How to Love America

Noah Millman proposes this (while meditating on G. K. Chesterton):

People feel an attachment, and a willingness to fight to protect, their homes, and their communities. That can take noble and ignoble forms — sometimes fighting to defend your community means committing injustice (as, for example, if you band together with your neighbors to prevent someone from a disfavored ethnic group from moving to the neighborhood). But the feeling is rooted in a direct experience, not an abstract attachment.

For any political community larger than a city, though, that attachment necessarily becomes abstract. So you need to teach your children why they should care about that larger community, be proud of it, and treat it as constituent of their identity.

Chesterton famously quipped that the sentiment, “my country, right or wrong” is like the sentiment, “my mother, drunk or sober.” But the thing about the latter is that she is your mother whether she’s drunk or sober — it’s just that your obligations change based on her condition. If she’s drunk, you won’t let her drive — instead, you’ll make sure she gets home safely.

The question, then, is how you teach your children to see their country as, in some sense, like a mother when their relationship is necessarily abstract rather than directly felt. A love of country based on the lie that your mother is never drunk will be too brittle to survive any kind of honest encounter with reality. But it seems to me equally problematic to say that you should love your country because it is on-balance a good one. Does anyone say about their mother that they love them because on-balance they are sober?

While Millman stresses the particular (a people, a place, a way of life — think baseball), Kevin DeYoung goes abstract and is thankful for the “idea” of America:

The United States of America began with the conviction that a nation should be founded upon truth. Not simply values or preferences, but upon truths. Self-evident truths that were true, are true, and will remain true no matter the time, the place, or the culture.

And central among these truths is the belief that all men are created equal. No one possesses more intrinsic worth for being born rich or poor, male or female, artisan or aristocracy. Of course, this truth, as much as any, unmasks our history of hypocrisy, for 3/5 of a person is an eternity from equality. But truth is still true. We all come into the world with the same rights and the same dignity–whether “gated community” in the world’s estimation or “trailer trash.”

These unalienable rights, we must note, are not granted by the Declaration of Independence. Our rights do not depend upon government for their existence. They are not owing to the largesse of the state or the beneficence of any institution. The rights of man are the gifts of God. The Creator endows; the state exists to protect. These unalienable rights can be suppressed or denied. But they cannot be annulled. We possess them–no matter what kings or parliaments say or presidents and congress decree–by virtue of being created in the image of our Creator.

Oh, by the way, if all humans have these rights irrespective of government, then how is that the basis for founding a nation? Didn’t this way of thinking lead in France to Napoleon’s wars to teach Europe liberty good and hard?

The thing is, if you stress ideas you wind up with a creedal nation, one that you tend to treat like a church, with people divided into the camps of orthodox and heretics, saints and pagans. Protestants suffer from this affliction and it shows in the recent anti-liberalism of Peter Leithart and Jake Meador.

Leithart took Matt Tuininga to task for turning Calvin into a liberal. Leithart added an objection to liberalism that fits with the nation-as-idea mentality:

Virtually none of liberalism’s theological critics objects to these forms and procedures as such. Their complaint isn’t against representative government or voting or freedom of speech and association. No one advocates a fusion of Church and state.

Rather, they claim that such a formal, procedural description masks the basic thrust of liberalism. Liberalism’s stated aim is to construct a society without substantive commitments, leaving everyone free to choose whatever his or her or hir own may be. Liberalism’s common good is to protect society from adopting any single vision of the common good. That’s a deviation from classical and traditional Christian politics (including Calvin’s), which sought to orchestrate common life toward a common end—the cultivation of virtue or the glory of God. In fact—and this is the other side of the critique—liberal societies do have substantive commitments. The liberal state pretends to be a referee, but beneath the striped shirt it wears the jersey of the home team. Under the cover of neutrality, liberal order embodies, encourages, and sometimes enforces an anthropology, ecclesiology, and vision of the good society that is often starkly at odds with Christian faith. Tuininga never confronts that line of analysis.

Since the U.S. is a liberal nation, it’s its liberal order becomes its an orthodoxy. But I thought the liberalism of the founders was not to form a society. They already had one — a people, a place, and a way of life. What they wanted was a liberal government, one that would not take sides in religion and other matters. If the U.S began to replace a liberal government with a liberal society, you could blame the centralizing and bureaucratizing effects of a national government that needed to organize the economy, schools, and industry to fight world wars, even cold ones. It really helps when the churches jump on the bandwagon and tell American officials the government is making the nation great.

Jake Meador thinks that the current spate of intolerance that liberals direct toward Christians is a function of liberalism itself:

If the move that western Christians attempt to make in response to all these challenges is to simply rebuild liberalism, then whatever victories we win will be short term. Liberalism is the soil from which the current regime has grown. It’s emphasis on individual autonomy and self-definition and the illegitimacy of unchosen authorities is precisely how we ended up where we are today.

So, two points: First, trying to Make Liberalism Great Again is probably no more realistic than trying to return America to the 1950s. In both cases, the order in question was the unique product of historical circumstances that our own era does not share. Thus any attempt to recreate said order is doomed to fail. Second, we need better language and concepts to make our case to both those within our church communities and those outside the church. Liberalism is not the way forward. It is the way toward further and deeper darkness. If we start thinking about common goods, shared life, and the neighborly arts, then we may be onto something. But all of these things, of course, assume a sort of communitarian sensibility that has always had a hard time reconciling itself to the deeply democratic, egalitarian nature of American Christianity. Therefore, whatever our project ends up being, it figures to be a long-term thing.

Meador should likely include Protestantism as the soil out of which liberal progressivism grew. Protestants were intolerant of Roman Catholics and other outsiders. Remember the threat that parochial schools posed to public ones and the way that American governments insisted no parochial school receive a whiff of public funding (still in the balance in SCOTUS’s recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer decision). He has a point about “common goods, shared life, and the neighborly arts.” I wish he had included baseball and drip coffee makers. But why these way-of-life matters are at odds with liberalism baffles me.

A truly liberal government, like the one the founders hoped for, was one with a fairly small footprint within the broader American society. Government, in other words, is not society. Communities and people groups have existed within the terms set by the founders for better or worse for the better part of two centuries.

The challenge for the U.S. on this holiday of independence is to figure out how to separate the nation from the government, so that officials do somethings, people and communities do other, and we have a national identity that does not revolve around an idea like liberty and justice for all, and the military campaigns that justify such abstract convictions.

To paraphrase Meador, Americanism or the liberal international order that the U.S. has maintained in its capacity as leader of the free world is not the way forward, at least for building attachments to the nation. We still need less national government, more attachments to people, places, and the ways of life that emerge from them.

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15 thoughts on “How to Love America

  1. “Oh, by the way, if all humans have these rights irrespective of government, then how is that the basis for founding a nation? Didn’t this way of thinking lead in France to Napoleon’s wars to teach Europe liberty good and hard?”

    You’ve argued this way against rights theory in the past and its fallacious, even if I agree with the direction you go with it. One could condemn all religion because the Muslims do it wrong, but does the fact that that Muslims are wrong condemn Christianity? Could it be that the French uniquely made a mistake in their theories of equality and fraternity that led them to behave as they did?

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  2. Joel, so if all people have rights from God and not government, how do you form a distinct group of rights receivers that comprise a nation? What do rights have to do with a nation? The UN or EU just become better affirmers of rights. So abolish the US.

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  3. Rights should affirm that you get to control your body and your property and nothing more. Other people don’t get to control your body or your property, if they are yours. If you affirm that, then you could say you believe in rights.

    If you simultaneously affirm that and that taxes are fine, then you’ve got a contradiction that could lead to bloodshed. If you agree with that idea of rights and that fraternity or equality is somehow required, you’ve got more contradictions.

    I don’t agree with the Declaration of Independence that rights are self-evident. I don’t think men are even equal, either. Unlike you, I’m no egalitarian about the sexes or mankind in general. The fifth commandment requires us to believe that there are superiors and inferiors, so equality is out. And I don’t think that a nation can be conjured up because of agreement about rights.

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  4. Actually, the founders were looking for a government with a larger footprint than what previously existed. Why? Because of the widespread discontent that the economic conditions back then had stirred as evidenced by Shays Rebellion. The founders wanted a gov’t that cuold better respond to future insurrections. In fact, one of the functions of the Militia, the one that provides the context for the 2nd Amendment, was to put down insurrections. In addition, the debate on the conditions of being a senator insulated Senators from popular opinion. The founders were worried about the future popularity of what they called ‘factions,’ which were those who disagreed with the founders on issues like debt and paper money. Basically, The Constitution was written in a way so that though there were some democratic elements added to the gov’t, it was meant to keep the status quo for many of the founders were wealthy.

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  5. Joel, how am I an egalitarian since I believe Presbyterians are superior to Baptists and the National League without DH is superior to the American League?

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  6. It seems I didn’t read what you wrote carefully. In my defense, it was from 2012:

    “The logic of hierarchy and patriarchy is not something that I am going to defend, myself. The little missus and I have reached a level of concord that most observers would call an egalitarian arrangement. I have no stones to through from the windows of my glass house. I do have the shield of two-kingdom theology, though, which allows me to have my cake (egalitarianism of a kind at home) and eat it too (hierarchicalism and patriarchy of a kind in the church).”

    That said, a DH is superior at hitting when compared to a pitcher, so clearly the AL is superior overall.

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  7. D.G.,
    Wealth is only scarey because of its relationship to power. And it seems that the predominant branch of the Church in many pre-revolutionary times favored wealth and power. In America, the predominant branch of the Church, that is conservative Protestantism, and you could throw in conservative Catholicism, favor wealth and power.

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  8. D.G.,
    Since when does loving everyone mean being quiet about sin?

    Again, history shows that when the Church sided with wealth and power just prior to the French, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions, and that not just to revolution, but to sinful reactions against the Church and the Gospel. And if you want to dispute that, try dealing with the history first lest we are tempted to repeat it.

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  9. Curt, since when does being loud about sin mean you talk about all sins? Haven’t you ever considered virtue signaling?

    Probably not. When self-righteous, rarely aware of self.

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  10. Curt, btw, I’m a Protestant. Of course, wealth and especially power corrupts the church.

    But when did you start talking about wealth in the church? We were talking about ‘merica.

    That’s right. You confuse nation and God’s kingdom.

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  11. D.G,
    Seems like you cannot discuss an issue without making personal accusations as if you are some ordained seer who uses perceived theological faults to peer into one’s soul. You mock instead of discuss issues.

    BTW, who talks about all sins? According to you, I don’t and that is fine. But according to you, there are no corporate sins and so neither do you.

    Finally, who said I was talking about wealth in the Church?

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