Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece on the two U.S. narratives that have vied with each other for the last thirty-five years.
The liberal narrative (with President Obama functioning as story-teller in chief) runs like this:
“That’s not who we are.” So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.
The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.
. . . In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.
Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.
Then there’s the conservative narrative (with Trump adding Jacksonian democratic accents):
But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.
As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”. . .
But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.
Douthat wonders if one narrative is any longer possible.
But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.
What he observes though is a truth about liberal progressive narratives that we also see in mainline Protestantism — historical denial (read fake history). The PCUSA can’t talk about the days it opposed Arminianism, refused to ordain women, and possessed Princeton Theological Seminary as its chief intellectual jewel. No mainline Presbyterian today recognizes the names of William Adams Brown, Robert Speer, or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Why? Because they were not who contemporary Presbyterians are. They don’t measure up to the present.
The same goes for political progressives. They have no useful past in the actual institutions of national life because old Americans are not contemporary Americans. It is what it is becomes we are who we are. We have no capacity to say “we are who we were” even in part.
If that’s so, let’s not simply ban the confederate flag. Let’s burn the U.S. flag — what a racist, misogynist, heterosexist, capitalist country. How dare President Obama wear a flag lapel pin.
Even better — let’s move to Mars where we can reboot the human race.
18 thoughts on “America Is Not America (part one)”
Maybe this is why it’s so popular to be a past -free Really New Calvinist. “New Calvinist” is not new enough since the original New Calvinists (Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones) would have some significant disagreements with Really New Calvinists. And how long until even the fake newsish terms “Calvinist” and “(R)eformed” are too restricting (even as phonily and reductionistically defined) for the Coalitional wokevangelicals? Some new term is coming, of that I’m sure.
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Why do you guys get the idea that the New Calvinists lie in the vein of Obama? Most of Keller’s followers disdain him for even bothering with clowns like John Piper and Don Carson. The New Calvinists are still fairly committed to female subordination. By contrast, I suspect that the Kelleresque wing of the PCA will be ordaining women to office before too long.
Bobby/Evan, you need to think outside the literal box. New Calvinists do to Calvinism what Obama did to Americanism. They take away its particularities and act like you can have Calvinism/America without warts.
It’s called Situational Puritanism of Convenience.
We should be able to easily say that America has never been what it should be. While the liberals should be saying that this or that is not what we should be. Conservatives are deliberately blind to exploitation that comes from racism and classism on which America was founded and still exists. What we should remember about the European traditions on which America is that they assume the right to have empires and rule over those from other races.
Curt, conservatives are blind the way that liberals are blind to President Obama’s wars in the middle east? In case you haven’t noticed, the really intolerable aspect here is the selectivity. You keep bringing up Germany. You’ve got any answer for your friend Joe Stalin?
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We did not choose to be born in America, so doesn’t that prove that it’s grace to be born in America?
Was the election of Obama and Trump an accident OR was it OUR mistake?
Nobody I ever voted for ever became President. I never voted.
If American cannot become some better, isn’t that saying that America is equivalent to what America always was?
We made some bad decisions, but that’s not who we are?
If America did something terrible even one time, does that mean that American could maybe do it again?
when we go to the meetings, we say, We are Americans, it’s been four years since we voted
but we were born here, and so we cannot say that we are not Americans anymore (we are not baptists anymore)
we can watch everybody else, but nobody but us can watch us
having a king was not His idea
your idea, God told them, but God is still king
and what will happen now with your king
is not God’s will but then again not against God’s will
call it a “hand over”
since you did not choose your parents, and you did not choose where to be born
therefore it must be all grace, not a choice
so why do you hear so many sermons commanding you to “become what you are”?
Do this because of who you are now or because of who you will become—Those appeals makes sense.
But become what you are?
If we are x, we do not need to become x unless of course there is some kind of “as if fiction” happening.
Because you are justified, become thankful
If you are justified, you stay justified, unless you are in a covenant where Christ is not the mediator.
if you are justified, you don’t become condemned, unless you are in a covenant which is not governed by election and take as good news an atonement which is not governed by election.
Nobody has always been justified, but those who have been justified are not still being justified, unless they are in a covenant where law is grace and grace is law.
Sam Storms: “The contention is that the blessings listed in Hebrews 6: 4-5 are experienced neither by the “saved” nor the “unsaved” but by those persons who belong to the covenant community but who have not been regenerated or come to saving faith in Christ. The contention is that to such persons the warning passages, threatening the consequences of apostasy, are addressed. Other views are faulted for failing to recognize “a category for a person who is in the covenant but not personally united by living faith to Jesus Christ”
Sam Storms– I find this entirely unpersuasive. There is no indication in the New Testament that anyone was regarded as a member of the New Covenant (as promised in Jeremiah 31 ) apart from faith in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. …
You’re correct about Liberals being blind to Obama’s wars. But us leftists saw a preview of that in 2006 when the Dems won the House. After that election, they were hardly seen again at anti-war protests. It is called tribalism.
As for Stalin, like Lenin, he was a murderous thug only Lenin was a Stalin-lite figure. But why would you think he is a friend of mine when there have been plenty of real socialists who opposed Stalin and some of them also opposed Lenin? Those of us who opposed them did not see them as Socialists. Do you know why?
Curt, they weren’t socialists because they didn’t meet your moral standard? They didn’t bring utopia to fruition?
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“Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece…” You lost me right there.
Wholesome (hee hee), I thought I lost you in 2013.
You seem unaware of the different kinds of socialists that exist. Not all believe in creating a utopia. And though Stalin never met my moral standard, that is not the reason why I do not regard him as a Socialist nor do I think of how Lenin led the USSR as being socialist. At the heart of Lenin’s and Stalin’s rule was a bourgeoisie model of elite-centered rule. One of the basic tenets of Socialism has been proletariat rule. To me, since proletariat rule is the flip side to bourgeoisie rule, another way must be thought of. What I have concluded is that workers and owners must share power with each other as equal partners in both the private and public sectors.
Curt, “What I have concluded is that workers and owners must share power with each other as equal partners in both the private and public sectors.”
what hard headed realism.
“…Stalin never met my moral standard…”
Virtue…SIGNALLED. How about Che, Angela Davis, Bill Ayers?
If I’m an owner and have assumed the higher risk and made the greater investment monetarily, I’m never going to share power ‘equally’ with my employees. Now, If I’m amenable to a partnership and they want to make an equal monetary and risk investment, THEN and ONLY THEN can we talk about sharing power equally. And even then, we’re going to divvy up power and responsibility along the lines of capability and who brought the deal(i.e. the germination of the idea, concept, control of patent-technology, etc.). Share power equally?! Pshaw. Pony up, commissar.
Heh.. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che, Castro,… none of them were *real* socialists. If they were, their economies would have worked without the wholesale slaughter of 10’s of millions of people – ergo they weren’t *real* socialists. Or maybe they are just a different kind of socialist… When your assumption and conclusion is that socialism is good, you gotta do what you gotta do to save appearances. Here is where Popper’s evisceration of the various flavors of Marxism as a branch of scientific politics comes to the fore. It’s utterly unfalsifiable (that’s not a complement).
Who were the *real* socialists that actually built a lasting political regime without mass violence against dissent? They are hanging out with the true Scot.