The Arch Anglos

By Philip Jenkins,
author of "God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis"
Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World

By Walter Russell Mead

Knopf. 449 pp. $27.95

For Walter Russell Mead, the story of modernity is largely the history of the English-speaking peoples. Over the past five centuries, the central fact of global politics, he argues, has been the rise to dominance first of Great Britain and then of the United States. Modernity has been defined by these two countries and the common political and moral culture they represent. Mead acknowledges minor outbreaks of family unpleasantness such as the American War of Independence, but he also shows that European critics have some truth on their side when they denounce "the Anglo-Saxons" as ever eager to impose their values on the rest of the world.

In his well-written and very wide-ranging "God and Gold," Mead traces the rise of this common culture, stressing the historical continuities from Britain to America. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he points to the deep British roots of contemporary U.S. political ideologies, which find powerful parallels with 17th-century Puritans such as Oliver Cromwell. Like Ronald Reagan in his day, Cromwell assumed that his nation existed to spread liberty and justice around the world, to tear down walls of oppression, "to usher in a peaceful, liberal, and prosperous world order." Anyone who opposed this ambition must be a depraved enemy of truth, and of God.

Seventeenth-century English Puritans would have understood instantly that a devastating assault on the homeland was an attack not just on the national interest but also on liberty and the divine mission: They might well have responded, as President Bush did, that "Freedom itself was attacked . . . and freedom will be defended." Yet this pursuit of freedom must of necessity include compromises and betrayals, alliances with dubious nations abroad, and sometimes repression at home. Only by understanding the English roots, Mead claims, can we make sense of the contemporary American project, and of its paradoxes.

Anglo-American ideology is inseparable from economic success, Mead explains. Without very firm economic foundations, the Anglosphere could not have won the many wars through which it built its global power. From at least the 17th century, the British Empire depended on structures of private and public credit that were light-years ahead of those available to any possible rival, so that the British state could fully exploit the success of private economic enterprise. Both Britain and the United States have developed flourishing consumer-oriented market societies hospitable to technological innovation.

But God, in Mead's view, is the essential source of gold: Economic success grew out of particular forms of religion, especially individualistic Protestantism. He accepts Max Weber's argument that radical Protestantism led to thrift and economic accumulation, but he also goes well beyond that notion. English-speaking Christians, Mead suggests, were fascinated by the story of Abraham, who received a special calling that took him to a new, promised land. They embraced a dynamic form of Christianity, which not only accepted capitalism but actively welcomed its consequences, as believers moved continually forward along the paths God prepared for them. Industrial and commercial progress was thus the work of entrepreneurs who were motivated by far more than personal greed. "Capitalism gives full expression to the side of human nature that responds to this Abrahamic call to embrace dynamic religion with all its perils and its risks," writes Mead. He is sympathetic to the modern evangelical heirs of that tradition, with their continuing belief in extending ideas of rights and justice. As such, he argues, those evangelicals might yet play a critical and positive role in U.S. foreign policy.

In most ways, Mead's argument is convincing. Long-term Anglo-American continuities do exist, and historians who try to explain American conditions without knowing the English background are missing half the story: Just compare the English Bill of Rights of 1689 with its much more famous American cousin a century later. And the activities of the two intertwined systems over the past few centuries have indeed driven much of the world's history, in matters such as globalization and imperial expansion, the spread of capitalism and modern technology, of consumerism, urbanism and mass society.

Yet questions do remain. Are Anglo-Americans really so peculiar in their identification of national interest with a universal liberating ideology? Mead himself provides evidence to the contrary, when he discusses the long tradition of European attacks on sinister Anglo-American conspiracies, the often bizarre precursors of modern anti-Americanism. What are these rants but complaints that the Anglo-Saxon project stands in the way of the competing schemes of other nations? The Russians, Germans and French all have pursued expansive mystical and millenary visions that sound a lot like the Anglo-Saxon themes described here, however differently they are phrased. As to whether Anglo-American religious beliefs bred capitalism, many historians would trace the roots of England's commercial and economic success back well before the rise of Protestantism and suggest that it had more to do with the flexible workings of the common law than with any religious ideology. Without their distinctive inheritance customs, including the strong tradition of primogeniture, English elites would never have accumulated the wealth that made all later investment and development possible.

These complaints apart, "God and Gold" makes a very strong case for the Anglo-American origins of modern liberal and democratic assumptions, and it argues convincingly that religion played a critical part in that story. Until we appreciate this, we stand little chance of realizing why our seemingly self-evident values run into real difficulty in other parts of the world, which prefer to rely on their own traditions and narratives. "God and Gold" demands a serious rethinking of how we study and write modern history -- and of how the West pursues its relationship with the Rest.

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