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.

Advertisements