Andrew Walker: Epistles of Straw

October 2001
Learning to love America: a European Christian viewpoint
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Comment on this column ONE OF BRITAIN'S most respected journalists, Bryan Appleyard, wrote a piece in the Sunday Times recently entitled, "Why do they hate America?" For once the usually restrained and sober Appleyard capitulated to passion and in effect threw down the gauntlet to his readers either to stand shoulder to shoulder with America in the great fight against terrorism, or stand apart. "Whose side are you really on?" went the challenge.

Appleyard, not one to be shy in his own criticism of America's corruption of values, was nevertheless unequivocal in asserting that the United States is overwhelmingly a force for good, the rightful leader of the free world, and a bastion of decency.

I FIND MYSELF in agreement with Bryan Appleyard on this issue – though I neither endorse all of American foreign policy (in the Middle East, for example, or in her own backyard of Cuba and Central America) nor the endemic racism that has so dimmed the light of the "city set upon the hill". But my reason for being prepared to stand with Appleyard shoulder to shoulder with our Atlantic cousins is because I have learned to love America through living and working there over the last 14 years. Having visited over 40 States and preached and taught in 20 of them, there is no doubt in my mind that all in all America is a force for good in the world.

It is clear, however, that a considerable number of Europeans don't share this view. Despite the fact that America rescued us from defeat in two world wars, set in motion the Marshall Plan to rejuvenate failing postwar economies, and has been the beacon for democratic capitalism throughout the world, there is residual anti American feeling.

This is partly fuelled by envy. We remember the anti-Yankee aphorism of the UK in the last war brought on by the superior lifestyle of the American GI's: "overpaid, oversexed, and over here". And despite the fact that since the 1940s it is the American enterprise culture that has "overcome" the world, so that we gladly bask in Hollywood glamour, rock to the music videos of MTV and advertise our wares with the knowing insouciance of Madison Avenue, we still feel that irritable annoyance that America does things (of such ilk) so much better than we do.

And yet who can doubt that American society is not the greatest cultural achievement of the modern world? For at its best America has been an open society, committed to multiculturalism – despite the history of slavery and genocide, and despite the still open wound of African American oppression and the continuing neglect of the indigenous Indian populations.

This cultural openness, far from stifling religion and giving birth to secularism, has in fact proved the most fertile breeding ground for religion in the advanced societies of the world. It is Europe that has succumbed most visibly to the forces of secularisation: while 45 percent of the American population crowd into churches on a Sunday morning, Europe typically settles for a meagre 9 -12 percent. And it is Catholic countries like France where we see the hallmarks of anti-clericalism in the public square while in America, legally a secular state, the President leads the people in prayer and Billy Graham addresses the nation on TV.

ALL OF THIS is not to deny that the American Dream has carried with it a cost both to the United States and to the world. From a Christian viewpoint it is clear that the dream itself was not really a Puritan vision of a new beginning free from the corruption of Europe and promising a virtual paradise. The American Dream was predicated on Enlightenment principles of democracy, republicanism, self-interest and the pursuit of happiness. At its most beguiling, the dream promised everybody a place in the sun if only they worked hard, and assimilated to the civil religion of America of (a somewhat vague) God, decency and the proverbial apple pie.

The reason that the American dream has cost us all is that it has cast a long shadow in the very act of offering light to the world. Free enterprise, for example, without careful checks and balances, breeds losers as well as winners. Entertainment culture not only enhances leisure, it also hatches the cult of celebrity, sentimentality, the pursuit of trivia, and possibly even violence. The 19th-century Protestant ethic of hard work, married to the virtues of decency and fair play, degenerated all too easily in the age of consumerism into hedonism. Freedom, in short, when uncoupled from communal goals has proven to be fey.

We cannot be blind either to the reality that powerful America, by virtue of its muscle and influence, can unleash the Ugly American – both abroad, in some of its policies in Vietnam, for example, and at home with the suppression of Civil Rights and environmental indifference.

To say all this is not to turn away from American greatness and generosity but to recognise that greatness always has a shadow side, and for those who are envious of greatness they will always take the shadow for the substance.

SADLY, A MINORITY OF Europeans also despise America simply because it is a new world. The old world feels superior morally and aesthetically because it has a history. The politics of snobbery dominate European attitudes to America – America is cheap, shallow, violent, without taste, and panders to the nouveau riche rather than ruminate in the comfort and solidity of old money.

These often empirically untested stereotypes of America, fed by the mass media and residual prejudice, break down when in America itself. This is not to say that there are no generalizations that hold. Certainly America is more energetic than Europe; it has not yet capitulated to the world-weariness born of a cynical culture that is old but dying.

Americans are also patriotic in a way that would embarrass an English person. Virtually no one stands up in Great Britain anymore when they hear the national anthem played. I remember in Texas at the rodeo in Fort Worth watching every man, woman and child leap to their feet, right fists thumping on chests when the American flag was unfurled by the leading rider. This energy, passion and patriotism does engender a certain cultural naiveté and non-reflective populism. Americans are not typically so self-critical as Europeans, and they are more insular than one might suppose. One of the paradoxes of the United States is that it is a giant continent with seemingly the mind-set of little islanders.

But even these generalisations cannot stand as absolute truth claims: long exposure to the United States demonstrates what a diverse culture actually exists in the New World. Pluralism in America is lived out not only in the great cities of the eastern seaboard and west coast, but in a million one-horse towns in between, with small town values, and strong commitment to flag and country. I have found in many such towns, in the south, the south-west and midwest, wonderful generosity and hospitality, deep commitment to the Christian faith and a horror of the violence of cities.

The cities themselves, as all urban centres do, also facilitate multi-culturalism, dialogue, tolerance, and self critique. It is simply not true that academics, social workers, church leaders – and even lawyers – do not debate with fervour and concern the problems of the inner city and the negative aspects of American culture. Roman Catholics, for example, are presently challenging the ethical standards of Christians by increasingly calling for a consistent view on violence: no abortion, strong gun control, no death penalty.

WHAT STRIKES ME as an undeniable truth about America is that, unlike Europe, it has never experienced the steamrolling effect of fascism and communism on its soil. Neither has it a living memory of a wartime home front, with its concomitant bombing, daily loss of life and visible destruction. In its hospitable, generous, but somewhat isolated way, America – the land of can-do and boundless progress – has thought itself inviolate from external attack, and now with the outrage of September 11th that belief has died.

Our response as Europeans must be one borne out of compassion for the victims and their families, but also a deep gratitude for American leadership and example. Critical of some American policies we will inevitably be, alarmed at the shadow side of the great dream we will remain, but let us not shirk our responsibilities in standing side by side with America in the face not only of terror but also of disdain.

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