So here’s my American conclusion of my article critical of European depoliticization:

The Americans, as our English friend Chesterton observed with some ambivalence, are the seeming oxymoron, a creedal nation. We are, he memorably said, “a nation with the soul of the church.” America, he added, is all about “the romance of the citizen” and “a home for the homeless” everywhere. The American creed is that all human beings are created equal, because there’s a personal center of significance in the universe that grants each of us significance. Everyone, in principle, can be a citizen of our country who accepts the “dogmatic lucidity” of that national faith.

That faith is about citizens, because it’s the foundation of the way of life shared in our territorial home. But it’s a faith that the foundation of citizenship is not a merely national construction; we’re at home with the thought that the nation is not the real source of the significance of citizens. And so the true foundation of citizenship lies in the truth about the person and the relationship between being politically at home and our truest home. We’ve never shared the French view—or even the view of the ancient polis—that citizens are created out of nothing. Nor have we ever shared today’s European view that the person must be detached from the citizen to display his true freedom.

The American view is that citizenship is only one part—but a real part—of whole human lives; the person experiences himself as both a political and transpolitical being. The romance of the citizen, for us, displays part of the truth about the equal significance we all share as unique and irreplaceable beings. (That means, as Chesterton learned, in part, from Lincoln, that our Declaration’s faith is not merely or most deeply Lockean. There is a foundation for the significance of each particular person in nature itself, and that thought depends at least upon a distinctively Christian sort of Deism that was a product of the Declaration’s legislative compromising of Lockean and Calvinist concerns.)

This view of America, which finds its home among conservative Americans today, is the best explanation of why America can be a nation without succumbing to nationalism, of why we are so comparatively adept in reconciling the particularity of the citizen with the universality of personal principle, of why History (with a capital H) never took firm, depersonalizing root here, of why the most Christian of Americans can be the best citizens, of why there are credible Christian and secular accounts of our founding principles that are in some respects in principle irreconciliable but nonetheless are readily compromisable, and of why we are so confident that the nation is the form by which democratic self-government can and should take root everywhere.

This view of America is arguably weakening in the face of the envy of our sophisticates of the purer or postpolitical morality of the Europeans, but its future may be if not certainly the last—arguably the best—hope for the future of both the person and the citizen—the combination indispensable for self-government in our or any Christian or post-Christian time—everywhere.

America’s persistent, political self-understanding of itself as a nation, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out in a somewhat different way recently, is the main reason why that we continue to fund a huge military establishment capable of projecting our power and influence everywhere. The Europeans have chosen to have minimal military expenditures and increasingly reduced military capabilities. When they need airlifts, the turn to our Air Force, and they rely on our navy for keeping the open seas open. Much of Europe’s relative depoliticization or de-nationalization is parasitic upon one nation in particular.

The Europeans can afford not to do everything required to defend themselves precisely because we choose not to be like them. For us (at least so far), the European life of excessive personal liberation in comfort and safety is decadence based on self-denial. If we choose to live like them, who, in fact, would protect us? We seem stuck with being a nation, and the Europeans, it seems to me, ought not only to praise our distinctiveness, but follow the advice of their conservative or national thinkers—such as Roger Scruton and Pierre Manent—and do what they can to imitate it.

So I’m not endorsing any particular American intervention, but I do think the isolationism of the republicanism of our Front Porcher friends misunderstands who we are and our indispensable purpose in the world in our time. I also think it’s more pagan than Christian, but that’s a story for another time.

More on: Etcetera

Articles by Peter Lawler

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