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.