Book Excerpt: 'The American Religion' by Harold Bloom

This book, The American Religion, has lived mostly underground since its original publication fourteen years ago. Out of print, it still circulated steadily among readers increasingly aware of the intensifying strategic alliance between the Republican Party and millions of those I term explicit American Religionists. I bring the book back into print now unrevised, except for this coda to a coda. But then, how much has changed? The second President Bush’s triumphalism is a faith-based initiative in itself. His born-again Iraqi war lingers on, a fleeting and possibly illusory victory. Gasoline soon could cost three dollars a gallon, and the United States economy exists only by borrowing more than two billion dollars a day, from China, Taiwan, Japan, and assorted European creditors. Our currency is debased, our deficit is immense, and much of our public appears to expect an imminent Rapture. Freud and Marx must fret, in Elysium, that they are forgotten while Darwin abides as a Satan whose science of Evolution is eclipsed by a bellicose Creationism. I approach my seventy-fifth birthday with the foreboding that there might not be another Democratic President or Democratic Congress in my own lifetime. And yet, how could it be otherwise? The United States, founded upon the secular revelations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, does not seem to me a democracy at this time. You can term it an emulsion of plutocracy and theocracy, while remembering Huey Long’s prophecy: “Of course we will have Fascism in America, but we will call it democracy.”

And yet The American Religion was and is a portrait of authentic spirituality, and not of cultural politics, which I loathe for having destroyed literary study in the English-speaking universe. The nation may implode financially, and our new Roman Empire may collapse suddenly, with no intervening decline, since those who preach it refuse to pay for it. What will not subside is the ongoing exfoliation of the American Religion, whose Pentecostalist wing expands daily, both here and abroad. The American Jesus, clearly a Republican and George W. Bush’s “favorite philosopher,” could be replaced by the American Holy Spirit, an extraordinarily volatile entity, whose politics are unpredictable.

In my own surmise, the American Dream and the American Religion were born together in what was then our West, the Kentucky-Tennessee borderlands, at about the turn into the nineteenth century. What allies these phenomena of Dream and Religion is a peculiarly American longing for love. Such an assertion is odd, since Saint Augustine himself said that “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us,” and the human desire to be loved is eternal. Baruch Spinoza’s implicit rejoinder (quoted in this book’s Invocation) was that we needed to love God without expecting that God would love us in return. Americans however, more than ever, insist that Jesus loves them personally. Historical Christianity-institutional and theological-tended to modify, or rather, to admonish, Augustine, but we have witnessed the death of Europe in our New World. Neither the American Dream nor the American Religion will accept any curtailment of what they judge to be a merited love.

A celebrated governor of Texas, during the earlier twentieth century, rejoiced to be known as Ma Ferguson, and forbade all teaching of foreign languages during her reign. “If English was good enough for Jesus, then I suppose it ought to be good enough for us,” she decreed. Though my Pentecostal friends assure me that the Holy Spirit speaks to them in a myriad of tongues, they tend to emphasize that he or she also prefers American English or Spanish. Whether you call the Supreme Deity Yahweh, Adonai, Jehovah, God the Father, or Allah, he is crowded out for most Americans by Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit.

The United States may overcome its deficits to endure. Even an alliance of China and India as prosperous superpowers that could someday own us might not diminish the American Religion, which may go on being exported as the inner daimon of our endlessly exportable popular culture. If our amalgam of shamanistic Orphism, Enthusiasm, and Gnosticism can mask so successfully as Christianity, why cannot it as adroitly impersonate Buddhism and Hinduism?

The longer I go on reading Kierkegaard, the more I see that he argues not just the difficulty but the virtual impossibility of becoming a Christian in a society that thinks itself Christian. In our Evening Land, they order these matters differently. Indeed, I would affirm the virtual impossibility of not becoming something of an American Religionist, however wary we should be of its political consequences. Even the most secular of those among us, or the most traditionally religious, cannot be wholly closed to the appeal of the American Religion. In regard to the American Dream, we can develop sophisticated, ironic defenses, but are these affected (or even appropriate) when we behold the American Religion? D. H. Lawrence ambivalently denounced Walt Whitman as an incessant knower, but T. S. Eliot, without ambivalence, cast out Lawrence for daring to know the same Inner Light that illuminated Whitman. Eliot craved authority, and found it in the Church of England. Whitman and Lawrence were prophets, and could accept no authority that was not self-generated.

Despite the authoritarianism of the current hierarchies that dominate Mormonism and the Southern Baptist Convention, no variety of the American Religion forever will accept authority. From Reagan through Bush II, we are encouraged to emancipate our selfishness, and many of us have done exactly that, including Clinton when he abolished: “Welfare as we know it.” The American Jesus has no anxieties about rich men and camels together passing through the eye of a needle.

Why then does one continue to manifest a fascinated ambivalence towards the American Religion, which socially and politically fosters individualities who are indifferent both to others and to otherness, when what we need are singularities who will care about others as well as their own selves? The American Religion is so large and national a faith that it proudly flaunts its contradictions. It proclaims: “Be rich, demand love from God and from humans, and have faith that death is only for others.”

The American Religion was the inevitable consequence of the growth of the American Self, whose mingled knowings and unknowings I hope to trace elsewhere. Walt Whitman was America’s Adam, crucial to later developments of the American Self. Whitman was a Free-Soil Democrat of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Party of Hope who had to endure the triumphalism of what Emerson scorned as the Party of Memory, the Whig coalition of Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and the renegade Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Davy Crockett, who abandoned Andrew Jackson to go with the Whigs, lost out and departed for Texas, where he died (not very heroically) at the Alamo in the company of the slavetrader Jim Bowie and other martyrs of what eventually became the Great American Land-Grab, stripping Mexico of California and what is now our entire Southwest. Will the Bushian Iraqi Wars have such cheerfully pragmatic consequences?

None of this diminishes the spiritual achievements of Joseph Smith, Mullins, and the other founders of the American Religion. In Common Sense (1776), Tom Paine helped spur the Revolution with an apocalyptic pronouncement worthy of his old London acquaintance, the prophetic poet William Blake:

We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.

In a study of the Declaration of Independence, Mitchell Meltzer’s Secular Revelation (2005), Paine’s vision is rightly related to the Declaration’s subtle side-step away from religion, but by 1800, at Cane Ridge, the fervor of the new nation’s spirituality flooded over the precautions of the Founders. I do not expect that this flood ever will subside. Is it Christianity? Only by a persuasive redefinition of what had been European Protestantism, but the American Dream could be content with no less than a mode of faith entirely its own.