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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Why the Bible Cuts Both Ways — two-edged sword and all that

Peter Leithart’s comments on Eran Shalev’s American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War reminded me of what I learned from Sunday’s sermon (a week ago) from II Chronicles 36, the culmination of Judah’s fall from grace, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the beginning of the people of God’s status as refugees (which continues). This narrative includes the hard-to-spin wrinkle of Zedekiah, Judah’s king, rebelling against a pagan and foreign king, Nebuchadnezzar, a figure whom the Israelites would normally have regarded as a tyrant and against whom legitimately rebelled. But when Zedekiah doesn’t submit to Nebuchadnezzar, the writer likens Judah’s king to Pharoah — the stiffnecked oppressor who held the Israelites in slavery:

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD. He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God. He stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD, the God of Israel. All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the LORD that he had made holy in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 36:11-14 ESV)

This is the sort of narrative that folks like John of Salisbury or Thomas Aquinas may have cited to show that tyranny was not always bad. Well, to be precise, it was bad in the sense of not being the way things were supposed to be. But not bad in the sense that this was a form of rule that God was using to punish his people.

And yet, the American colonists, led by Calvinists as we keep hearing, never stopped to consider whether King George was their Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord’s appointed ruler to mete out punishment for disobedience and infidelity. According to Leithart (following Shalev):

During the Revolution, writers and preachers turned to the historical books of the Hebrew Bible to fill out ancient Roman analyses of political corruption. George III was Rehoboam, Solomon’s son whose high taxes divided Israel, or Ahab, who seized the vineyard of innocent Naboth. The charges against King George were sometimes moderated by reference to the book of Esther: The hapless king was manipulated by Haman-like advisors who turned him against the children of the land of the Virgin. Patriots were Mordecais or Maccabees, while loyalists were “sons of Meroz,” a Hebrew town cursed because its inhabitants refused to follow Deborah and Barak into battle. Colonial writers saw links with Roman history: Washington was Cincinnatus. But Washington was also Gideon, the judge who delivered Israel and very deliberately refused an offer of kingship.

Of course, the American rebels didn’t have a prophet to tell them what to think about King George the way that Zedekiah had Jeremiah to whisper advice or shout warning. And that’s the point. Without divine revelation, how do you interpret any ruler or set of events (or culture or city or television series) as in accord with or against divine will? (And when will the students of American politics who seem to enjoy pointing out the biblical context for political debates also point out that such appeals to holy writ could very well be wrong and an abuse of Scripture?)