I once wrote a book on the American experiment and the idea of covenant, Time Toward Home. A covenantal understanding of America is distinct from, although not incompatible with, a contractual understanding. Most writing about the American experience, and especially about the American political order, accents that it is based on a “contract theory” of government. Contract theory has a very honorable philosophical pedigree. It is based upon a narrative, some would say a myth, about people entering into a mutually beneficial agreement or contract in order to form a government. The telling of that story by John Locke had a significant influence on the thinking of the American founders, but it was hardly the only influence, and, in subsequent history, has not been the most important influence.
Time magazine reported on the aforementioned book and highlighted my writing that, “When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American.” Admittedly, that is a statement that can easily be misunderstood. It is not intended as a boast or as a claim on God’s favorable judgment. It is a simple statement of fact. Among all the things I am or have been or hope to be, I am undeniably an American. It is not the most important thing, but it is an inescapable thing. Nor, even were I so inclined, should I try to escape it. It is a pervasive and indelible part of what is called one’s “identity.”
Identity has become something of a buzz word in our public discussions, leading to the frequently deplored “identity politics” that constructs the world around race, gender, sexual orientation, and other contingencies that should not be expected to bear the weight of the world, or even the weight of defining who you are. And yet identity is important. To borrow a motto from the people at American Express, “Don’t leave home without it.”
Once one leaves a secure world of taken-for-granted realities, one is at a loss without an identity. We want to know who we are in relation to who others are, or who they want us to think they are. I am indebted to the sociologist Peter Berger for the phrase “identity kit.” We all have one. They are the pieces of biography that people produce in introducing themselves to strangers or in writing a resume for a job or in privately measuring our successes and failures. As Berger says, “Any identity is better than none.”
One’s identity is, as often as not, a work in progress. And it is not entirely a matter of choice. One cannot make it up out of whole cloth. After all, one is born at a particular time and place, with particular parents and other circumstances that shape our opportunities and expectations. Being an American is among the most important of those circumstances. Needless to say, our identity, who we think we are, is formed in large part by who other people think we are. Recall the line of Robert Burns, “Oh, would that God the gift would gee us / to see ourselves as others see us.” One hopes for that gift not because others necessarily see us more accurately than we see ourselves, but because how we see ourselves is significantly informed by how we think others see us.
Among American thinkers, and not least among American religious thinkers, one frequently encounters an attempt to escape one’s time and place, including one’s identity as an American. It is a very American thing to try to do. Such attempted escapes are not necessarily because one dislikes America and is uncomfortable with being identified as an American, although that is no doubt often the case. Rather, there is something in American culture, reinforced by Christian impulses, that prompts people to think that they should be more than Americans.
An academic friend who teaches religious ethics fervently insists that she is not an American citizen but “a citizen of the world.” You perhaps have friends like that. It is a very American thing, thinking that we have transcended being American. We are, after all, as some like to say, the world’s first “universal nation.” By that is meant we are a “nation of immigrants” and therefore American identity is an amalgam of the identities of all the peoples of the world. The phrase universal nation is also intended to mean that American identity is established not by national origin, ethnicity, race, religion or other historically contingent factors but by subscribing to certain universal principles—for instance, the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson employs to fine effect the phrase, “the story of the world.” The story of the People of Israel and the Church, he writes, is nothing less than the story of the world, and the world is today lost in its confusions because it has “lost its story.” I would add that, for those of us who are Americans, we are as Americans part of the story that is the story of the world. Moreover, America itself—this nation that the founders called an experiment and, like any experiment, may succeed or fail—is part of the story that is the story of the world. Of the many ways of thinking about America—economic, political, cultural, etc.—there is today a striking scarcity of thinking about America religiously, even, if you will, theologically. It was not always so.
This subject touches, of course, on the familiar question of the one and the many, of particularity and universality, and whether, as modernity has led many to think, one must choose between them. Recently published is the last book by John Paul II, whom history will, I believe, call John Paul the Great. It is titled Memory and Identity and is a profound reflection on the connections between personhood and peoplehood, between national experience and God’s purposes through time, and one’s own little place in that drama. Of course, the book is about Poland and being Polish, both of which John Paul explores and affirms in a way that many might think scandalously chauvinistic but I believe is provocatively wise.
It was not so long ago that American intellectuals, including American theologians, thought in a similar way, albeit not always so profoundly, about the American experiment. In the last half century or so, Americans have largely lost their story and its place in the story of the world. Religious thinkers, too, have succumbed to the false-consciousness of having transcended the American experience, which is expressed, more often than not, in a typically American anti-Americanism that is relished and imitated by others, notably by European intellectuals. As in the writing of biography, or of history more generally, one cannot think truly about a story with which one is not sympathetically engaged. Love is sometimes blind, but contempt is always blind.
Richard John Neuhaus was editor in chief of First Things.
Time Toward Home by Richard John Neuhaus