America's audacious claim to be a nation chosen by God has its roots in the way the English think about themselves, argues John Townsend
Chosen People: the big idea that shapes England and America by Clifford Longley, Hodder and Stoughton £16.99
4 T here can be no fifty-fifty Americanism
in this country." said Theodore Roosevelt in 1918. "There is room here for only 100 per cent Americanism. only for those who are Americans and nothing else."
Americans have never been shy of asserting their American-ness. Now, more than ever, when threatened by a terrorism which claims religion as its heart, ordinary American citizens proclaim with quasi-religious overtones the inner virtue that resides in the American nation.
But what is Americanism? Where did it originate? Nowadays we English tend to be more embarrassed in claiming mystic virtues of our nation. Yet most of us still attribute to Englishness some special quality which separates us, in a good way. from the rest of the world; whether it be a sense of tolerance or a desire to see fair play.
Englishness and Americanism is the subject of Clifford Longley's excellent latest book Chosen People the big idea that shapes England and America. It is a scholarly investigation into the ideology that underlies the West's assumption that our modem, secular. postChristian democracy is in some way "better" than the fundamentalist Islamic states of the Middle East or the nations of the rest of the world.
Longley seeks to place English and American culture in their longer-term religious context. He believes that, in the puritanical movements of the 1640s, both England and the settlers in America came to believe that they were a "chosen people" of God, similar to the Israelites in the Old Testament. According to Longley, the event which made the Christian religion in England take on this identity was the break with Rome. The real function of the anti-Catholicism expressed in books such as Foxe's Book of Martyrs was to protect the religious and political identity of the nation state based on the Church of England and the anointed monarch. Roman Catholicism undermined the basis for that national identity by placing particular nation-state Christianity (the idea of being a "chosen people"of God) in a worldwide context. When, in turn. America broke from England. that pattern was again repeated.
Although few today in England would argue that our culture retains a divinely ordained superiority. it is undeniable that many in America still would. from Mormons to Bible-belt Baptists. American society has always retained a certain willingness to speak the unspeakable in that respect, and never more so than when it is threatened.
In English society, this sense of superiority has become muted since the collapse of the Empire and devolution, but vestiges of it can still be found in nostalgic reminiscences of the Second World War or in Church of England services involving the monarchy, where emphasis is placed on the divine sanctity of the , English constitution. Longley argues that these remnants of a more selfconfident culture still hold the values which shape the English attitude to the world. as shown by our willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with America when no else will.
This book contains an elegantly constructed and compelling argument. It is
also a highly relevant one. Weapproach a world which holds a deep hostility to trace, democracy. and the values of the West as ensiined in the American andarglish maws. Longley concludes his book with a nae of warming: "The effects of a powerful nation convinced it has God on its sidt are not self-limiting. It canuften act, rightly or wrongly, with impunity. Ended, in the extreme case, the Chosen People status cangrow into a condition of zeabus religious nationalismthat is potentially Fascistic.He is, of course, speking with America in mint.
pat. throughout this book, I ve caught by a niggling feelag that Longley was bearig his breast too much abc.1 England's relationship witieernerica. America. it is trueleaves much to be desed. The death penalty stilperates in many states. The is no adequate form of italth care for the poor. Yetchat he says about Attica can equally be timed to Iran, Iraq, or the reghe of the Taliban in Afganistan. In fact, any of tholstates may be said to sosnore hatred, curtail mcdiberties, and cause ineinnocent deaths than Attic an society has ever dos.
Equally. it is perhaps worth asking whether Longlegs theory of"choset pecic" does not underpin the1a.mic faith as well wlaie is manifested in 2 naus-state. Abraham is, aftril, the spiritual anctstorilhe Jews, Christian; antllu slims, thethuree pat Alaarnic faiths, If cultural rictus of divine superieity oree ial favour are to ht Pled within the contempt a ding from Goi, surely in ti point there lies a poiof contact between thealaree faiths?
Ibis respect, Longlq's exalt oiler' of the impat of *ion on Engli shnes arsrraericanism— whih is .4p ubtedly a piece of last; scholarship — rens s too introspective It faie lookbeyond its on litracet the general chareteres of faith within natal sentiment;.
Nei de less, this re real na faulting, if disturbing. bo