America, America: Part IV

I should probably comment on the point of my last post.

A basic problem for a Catholic or any serious person in America is that he lives in a country people treat as a sort of religion. The reason for treating it that way is the need for social cohesion in an ethnically and religiously diverse society in which individual freedom and pluralism are promoted as the highest social goods. If you downplay normal social connections in that way you’ll need some sort of superprinciple to make up for them.

If America is a religion, no Catholic or serious person can be an American. It’s just too stupid. In the past religious people have often dealt with the problem by retreating into a sort of ghetto, non-religious people by cynicism, expatriation or generally weirding out. None of those approaches seems satisfactory. Nor does John Courtney Murray’s approach of claiming that the American order has a strong principle of self-limitation. It doesn’t seem to.

Today the most common response to the problem is just to shrug it off. If you asked the average American he’d be puzzled by the claim that America is a religion and see no conflict between loyalty to the United States and any normal kind of religious faith and observance.

Still, I think there’s enough of a problem there that some sort of solution would be helpful. If the problem doesn’t bother you, because America isn’t that tightly organized but just bumps along however it bumps along, the solution shouldn’t bother you either. Both are equally far-fetched.

Anyway, the point of the last post is to suggest dissolving the problem by noticing that America is not complete, self-contained, or ultimate in itself. It can’t possibly be viewed as a religion, and people who do so are just confused. Nor is it a demon or a random conglomeration of people, places and things with no special hold on us. Americanists, Anti-Americans and cynics are all wrong.

Instead, America is a particular complex human society of which we are part and on which we have to draw for help in living well and coming to know the Good, Beautiful and True. It doesn’t have a lock on those things, but it’s in touch with them and supports them in many ways. We know that’s so, because human life can’t be carried on without them and America does exist, and because we are Americans and there are many good things in our lives here.

It follows that what we owe to America is to understand, defend and promote the things that give it its reason for being and are essential to its function as a human society. Those are the things we depend upon to live well. It’s not equal freedom that is the basis of our common life, which would make no sense, but our common humanity and our common desire to live well.

Such an approach would mean a looser, freer and more realistic social order than the alternative. In practice, the claim that a social order is based on equal freedom means that government decisions must be based on the demands of freedom and equality or on technical considerations rather on the choice of one good over another. The result is that they get handed over to experts on doctrine and technique—judges and bureaucrats—answerable only to themselves and their fellow experts. There is no place for dissent, since if you oppose what’s going on you’re an ignorant interloper or an oppressor. Either way, no one should listen to you.

In contrast, it’s evident that a desire to live well does not solve particular disputes as to how to do so. Political discussion therefore becomes a clear necessity when government has to decide something. When disputes can’t be resolved some accommodation must be reached, which may be more or less principled. The result is likely to be less abusive and more in line with the concerns of those involved than a result determined by functionaries supposedly based on some superprinciple like equal freedom that no one can question. The necessity of reaching such accommodations is also likely to lead to political virtues such as caution and prudence.

In adopting such an approach we will, of course, put ourselves in opposition to years of propaganda about America—what she is and what’s owed to her. We will call things “essential to America” that others call “personal tastes,” “sectarian hang-ups,” or “abuses to be eradicated.” Too bad. That’s all the more reason for developing and insisting on our own view.

9 thoughts on “America, America: Part IV”

  1. America

    I am reluctant to call America a religion. How is love of country different for Americans than for Frenchmen or Finns? In Plato’s account, Socrates was ready to die rather than leave Athens, whose laws had nurtured him.

    I class love of country with love of family.


    • Yes and no
      I agree with you on everything except the thought that love of America is reliably the same sort of thing as love of Finland or love of family.

      G. K. Chesterton said that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” I think that’s getting at what I have in mind. There’s actually a book (based on an article in Commentary) called Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. The writer, David Gelernter, thinks it’s a good idea.

      I don’t know much about Finland, but I doubt that anything like that’s true there. I also doubt that Finns talk about Finnism, the Finnish Dream, the Finnish creed, or Finland as a universal nation.

      Still, as I say in the post, if you think concern about the issue is nonsense or at best exaggerated, then you probably won’t think my remedy changes much either.

      (France seems a special case. A lot of Frenchmen seem to identify France with some sort of universal civilizing mission that has to do with the ideals of the French Revolution.)

      • America
        Even granting your other points for the moment, I notice you haven’t touched Athens. What about Athens, Jim?


        • Was drinking the hemlock an act of worship?
          Where I contrast America and Finland, Athens is like Finland on all points. That’s true even though (as you point out) Socrates thought Athens had made him what he was.

          • America
            Rome is like Athens. As Roman civilization spread across Europe, what we now know as Paris, to choose one example, was a Roman city, with the street patterns, the baths, the amphitheater—which you can still visit off the rue Monge—the cosmetics and interior decoration and politics and culture of Rome. The rest of western history depends on people’s belief in what Rome stood for, adapted to Christianity. The continuing study of Latin was a tribute to Rome.

            Does America’s being a religion differ from Rome’s being. . . in your terms. . . a religion?

          • Rome
            Rome’s a better comparison that Athens.

            It has interesting similarities to America—both can be seen as nations of immigrants with a history of expansion. Their existence couldn’t be taken for granted but had to be justified somehow. Both had an initially revolutionary commitment to republican institutions following the overthrow of Tarquin or George III. That commitment eventually became at odds with the needs of empire but forms were kept up so it was important to their self-understanding. And both tended to think their type of social order should apply everywhere.

            There are also differences. America is supposedly a nation that stands for self-evident universally valid moral propositions that make open-ended demands on everyone everywhere. That wasn’t true of Rome. All the Romans wanted you to do was pay your taxes and obey the laws, which in principle weren’t particularly demanding. Within Rome the laws favored the mos maiorum, the way things had always been. Outside Rome, they respected existing local custom and let people and peoples live however they were accustomed to live. They demanded the occasional pinch of incense for the emperor, at least from people who (unlike the Jews) didn’t have longstanding religious customs to the contrary, but otherwise whatever religious quality they had was pretty inert. And the Romans gave public recognition to real gods other than the emperor.

            Today American ideals demand not only lip service (the occasional pinch of incense) but ever more far-reaching social reform that extends to matters as basic as the relations between the sexes. The demand applies everywhere. It applies domestically, of course. And elsewhere the Balkan war was supposed to bring celebration of diversity to the Balkans, the Iraq war democracy to Mesopotamia, the Afghan war gender equality to central Asia. The Romans were more ready to accept limits and recognize the possible validity of other views. So I’d aay Romanitas was less of a religion than Americanism.

  2. America
    True, Rome is an easier comparison than Athens, because the remnants of the empire are all over Europe, and there isn’t the same historical discontinuity. But when you argue that America is more of a religion than Rome, I lose you. First, in fact, Rome was not entirely hands-off. It either imposed many customs and religious practices or else the locals took them up enthusiastically. Consider, again, Paris. Consider the educational tradition based on Latin. Second, when you describe the objectives of American military action in wide social terms as proof of your thesis that America is a religion, you are, to be sure, describing something un-Roman. You are not, however, describing many Americans’ understanding of America’s current aims in Afghanistan or anywhere else. On your version of an American religion, there are very few practicing Americans.

    • More on Rome
      Rome, like America, is an ideal of social organization. Such an ideal has a different status though in a polytheistic and an officially a-religious society biased toward monotheism. In the latter case there’s less to limit it. And it does seem to me that public rhetorical justifications for military action—for matters of life and death—show something important about basic social understandings. Not everybody thinks much of those understandings of course. Probably the average villager in Gaul didn’t feel strongly about the majesty of the Roman name.

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