Propositioning the nation

Princeton professor Robert George gives a remarkably pure presentation of the “America as proposition nation” thesis here. If you want to know what that thesis is, watch the clip—it’s only a couple of minutes, and it’s a collector’s item.

Here are a few obvious issues the thesis raises:

  • If America is all about freedom of opinion, how come you have to sign on to a questionable political theory to be American?
  • Suppose you just want to have a country, the land where your fathers died and all that jazz, and you don’t want to sign on to George’s political theory. Are you out of luck if America is the land you’re attached to?
  • If it’s a big deal that rights are God-given, how does that fit in with the idea that America has nothing to do with any particular religion? And how does “credal nation” fit in with the concept that all religions are welcome? Is America a supreme creed that trumps all particular creeds, so it doesn’t matter which creed you start off with?
  • If particular concrete human connections are irrelevant to whether you’re American or not, and being American means accepting the view of government presented in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and that view is universal in its validity, then does America by rights include the whole world?
  • Does the self-evident truth that governments are instituted to secure the natural God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean that libertarianism is the only legitimate scheme of social life?
  • Or maybe “liberty” means liberty to attain the true good, and the “pursuit of happiness” includes the right to a setting that facilitates the attainment of true happiness. If so, does that mean that a Catholic American (George is Catholic) should be committed to the transformation of America and indeed the whole world into a Catholic state?
  • That can’t be right, since America has no connection to any particular religion. But if America doesn’t depend on any particular religion—any particular view regarding reality and what we’re supposed to do in life—what do “liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness” mean? Maybe we’re back to libertarianism. But then does “America” really mean “global enforcement of democratic capitalism”? Is that the cause I’m supposed to be willing to sacrifice my all for?

9 thoughts on “Propositioning the nation”

  1. I wonder if George is
    I wonder if George is familiar with the immigration rates into France or Sweden? Those countries are being transformed by people who are not ‘French’ or ‘Swedish’ in an historical sense. (In the former case, they tend to speak French already, however.) I don’t think, as far as how various political elites view their countries, that the ‘proposition nation’ idea is as unique as George seems to think it is … Where I live, in Canada, being ‘Canadian’ is often presented as merely buying into the idea of multiculturalism, and a few other ideas, along with the bureaucratic triviality of becoming a citizen …

    • Religious multiculturalism
      I think his point there is that France and Sweden don’t bring God into the picture. On the specific point of explaining why America is exceptional I think he’s right. There are lots of officially multicultural states but America is the only religiously multicultural one.

      • On Religious Multiculturalism
        Jim do have any comments about the Pope’s speech to German muslims the other day? Laura Wood and Lawrence Auster were very critical.

        • Nothing very elaborate
          It mostly looks like making nice with people you’re stuck living with because of a situation that’s causing you bigger problems. To my mind, the biggest issue the speech raises is pluralism generally. Is it a normative ideal or a practical expedient? And how should the Church speak of it?

          Going back to the Muslims, the basic issue I think is what general line makes most sense for Benedict to follow. That depends e.g. on who the main enemy is and the strengths and weaknesses of his own position. I agree with what I take to be his view, that the main problems are within Western civilization and at the level of ultimate principle, and within the Church and related to the loss of Catholic understanding and identity. So that’s what he’s emphasizing rather than (among other possibilities) a counter-jihad on behalf of a civilization and Church that at present would reject his leadership.

  2. All equal
    The idea that a recent immigrant from Somalia who thinks he believes in the “principles” is as much an American as a person living on land his family has held for 250 years in a North Carolina county loaded with his relatives close and remote is truly bizarre when you think about it. This latter circumstance fits into the category of “all that stuff” that George was dismissing. Seems like you would have to have a few generations here before you could say that your whole family was “American,” and not really from somewhere else, say, Mexico. Now, what makes George think that people from somewhere else are going to easily abandon their heritage for a set of principles? That we seem to do so is supreme irony, but others might be smarter or more integrally human. Why can’t they have both? That is, the heritage and the creed. They can come to America to do things that benefit the old country–use us, in other words, because we seem to be flattered that they would. Back to the generational continuity: George seems to think that it should, must, count for nothing in being an American. If you think it should count for something, you are not American in the fullest, most “robust” sense. This means we harbor a whole lot of subversives. Government power would be warranted in the correction of their views, it seems. Reeducation camps in Red, White, and Blue? Hmm. Anyone can come (no limits?) who claims the principles, as long as they want to hold them? Is this a sort of revolving door? (If they come, may they leave and still be good people?)The new order of the ages seems to require constant newness and a rejection of all history public and private. Then, I guess we had better make the whole world over in our image–the quicker the better–if we want to hold even our own land. Or, is it than in trying to make everyone into our image, “America” has “died on us,” so to speak?

  3. One kind of Frenchman
    Wouldn’t a certain kind of Frenchman (rare, granted) think that France was ethnic, of course, but also a function of the specific civilizing effect of Christianity? How then could the US be so exceptional, if the definition means that one has a God-ward cast of thought and calls upon the natural law? If one argued that the US is, indeed, exceptional, since *anyone* can do the natural law life in America irrespective of any other contingency, then this is tantamount to saying that the natural law is always above even the Christian creed in America, and that this “exceptionalism” is good. How is this not “indifferentism”?

  4. Propositioning the nation
    I think Prof. George is wrong when he says the particular religion in the American proposition doesn’t matter. The Founding Principles were born out of a particular religion and a particular conception of a Deity. “Political freedom as the Western World has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible, ” as Whittaker Chambers wrote. Its roots are Judeo-Christian – particular.

    I just started your book. I wrote in the margin that the French Revolution-brand of freedom was imported and foreign to America. I will be looking for more information about that as I proceed through the book.

    • American semi-exceptionalism and religious particularity
      I agree that the Founding Principles come out of a particular religious tradition. I suppose I’d add that to the extent they put freedom and equality first they eat away at that tradition and in the long run end up in the same place as the French Revolution. Maybe one way of making that last point would be to say that America is exceptional, and different from Europe, but only up to a point.


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