From Harold Bloom’s The American Religion

I’m really quite enjoying this book, which you might find it strange to know I am reading as part of the research I’m doing for a neo-Cold War novel I’m writing set in America. Here are some of the interesting things that Bloom writes, which I feel are things I’ve tried to say in the past, but never got across quite as well as he did:

“…the American religion, which is so prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian. It has kept the figure of Jesus, who is also the resurrected Jesus rather than the crucified Jesus or the Jesus who ascended again to the Father. I do not think the Christian God has been retained by us, though he is invoked endlessly by our leaders, and by our flag-waving President [Bush Sr.] in particular, with especial fervor in the context of war. But the invoked force appears to the American destiny, the God of our national faith. The most Gnostic element of the American Religion is an astonishing reversal of ancient Gnosticism; we worship the Demiurge as God, more often than not under the name of manifest Necessity. As for the alien God of the Gnostics, he has vanished, except for his fragments or sparks scattered among our few elitists of the spirit, or for his shadow in the solitary figure of the American Jesus.”


“Anti-intellectualism pervades American political, social, and moral life, and its answering chorus is the political correctness of the academic pseudo-Left. Fundamentalism is the parodistic curse of the American religion, and the political, social, moral, and even economic condequences of its anti-intellectualism are quite vicious.”

If it isn’t quite clear, his argument (as far as it seems to me, at the end of the introduction in any case) is that American Christianity isn’t really Christian in any traditional sense at all; that it wears the trappings of Christianity but is, in fact, a far different, and absolutely ubiquitous religion that is more Gnostic-Individualistic, Orphic, Nationalistic, and post-Christian than anyone within one of America’s various Christian religions would like to admit, and that underlying the apparent diversity of various religions is a deeper, more unified foundation that spreads even unto such religions as Californian New Age… and that it is at the level of that deep foundation that certain trends vie for dominance, and either help or harm America and her citizens.

This lines up well with someone I said recently to a friend, which was that if the vast majority of people truly believed in Jesus, in Heaven and Hell, in the basic Christian theology I was taught as a kid, then people would be living vastly different lives. When I look out my window across the parking lot to the Church, I see an example of people who claim to espouse a faith, who gather together to sing and conduct worship ceremonies but who cannot even be considerate enough to close their windows when gathered together, even when the neighborhood locals have (apparently) complained and submitted a petition. I see a church administered by people who seem to feel they can afford major expansions in their lot, but who don’t seem to feel that they can afford to pay the construction workers in time for Christmas. I see, basically, people who seem to be fooled into thinking that going to Church, singing songs, eating a bit of bread, temporarily (or even obsessively) thinking about a loving God and their own salvation, is actually Christianity.

I can’t understand how anyone could mistake it for that, but I do know that may people do. I’ve heard it said at times, “Oh, so-and-so wouldn’t lie. He’s a Christian, you see.” Well, I have been lied to by Christians, perhaps even more than by atheists. I have seen Christians break all kinds of laws. I have seen Christians engage in all kinds of awful things, habitually.

Or rather, I have seen people who self-identify as Christian do these things. Here’s the thing: people complained to me, when I first observed this, that I was taking upon myself too much authority to say that someone else is not following a Christian path. As if to say that there are no absolutes in Christianity. As if to say that basically, anyone who self-identifies as a Christian thereby somehow magically becomes one. To assert this about the word is to render it not only meaningless, but necessarily devoid of meaning. One could assert one is Christian while being a devout atheist, in fact, according to this reasoning.

The rise of such an idea is not something that spontaneously began in the Early Church. It is the result of some pretty specific historical processes. You’ve got your Church pretty much in total control of European theology, and everything in general, during the Middle Ages. You’ve got people translating the Bible into vernacular and being persecuted for it. Then you’ve got prints of the book floating around and people suggesting that it’s possible to read and interpret this stuff on one’s own. The Church, of course, was nervous about that. Rightly so: what you get when you allow that isn’t so much Lutheranism–the Church could have absorbed Lutheranism and other Protestant faiths if it had been more careful and intelligent about dealing with criticism in the past. It was nervous about total chaos, about nobody recognizing any kind of theological authority. It was aware that anything so unbounded was even more susceptible to human weaknesses and twisted, self-serving intepretations and perversions of the spirit of the word.

Which is what my polemical side would consider Harold Bloom to be describing. He is, for the record, far more sanguine than I am about many aspects of the American religion. He doesn’t particularly think it’s bad for all the reasons I do; when he observes that American Protestantism is not really fundamentally Christian, he doesn’t seem to mean it as a bad thing but as a simply fact or observed, undeniable truth. He doesn’t seem to find objectionable the way that the claim to Christianity is a self-contradictory one, and seems to have to issues with the idea of “authenticity”, perhaps because to him, the outer claim of Christianity need not actually fit the inner truth of the religion. I suppose that my denouncement of this divergence as a perversion doesn’t fit with Bloom’s attitude, any more than calling Vodoun believers hypocrites because they happen to have assimilated the outer trappings of Christianity onto their older West African beliefs.

2 thoughts on “From Harold Bloom’s The American Religion

  1. Is Harold Bloom a self-identified Christian? It sounds to me as though his nonchalance about inauthentic Christianity might stem from an attitude one sometimes finds, that nearly ALL people who call themselves Christian really aren’t, but this is OK as long as they make an attempt, because in the end being a “real” Christian is pretty much impossible for everyone except Jesus. In this way every formal expression of Christianity would be considered inauthentic in some respect. Or is he saying that American Protestantism is inauthentic compared to, say, Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy?

  2. He’s not a self-identified Christian… in fact, I have it in my head that he’s Jewish, perhaps from something he comments on in this book. But in fact, he argues that all religions that are practiced by mainstream Americans are, on a fundamental level, not what they are called–be it Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, or what have you–but rather Gnostic, Ethusiastic, and vaguely Orphic.

    He’s saying that American Christianity has performed, under the hood, something quite comparable to what happened to African religions when they put on the trappings of Catholicism and became what most of us call “Voodoo”. The difference is, I think, that Bloom is claiming that the transformation in American religion happened in the reverse of what happened in Voodoo.

    In Voodoo, the outer trappings of an older religion were adopted, but the inner meanings and relationships with the earlier deities and worldview were, however altered, fundamentally retained.

    He seems to think in the American practice of religion (of any religion, he claims at one point) that the outer trappings were attained but that the inner meanings and relationships with the earlier deities, the fundamental attitudes and position of the faithful, were radically altered.

    When faced with your question, I’d answer that perhaps Bloom himself isn’t as preoccupied with “authenticity” as I made it sound–authenticity and the problems surrounding the idea, after all, are some of my central preoccupations. I’d suggest perhaps for Bloom, this transformation isn’t from an authentic form of Christianity to an inauthentic one, but from what could reasonably be termed Christianity to what, taken as a whole, really warrants being called something else.

    Or maybe I’m sidestepping the question there. I don’t know. I will bear it in mind as I read the remaining two-thirds of the book, and perhaps comment again when In reach that point.

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