America's "Good Samaritan" Religion

There is a remarkable book review by Michael Kochin over at The Claremont Institute’s site. The review is of David Gelentner’s new book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.

An excerpt of the review:

Americans aim to serve the God of the Old Testament as interpreted by Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament. Here the central teaching of Jesus, at least for the aspects of the American religion that interest Gelernter, is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which Gelernter doesn’t cite even though it, too, is echoed in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. The Good Samaritan, as Martin Luther King, Jr., expounded in his final speech, is the man who, in a dangerous and forlorn place, asked not, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” but “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” This is the American missionary spirit: “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho,” said President Bush in his first inaugural, “we will not pass to the other side.” It is this teaching that still summons medical missionaries to perform eye operations in the slums of Mombasa or calls Princeton graduates to serve as riflemen in Iraq’s Anbar province.

Gelernter calls this self-sacrifice for others “chivalry.” He is right that knightly metaphors partially explain American efforts to bind up the wounds of the world. Think of Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe,” or Reagan’s crusade against Communism. Yet as Gelernter himself points out, the knight engages in acts of knightly virtue to justify his claim to be mounted while others walk. The Americans who fought their way from Omaha Beach to Dachau or who held the Chinese army to a bloody stalemate in Korea did so not as crusading knights aiming to justify their privileges before God, but from a sense of what was necessary for their own security—out of love for their neighbors at home—as well as out of love for their neighbors abroad, fallen under the oppression of idolatrous despotisms.

Americans, like the Good Samaritan, do not feel that their strength, health, and prosperity have to be justified as privileges. These are not privileges but blessings, worldly marks of divine favor, given to all those who serve God by loving their neighbor as themselves after the fashion of the Good Samaritan, who act not out of noblesse oblige but out of sheer neighborliness, out of the equality they recognize in the sufferer. Inquiring into the impulse behind American intervention in the protracted 20th century crisis of civilization, Gelernter asks rhetorically whether “Christianity did indeed help save the world,” but he does not explain what aspect of the Gospel’s teaching led to this apparently Christian intervention.

Do read the whole review. It made me want to add Gelentner’s book the tall stack of books I plan to get around to reading some day soon.