How Many Times Can the U.S. Lose Its Innocence?

One of my favorite books in grad school was Henry F. May’s The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Time, 1912-1917. The book is a masterful treatment of the variety of literary, philosophical, and political developments that replaced Victorianism with a modernist sensibility.

Turns out, after President Trump’s moral equivalency of the U.S. and Russia — “what do you think? Our country is so innocent.” — that May was wrong. The U.S., even its intellectual class, may have left Victorian moralism behind, but we are still firmly committed to our innocence. Here was how the editors at the Baltimore Sun responded:

Now imagine that if instead of Donald Trump, those two statements had been made by President Barack Obama. Or, perhaps this is a better comparison — imagine them said by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the Chicago pastor who made similarly controversial statements that Mr. Obama, a former Wright parishioner, denounced. Had those roles been reversed and the last president been the one cozying up to Russia, flag-waving Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media would be savaging Mr. Obama as a traitor to his country.

To equate Mr. Putin and his authoritarian policies (that have led to journalists being jailed and killed, incidentally) with those of the United States is truly beyond the pale. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could at least bring himself to tell reporters there is no “equivalency” between Russian behavior and U.S. policy, the overall reaction of the GOP establishment has amounted to little more than a shrug.

The U.S. is holier than Russia. I can live with that, except that standards of holiness have not been the main occupation of journalists during the last few decades. But innocence, freedom from the guilt of sin, is pretty hard to come by, especially for Calvinists who know that

All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever. (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 19)

In which case, Christians who are supposed to believe in the fall, should have some sympathy with President Trump’s remark. After all, the apostle Paul wrote, “None is righteous, no not one.” (Rom. 3:10)

What secularists do with claims of national innocence is harder to discern if they cut themselves off from the Christian tradition. Here Conor Cruise O’Brien’s reflections on American innocence from thirty-five years ago may be a help:

“We lost our innocence in the Seventies and, for the first time, a war.” Thus lamented New York magazine on the last day of the period in question, December 31, 1979. The lost war is not hard to identify, but the lost innocence is worthy of respectful and inquisitive wonder.

The French lost a war (admittedly, not for the first time) in the Sixties, in Algeria, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as those for which the United States, ten years later, lost a war in Indochina. Negative generalizations are usually hazardous, but I offer confidently the proposition that no Frenchman wrote, and no French periodical published, at the end of the Sixties, any claim that France had lost its innocence as well as a war during that period. . . .

No nation, not even the one that celebrated its two-hundredth birthday four years ago, can plausibly lay claim to such innocence. . . . If on behalf of the United States the valid point were made that all other nations had also committed crimes, I might then rejoin: “That is quite so, but I must stick to the case in hand. Only one nation has submitted a case for canonization.” (Harpers, April 1980)

And, get this, O’Brien traces such claims to innocence, back to America’s Protestant churches. Wonder of wonders: American innocence is a product of Protestant self-righteousness.

As a remedy for such delusional immodesty, total depravity anyone?

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About D. G. Hart

D. G. Hart lives in Michigan with his wife, Ann, and their two cats, Isabelle and Cordelia, where he teaches history at Hillsdale College. Hart used to be an East-Coast snob (though he still roots for the Phillies) but while living in a small mid-western town he has learned that life exists outside the Northeast Corridor.
He is currently completing a global history of Calvinism and plans to write books on H. L. Mencken and American religion, and on Roman Catholicism and American conservatism.