God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead

The 21st century has begun, and few could argue that it has launched with a bang, not a whimper. Less than one decade into the third millennium, and nearly all of the events, values, and patterns that dictated the direction of history over the last three centuries are being called into question. Francis Fukuyama has posited that we are living in the “end of history.” Historians wonder if the age of Anglo-Saxon preeminence has come to and end. Economists and clergy alike interact with the relationship between faith and prosperity. Sociologists examine the impact globalization is having on social ills like poverty and disease. Western Europe is frequently described as a “post-Christian” culture, with America said to be not far behind. The role of faith in the institutions of society (the academy, the workplace, politics, the arts) is scrutinized routinely, and aggressively. The impact the American experiment has had on the human condition is debated passionately, with varying conclusions offered from all sides of the economic, religious, and political spectrums. The era of the “American empire” is called into question repeatedly, and some would say, so is the very future of western civilization.

These contemporary discussions do not lend themselves to linear thought processes. Simple premises, followed by simple conclusions, are hardly helpful. These are gigantic themes, requiring complex and nuanced perspectives. Bland understandings of history, culture, and philosophy are nuisances. Fortunately, in the midst of a need for serious and great discussion and understanding of these issues comes God and Gold, by the incomparable Walter Russell Mead, one of the best books I have ever read, and perhaps the most insightful and intellectual commentary on the present historical paradigm to have ever been penned.

Norman Podhoretz once said of William Buckely that he ought to have two types of fans: those who admire him for his ideological contributions and impeccable writing abilities, and then those who admire him for his impeccable writing abilities. Buckley’s most ardent foes could not deny that he was a gifted writer, perhaps as remarkable in his poetry, creativity, and vocabulary as he was in his brilliant contributions to social and political thought. Mead is such a writer as well. It would take a rare kind of illiterate to not appreciate the remarkable writing abilities of Walter Russell Mead, regardless of one’s feelings on his historical and socio-political commentary. This alone is reason enough to commend this fine work, but much more needs to be said.

I have long been an outspoken advocate of “American exceptionalism” – the seemingly irrefutable contention that America possesses a special place in God’s plan and God’s providence. Her heritage screams of her exceptionalism, and the future carries with it the magnificent responsibility that America’s lot has created. What Mead does in this book is expand on “American exceptionalism”, and essentially show how the greatness and responsibility ushered in over the last three centuries is really an extension of the exceptionalism of the entire Anglo-Saxon civilization. Mead defines this in the context of the synthesis between the Anglo-Saxon “religious belief system and its historical experience.” The Anglo-Saxon attitude was one where “a new kind of religious equilibrium in which capitalism and social change came to be accepted as good things.” He refers to this as the “Whig narrative.” The book devotes massive space to analyzing the historical roots of Anglo-Saxon civilization, and drawing the parallels between Cromwell’s England, and what would become the great American experiment. The history lesson alone is worth this 400-page read.

But alas, this is not merely an historical text. It is deeply ideological and extraordinarily provocative. As one who considers the integration of the Judeo-Christian faith with the forces of modernity, progress, and economic advancement to be the great and crucial issue of our time, no issue could be of greater interest to this reviewer. Rooted in the Anglican triad of reason, revelation, and tradition, Mead analyzes with much depth the religious foundation of Western civilization and the cultural forces that created the paradigm we now face. The extraordinary challenge of establishing global democratic peace is critiqued, along with the delusional utopianism that such is often (though not always) accompanied by. To Mead, “we are not in an age of collapsing grand narratives; we are in an age of competing grand narratives”, and it is this competition that creates the stage for the modern dialogue. Mead’s admiration for the role of capitalism in setting the world stage is clear to see, and he views Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as a defining mark of the Anglo paradigm (the whig narrative). “The cult of the invisible hand, uniquely intense, uniquely widespread and all-pervading, may be the chief difference between the English-speaking world and the rest of the world.” Mead credits America’s birth to the bridging of Smith’s invisible hand with Jefferson’s idea of democracy (“an adaptation of the dynamics of the invisible hand to the political sphere: the action of individual human beings, controlled only by their sense of their own interests, producing an orderly and harmonious society.” Other societies had possessed capitalist underpinnings, and other societies had embraced democratic ideals. But it is the mix of a “capitalist system .. with a political system and political values that can accommodate the clashes of opposed interest without blowing up” that made our great experiment unique and profound.

Mead pulls no punches in demonstrating liberal democratic capitalism to be rooted in the heritage of Christianity. The noted trend towards secularization (post-Darwin) in American thought and life do not negate the rich and abundant heritage this country has in a Protestant faith. To Mead, this is not merely anecdotal. Our societal temptations and distractions do not redefine who we are as a people. And who we are has always been a people rooted in faith, law, order, and values; and yet, we are a people with an insatiable appetite for advancement and progress. To analyze our place in the world without such a backdrop is futile.

While in a moment I will highlight what I feel is the true optimo maximus of this project, Mead leaves his readers with a deeply convicting challenge that I suspect will take a generation to accomplish. He posits, much to the chagrin of evangelicals, of neoconservatives, of those on the right, of those on the left, of internationalists, of utopians, of progressives, of protectionists, and of market-driven globalists, that much – much – is to be done toward the goal of “surfing the waves of global change.” He vindicates no one in his work here, and challenges all. On one hand, he points out that “the Whigs will not build a global Tower of Babel, a single set of laws and values that overshadow the whole world”. Yet, he also affirms that “those who resist and oppose the Whig civilization will be unable to free themselves from its presence.” Understanding our place in the world requires a vigilant aggression against the forces of violence and tyranny that threaten us (the Cold War Soviets in the last generation; the Islamic Jihadists in the current one). But to Mead, we must “maintain a critical stance towards our own moral and political claims.” We must pursue incremental and partial victories while simultaneously resisting the utopian fantasies that we can usher in the Kingdom of God. A “capacity for action and assertion with a capacity for reflection and self-criticism” is an obtainable and noble goal. Mead largely appeals to the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr as it pertains to foreign policy, a Protestant theologian known for his conversion to hawkish and aggressive foreign policy, all the while maintaining liberal social and economic views. But beyond the specifics of various policy matters, Mead’s appeal to Niebuhr is fundamentally an appeal for members of this Whig narrative, and members of faith communities more particularly, to “engage more intelligently, compassionately, and effectively with the world.” Mead touts the incrementalism of Niebuhr, what he refers to as the idea of “just enough.” His pleading is compelling: “American society is gradually gaining the capacity to play the global role to which its economic and geopolitical success has called it. And while I do not know to what degree Americans can gain the ability to conduct a more fruitful diplomacy of civilizations, I am certain it is our duty as well as in our interest to try (emphasis mine).”

I have mentioned the massive historical task of Mead’s work, and I have summarized his underlying thesis: that faith and pursuit of prosperity have intertwined in this historical experiment to create a truly exceptional society, and one with tremendous global responsibility in the present age. But it is Mead’s last chapter, titled “The Meaning of it All”, that ought to be required reading for every student from junior high school through advanced graduate school in the western hemisphere. This is, indeed, the optimo maximus (the best and greatest) of his project. He examines the claims and concerns that Anglo-Saxon culture will end up in the ash heap of history, alongside the Greeks and Romans before them. He wonders if the goal to “establish just, orderly, prosperous, stable and free world societies on the basis of liberal and democratic capitalism” is one of lasting significance. And, needless to say, he demolishes the pretensions that the answer to the former is yes, and to the latter no. For Mead, the contributions of the Anglo-Saxon world to the formation of a truly global society is a substantial achievement, and allegations that at the roots of this historical movement lie mere superficiality, materialism, and rank hedonism, are patently false.

The aspirations of the American experiment to create a materially prosperous society do not pit material wealth against intellectual and moral strength. Mead asks, “if the project of material betterment is really the only thing that liberal society offers mankind, then what becomes of qualities like self-sacrifice, nobility, courage, and honor?” Indeed, if the end run of the American experiment is, as Mead jokingly mentions, Homer Simpson, isn’t this an anti-climactic disaster? Mead is blistering, emphatic, and delicious in his answer to this “make or break” question. He believes that to interpret the material aspirations of the Whig narrative in this capacity is to not only “miss the essential point of the Anglo-American project”, but “to miss the grandeur of the human race” as well. I quote Mead verbatim:
“The quest for more scientific and technical knowledge, and for the application of the fruits of that knowledge to ordinary human life, is not simply a quest for faster cars and better television reception. It is a quest to fulfill the human instinct for change arising out of a deep and apparently built-in human belief that through change we encounter the transcendent and divine. The material and social progress that is such a basic feature of Anglo-American society and of the broader world community gradually taking shape within the framework the Anglo-Americans have constructed ultimately reflects a quest for meaning, not a quest for comfort and wealth.”

Our quest produces material benefits, surely. In fact, the American experiment has also created many Homer Simpsons. But, and this can be said forcefully enough, at its root, the American experiment has not been one of mere material frivolity. It has been an “encounter with transcendence that requires us to leave the familiar and embrace the challenge of a new kind of life in an ever-developing world.” Mead goes so far as to say that “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 risks.” Mead captures here what I think is the essence of this highly toxic topic in the present state of affairs: It is mankind’s innate pursuit of adventure and innovation and change and expansion that capitalism most fully cultivates – not mankind’s depraved tendencies toward sloth and depravity. “Human nature demands conflict and competition, not tranquility and sloth.” The lesson of the American experiment is the testimony to this principle: that men, in pursuit of the peace they crave with their Creator, are most capable to excel, climb higher, and pursue destiny, when the context they function within promotes their instinctive drive for development and growth. The Anglo-Saxon world has captured this, and civilization will never be the same.

Questions abound as to what the future holds for the west. Great political and social questions and controversy abound. These are dynamic issues, and dynamic questions, and no black and white answers exist. How will the great project of the last few hundred years end up? Mead does not issue any guarantees. But I close with his prediction, one worth reading the entire masterpiece of a book to get to:
“I cannot predict how this will end. But it seems likely that as the historical process continues to accelerate, and even as dangers surround us on every hand, much of American society is going to approach this new and so far rather unsettling century with the optimistic faith in the invisible hand that has long been our hallmark. One way or another, large numbers of Americans are likely to continue to believe that the values that have shaped the Anglo-American world and by which the Anglo-Americans have gone on to take the lead in the last three tumultuous centuries remain the values that bring success in their daily economic and political pursuits. They will also continue to believe that these values are leading us westward and upward .. America will continue rushing forward, however steep the slope of forbidding the terrain, bearing its banner with the strange device: Excelsior!”

Loftier, still higher, ever upward, indeed.

‘God Bless America