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America’s high culture is sparse and in many respects deficient, but its provenance and purpose are unmistakable. It is unimportant that not one American in a thousand has actually waded through Bunyan’s allegory. All of our popular fiction, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to the protagonists of Westerns and hard-boiled detective fiction descend from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Huckleberry Finn, who lights out to the new territory ahead of the others; the cowboy who rides off into the sunset; the private detective who fades into the urban nightscape; and the entire host of misfits and loners who stock the pantheon of American literary protagonists are all recognisable versions of Bunyan’s Christian. American literary critics have given little thought to the provenance of their popular heroes, although in private conversation the late Professor Harry Jaffa identified Huck as an avatar of Bunyan’s pilgrim. They are not the knights errant of European Romanticism, but hard men and sinners who hold to their own code of honour, and stand up to corrupt authority. The outlaw William Munny in Clint Eastwood’s 1990 film Unforgiven is a Christian pilgrim in the American understanding as much as is Huckleberry Finn.

Our “America First” President stands squarely in the mainstream of American culture. Donald Trump, I argued on the day of his Inauguration, “is instantly recognisable as the protagonist in a Christian drama: the lone avenger who stands up to the wicked powers of the world and calls them out for combat. Ted Cruz, though an engaged and enthusiastic evangelical Christian, failed to understand the religious impulse of the American electorate. They did not want a politician-pastor to preach to them what they already knew. They wanted a hero, sinner though he be, to give battle to the forces of evil — a Jephtha or a Saul.” No matter how far it strays from conventional religion, American culture remains stamped delibly with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. It does not look for saints who live exemplary lives but for sinners in search of redemption.

American identity has proven robust, transmitting the characteristics of the Puritan founders into its popular culture. It has pulverised the ethnic cultures that immigrants brought with them and removed virtually all memory of them by the second or third generation. Unlike the cultures of Europe, it depends on an imagined rather than an actual past. If Britain’s national epics are the histories of Shakespeare or Malory’s retelling of Arthur, America’s national epic is the King James Bible. The American pilgrimage emulates the history of Israel, with one profound difference: in the Protestant incarnation of an “almost chosen people”, Americans know that the City of God is not of this world, and that the goal of the earthly pilgrimage always beckons over the horizon. In a thousand versions, Americans are the poor wayfaring stranger of the song, hoping that “there is no sickness, toil or danger in that bright land to which I go”. In keeping with the limits of imagined memory, American culture is thin and repetitive. It provided poor soil for the flourishing of a literary high culture. Nonetheless, the American sense of the sacred is renewed and reinforced by a popular culture that retells the story of the individual journey to redemption.
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Pan Cogito
December 10th, 2017
4:12 AM
@Alan Vainman Do not dispense the f-word before trying the perfect fit it makes for you. You no more understand Trump than you do, it appears, the greater mysteries of life. God--and you may translate it as "the Energy of the Universe," the Great Wheel of Karma or whatever--often chooses a broken vessel to carry the most precious nectar. Maybe Spengler would consent to write an essay titled "The music and the men," illuminating for fool vainmen what shits the vessels we know as Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Chopin were and why their music attained the highest degree of luminosity.

December 5th, 2017
10:12 PM
Anonymous: America is indeed experiencing a wave of fascism, but it is not at the hands of the nationalists. It is at the hands of ANTIFA, BLM, and university students, faculty, and staff beating to a pulp, or attempting to murder, those people who believe that nations are allowed to have borders. What name would you apply to the belief system that commanded the decapitation of a British policeman, and the systematic rape of a continent's women? AnonymousHegelman: Most of the world's sacred systems prohibit murder. Only one religion's scripture commands the murder of all non-believers.

Rick Groves
December 5th, 2017
3:12 PM
In America, enlightenment values used to be held sacred. This was the key differentiating point about America. It was not based on arbitrary lines on a map nor wrongly held ideas about the superiority of one's own tribe. It was an idea of a polity held together by the commitment to liberty and justice. Cultural practices evolve by their nature. That's what they are and what they do. Holding cultures sacred is misguided and destined to create conflict as that inevitable evolution pushes forward. The path forward is not through embracing the arbitrary and superficial and trying to entrench and protect it. It is finding core, deep values that benefit all peoples and following those ideas where they lead us.

December 5th, 2017
9:12 AM
When people talk of the sacred, they usually mean murder. All of us have a sense of the sacred. We just differ as to what precisely.

December 5th, 2017
4:12 AM
there is no such thing as a new nationalism, as there is no such thing as an illiberal democracy. There is a good, old fascism.

December 4th, 2017
9:12 PM
Anglo-American identity is built on the individualism of Appalachia and the pragmatism of Colonial Virginia as much as the Utopianism of the Puritans.

Warren Bonesteel
December 4th, 2017
4:12 PM
A great start...but... imposing your own belief system upon a movement comprised of several billion people, from a wide variety of ancient and modern cultures and sub-cultures, who hold a wide variety of religious and spiritual beliefs? That supposition is unfounded. Instead of religion, try 'freedom' and 'personal liberty'. I think you'll find a better fit, with that premise.

Marvin J. Greenberg
December 4th, 2017
8:12 AM
I greatly appreciate the way Goldman takes the usually superficial level of political discussion to a much deeper level, as he does in this essay emphasizing the vital importance of the sacred.

December 4th, 2017
2:12 AM
Alan Vanneman, America will not go gently into that bad night of sharia. Enjoy Europe, while its women are not yet required to wear burqas!

Alan Vanneman
December 1st, 2017
3:12 PM
"occasionally vulgar"? Don't you mean "constantly vulgar and utterly meretricious"? What fools these mortals be.

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