To the Editor:
In discussing what an American creed might consist of, Terry Teachout sets up a false dichotomy [“Our Creed and Our Character,” July-August]. On the one hand, he suggests, we can embrace the worldview of secular intellectuals who are troubled by the idea of a religion-based “Americanism” and the desire among its adherents to shape the world in our own image. On the other hand, we can embrace the idea that we are God’s chosen people, and live up to our world-historical task. (He prefers the latter.)
Ignored by Mr. Teachout is a third approach, by which America’s religious heritage itself makes us dubious about playing an imperial role in the world. This is given best expression in the writings of the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who took seriously the idea of original sin and the human propensity toward evil and how they could pervert even our most well-intentioned efforts in the world. In political terms, such a creed promotes sobriety and restraint instead of utopian day-dreaming.
To the Editor:
I would like to add a historical footnote to Terry Teachout’s discussion of David Gelernter’s Americanism in “Our Creed and Our Character.” Mr. Teachout cites Gelernter’s view that “the very survival of America” depends on the American people’s continued embrace of a biblically-inspired faith in liberty, democracy, and America’s calling to spread them throughout the world. For Gelernter, the watchword of this creed is that of the Psalmist: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, he was on his way to a joint luncheon of two local organizations (the Dallas Citizens Counsel and the Dallas Assembly) that symbolized progressive liberal leadership in the city. Gelernter cites the final sentence of the speech that Kennedy was to have delivered there, but the entire last paragraph is worth quoting:
We in this country, in this generation, are—by destiny rather than choice—the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”
The image of the “watchman” in the first sentence is drawn from Isaiah, and the final sentence of course recalls Gelernter’s Psalm 127.
This was apparently a time when a Democratic President could urge the country to “bear any burden” and “oppose any foe” in the service of a righteous cause in the world, and allude repeatedly to the Bible, without defensiveness or ostentation, in an address to a progressive group.
Los Angeles, California
Terry Teachout writes:
Gary Panetta is confusing me with David Gelernter. I did not express a personal preference for Gelernter’s approach; I merely praised the “corrective value” of his sacralized reading of American history (which is hardly reducible to Mr. Panetta’s pejorative summary of it) and suggested that it was more closely in accord with the American national character than a purely secular interpretation of our collective self-understanding.
My thanks to Rick Richman for his letter and the full JFK quotation.