4. The Good Empire versus the Evil Empire

4. THE GOOD EMPIRE VERSUS THE EVIL EMPIRE

There is a significant difference between the American exceptionalism imagined by Winthrop and the actual American exceptionalism. The Puritan from Arbella explained American exceptionalism on religious grounds. Instead, in the 20th century the concept came to rely on political, geographical and social arguments. The American nation is special because it is a mosaical association of people who have in common the need for freedom, human and natural inalienable rights, democracy, republicanism, rule of law, civic virtue, fair-play, private property and constitutional government. Hence, the American nation holds a special state of mind, a special environment, and a special political culture compared to other nations. The United States is built on republican ideals, rather than a heritage dictated by a monarchical ruling class. Ever since their conception, the American policies have followed a system of federalism, examinations and balances meant to prevent any person, faction, region or governmental body to become too powerful.

At the moment, American exceptionalism is a multifunctional political and patriotic instrument. For example, it is used to provide legitimacy to the superior attitude of America in its relations with the other nations of the world. Patriotism is the civil religion of America and the Christian duty of spreading the gospel to all people conveniently transformed into the idea that America has the mission to civilize the world according to its own image. American exceptionalism was also used to fight communism. The rivalry between the United States and Russia exists since the First World War, because the latter is the cradle of the communist revolution. Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, American society lived the First Red Scare – a nation-wide hysteria regarding the imminence of a communist transformation. The Americans feared that, following the wave of worldwide communist revolutions, their country was on the brink of a proletarian uprising that would change the American values and lifestyle. At its height, in 1919-1920, concerns regarding the political agitation and the alleged spread of communism and anarchism among American labor movements fueled a general sense of paranoia, further exacerbated by newspapers into xenophobia. Later, in 1929, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin named the resistance of America to the communist revolution as the “heresy of American exceptionalism.” On the contrary, Jay Loverstone identified American exceptionalism with American capitalism – a power that prevents the communist revolution. According to Loverstone, the United States had to be the example of a nation freed from Marxism and socialism for European societies, a weapon and a wall of defense in front of the communist expansion.1275

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5. The Third Great Awakening

5. THE THIRD GREAT AWAKENING

It is debatable if a Third Great Awakening took place indeed between 1850 and 1900, or whether what happened was only an extension of the Second Great Awakening. A religious awakening must be preceded by a religious sleep of the masses. Almost a century separates John Winthrop’s discourse from the First Great Awakening. Likewise, there are more than 60 years between the First and the Second Great Awakening. Until the middle of the 19th century the religious awakenings and sleeps interchanged. Instead, the Third Great Awakening started immediately after the Second Great Awakening; there was no period of religious relaxation and, furthermore, the general euphoria was weaker compared to the previous awakenings. The problem was that the Second Great Awakening lacked closure; a good part of the religious systems and utopias which began in the first part of the century extended into the Third Great Awakening. The world and science were changing fast and religion had to keep up the pace; there was no time for another religious relaxation.

The Third Great Awakening seems to have been an irrational reaction to the spreading of atheism and the pressure exercised by science upon religion. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution undermined the infallibility of the Bible, the foundation of Christianity. Social Darwinism, a faulty philosophy which stated that man “must do good,” began to develop. Occultism, theosophy and spiritualism – irrational spiritual movements – rose in reaction to this materialistic and rationalistic attack, at the same time signaling that the theological synthesis of the Second Great Awakening failed. In the middle of the century a large number of Americans were disillusioned by the prophetic or utopian failures, by the problem of slavery, or by the problem of racial and gender inequality. In 1857 a financial panic erupted, causing economic chaos, the bankruptcy of many banks and of the railway companies. The American states were on the brink of collapse and a civil war seemed unavoidable due to the slave-owning issue.

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4.2. Joseph Smith Jr. and Mormonism

4.2. JOSEPH SMITH JR. AND MORMONISM

The most complex and aberrant apocalyptic scenario of the Second Great Awakening was conceived within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism). It is no secret that religious fanaticism is a relative of idiocy. But Mormon theology – based on the life, the experience and the teachings of Joseph Smith Jr. – simply defies history and insults common sense; nobody has ever succeeded to form a cult based on historical and religious fabrications of such magnitude.

Smith spent his adolescence at Palmyra, in a poor family of farmers in the west of the “burned-over district.” The young Smith did not join any religious community, but he intensely studied the Bible and he was influenced by the folk religion (local ethnic) practiced by his parents. In 1820 this 14-year-old boy became obsessed with the issue of spiritual salvation. Confused, he decided that it was best to seek divine help. One day he went in one of the nearby forests and began to pray passionately. According to his own account, there he experienced what it is now known as the “First Vision”: he felt that he was overwhelmed by an invisible malefic force, but at the last moment two radiant beings appeared in front of him. One of these beings told Smith not to join any of the existing churches because all of them had faulty doctrines and he was to wait until further instructions would be given to him.1060

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4.1. The burst of utopian experiments

4.1. THE BURST OF UTOPIAN EXPERIMENTS

America was an auspicious place for social experimentation and the Second Great Awakening was the golden age of utopianism. The majority of American utopias were established on religious grounds, while the rest were scientific experiments. Driven by the belief that they act on God’s command, the religious fanatics isolated themselves from the rest of the world and struggled to build a literal paradise on the earth. But, ironically, utopianism was never envisioned as a democracy, but as a holy communism. The European monarchical system of social inequality was collapsing and people began to search for new forms of political and social organization. The natural tendency of the people was to head toward the other extreme, of absolute equality. Thus, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels supported communist ideology on rationalistic grounds, the religious fanatics used biblical arguments; the prototype of the religious utopias was the community of the early Christians.

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4. The Second Great Awakening

4. THE SECOND GREAT AWAKENING

Around the year 1800, in the period following the War of Independence, American society experienced the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840). This phenomenon was the natural consequence of the fact that the Americans gained their freedom. Winthrop’s ideal set in motion the process of formation of the American nation and generated the First Great Awakening; the latter defined the American identity and America’s special role, generating in turn the American Revolution. Now, given the fact that the British problem was solved and America managed to take its destiny into its own hands, the next step was the materialization of Winthrop’s ideal. Unlike the First Great Awakening – which aimed to emphasize America’s extraordinary destiny – the Second Great Awakening focused on creating a utopian society.

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3.2. The apocalypticism of the American War of Independence

3.2. THE APOCALYPTICISM OF THE AMERICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE

At first, the American colonies were only extensions of the European powers. The rules of cohabitation and administration on the new continent were dictated by the crowns of Europe. And, like on the old continent, in America people were also paying taxes for supporting kings and queens. After two centuries of colonization the two shores of the Atlantic came to be very different from a cultural point of view. The rapid increase of population made the colonies a veritable political power, America had way more resources compared to the rusty Europe, the religious fanatics were demanding a clear delimitation between the redeemed and the damned, and the people born in America felt no connection to Europe. At the beginning of the 18th century America was no longer populated by European colonists and an invading European culture, but by Americans and an independent American culture. Consequently, the problem was not if, but when a movement of independence was going to burst.

Historically speaking, the American War of Independence (or the American Revolution) lasted between 1775 and 1783 and covered the eastern and northeastern parts of the United States and the southeastern part of Canada. The war was fought between Great Britain and 13 British colonies in North America. On July 4, 1776, these colonies proclaimed their independence and formed the state union called the “United States of America.” In 1778 major European powers joined the colonists against the British, decisively inclining the balance in favor of the new American nation.

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3.1. Ann Lee, Shakerism and the apocalypse of sex

3.1. ANN LEE, SHAKERISM AND THE APOCALYPSE OF SEX

In the 18th century European society was unquestionably masculine, dominated in all aspects by men. Religiously speaking, suggesting at the time that women were spiritually equal to men was a sort of blasphemy, the main argument being Eve’s weakness. According to the English journalist Samuel Johnson, the activity of women preachers was more a circus than a sermon in the real sense of the word: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”997 Yet, one of the boldest and most original dissident groups of the period was led by a woman.

Ann Lee was a victim of the environment in which she lived. The second in a family of eight brothers, she was born in 1736 in a poor district of Manchester, England. Her father was a blacksmith whose modest income hardly fed the family. At the age of eight she was employed in a textile mill, and a couple of years later she served as a cook at the public infirmary and at the madhouse. Manchester was an overpopulated and unhealthy city, with streets full of filth and poverty. The poor workers – including her father – were suppressing their frustrations and despair in alcohol, while rape, prostitution, child abuse, wife beating and infant death were common. This degrading environment triggered in the young Lee a strong aversion to sexual intercourse: “so great was the sense of its impurity, that she often admonished her mother against it, which, coming to her father’s ears, he threatened and actually attempted to whip her.”998

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3. The First Great Awakening

3. THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING

Although the colonists stepped on the shore of the new Promised Land with optimism, eager to live in freedom, America’s geographical and demographical features proved to be a serious impediment in the materialization of their religious aspirations. The English parochial system supported by Anglicans and Puritans was hardly implemented in the New World. Unlike the compact communities of the Old World, the small farms of America spread into the wilderness, far from a parochial house. The individual was most of the time on his own, struggling to survive and to adapt to an inhospitable land. This aspect seriously affected the attendance to sermons and the ecclesiastical discipline of the common people and it heavily put to the test the secular and ecclesiastical structures. Almost 100 years after John Winthrop’s encouraging discourse, a large part of the population was outside the churches. It was a period of calm and a sort of tension; people were willing to live and share their beliefs, but they did not have the possibility of doing so. Thus, when the settlers finally had the opportunity to manifest themselves, the religious fervor was so intense and widespread that it took the shape of a mass phenomenon called “great awakening.”

The “religious awakening” (or the “religious revival,” this rather referring to local isolated phenomena) is an expression that designates a specific period of increased spiritual interest, a renewal in the religious life of a large area and the establishment of a fervent relation with God after a period of decline. Three great awakenings took place between 1700 and 1900 and all three were accompanied by widespread religious revivals, a surge of interest in the religious phenomena, mass conversions, alleged miracles, speaking in tongues, a deep sense of guilt and contrition, a rewriting of the religious dynamics and an outbreak of new groups and movements.

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2.2. Cotton Mather and the apocalypse of the witches

2.2. COTTON MATHER AND THE APOCALYPSE OF THE WITCHES

The Puritan colonial writings expressed the belief that human actions and historical events reflect the divine plan and that the world is hopeless. Human beings are completely depraved (due to Adam’s fall), God’s will is absolute, and mankind cannot be saved through good deeds, but only through God’s grace. Regardless of our actions, only a group of people have been chosen to receive divine grace and to have eternal life in Heaven, while the rest of humanity is condemned to suffer the eternal torments of Hell. God’s decision regarding every person’s fate cannot be known nor influenced. Due to Hebraism and Calvinism, the Puritan God had the features of Yahweh: testy, vengeful, jealous and fear-inspiring – very different from the merciful and loving God portrayed by Jesus. God and his worship in the church was the core of the Puritan life. The church dictated the dark and sober garment, the members were expected to live according to a strict moral code, and they believed that all sins – from sleeping in the church to food theft – are severely punished by Providence. Men and women sat separately in the church, and the presence to the extremely long and boring ceremonies was compulsory. The religious rigidity created a tight Puritan society, within which both Satan and God had important roles in everyday life. In this limited and religiously oriented society, power and esteem were not measured in money, but in biblical knowledge. And the champion of this domain was undoubtedly Cotton Mather, one of the most popular apocalyptic speakers of all time.

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2.1. The religious mirage of the New World

2. THE COLONIZATION AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

2.1. THE RELIGIOUS MIRAGE OF THE NEW WORLD

The first settlers of the Americas were, naturally, Spanish and Portuguese who, following the path established by Columbus, concentrated on exploring and conquering South America. Instead, the English, the French, the Dutch and the Germans began to heavily colonize only in the 17th century, focusing on North America.

The new continent proved to be an extremely rich place in resources, but it had an uncertain religious status. Framing America in a biblical scheme was a delicate matter for the European scholars. The early theological explanations regarding America were vague and predominantly negative. At first, the debate was if the natives had a soul and should be evangelized or they did not have a soul and could be taken as slaves. Some, Jews and Christians alike, believed that the natives were a part of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Others, such as Columbus, saw the new continent as the new earth from Revelation 20. A Lutheran theory depicted the new land as the dreadful darkness from outside the gospel where the lost ones are treated with whipping and the gnashing of teeth, while for Anglicans the colonies were only a bunch of fanatics, swarmed in the wilderness to put into practice their aberrant ideas.959

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