Our prophets of doom
The sky is falling! The end is near!
Just in time for the Christmas season, Pat Buchanan has published yet another jeremiad warning that America is about to go belly up. You’d think that the American public would get tired of the unrelenting gloominess of the far right and left. But you’d be wrong. Already the book is climbing up the bestseller lists, giving us further proof that, despite our collective obsession with living the good life, we Americans love the sweet rush of anxiety. Maybe it’s just the antidote for our apathy.
You have to admit that there’s something unseemly about citizens of history’s most powerful country -- economically, militarily and culturally -- always fretting about their coming demise. Sometimes it gets downright pornographic.
But like it or not, it’s part of who we are, the flip-side of our patriotic jingoism and a legacy of those intensely religious Puritans that lives on in this secular age. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan called the United States a “shining city on a hill,” he was borrowing -- and embroidering -- a famous line from the 17th century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. Winthrop didn’t use the word “shining” in his original 1630 sermon; his message was not triumphalist.
Winthrop and his fellow Puritans believed that in their escape from religious persecution and their settling of a new world, they had entered into a covenant with God. They were ordained to be an example to the world and to establish God’s kingdom in wild, chaotic North America.
That meant they had a high standard to live up to. If they pleased the Lord, the Almighty would bless them. But if they did not, Winthrop cautioned, “We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of this good land.” In other words, when Winthrop spoke of the new colony as “a city upon a hill,” he saw its exceptionalism as less a boast than a warning.
Though the Puritans’ rigid theocracy soon collapsed, many aspects of their political and religious vision deeply mark our national psyche. You can hear it in the rhetoric of many more presidents than Reagan, as they speak of America’s providential role in history. Abraham Lincoln called Americans “an almost chosen people.” Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the nation’s “rendezvous with destiny.” Most recently, George W. Bush declared that “America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs.”
But today as in the past, that sense of biblical errand is coupled with a profound fear of failure. “We’ve carried forward the Puritans’ sense of anxiety,” says political scientist George McKenna, the author of “The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism.” “It underlies a great deal of American political rhetoric. While we believe we have a role to play in the world, we are not certain that we are destined to succeed.”
At its best, says Mckenna, the Puritan tradition of anxious providentialism has inspired the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to improve the nation. King proclaimed that African Americans would win their freedom “because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” But anxious providentialism can also devolve into self-indulgent cynicism, the kind that not only does not inspire but kills the very impulse to make the world better.
The same is true for the jeremiad. From the Puritans on, it has been used to exhort Americans to step up and fulfill their “errand into the wilderness” (in the words of another Puritan preacher). As one scholar put it, we experience a process of “liberation through lamentation.” But since the late 1960s and the demoralizing effects of the Vietnam War, too many jeremiads have held out too little hope, abandoning the promise inherent in the Puritans’ covenant -- the possibility of redemption. In these works, a new “reverse exceptionalism” has emerged, with critics portraying the United States as exceptionally bad, not exceptionally blessed. Although it’s easy to identify the origins of the post-modern jeremiad in the New Left, a generation later, plenty of disgruntled right-wingers employ the same grim, apocalyptic rhetoric.
In either case, apocalypse without the possibility of redemption amounts to little more than a tantrum. I haven’t read Buchanan’s latest book, because it’s one in a series that have aggressively played the doom-and-gloom card. In 2001, he warned of the “death of the West”; in 2006, he fretted over the “conquest of America”; and now, “The Day of Reckoning” claims “America is coming apart, decomposing, and ... the likelihood of her survival as one nation ... is improbable.” That sounds a lot more like cynical, self-indulgent Chicken-Little-ism than it does John Winthrop.
Just what any nation on the verge of extinction needs.