substantive #3: view from outside

I often wonder whether Stephanson could have written his remarkable little book if he were an American. There are aspects of the book -- aspects of America -- that, I think, could only have been created or even perceived by someone who hadn't grown up with or in it. Heinlein's appreciation of the religious and specifically Christian character of American society, as comes through in several of his novels and stories, is I think deeply insightful, but is shall we say bounded by his own American-ness. That's not a knock on Heinlein; for a fish to see the water through which it is swimming is always complicated, and one of my sneaking suspicions is that many artists and authors have a better handle on this than most social scientists do. The social scientists who do, I think, are those who are outsiders to what they are studying -- as Stephanson is to America (and, in fact, to social science -- he's a historian, and he has zippo invested in the putatively "scientific" character of his analysis).

What Stephanson sees, I think, is that the United States of America is so deeply a Christian country (and I mean that typologically, not normatively -- see below) that even and perhaps especially our supposedly "secular" debates and discussions are firmly surrounded by a set of images, themes, ideas, and principles that come more or less directly from Christian sources. Our most cherished images of America are entwined with Christian images; our distinctive sense of national pride is in many ways inseparable from the notion of the nation having been chosen by God to fulfill some kind of trans-historical mission; our tendency to equate "the American way" with "the way things ought to be" is wrapped up with ideas of universal salvation and progress. Our politicians speak in these terms even when they aren't making explicit references to God or salvation -- how else are we to make sense of notions like "the indispensable nation" or "the evil empire"?

I think that we Americans are sometimes blinded to this because of our justly-celebrated but often misunderstood separation of church and state. We sometimes think that that separation means that the state operates in a non-religious manner, but that's not what that clause of the Constitution is about -- it simply declares that there should be no established national church or religion. As observers back to Tocqueville have noted, the disestablishment of religion in the US simply permits religion to thrive in the private sphere -- and from this basis, religion continues to influence politics and policy in a profound way. Think for a moment of the controversies surrounding Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, featuring questions about whether Mormons are Christians. Think back to John F. Kennedy's campaign and the issues surrounding Catholicism. Imagine, if you can -- and I don't think that you can! -- a declared atheist making a serious run for the presidency. Religion, and Christianity in particular, marks our society -- it's a Christian country, by which I don't mean that it's officially Christian or that it's officially intolerant towards other faiths (let aone that it should be). But our social and intellectual heritage is firmly marked with Christianity, and marked in ways that perhaps someone not raised within it and not fixated on the disestablishment clause (and the separation of church and state) might be.

The parallel here might be with "industrial policy." The US proudly maintains that it has no industrial policy, that there's no centralized planning of economic development, that the marketplace reigns supreme and the government doesn't tell anyone what to produce -- or choose "winners" in conflicts between industries. No, the market gets to do all of that. But to foreign observers, the US very much appears to have an industrial policy; it's just that we call it "military procurement" and "tax incentives" and "regulatory oversight." The effect is similar: state action affects the direction of industrial development. To Americans the important thing is the absence of a formal, centralized policy; to others, the important thing is the effect and the broad outline. [Discussions about "empire" often follow this pattern too, I'd say.]

Is this something unique to the United States? Or is every country relatively blind to the cultural preconditions of its politics?

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