Navigate to News section

Americans, the Almost-Chosen People

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, lessons for our world from theirs

David P. Goldman
May 11, 2016
Photo: Alexander Gardner (1821 – 1882), Wikipedia/Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address as President of the United States, Washington, D.C.Photo: Alexander Gardner (1821 – 1882), Wikipedia/Library of Congress
Photo: Alexander Gardner (1821 – 1882), Wikipedia/Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address as President of the United States, Washington, D.C.Photo: Alexander Gardner (1821 – 1882), Wikipedia/Library of Congress

When we speak of culture in general, we typically think of fixed roots in the form of memory, custom, and habit. Yet the salient characteristic of the American character is restlessness, as Tocqueville observed. We are journeyers rather than settlers. We are risk-takers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. How then should we think about our culture?

One approach is to steer clear of the problem and define America as a “propositional nation,” as John Courtney Murray contended. A proposition is something one assents to rationally. Culture, by contrast, is the context in which we perceive things, which we receive from our ancestors and pass down to our descendants. It is pre-rational, instinctive rather than intellectual, a manifestation of who we are rather than what we think. It is the way in which we cannot help but understand the world.

It is one thing to assert that a proposition is true and quite another thing to pledge one’s life, fortune, and sacred honor. The American Revolution is in some ways the strangest conflict in history: There is no other example of prosperous, property-owning people who were free to publish their thoughts and practice their religion taking up arms against the world’s most powerful empire. Four generations later, half a million Northerners died to end slavery.

If America is merely a propositional nation, moreover, then this proposition can be taught to any other nation, like a proof in logic. From Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush, our attempts to instruct the rest of the world in the American proposition have had baleful consequences, and it behooves us to consider the side of being American that cannot be learned but rather must be lived—what we call culture.

American culture is so singular that the general concept of culture we inherit from the Old World does not suffice to cover it. Critic Russell Kirk refers us to T.S. Eliot, who wrote:

[T]he term culture … includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the 12th of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.

These are the sorts of quaint things American tourists used to look for in England, that is, when England still had them. If we Americans had things like that, we would put them in a theme park. I do not mean to deprecate Eliot. His is the common-sense way to think about culture, and to deviate from it takes us into deep water. Nonetheless, Eliot’s definition does not well suit the American example.

For Martin Heidegger, our Being-in-the-World, or Dasein, always occupies a particular space in a particular temporality. “Heritage” for Heidegger refers back to something like an autochthonous peasant archetype. In his later years Heidegger withdrew to a cabin in the Black Forest to write dithyrambs to the German Heimat endangered by the encroachment of technology. Americans do not stay in any one place long enough to accrete the Bodenständigkeit, or rootedness, that Heidegger sought at the core of our Being. No wonder Heidegger hated America.

Recently Alexander Gauland, the deputy chair of the ultra-right Allianz für Deutschland, called Americans “a people thrown together by chance without an authentic culture.” It is true that we do not have a high culture to compare to Europe’s, for all the good that did them. We cannot claim a national poet with the stature of a Dante, Shakespeare, or Goethe. Not until the 1920s did we discover Moby-Dick when critics in search of an American classic rescued Melville’s work from 70 years of obscurity. We have Walt Whitman, the butt of innumerable parodies, and Hemingway, the subject of a famous imitation contest.

America nonetheless has a distinct national culture, with a national epic, a national poem, and a national place.

It is instructive to start in medias res, with the most original and influential work of American fiction, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, whence “all modern American literature comes,” as Hemingway said. Its flaws shed light on our problem as much as do its virtues. Twain devised the most arresting image in American literature: the runaway boy Huck and the escaped slave Jim, fragile and free on the great river. The evocative opening of the novel, though, eventually fades into a disappointing sequel to Tom Sawyer. “The book ends so lamely,” Harold Bloom rightly observes. Nonetheless, we forgive Mark Twain his sin of literary construction and love the work. Our critics, I think, misunderstand why. Lionel Trilling thinks Huck is a “servant of the river-god,” while Bloom cannot decide whether Huck is a “wholly secular being” or an “American Orphic.” This seems far-fetched. What fascinates us in Huckleberry Finn is not the plot but the image of the journey itself. Twain gives us the most poignant picture of a journey ever imagined by an American: the vulnerability of the two fugitives against the backdrop of the great current that bisects the American heartland.

Culture must be commonplace. By the turn of the 20th century, the journey had become a cliché in American culture, from Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on the frontier to Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1943 epic poem “Western Star” with its opening motto, “Americans are always on the move.” Hollywood made migration to the West a metaphor of redemption, as in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach. The American journey differs from journeys of earlier literature. It is not the journey of Joseph Campbell’s hero. The heroes of past fiction travel in order to come home, enlightened in the case of Gilgamesh, honored in the case of Odysseus, and lucid in the case of Don Quixote. In picaresque fiction from Lazarillo de Tormes to Simplicius Simplicissimus, the protagonist is a foil for the people and situations he encounters. The American journey, by contrast, is an existential event in the life of the traveler. It is not the destination but the journey that matters, and it is a journey that by its nature cannot reach its destination. Huckleberry Finn resembles picaresque fiction only superficially. Twain’s novel and American narrative prose in general have even less resemblance to the European Bildungsroman. The purpose of the journey is not the perfection of the personality but redemption. Wilhelm Meister is as alien to the Mississippi as Huck is to the Elbe.

America’s journey is the Christian pilgrimage that cannot end with an earthly goal. Huckleberry Finn thus is an exemplar of Christian literature as much as The Pilgrim’s Progress is. The journey is motivated not by the destination but by the restlessness of the pilgrim. There is only one possible conclusion to Huck’s adventure: His journey must resume, as he announces in the book’s last line: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”


I began with Twain rather than with John Winthrop—the new mission in the Wilderness of a new Israel—because Winthrop’s vision of a new Mission in the Wilderness too easily may be reduced to a proposition, a theological maxim unrelated to American life. For Winthrop and the Pilgrim Fathers, the journey to a new Promised Land is existential rather than ideological.

Augustine was a decisive influence on the Pilgrim Fathers; as Perry Miller wrote, Augustine “exerted the greatest single influence upon Puritan thought next to that of the Bible itself, in reality a greater one than did John Calvin.” But America is Augustinian in a sense deeper than doctrine. Augustine began his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we come to you.” The journey is the iconic motive of American culture because it fulfills the Augustinian restlessness of the American character. The pilgrimage of the Separatists who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony repeats itself throughout American history. I do not mean to diminish the importance of Westward migration, whose memory is stamped on the American character. The American journey nonetheless is more metaphysical than physical.

Not merely the journey as such but a radically different kind of journey pervades American fiction, because America is a radically different kind of nation: It is uniquely Christian and peculiarly Protestant in character. What Heidegger calls “heritage” and Eliot calls “tradition,” whose origins lurk in the mists of time, have a different meaning in America. America’s Dasein has its “place,” but it is a different sort of place than Heidegger could have imagined: America’s “place” is Canaan. But it is the Canaan of Christian belief rather than the actual Israel of Jewish practice. It is always a vanishing point in the distance.

That is how the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig understood Christianity. It is a never-ending journey, as he put it, an “eternal path.”

It is Christianity that has made the present into an epoch. The past is now simply the time before Christ’s birth. …Time has become a single path, but a path whose beginning and end lie beyond time and therefore an eternal path. By contrast, on those paths that lead from one time to another time, one only sees another section of the road. Because beginning and end are equally near on the eternal path, and equally displaced just as is time itself, because every point is a midpoint.

A journey may not have an end, but it must have a beginning. The gentile nations have no beginning, or else a beginning so clouded in myth that they think of themselves as autochthonous sons of the soil. Not so the Jews, whose national life begins at the Exodus with the eruption of God into history. And not so “the tribe of Christians,” whose life as a new People of God begins with what Christians regard as a new Exodus, the Christ event. The Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac wrote:

To St. Paul the Church is the People of the New Covenant. Israel according to the Spirit takes the place of Israel according to the flesh; but it is not a collection of many individuals, it is still a nation albeit recruited now from the ends of the earth, “the tribe of Christians,” says Eusebius, for instance, “the race of those who honor God.”

But where on earth do we encounter this “tribe of Christians”? The peoples of Europe came to the Church under their national banners by the order of their monarchs. As Rosenzweig observed, the Europeans who adhered to Christendom as tribes rather than as individuals never forswore their love for their own ethnicity. They longed for eternal life in their own gentile skin as much they did for the Kingdom of God promised by Christianity. From the Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th centuries to the world wars of the 20th, the nations of the old world conflated national self-aggrandizement with the Election of Israel and fought each other to mutual ruin.

Heidegger insisted that the heritage we learn by repetition must come from our primal origins. But in America, by contrast, Christian memory created itself. It is the most extreme example of what the politically correct now call “cultural appropriation,” the appropriation of the history of Israel as America’s heritage. The Mission in the Wilderness was prelude to a new covenant and a new revelation. That is the foundation of our national culture, what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone.”

The peoples of the Old World, by contrast, recall a time before Christianity, when their woods and fields still were infested with the minor gods of the pagan world. That is Max Weber’s “enchanted world,” teeming with magical creature, remnants of the old folk-religions that survived the advent of Christianity. It is a world that knows only archetypes, but no characters. The Old World cultures are fixed in the past; their time is “once upon a time,” the amorphous time of legend. A day, a year and a life are indistinguishable: A traveler chances into a feast at an enchanted castle, and the seven days of his sojourn turn out to be seven years. Washington Irving repurposed the ancient tale: with an ironic masterstroke, he put Rip van Winkle to sleep in the Old World of legend and woke him up in the new time of the American Revolution. With this story, our first national writer declared independence from the literary sources of the Old World, and banished the enchanted world with the clear light of the new era.

The peoples of the world, Rosenzweig said, also “foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.” That is why “the love of the peoples for their own ethnicity is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death.” The popular culture of the Old World is suffused with nostalgia and shadowed by this presentiment. Where the European protagonist finds tragedy, the American resolves to light out for the new territory. Americans never have written good tragedies. Eugene O’Neill tried to, but he instead produced plays with the inner structure of a situation comedy only with sad endings. The Iceman Cometh is Cheers with murder and suicide, and A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is Leave It to Beaver with dope addiction and tuberculosis instead of a baseball through a neighbor’s window.

America has no ethnicity and therefore has no fear of extinction. We look forward to the journey rather than backward to our roots. Our journey is the Christian journey to the Promised Land, which is bound up with the journey to America: the Pilgrims’ journey to New England, the flight of slaves to the free North, the westward migration of the landless.

In the African American spiritual, the first original American art form, the journey to Canaan is an all-pervasive subject. The spiritual draws on Low Church hymns from the British Isles, to be sure. I first heard the following lines interjected among the verses of the spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” although their origin is British and much older; they first appear in print in a Methodist hymnal printed in the Midlands in 1809.

Good morning, brother traveler,
Pray tell to me your name:
What country you are traveling to;
Likewise from whence you came?
My name it is Bold Pilgrim
To Canaan I am bound,
I’m from the howling wilderness
And the enchanted ground.

Radical Protestantism leads the pilgrim from the “howling wilderness” and the “enchanted ground” of the Old World and leads him to the Canaan of the spirit. The question is addressed to, and answered by, the individual pilgrim. The Jew is born into the people of Israel; the Christian seeks adoption into the Israel of the Spirit. American Christianity retains the radical individualism of its Protestant forebears, who chose as individuals to become Americans. We have become Americans by adoption, and we have adopted the history of Israel as our national common memory. A profound parallelism is involved. The biblical Election of Israel was not a prize that God awarded to an unlikely nation of shepherds, but rather the outcome of Israel’s free choice to accept the Torah and the responsibility of election. It is our free choice to become Americans that is the cornerstone of our culture.

In Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, the colonial state church was Anglican, to be sure, but New England Puritans and Pennsylvania Quakers gave America its radical Protestant character. There were also 300,000 German immigrants who arrived before 1790, most of them from Protestant communities shattered by the Thirty Years War, as well as 100,000 Dutch. The Protestantism of the Puritan Fathers and the Pennsylvania settlers, and the Presbyterianism and Methodism of the First and Second Great Awakenings, was enthusiastic, apocalyptic, and individualistic. Circumstances made it so. The pilgrims, as William Bradford attested, left Holland in 1620 two years after the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, in the well-founded fear of an imminent Spanish invasion. This great civil war within Christendom, in which Spain and France fought for dominance over the Christian world, prompted the founding of America. The direct experience of revelation from the Bible was its decisive religious act and its primary spiritual exercise reliving the history of Israel through conversion and baptism. It is apocalyptic, because the pilgrimage of this world never attains its goal, and redemption remains a point of perspective in the distance.

Because American Christians understand their lives as pilgrimage, they cling all the more avidly to the roadmap that has been given them for this pilgrimage. And this roadmap is the history of Israel. America’s national epic is the Hebrew Bible, in the King James translation. Because the inner life of the American Christian recapitulates the history of Israel, American Christianity is instinctively philo-Semitic. By contrast, the Old World Christianity of T.S. Eliot tends toward suspicion, if not outright hatred, of actual Jews.

Because American culture and American identity arise from the Christian imagination rather than the tactile and auditory traditions, American culture is enthusiastic and apocalyptic rather than settled and stable. It dwells not in the routine of quotidian life but in memory and hope. It is protean like American Christianity itself, which surges in Great Awakenings, recedes, lies dormant, and arises again—in the Presbyterianism of the First Great Awakening and the Baptists and Methodists of the Second Great Awakening. It is a common observation, and I think a correct one, that the American Revolution arose from the first awakening and the Civil War from the second.

If America is an almost chosen people, Lincoln was almost our national poet. When he spoke of a “new nation conceived in liberty” at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863, he paraphrased the father of English Protestantism, John Wycliffe, who introduced his Bible translation with these words: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.”

We have our national epic, and from that national epic comes our national poem, adapted from the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah 63, which asks: “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments? Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winevat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword …

The evangelical historian Mark Noll remarks that Lincoln diverges from the theologians of his day, who “found it easy to equate America’s moral government of God with Christianity itself.” Noll adds, “Their tragedy … was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions God’s own loyal servants had exploited so well.” There is no explaining Lincoln in terms of prevailing ideology; we understand him better as the bearer of our culture. His celebrated statement that God held both sides in the Civil War to strict account for their transgressions echoes John Winthrop’s warning to the fledgling Plymouth Bay Colony that God would hold America to stricter account “because he would sanctify those who come near him.”

Americans chiseled the text of the Second Inaugural address onto Lincoln’s memorial on the National Mall: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”


Lincoln’s Calvinism weakened with the Civil War: Americans decided that they would rather not have a God who demanded sacrifice from them on this scale—10 percent of military-age Northern men and 30 percent of military-age Southern men. They did not want to be a Chosen People held accountable for their transgressions. They wanted instead a reticent God who withheld his wrath while they set out to make the world amenable to their own purposes. The New England elite went to war as convinced Abolitionists in service of Isaiah’s God of vengeance and redemption, singing, “Be swift my soul to welcome Him, be jubilant my feet.” As Louis Menand observes, they came back pragmatists, convinced that no idea could be so righteous or so certain as to merit the terrible sacrifices of their generation.

In place of the demanding God of the “Battle Hymn,” Americans got the avuncular God of Social Gospel and Wilsonian “Idealism.” The conceit that social engineering can remake the world according to our preferences became the reigning idea of mainline Protestantism. It implies that there is nothing really exceptional about America. From this muddy well came the naïve universalism of Jimmy Carter and the Wilsonian optimism of George W. Bush.

American culture persists nonetheless. The great wave of migration to the West ended more than a century ago, but the restlessness remains. Americans will always seek frontiers to conquer. That is why we are a nation of entrepreneurs, tinkerers, experimenters, and innovators. It is possible to be a European conservative and consider technology a threat to culture, as did Tolkien, that most Catholic of 20th-century writers. American conservatives embrace entrepreneurship and technological innovation. Edmund S. Phelps, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in economics, argues convincingly that the moral foundation of the free enterprise system is the human impulse to innovate:

I personally hold that the classical spirit of challenge and self-discovery is a fundamental human trait. By showing how the risk-taking activity of individuals contributes to social benefits, economics helps societies to accommodate what Augustine called our “restlessness of heart.” This is the better part of our human nature. Societies that suppress this restlessness stagnate and die. The issue of morality in economics is neither the fairness of income distribution nor the stability of financial systems. It is how human institutions can be shaped to correspond to human nature—to man’s nature as an innovator.

Phelps’ characterization is true of Homo Americanus. Whether it is true of other cultures is debatable. In 2009, 24 employees of France Telecom killed themselves and another 13 tried to, after the government monopoly put them in different jobs. They were not in financial distress. They simply couldn’t bear the insecurity. One can’t imagine this in America. Working for the telephone company is something we abide if we must, not something to which we aspire. The France Telecom suicides do not prove that Frenchmen always are averse to risk; it was Napoleon, after all, who boasted that his private soldiers carried a field marshal’s baton in their backpacks. But Europe’s past experience of risk-taking is bound up with the rapacity of war, rather than pioneering and entrepreneurship, and it has not been altogether satisfactory.

American culture eschews timidity and celebrates the disruptive outsider. When innovation is grounded in Judeo-Christian ethics, the Augustinian restlessness of American culture serves a profound moral purpose. But there is also a dark side to the radical individualism bequeathed to us by our Protestant forebears. At its best American Protestantism is antinomian, prone to sectarianism, and vulnerable to the hucksters like Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. At its worst, the radical individualist can turn into a sociopath. We lack natural defenses against the predatory innovator.

That is the premise of America’s most original contributions to narrative prose, the hard-boiled detective story and the Western tale of vengeance. In the novels of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, the English detective corrects a temporary disturbance in the natural order of things. By contrast, evil runs out of control in the American detective novel and must be purged with blood. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest invented the genre. A nameless detective comes to a Montana mining town where the local tycoon had allied with gangsters to crush radical labor agitation. Everyone is corrupt: Capitalists and Communists, leading citizens and low-life gangsters simmer in the same pot of brimstone. Hammett’s Continental Op provokes a gang war that kills off the entire cast of characters. This is not tragedy, but black comedy; André Malraux accordingly praised Red Harvest as “Grand Guignol.”

The American journey is as central to Hammett’s story as it is to Mark Twain’s. At the apex of the slaughter, the nameless detective has a dream:

“I walked … half the streets in the United States, Gay Street and Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, Colfax Avenue in Baltimore, Aetna Road and St Clair Avenue in Cleveland, McKinney Avenue in Dallas, Lemartine and Cornell and Amory Streets in Boston, Berry Boulevard in Louisville, Lexington Avenue in New York, until I came to Victoria Street in Jacksonville … ”

Between Mark Twain and Dashiell Hammett, the American journey turns from pilgrimage to nightmare. Only an outsider, an exterminating angel, can purge the Satanic City. That is a side of American culture that makes us cringe. Hollywood has pillaged Hammett’s plots without ever quite depicting his exterminating angel on the screen. We are more comfortable with the Western avenger who kills the outlaws and rides into the sunset. But the Western hero is merely a knight errant with six-guns; Hammett’s Continental Op is a real American.


What is the future of American culture? The good news is that we still are able to ask the question. In the case of the traditional cultures of the Old World, we already know the sad answer. The hope of European conservatives as diverse as Eliot, Heidegger, and Tolkien has been disappointed. Europe no longer cares enough about its own future to produce a new generation. The European nations where traditional society was strongest until the 1960s—Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Poland—have suffered the fastest decline in fertility. European culture will live on wraith-like in the museum and the concert hall, but it already has lost its living power. American culture is hardier. Its roots lie not in places and habits, but in the restlessness of our hearts. It lacks consistency and continuity but shows itself in bursts of enthusiasm followed by periods of torpor.

Without faith, American culture becomes a parody of itself. There is no secular substitute, no “civic religion,” no next-best-thing. The condition of being American is a leap of faith. Faith enables a new nation to create its own roots by an act of adoption; without faith, we are deracinated.

The dark side of American culture, meanwhile, has grown darker. We have lost faith in eternal life and instead are fascinated by living death. Our most-watched TV series depicts a zombie apocalypse whose characters are unmistakably American: Even in a nightmare world they evince the initiative and grit that have always informed our national character. The zombie apocalypse is another incarnation of the American journey, to be sure, but one in which God is absent and satanic forces run wild. That is a disturbing evolution in American culture. For the first time in our history, we have raised up a pseudo-religion that preserves our old restlessness and awe of mortality, but without the Christian hope of redemption.

We have had dark days before. The Israel that dwells in America’s heart may return from exile again, and when we least expect it. From our nadir of the 1850s, no one could have predicted the appearance of a Lincoln—not even Lincoln himself, who underwent a religious conversion while in the White House.

It was only 36 years ago that President Jimmy Carter qualified America’s condition as “paralysis and stagnation and drift.” The dollar was crashing after a decade of stagflation, Soviet aggression was at its peak, and the world’s elites thought that America would lose the Cold War. But America arose from its torpor and rallied its moral energy.

The Reagan Revolution could not have happened without another Great Awakening. Between mid-1960s and the mid-2000s, a great migration away from mainline churches toward conservative Christian denominations transformed America’s religious landscape. There were many reasons for the resurgence of evangelical Christianity, but one of them surely is the example of the real, living people of Israel. If the idea of Israel was powerful enough to motivate the American journey at our founding, a fortiori the restoration of the living Israel to its ancient homeland resonated powerfully among American Christians. The fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jewish people after 2,000 years of exile was marvelous in the eyes of American Christians. The question never was whether America would save Israel, but whether Israel would save America.

For good reasons, we have the only national anthem that concludes with a question: “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Francis Scott Key’s work belongs to the sparse genre of great poems by awful poets (another is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Great stress may concentrate the thoughts of a mediocre versifier, like coal into diamonds, and that is what the Battle of Fort McHenry did for Key in 1814. The first light of the dawn has come. The bombardment has ceased. The poet demands that the listener say whether he still can see the flag above the ramparts. It is a fearsome moment; the hearer has watched through the night, and in a few moments he will see in the first light of day whether the flag is still there. All the fears of the nightly vigil peak in those few moments of anticipation. More than that: The hopes and fears of generations hang upon what the listener will espy as day breaks, as the poet demands an answer.

And then the poet repeats the injunction “Say!” and reverses the question: The flag, the object kept in suspense, no longer is the object of the poem. The vigil through the nocturnal bombardment, the fleeting view of the national colors, the moment of truth in the gathering light of dawn—these are a metaphor for the national condition. Key addresses the second “Say!” to all generations of Americans: Are you still brave enough to be free? Like Israel, we chose to be what we are, and every generation must make that choice for itself.

Lincoln warned that his Second Inaugural address would not be popular because “Men are not flattered by being shown that there is a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, though, in this case would be to deny that there is a God governing the world.” And he was right. We have locked Lincoln up in a marble box on the Washington Mall, in a mock-up of the Temple of Zeus at Olympus. There he sleeps, like Barbarossa in a cave under the Kyffhäuser. God help America’s enemies when he wakes.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.