brought a loud and clear message to the table:
Liberals of the United States of America do the exact same bullshitting of themselves as the country’s conservatives do.