I believe in America.” That is the opening line of perhaps the greatest movie ever made, The Godfather. The words are spoken by the undertaker Bonasera to Don Vito Corleone on the wedding day of the latter’s daughter. And so begins Francis Ford Coppola’s epic movie cycle in which commitment to American values of family and freedom turns dialectically into its opposite, culminating in Godfather II in abortion, fratricide, and the destruction of family.
To any immigrant, the opening line makes sense. America is not so much a place as a set of ideas connected to a place. America invented itself in the eighteenth century, with specific principles in mind. England, my homeland, did not. For sure, many of the ideals that America sought to embody can be found there. But England is a place that emerged over time and is much harder to define. Our form of government, for example, is not of the essence of who we are: The monarchy has been in existence for over a thousand years; the modern constitutional monarchy only arose in the last few centuries. England is not a set of ideas and so it makes no sense to say “I believe in England” in the manner of a Bonasera.
America, however, is in part a set of ideas, set forth with sparkling prose in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And this year I made the decision, after living here for over two decades, to become an American citizen. This July 4 was my first as a citizen of the United States. Why did I do so? The green card gave me all I needed (and the added bonus of not having to vote). Do I believe in America? It is not an easy question to answer.
First, the life of an immigrant is an odd one. To emigrate in one’s mid-thirties, as I did, is to come to a foreign land after all the most important aspects of one’s character are already formed. That means one can never truly feel that one belongs to the new country. I will never fully understand either the trivial preference for coffee over tea, or the not-so-trivial role that guns play in my host culture. And yet I can never go home. The England that formed me—the England of Mrs. Thatcher, of my old grammar school, of pubs and pints—is gone forever. Visiting England now is like visiting a foreign country. As the train from Paddington carries me through the valley that stretches from Kemble to Stoud, I see the blue remembered hills of childhood but these are truly “the happy highways where I went but cannot come again.” The immigrant is fated to belong to nowhere in particular. I am no more an Englishman of the 2020s than I am an American.
Second, I emigrated in mid-August 2001, just weeks before 9/11. Being a foreigner with nothing but a visa in a country that felt itself under siege was a most interesting experience. It also gave me a ringside seat to the dramatic collapse in American self-confidence that has taken place during my time here. Perhaps nothing hints at this more than the disappearance of the term “un-American” from popular discourse. Very common in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I never hear it today. There was never an English equivalent—“un-English” or “un-British” have for me humorous connotations, bringing to mind blustering Victorian military types with double-barreled surnames and pith helmets complaining about people who lack a stiff upper lip or don’t understand cricket. That is because England is not a set of ideas. Being “un-English” therefore has no real content. But in America, un-American meant something: A repudiation of the ideas that defined the nation.
I suspect the disappearance of the word indicates the disappearance of, if not the ideas, then of confidence in the ideas. America seems to me, an insider-outsider, to be a nation that is now questioning her identity in a profound way. The 1619 Project is one example: It is not its historical integrity that fascinates me so much as the fact it exists at all. When a nation starts to doubt or question its myth of origin, it is starting to lose its sense of identity and legitimacy.
This is all very bleak. So why did I become an American? Do I believe in America? The answer is no. I do not believe in America. But I am grateful to America. Now, in my mid-fifties, I am more conscious than ever of the need to be thankful for those people and places that have been good to me. My parents who left school at sixteen but taught me to love books. My old schoolmaster who sacrificed his lunch hours to tutor me in Greek in order to prepare me for the Cambridge Entrance Exam. To my college that gave me a place at no charge. To the university that granted me a scholarship for doctoral research. To my first academic employer who took a chance on a middle-of-the-pack PhD for a tenure track position. And to all those since who have given me opportunities that as a child I could only dream of. Above all, I am grateful to America. Flawed she is, but she has been good to me and my family. It seems only appropriate that I acknowledge that by formally committing myself to her. Gratitude is of the essence of immigration.
When my youngest son became a citizen earlier this year, at the end of the oath the master of ceremonies, a Ghanaian immigrant, told the new citizens to clap in celebration at their new status. So disappointed was he at the desultory applause that he proceeded to tell them what a privilege it was to become a citizen and to describe many of the hardships he had experienced in his homeland, from which America had delivered him. Then he called for a second round of applause. There was no need for a third.
The fact that I don’t “believe” in America is, of course, something that now unites me to many Americans who were born here. Radicals on the left and the right seem to hate the country that gives them the platform from which they indulge in adolescent venting about the irredeemable evil of the country that nurtured them. It’s an odd attitude, given the vast numbers of outsiders like myself who wish to live here. But one does not need to believe in America. That demands a perfection of the nation that is impossible to realize. One merely needs to be grateful for her. And I am.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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