The Good of Nationalism, Pt. III: Is American Nationalism Possible?

*Editor’s note: this article is the third in a series of three. See Part I and Part II here.

In the first installment of this series, I offered a biblical and rational defense of the good of nationalism, understood as a principled commitment to the good of nation-states as a form of political organization that rejects the myth of individualism, transcends the anarchy of tribalism, and rejects the hubris of imperialism. In the second essay, I traced the persistent imperialist temptation of Christians throughout church history, the achievement of nationalism within the political vision of the Protestant Reformation, and the legacy of this profound shift for the future history of Europe—and America.

But just because we understand the value of the nation in Scripture and in history, this hardly provides answers to our contemporary political questions. What does a commitment to the good of nationalism look like for American Christians today? Indeed, more perceptive readers, observing the definitions of tribalism and imperialism in the opening essay, may even ask: is America still a nation? Was it ever one? Or should we accept the contemporary fragmentation of American society and centralization of American politics as inevitable?

American Tribes?

Let’s begin by considering the objection, increasingly pervasive in our multicultural age, that it is mere mythology to speak of a coherent and historically-continuous American nation. To be sure, any good historian can tell you that from the founding of the colonies, America has harbored several distinct tribes. On David Hackett Fischer’s influential telling in Albion’s Seed, there were originally four, each with distinct regional and religious roots in the British Isles: New England Puritanism (drawn from the east of England), Tidewater Anglicanism (drawn from southwestern England), Mid-Atlantic Quakerism (drawn from London and the Midlands), and Backcountry Presbyterianism (drawn from the Scottish Borders and northern Ireland). On Colin Woodard’s telling, there are no less than eleven, a number that incorporates several, but by no means all, of the many waves of immigration that have flooded our shores with a cornucopia of ethnic and religious diversity.

All of these have left their mark on the subsequent development of America, which has been marked throughout its history by occasional outbreaks of religious, racial, and sectional strife—including, of course, a civil war that remains the bloodiest conflict in the history of the Western Hemisphere. At the time of the Founding itself, many doubted whether the thirteen states, with their distinct cultures, customs, and habits of self-government, could successfully hang together as one nation. And for many decades thereafter, many argued that the only way for them to do so was to treat the United States as more of a confederation than a nation, doubting that a true unity could be forged from such recalcitrant tribes. Even as post-Civil War America eventually came to experience a greater national unity under a more robust national government, this involved the continued exclusion of African-Americans from much participation in national life for fully a century.

Even a political scientist as sympathetic to the cause of nationalism as Samuel Goldman has recently argued that Americans must learn to live “after nationalism.” On Goldman’s telling, American nationhood has always been the product of a certain mythmaking, with at least three distinct national myths seeking to describe different conceptions of the American nation over the centuries: the Covenant (c. 1630-1830), rooted in New England Protestant identity; the Crucible (c. 1830-1930), which saw America as an ethnic melting pot, but still dominantly white and Christian; and the Creed (c. 1930-1990), which celebrated America as a nation dedicated to the ideals of freedom and pluralism. Each of these consists in certain stories that we tell about ourselves, singling out different moments in our history and different features of our national identity.

We need not be sheepish about such storytelling—after all, it is central to the biblical conception of nationhood:

“O God, we have heard with our ears,

    our fathers have told us,

what deeds you performed in their days,

    in the days of old:

you with your own hand drove out the nations,

    but them you planted;

you afflicted the peoples,

    but them you set free.” (Psalm 44:1-2)

The biblical authors knew full well that ancient Israel was composed of diverse and refractory tribes, each of whom could and sometimes did go their separate ways. What was meant to hold them together was the shared memory of their deliverance from Egypt, a memory that was to be constantly renewed through storytelling. Only by continually reminding themselves of their shared faith and their shared fight for freedom in the past could they sustain a shared future.

All such storytelling is necessarily selective, but the selection matters, for it has the capacity to shape the reality. People are liable to see themselves in the stories they find most compelling, and this is one of the chief means by which nations succeed in forging one people out of many. Conversely, if we tell stories that selectively focus on our differences and our conflicts, we should not be surprised when we find ourselves further and further estranged from one another.

The trouble today is that Americans have ceased to believe in the old stories, the stories that sought to make us proud of our shared sacrifices. Instead, we have broken into warring tribes shaped by warring stories—a crisis actively fostered by the Left, with its celebration of identity politics, but inadvertently abetted by the Right, with its tendency to elevate heroes and spokesmen who flatter its self-image as the embattled tribe of “true Americans.” Ethnologically, tribes are often divided from one another above all by language and religion; as Americans increasingly speak mutually unintelligible languages and bow down before radically opposed gods, the ideal of a shared nationhood that can hold at bay the anarchy of tribalism is apt to seem increasingly tenuous.

American Empire?

Alongside the worry that America is merely a motley collection of unreconciled tribes, we are liable to encounter the charge that, by the definitions adopted in the first essay of this series, America looks more like an empire than a nation. And indeed, both charges may be true—here as so often in life, the vices on either end of the spectrum can readily co-exist. A polity sprawled across a vast territory of diverse cultures, if it does not resort to despotism to hold all under the sway of a common center, is apt to lapse into a loose-handed multiculturalism, allowing its various peoples to cling to their own rival identities, so long as all accept that they are subjects rather than citizens, deprived of real power or corporate agency.

This certainly seems an apt description of contemporary America—and little surprise, perhaps, to the early modern critics of empire. Montesquieu warned that truly national regimes, characterized by liberty, could only flourish in territories of moderate size, and that as they grasped for more land and resources, they devolved into despotic empires. The American Founders, chastened by this warning, worried as to whether even the original thirteen colonies might not be too expansive to comprise a single nation, a worry that intensified as the young republic lurched westward in great leaps and bounds. Throughout much of the early nineteenth century, the most ardent nationalists in America consistently warned against the acquisition of new territory, deeming that the shared bonds of loyalty necessary for true nationhood and ordered liberty required a people living in sufficient proximity to engage in some measure of common action and common deliberation.

To be sure, the outer practical bounds of nationhood are to some extent a function of technological limitations, or the lack thereof. Today, citizens in Seattle and Miami can communicate instantaneously and even be at one another’s doorsteps within a few hours, whereas the journey from Boston to Philadelphia took weeks in John Adams’s time. And to be sure, the communications and transportation revolutions of the nineteenth century enabled the swelling American republic to, if anything, grow closer together rather than further apart as it stretched itself across the American continent. There seems little question that US citizens of Teddy Roosevelt’s day were more likely to feel a common identity as Americans than those of Thomas Jefferson’s, belying the fears of anti-expansionists.

Still, it is also true that this fellow-feeling was achieved in large part by a process of abstraction. As I wrote in the first essay of this series: 

[T]o compensate for these weakened bonds of concrete loyalty, empires often resort to ideology as the glue to hold their vast populations together and mobilize them to action…. Empires … are liable to magnify their particular characteristics or institutions into universal ideals that every neighboring nation—or perhaps every nation on earth—must be brought to adopt.

This is surely an apt enough description of the ideology of “American exceptionalism,” or the “Creed” conception of American-ness that Sam Goldman has identified. Such ideologies can be powerfully unifying, as we can see in the Cold War, which pitted two ideologically-conceived imperial nations against one another in a forty-year showdown for global hegemony. But even when such ideologies are relatively good ones, as America’s twentieth-century gospel of liberty was, they suffer from at least one fatal weakness: the danger of success.

Perhaps more than anything else, the crisis of American nationhood that we are living through today is simply the result of our astonishing success in exporting our creed and customs to the world. If being an American means loving liberty, practicing democracy, and eating at McDonalds, then an observer from Mars might be forced to conclude that a very large portion of the globe’s occupants were now Americans. Even language, historically one of the most enduring boundary-markers of tribes and nations, increasingly no longer serves to differentiate America, as American English has become the lingua franca of the world. This is one of the cruel paradoxes of empire: since every identity must define itself against the other, since the countryman is recognized by his distinction from the foreigner, even the most successful imperial nations, by virtue of that very success, lose the confidence, cohesion, and mutual loyalty that fueled that success. As the great Scottish political philosopher Adam Ferguson wrote on the eve of the American Revolution,

In every state, the freedom of its members depends on the balance and adjustment of its interior parts; and the existence of any such freedom among mankind, depends on the balance of nations. In the progress of conquest, those who are subdued are said to have lost their liberties; but from the history of mankind, to conquer, or to be conquered, has appeared, in effect, the same.

Is American Nationalism a Lost Cause?

Faced with the seemingly irreversible trajectories of American empire and American tribalism, we might well wonder whether the idea of an American nation, even if it ever had reality, has not now passed away as in a dream, forever beyond recall. And if so, what practical good could it do us to extol the good of nationalism?

In response to this very sensible question, it is important to remember that, in our usage of the terms here, “nationalism” is more of a moral than a scientific term—it names a desirable mean between two constantly shifting poles, rather than an essence that can be fixed with precision. To the extent that we can name and discern the evils of tribalism and imperialism, to that extent we ought still to perceive and pursue the good of nationalism. Or, to put the same point more concretely, to the extent that we think that it is still worth protecting America from the worst evils of tribal conflict or imperial apathy, then it is still worth fighting for the ideal of an American nation, however elusive our goal and partial our success. We cannot know to what extent our efforts will be crowned with final success—after all, every nation, in God’s providence, will experience periods of flourishing and of decay (perhaps terminal decay). But for the time being—which is the only time we are responsible for—our efforts for or against American nationhood may make a great deal of difference for the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit.

Restoring—or at least sustaining—the American nation will require a work of renewed self-definition externally and renewed self-understanding internally. It will require Christians, convinced of the basic good of nationalism, to commit themselves to the renewal of national sovereignty and the recovery of national memory.

Renewing National Sovereignty

There can be no nations without borders. That much one would have thought to be obvious, were it not for the incoherent paeans to a “borderless world” that we so often encounter today. Christians are often among the worst offenders in this contemporary epidemic of woolly-headedness; witness for instance the vacuous rhetorical gestures of Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti. Indeed, the failure to draw boundaries is perhaps the characteristic moral curse of the age. It is true that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile,” but it is also true that “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” Unless we want to go along with the increasingly unhinged zeitgeist in insisting this means that there are no relevant differences, no relevant boundary-lines, between male and female, we should hardly embrace the conclusion that there are no relevant boundary-lines among the nations. The New Testament itself reminds us of the inescapability of bounded spheres of responsibility at the level of the family (1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:8), and the same principle applies at the level of the nation. Although we should certainly desire cooperation and harmony between national states, each must retain sufficient national sovereignty to protect the traditions, goods, and legitimate interests of its own people. Recent decades have witnessed sustained assaults on such sovereignty from both the free-trade Right and the utopian Left. Whatever the other goods and evils of the Trump years, future generations can give thanks for its great reset of foreign policy and economic policy to prioritize the needs of the American people over elite agendas of global integration.

Of course, when we talk about borders (and about Trump) perhaps the first issue on our minds will be that of immigration. For Christians in particular, it is easy to be seduced by emotional appeals to the plight of the refugee, or the “huddled masses” in search of a better life. Aren’t we above all called to exercise hospitality, many Christian leaders have asked. Well certainly we are, but effective hospitality demands borders—and something more. If I am to bless strangers by inviting them into my home, then I need to have a safe and well-ordered home to invite them into. This means a house—with walls and a roof to keep unwanted intruders out—but it also means a warm, inviting place where people might actually want to stay. This requires fostering a distinctive family culture, with its own rhythms and traditions—which of course places practical limits on just how much hospitality I can show, just how many strangers I can invite. The same applies, without a doubt, to national hospitality. Only a nation with a clear sense of itself, and with secure borders, will long remain a place capable of truly blessing immigrants.

Recovering National Memory

I spoke above about the importance of story-telling for sustaining the life of a nation, and the grave threat of forgetfulness that now hangs over our national life. The old stories are passé at best, and offensive at worst. We can no longer, it seems, celebrate the heroes and victorious struggles that made America what it was, for each of the heroes, we are told, was actually a villain—a racist or a misogynist, a slaveholder or greedy capitalist—and each of the victories, we are told, was won at the expense of an oppressed and marginalized class or people. It is not merely that new faces have been added to the national pantheon, as in the increasing celebration of African-American and Native American contributions to the national story—that is a development we ought to welcome, as both Americans and as Christians. It is rather that the apostles of our new tribalism seem hell-bent on erasing the old faces, and insist that white Americans have nothing to feel but shame, no stories that they can possibly retell with pride. This toxic brand of anti-national multiculturalism strikes directly at the foundations of our ability to live and work together as one people, and to assert the good of nationalism in our day is to insist on rejecting this sort of hostile re-narration.

If there is to be a recovery of national memory, the Christian contribution will be a crucial one. As Joshua Mitchell has argued in American Awakening, Christians have the opportunity to remind an increasingly rage-filled culture of the power of forgiveness. Christians know that we should not whitewash our history, but neither need we write it off for its sins. The Christian story is the story of the marvelous works that the Lord has done through deeply flawed instruments, and reminds our world of the power of redemption: that one can confront evil, and yet forgive it, refusing to be defined by it or in opposition to it. This gospel of reconciliation is desperately needed in America today.

Moreover, as we re-assert the legitimacy of telling national stories and celebrating our national heritage, we should not forget how deeply and inescapably Christian that heritage is. In certain key senses, America has never been a Christian nation—our federal constitution refused to formally commit the nation to a Christian confession or to establish a Christian denomination; nor was Christian identity ever required for American citizenship. Indeed, it would be well for today’s overzealous “Christian nationalists” to remember this: commitment to the good of nationalism, whatever else it must mean, should mean a commitment to loyally love one’s fellow citizens, and this includes (both by our constitution and our history) those of many faiths and of none. Still, in other senses, America has clearly been for much of its history a Christian nation, and even in its contemporary rebellion against that heritage, it remains haunted by the ghost of a Protestantism that it cannot exorcise. If America is to have a future as a nation, Christians must patiently, humbly, and yet unapologetically remind our fellow-citizens of its Christian past—a past that has defined our laws and our liberties, and imprinted itself upon our very language.

Whether or not the Spirit will yet breathe upon these dying embers of America’s Christian heritage and kindle them again into flame, we cannot know. In the meantime, however, we should tend them not only in the hopes of religious revival, but for the sake of our shared political institutions, which, once forged in the fires of Protestant faith, still echo with the distant voices of the Hebrew prophets and the gospel of liberty.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Bradford Littlejohn

Bradford Littlejohn Bradford Littlejohn is a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and President of the Davenant Institute. He has published extensively on Protestant political theology, Christian ethics, and the Anglo-American conservative tradition. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife Rachel and four children.