Too few words for America's many faiths

BenjaminFranklinIn celebrating its 150th anniversary, The Atlantic invited writers and artists to discuss the future of the American idea. The results, while not entirely disheartening, leave the impression of a people largely ill at ease with their nation's future and, in a few cases, openly contemptuous of the country's elected leaders (or, in the words of Greil Marcus, "those who presume to rule the nation"). The Atlantic asked writers to limit themselves to 300 words, and it ended up with exercises in tourism-bureau boosterism (Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona), self-promotion (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California), platitudes worthy of a high-school commencement address (the Rev. T.D. Jakes) and mau-mauing about America's "niggerization" of the world (Cornel West, naturally).

When religion is mentioned at all, it is usually as a divisive force that must be controlled, as in this sentence by Napolitano: "This modern frontier also encompasses a sense of endless personal possibility, unconstrained by color, background, religion, caste, or any of the myriad labels we humans use to dehumanize each other."

The most direct confrontation on religion occurs on page 44, in which Sam Harris delivers his astounding claim that four-fifths of Americans "believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers" and Tim LaHaye quickly shifts from the nation's founding by God-fearing forefathers to the near-destruction of American ideals by -- wait for it -- godless public schools. The essays by Harris and LaHaye are equally facile in blaming a blob called they, shaped more by the authors' ideological presumptions than by reality.

Some authors (Joyce Carol Oates, Edward O. Wilson, John Hope Franklin, Robert Pinksy) were so tiresome in their ax-grinding that by page 49 I was tempted to abandon the symposium in favor of an ad -- "Does the Universe Have a Purpose?" -- that recently sent The Nation's Barbara Ehrenreich into a tizzy.

Eventually, though, two voices delivered rewarding words. One selection came from an online-only essay by Michael Novak, who struck the right balance on religion's place in American history:

Ben Franklin proposed as the national motto "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God." The Virginians defined liberty of conscience as a natural right. They based "the first secular nation" on Judeo-Christian premises about God and conscience -- that is, acknowledging not the right of Americans alone, nor of Christians and Jews alone, but of all human beings, including "Mahometans, Hindoos," and atheists.

The other came from Tom Wolfe, who defied the editors' 300-word limit, but whose 2,100-word essay appeared anyway:

America remains, as it has been from the very beginning, the freest, most open country in the world, encouraging one and all to compete pell-mell for any great goal that exists and to try every sort of innovation, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, in order to achieve it. It is largely this open invitation to ambition that accounts for America's military and economic supremacy and absolute dominance in science, medicine, technology, and every other intellectual pursuit that can be measured objectively. And it is absolute.

Yet from our college faculties and "public intellectuals" come the grimmest of warnings. The government has assumed Big Brother powers on the pretext of protecting us from Terror, and the dark night of fascism is descending upon America. As Orwell might have put it, only an idiot or an intellectual could actually believe that.

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