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“America” as a religion

Is turning America into a religion the original sin of modern American conservatism? As a pre-1968 schoolboy I was taught faith in America. It wasn’t altogether clear what that meant, but it’s what I was taught and it’s what the revolution of the ’60s attacked. Popular American conservatism and neoconservatism are still mostly a defense of that old-time religion, more or less updated to accommodate whatever happens to be going on. Conservatives who praise D’Souza’s recent book, like Lowell Ponte and Thomas Sowell, do so because D’Souza says America is good. Apparently, that’s all that matters to them.

However much it can be manipulated, it seems to me the sentiment is real. America really is one basic principle of Norman Podhoretz’s religion (others include Norman Podhoretz and the Jews). The problem, though, is that America can’t be a religion. The “new way of being human” that results from making it one is another name for the abandonment of all independence of thought and stability of principle. Even if the intent is sincere the result is manipulation in favor of whatever gets the upper hand. Richard Rorty can propose achieving America as a national goal, and People for the American Way can, with a straight face, claim to be just that. Who can say they’re wrong, if the standard by which America is defined and judged is simply America?

The advantage of America as a religion, of course, is that it obviates the need to decide what you stand for and puts you on the side of whatever is successful. To the extent our national life is more good than bad it also puts you, mostly, on the right side. That not enough, though, because our national life won’t stay good if it owes no loyalty to anything higher than itself. The history of the United States since the ’60s is proof of that. A basic task for conservatives today is therefore to clarify, to themselves and others, which America it is that is the object of their attachment and why.

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Didn’t see Sowell’s review of D’Souza, but it’s interesting that he can praise that book *and* PJB’s latest.

When you refer to yourself as a “pre-1968 schoolboy” I’m reminded of a passage in Judge Posner’s book on the Lewinsky scandal. The libertarian Posner is trying to explain why what he calls “moralistic conservatives” dislike Clinton. “To anyone whose sense of morality and decorum assumed its permanent form before 1968 and who thinks the nation has undergone a precipitous moral decline since, this man is a scandal whatever his policies.”

WW (Pre-1968 Schoolboy)

I have a theory about Sowell’s paradox. To understand it, you have to understand him:

Thomas Sowell is a Black intellectual who believes none of the standard orthodoxies about Black America. He is also a classical liberal with conservative social tendencies, much like many of us here.

Now, Sowell believes that:

1.) His fellow blacks are slaves to the managerial state and its allies in the mass media and official “African-American” culture.

2.) His life would have been a mess had he been born 30 years later. He thinks the average Black family was actually better off under segregation: parental units were intact, drugs were scarcer, the church and other institutions were stronger, etc.

3.) Multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, and the other ideologies used to prop up Black self-esteem are a pack of lies.

This are thought crimes of the highest order. Even a man in his position must state them with some deft. But his overall worldview is more dangergous to the zeitgeist.

Sowell wants his fellow blacks to escape the liberal plantation. To do this, they must assimilating to WASP notions: social civility, strict sexual morality and the work ethic. So that means he would like D’Souza’s book because it argues for something he wants dearly: minority assimilation.

Now, Sowell may want open borders and all that, but I must assume that when he considers the “proposition nation” ideal, he thinks of new generations of Blacks who consider themselves full members of Western Civilization.

This brings Sowell to a problem: existing minorities need large numbers of conservative WASPs if they are going to digest Western mores. If the white birth rate drops too far, the population drowns in unassimilated minorities and assimilation becomes impossible. In fact, America would kick into reverse and join the Third World. So, naturally, Sowell would like Pat’s book too.

I’ll bet you a box of cigars that D’Souza and many other movement conservatives secretly agree with this, but can’t admit as much.

Make sense?

It’s an interesting line of thought. I do think there’s a large group of people who admire traditional WASP culture and basically want to join it but they’re not WASPs so they insist that it be separated from religious and ethnic affiliations. That can’t be done, really, unless WASPs continue in fact to set the tone so that the background assumptions that all respectable people accept are WASP assumptions. So people like that would favor a theoretically universalist reading of American principles while also (if they’re intelligent) opposing large-scale radically non-WASP immigration.