Americans really are unique in many ways, concludes historian Richard Hofstader. Whereas other nations’ identities come from common ancestry, “It has been our fate…not to have ideologies, but to be one.” One cannot become un-English or un-French. “Being an American…” writes Seymour Martin Lipset, is “an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are (considered to be) un-American.”
It is an eternal mystery: the world’s most materialistic culture, where consumerism and “lifestyles” were invented, where the predatory imagination has reached its apogee – is also the most religious country in Christendom, exhibiting greater acceptance of literal belief and higher levels of church attendance than other industrialized countries. Ninety-four percent of Americans express “faith in God,” as compared with seventy percent of Britons. Only two percent of Americans are atheists (as opposed to nineteen percent in France).
And, although Americans are the most individualistic and rights-oriented people, they are more willing to fight if their country goes to war. This stems not only from our violent heritage and historical isolation from war’s effects, but also from our Protestant moralism and the myth of the Frontier. A majority of us tell pollsters that God is the moral guiding force of American democracy. Therefore, when Americans go to war, they must define themselves as being on God’s side against evil incarnate. Wars are not simple political conflicts; they are crusades, and evil must be annihilated. Lipset writes, “We have always fought the ‘evil empire.’”
Americans have a high sense of personal responsibility and independent initiative. Shared belief in the value of hard work, public education and equality of opportunity continues to influence attitudes toward progress. In 1991, close to three fourths of parents expected their offspring to do better than they, and (in 1996) a similar percentage expected to improve their standard of living, while only forty percent of Europeans shared this optimism. Forty percent believed that there is a greater chance to move up from one social class to another than thirty years ago. We believe – deeply – in a nation of “self-made men,” and that we will continue to grow and progress toward fulfillment of our dreams.
Part Three of this essay is here.