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America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion

Ed Simon on Thomas Paine's amorphous America.

In a 2005 essay for The Atlantic, the Anglo-American polemicist, journalist, and former radical Christopher Hitchens claimed that the “American Revolution is the only revolution that still resonates.” Turning away from his distant Trotskyite roots, Hitchens had recently embraced the Neo-Conservative project; the infamous atheist’s idea of America was not invested with millennial import. Now, more than a decade later, Hitchens’ contention seems at best woefully inadequate and at worst totally delusional. Cultural fault-lines have only deepened, the contradictions in late capitalism are exacerbating what appears to be a coming economic and ecological collapse, and the left has continued its needed critique of the hypocrisies inherent in the historical reality of the American ideal while the right seems to have rejected that creed in favor of an ethno-nationalist fascism. At the end of this decade there seems to be very little resonance in that utopian promise which orients itself towards an American city on a hill as the last, best hope of mankind.

Ed Simon gestures towards a different approach regarding the idea of America in his essay collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion. A specialist on early modern trans-Atlantic literature and religion who holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, Simon’s essays interrogate the idea of America as a religion, asking what we’re to do now that it appears that the American God has failed? Simon draws inspiration from the radical theologians of the previous century who asked what it meant to worship after the “Death of God,” applying their approaches to American civil religion, seeing “America” not as a thing which exists, but as something that has yet to be built. In contrast to Hitchens, Simon doesn’t think that the American Revolution has the same resonance in the 21st century – which is why he thinks that American Revolution is a pretty good idea.

Simon’s cultural criticism range across legacies of American violence as reflected in the colonial King Philips’ War, to the radical theology of Walt Whitman, the embodied poetics of Catholic relics housed in a Pittsburgh chapel, and the vernacular scripture of Bob Dylan. What unites Simon’s analysis is a concern for those deep cultural etymologies whereby our barely concealed histories still affect us today, asking what emancipatory potential might be hidden within that American civil religion that has so often failed? In the excerpt below he turns his attention to Thomas Paine, most radical of American revolutionaries who perhaps most fully understood the millennial potential of the new Republic. Unlike Hitchens, who wrote his own biography of Paine, Simon doesn’t interpret the figure through the myopic lens of a reductionist secularism that understands Paine as a New-Atheist-in-training. Rather, Simon returns Paine to his radical, dissenting, non-conformist religious roots, imploring his reader to understand that anemic political discourse cannot match the scriptural idiom’s enchanted power to critique injustice.

The Non-Apotheosis of Thomas Paine “For there’s no gods/And there’s precious few heroes.” -Dick Gaughin   “The King of England looking westward trembles at the vision.” – William Blake Since it became America’s Bohemia, its “Republic of Dreams” as it’s been called, many ...