This essay was commissioned for the 2007 Bradley Symposium
April 16, 2007
by Richard John Neuhaus
This essay, which appeared in the April 30 issue of National Review, was prepared for the 2007 Bradley Symposium addressing the topic “Who Are We Today? American Character and Identity in the 21st Century,” held on May 3, 2007, in Washington, D.C. The symposium was sponsored by Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
PSYCHOLOGISTS tell us that there is no more important or complex process in childhood than the formation of an answer to the question “Who am I?” It is a recurring question that is not settled once and for all. From infancy through adulthood and until the day we die, we are defining ourselves, and we are defining ourselves in relation to others. Beginning with our parents and family, the question of who I am is inseparable from the question of who we are. In the Christian understanding of things, the questioning will continue until the end of time—until, in the words of St. Paul, “we know even as we are known” (I Corinthians 13).
The question is that of identity, which is a very big word in our cultural, political, and psychological vocabularies. The word is from the Latin idem, meaning “the same.” A standard dictionary definition of identity is “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances.” As much as we might wish it were not so, sameness is defined by difference, like is defined by unlike. In the jargon of the social sciences, identity may be ascribed, inherited, elected, achieved, or constructed—or all of these in confused combination—but it is always and inevitably a process of differentiation. Identity, whether personal or communal, also excludes. We are this and not that.
Today there is lively and confused contention about national identity, racial identity, sexual identity, and sundry other identities that are frequently expressed in “identity politics.” In this confusion the question of who we are as Americans runs up against the claim that there is no American identity but only a hodgepodge of identities in both complementarity and competition. There is, it is said, no American culture but only a mosaic of subcultures in which individuals elect to be who they want to be and therefore most truly are.
Who are we Americans? The question is as old as the European settlement of this continent, and the settlers took many stabs at answering it, especially in distinguishing the New World from the Old. Almost 200 years on, Tocqueville remains the master analyst of American identity. Fifty years before Tocqueville, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote in Letters from an American Farmer, “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. . . . This is an American.”
Whatever else America is, America is new. Few politicians win elections by promising to preserve the status quo or restore the past. Conservatism, when successful, presents itself as the promise of the future, as in Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.” The market economy is premised upon the anticipation of unrealized possibilities. The Great Seal of the United States speaks of the form of both government and society in declaring America to be a novus ordo seclorum—a new order for the ages. The oddity of American conservatism, as distinct from European conservatism, is that it reveres the past not in defense of an ancien régime but as the guide to the future. American identity is memory in the service of promise.
American identity defies the assumption that we must choose between the particular and the universal. With a confidence that can easily be mistaken as arrogance, and at times succumbs to arrogance, America understands itself as a particular in the service of the universal. From the founding of the constitutional order and, before that, from the Puritan “errand into the wilderness,” America was viewed as an experiment on a universal stage, and experiments can either succeed or fail. In Lincoln’s fine phrase, America is “an almost chosen people,” a people abiding by a social contract premised upon a transcendent covenant.
Both contract and covenant are integral to American identity. We are a nation under law by constitutional contract—a contract presupposing covenantal accountability. To say that we are a nation “under God” is to speak of promise, but it is, at least as importantly, to speak of a nation under judgment. Thus is contract tied to covenantal aspiration and covenantal aspiration restrained by contractual agreement.
This dialectic, if you will, between contract and covenant is the distinctly American way of joining the particular and the universal. Contemporary multiculturalisms that would embrace every culture but our own dissolve the dialectic, reaching for an inclusiveness that, were they to have their way, would result in the exclusion of American identity. Like Esperanto, the supposedly universal language spoken only by a small band of sectaries, multiculturalism as conventionally promoted rejects the particular for the sake of the universal and ends up betraying both. Multiculturalism, like Esperanto, ends up as the monoculturalism of a very small culture.
THE STORY OF A PEOPLE
America, it has been said, is the first universal nation, meaning that it is not constituted by tribal, ethnic, religious, or other identities but rather by principles, and is open to all who embrace those principles. As with multiculturalism, there is a measure of truth in this claim. But it fails to appreciate adequately that the principles are embedded in a narrative. America is the story of a people—the people who are Americans and who aspire to become Americans. Samuel Huntington’s recent book, Who Are We? The Challenges to American National Identity, has been largely ignored and, when not ignored, derided as an antiimmigrant or even nativist tract. This is, I believe, both unfair and unfortunate. While one may question some of his analyses and prescriptions (and I do), he poses hard and necessary questions to the claim that America is or can be a “universal nation” or even “a nation of immigrants” apart from the narrative of a particular people who joined contract and covenant in constituting this novus ordo seclorum.
That narrative of what might be called a contract within a covenant is nicely caught by Michael Novak in his 2001 book, On Two Wings, in which he displays the inseparability of religious faith and common sense in the American founding. (A particular merit of Novak’s account is his underscoring of the fact that, in the founding, Christian cannot be understood except as Judeo-Christian.) There is an important distinction to be made between a Christian society and a Christian nation, the one referring to the people and the other to the polity. In our republican ordering of democratic government, however, there is the danger of that distinction’s becoming a division which pits polity against people and people against polity, with the result that both the republican and the democratic character of this constitutional order are undone.
In a unanimous decision of 1892, the Supreme Court declared, “These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.” Needless to say, such a statement by the Supreme Court today would occasion puzzlement, controversy, and widespread outrage. It is not immediately evident why this should be the case. By the measurements available to researchers, an argument can be made that America is no less Christian, and is possibly more Christian, than it was in 1892. It is commonly said that we have become a much more religiously pluralistic society, but that is a claim—and, on the part of some, no doubt a wish—that is unsupported by the evidence.
The frequently visceral reaction to the idea of “Christian America” has several sources. Since the rise to political prominence of the so-called Religious Right in the late 1970s, frequently hysterical alarms have been raised, and have now reached a climax, against the looming threat of a “theocratic” dismantling of our constitutional order. While conservative Christian voices are frequently strident, the stridency should, I believe, be understood as an aggressive defense by a large part of the population that has been made to feel that they are strangers in their own land.
Although their insurgency was not initially sparked by the Supreme Court’s imposition of an unlimited abortion license, Roe v. Wade’s exercise of “raw judicial power” (as Justice Byron White called it) has turned out to be the single most important factor in the realignment of public sentiment over the last half century that has resulted in what are aptly called the “culture wars.” Support for laws protective of the unborn has in very large part driven hostility to the idea of Christian America. In second place as a cause of the culture wars, with a force that almost nobody anticipated 20 years ago, is the effort to “normalize” homosexual relations, focused in the controversy over same-sex marriage.
In a larger historical context, it has been argued that the bohemian and libertine agitations of the 1910s and 1920s were merely interrupted by the Great Depression, World War II, and the Baby Boom, and were then temporarily rerouted into the countercultural enthusiasms of the 1960s and 1970s, only to resume their direct assault on Christian America in more recent years. This is a suggestive argument and is not without heuristic value, but it perhaps partakes too much of historical determinism to be entirely convincing.
This is not to deny that hostility to the idea of Christian America has a historical lineage. One thinks, for instance, of “The Humanist Manifesto” of 1933 and its robust promotion of an ideology of secularism. It was signed by a wide and representative array of what today would be called “public intellectuals,” led by the formidable John Dewey. This ideology was powerfully reinforced by a series of Supreme Court decisions on church-state questions, beginning in the late 1940s, that repudiated the idea of Christian America and declared the state to be neutral toward or, in the view of some, hostile to the religio-cultural identity of the American people. These developments and their consequences I have described in detail in The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, and they have been insightfully analyzed from a legal perspective by, among others, Philip Hamburger in Separation of Church and State.
An unintended consequence of the torrent of literature warning against the threat of an impending theocracy may be an increased interest in the question of how America is and is not a Christian society, and what difference that may make. An additional reason for increased interest may be the realization, still slowly dawning on most Americans, that we are confronted by a militant Islam with no doubts that America is the Christian enemy, manipulated by a cabal of Jews. The Judeo-Christian factor in American identity is reinforced by the challenge of Islam, which believes it has displaced both Judaism and Christianity in the purposes of God, and by a violent jihadist ideology set upon forcing the submission of the world to Allah by any means necessary. Zev Chafets, an American-Israeli journalist, is among those who envision a rapprochement between American Jews and evangelical Christians, the latter of whom constitute by far the largest and most politically potent base of popular support for America’s commitment to Israel.
A QUESTION FIT FOR POLITE COMPANY
Whatever the several reasons, the subject of Christian America—long ruled out of order in polite company—is receiving increased attention. Representative is an article in the current issue of Political Science Quarterly titled “Is America a Christian Nation?” The author, Hugh Heclo, previously of Harvard and now of George Mason University, writes, “The question being posed is politically provocative in our own times because we have reached a stage of contesting the fundamentals of knowing who we really are.”
Like most thoughtful people addressing this subject, Heclo answers his title question in both the affirmative and the negative. Yes, demographically speaking, there is no doubt that America is a Christian society. But if one asks whether most Americans are morally guided by or doctrinally committed to Christianity, the answer is no. On the other hand: “America’s political institutions (especially in a legal separation of church and state) and America’s political ethos (especially in its moralizing, redemptive character) carry the imprint of the nation’s Christian heritage, making America still today a derivatively ‘sort of’ Christian nation.”
To which one might respond that a “sort of” Christian nation is all that might be expected in view of human sinfulness and the limitations of history. Revising Gibbon, it might be said that the Holy Roman Empire was sort of holy, sort of Roman, and sort of an empire, but there is no doubt that it understood itself to be Christian. Heclo relies, perhaps inevitably, on survey research, which is a notoriously unreliable instrument for discovering what people truly believe. Like other commentators, he is impressed by the fact that most Americans are reluctant to judge the religious beliefs of others and therefore concludes that they do not really believe the teachings of Christianity. This overlooks a general reluctance to talk to strangers about matters of ultimate concern, an American protocol of civility in declining to criticize other people’s religion, and a very Christian observance of the command of Jesus to “judge not that you be not judged.” I suspect that doctrinally the American people are a great deal more Christian than the sociological literature suggests.
Also like others, Heclo cites the prevalence of divorce and pornography, the trash of popular entertainment, and other factors as evidence that Americans are not seriously Christian, or not Christian at all. But morality is a dubious measure. In his classic 1970 work, The Unheavenly City, Edward Banfield notes that in early-18th-century Boston there were more brothels per capita than there probably are today, but nobody suggests that 18th-century Boston was not a Christian city. The pertinent fact is that Christianity majors in sin and forgiveness. A persistent problem in discussions of Christian America, both scholarly and popular, is the tendency to use “Christian” as both an honorific and a descriptive term. Except for those who make an idol of the nation and confuse America with the Church—and there are some who are prone to doing that—nobody contends that America deserves to be called a Christian nation.
There is truth in G. K. Chesterton’s observation that America is a nation with the soul of a church, and further truth in the observation that, in the “almost” of almost-chosen peoplehood, Americans are aware of failing the covenant by which the nation is constituted. Conservative critics frequently fail to appreciate that expressions of “anti-Americanism” can sometimes be better understood as Americans’ continuing the long tradition of the mourners’ bench of American revivalism. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick was right about the “blame-America-first crowd.” But it will not disappear; not only because some really do hate America, but because so many more believe America is called to be better. There is much to be said in favor of America’s accepting the fact that it is a normal nation, simply a nation among nations—but that is a very un-American idea.
So we return to the question “Who are we?” America is a capitalist nation, an English-speaking nation, a democratic nation, a compassionate nation, a law-abiding nation, a rich nation. We are not any of those things without notable exceptions, but we are, in general, all of those things. And we are, among all the things we are, a nation constituted by a contract within the context of a covenant. That covenant is the narrative of God’s dealings with the People of Israel, a narrative borne through time by a society that is incorrigibly, however confusedly, Christian America. I do not say it should be that way. There are reasons to wish it were not that way. But it has been that way and will be that way until, which is very unlikely, the narrative is displaced by another.
Fr. Neuhaus is the founder and editor in chief of First Things.
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