cover image American Beliefs: What Keeps a Big Country and a Diverse People United

American Beliefs: What Keeps a Big Country and a Diverse People United

John Harmon McElroy. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, $25 (288pp) ISBN 978-1-56663-231-7

It is axiomatic in some quarters that, while traditional nations such as France are bonded by blood and language, the U.S. is founded on ideas and beliefs. In chapters devoted to frontier beliefs, immigrant beliefs, religious and moral beliefs, social beliefs, political beliefs and others, University of Arizona English professor McElroy sets out to delineate the beliefs that define the American nation. Noting that beliefs are not necessarily consciously held but that they do exist in a culture, he gives brief, serviceable historical summaries of how American beliefs took root and evolved. Among those beliefs are: ""everyone must work""; ""improvement is possible""; ""each person is responsible for his own well being""; ""America is a chosen country""; ""achievement determines social rank""; ""the least government possible is the best""; human beings will abuse power when they have it."" Sometimes, McElroy comes close to peddling a triumphalist history of the spread of European ideas in a savage land. But he generally, if dutifully, notes that it took some time for a majority to extend the most cherished of American beliefs (in liberty and equality) to all of society (slavery, he writes, was a ""perversion of American beliefs""). In the end, however, his laundry list of American beliefs is an exercise more in cataloguing than analysis. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Apr.)