Church and Nation: A Credal Nation, Part I
In introducing this series last week, I noted that I had been careful in my choice of the title "Church and Nation" rather than "Church and State." I intend in this series to focus primarily on what are called the "national questions," as well as moral and social ones, and in my mind, that meant taking as a given the American constitutional system, both historically and in its doppelganger form today.
A number of comments on that first installment, however, have convinced me that I was a bit too optimistic in thinking that I could simply ignore the big pink elephant in the corner. I'm referring, of course, to the common assumption that the American nation is unlike any other; that, rather than being a people bound together by a common language, culture, genetic endowment, homeland, and history (among other things), the American nation is a "proposition" or "credal" nation.
To the extent that this view is true (or even, to the extent that we believe that this view is true), it raises the question that many of the commenters addressed (and that I was attempting to duck): Can Christians (not just Catholics) give their assent to a nation whose essential creed is not consonant with the creeds of Christianity?
The first thing to note is how many of the commenters speak as if America is a credal nation, while giving every indication that they don't believe that America should be one (or, at least, should not be formed by this particular creed). This, as I suggested in a comment on the earlier thread, is the weak point in the arguments put forward by both John Rao and David Schindler. While neoconservative Catholics such as Michael Novak (Schindler's bête noire) have been prominent supporters of the credal nation idea, Schindler (and Rao, in his own way) has essentially accepted the basic premise; he just disagrees with the neocon trinity (Novak, Neuhaus, and Weigel) that the particular creed at the heart of the American nation is acceptable to Catholics.
But is America really a "credal nation"? Or, more broadly (yet more to the point), is it even possible to say that any nation can be a "credal nation" without making nonsense of the word nation?
I dealt with a similar claim in my critical essay in the second edition of Justin Raimondo's Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (just released by ISI Books). Justin argues that "the very heart of the American conservative soul" is a "nationalism that was unlike any other. Unique in that it was founded neither in ancient folk dances, nor religion, nor ethnicity, but in an abstract and revolutionary idea inextricably bound up with the American character: the idea of liberty."
As I wrote:
For the traditionalist, such a claim is bound to bring to mind the "proposition nation" or "credal nation" view of America associated most often with Harry Jaffa, a disciple of political philosopher Leo Strauss, but more broadly with modern neoconservatism. True, the proposition that the Straussians and neocons find at the heart of "the American experiment" is equality, not liberty, but the form—"an abstract and revolutionary idea bound up with the American character"—is the same.
The trouble that traditionalists have with abstract and revolutionary ideas is that they are, well, abstract and revolutionary. Indeed, the more abstract they are, the more revolutionary they are. There is no single "idea of liberty." I have one; Justin Raimondo has one; and John Podhoretz has one. And I dare say that no two of the three completely coincide (though one of the three may not overlap at all with the other two.) President George W. Bush, in his Second Inaugural Address, may have used the word freedom more often than any other word, and he undoubtedly would regard it as a synonym for liberty; but his vision of freedom is very different from, and less traditionally American than, Justin Raimondo's understanding of liberty.
[Still] Raimondo, despite his own words, is not really talking about an abstract idea of liberty but a peculiarly American one, rooted in the traditions of the American people, which, however much they may diverge in historical particulars from the traditions of Europe, are themselves rooted in the broader traditions of European (particularly Anglo-Saxon) civilization. We value limited government, for instance, not because it is some Platonic ideal, or because it conforms to the (abstract) libertarian ideal of nonaggression, but because it is part of our historical experience, and our historical experience has shown us its value (even if we have been made aware of its value most often in its absence).
This, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter in any discussion of a "credal nation." As John Lukacs has repeatedly pointed out, what ideas do to men is far less important (and less interesting) than what men do to and with ideas.
There is no doubt that the idea of America as a credal nation has been used to great advantage by men from Lincoln to George W. Bush. And the fact of multiethnic immigration to the United States (pre-1965, let alone post-) has made it easier to sell the idea that what binds us together is not a common language, culture, genetic endowment, homeland, and history, but an "abstract and revolutionary idea," whether equality or liberty.
As I have discussed in a number of articles in Chronicles and elsewhere and in two speeches at the John Randolph Club, this idea was used in an Americanization campaign in the early 20th century to strip Continental immigrants (many of them Catholic) of their particular European ethnic identities—all in the name of aiding "assimilation." While superficially successful (these groups began to regard themselves as fully American to the extent that they rejected their native traditions, language, and culture and subscribed instead to the American "creed"), the process had the opposite effect in the long run. The true assimilation that comes from living together and developing common traditions and a common history—the assimilation that actually creates a nation—was strangled in its crib. (The better route would have been to cut off immigration and to let assimilation occur naturally.)
And yet, despite the obvious effects that policies predicated on the idea of America as a credal nation have had, their success has proved the point: To the extent that we can say that there is an American national identity today, it is in spite of, not because of, the concept of credal nationhood. The nation is not found in the credal capitol of Washington, D.C., but where nations are always found—in the surviving traditions and folkways of people living real, rooted lives on the land where their fathers lived and died.
Having gone on at too great a length already, I'll save one final point—that "credal nationhood" is, and always has been, more about the state than about the nation—for my next post.
Previous Installments in "Church and Nation":
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- Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture | Your Home for Traditional Conservatism » Church and Nation: A Credal Nation, Part 2
- Eunomia » “Just” Loyalty To A Place On The Map
- Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture | Your Home for Traditional Conservatism » Church and Nation: A Credal Nation, Part 3