Conservatism pairs God and country, observes the legendary Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., while cosmopolitan liberalism chooses “universal empathy rather than patriotism and human rights or humanity rather than God.” The cosmopolitan liberal pairing is perhaps more consistent than its conservative counterpart. Universal empathy pretty easily serves humanity or human rights, but God does not necessarily serve country. Consider, for example, Thomas Jefferson on slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781):
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.
The God of the Old Testament chose Israel. The God of the New Testament didn’t choose any particular nation, but rather judged them all. The absolute most that can be said for Americans is that we are an “almost chosen” people, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, a formulation that embodies in its ambiguity the relationship between a God whose superintendence and love are universal and whose justice is inexorable, and a necessarily sinful people.
Yet the self-described “progressive” might actually reject Mansfield’s contrast between conservative religiosity and liberal humanism. Au contraire, the progressive (who of course speaks French) might say, universal empathy is precisely what God calls us to; the “liberal” stance is the genuinely religious stance. Thus saith Valerie Elverton Dixon, a colleague of Jim Wallis writing on the Sojourners blog:
When the nation is the object of one’s highest concern; when national documents are considered holy scripture; when the nation’s founders and historical figures are lifted to the status of demi-gods; when citizens of the nation consider themselves to be God’s chosen nation, that they are especially favored by Divine Providence; when citizens conflate greatness and goodness; when patriotism becomes religion, we see civil religion at work. . . . .
In my opinion civil religion is dangerous because it is a subtle form of idolatry. The nation is ultimate. . . . We live within a universal rather than a national moral horizon, and we ought to shape public policy to conform to universal claims of justice.
Without any sort of qualification or limitation, so the argument goes, patriotism is idolatry. If you regard your fatherland as your father, you are an idolater.
Fair enough, but the “God and country” patriotism treated with such contempt by the cosmopolitan liberal isn’t obviously and necessarily idolatrous. Consider, for example, the formulation “one nation under God,” which has its roots in the most faithful versions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. A nation under God acknowledges that it stands under God’s judgment, that its sovereignty is conditional and earthly, not absolute. If our choice is between a nation under God, a nation apart from God, or a nation that is God, piety demands that we adopt the first alternative.
Dixon seems to suggest that we don’t have the first choice. We must either regard our country as a merely secular tool to accomplish our cosmopolitan goals or be, in effect, idolatrous. I think she should take a closer look at the first choice. Nations, after all, can play a role in God’s providential order and can be appreciated, not to say loved, for the limited sorts of good they can do.
There are at least as many dangers in disdaining the nation, especially if one conceives oneself as still having a worldly calling. To regard oneself as accountable only to God (or, for that matter, as a secular cosmopolitan might, to “reason”), and not through realistic mechanisms to one’s neighbors, might well be a simple evasion of responsibility and ultimately the assertion of a license to say and do as one pleases.
Properly understood, “God and country” places the nation under God, where it belongs. Against the religious Left, this is not idolatrous. Against the secular Left, this provides a suitably modest and realistic means for ameliorating the human condition. Stated another way, “country” provides an anchor against the vanity or dreaminess of “mere cosmopolitanism,” and “God” provides an antidote to the excesses of national chauvinism. Where else would you want to be but in this middle?
Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University. He is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and a Contributing Editor to The City. His “The Prayers of Presidents” appears in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners.
Abraham Lincoln’s Address to the New Jersey Senate.
Valerie Elverton Dixon’s On Glenn Beck and the Restoring Honor Rally.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Robert P. George’s analysis of the best version.