Church and Nation: A Credal Nation, Part 3

At the heart of Barack Obama’s “Patriotism Tour” speech (discussed recently by Dr. Fleming and Dr. Trifkovic) lies the concept of credal nationhood. In the previous two installments of “Church and Nation,” I have mentioned that credal nationhood makes no sense whatsoever without reference to the state, because the promotion of credal nationhood has always been about increasing the power of the central state at the expense of any organic sense of American nationality.

Historically, that should be obvious, but we need to be cautious about the conclusions that we draw from this history.

For a Chronicles audience, I don’t need to rehearse Honest Abe’s use of an abstract nationalism to justify his actions during the Late Unpleasantness. Even after 1865, however, it was still possible that an American national identity, regionally Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic, could coalesce despite the destructive and divisive effects of the war. In fact, as John Lukacs has shown in Outgrowing Democracy, such an identity, with obvious regional differences, was beginning to emerge.

But other forces intervened, particularly a demographic shift in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Lukacs writes:

In 1850, 2.5 million of the population were foreign-born, in 1910 over 14 million (a total that equaled the number of natives in twenty-two states of the Union). In 1850 English was the native language of 97 percent of citizens who were foreign-born (this includes, of course, the great mass of the Irish), in 1910 it was 58 percent and decreasing fast, since by then the overwhelming majority of immigrants were coming from southern and eastern Europe and Russia.

Before World War I, German-Americans, long a significant minority, had overtaken Anglo-Americans as the dominant ethnic group in the United States. (The latter, however, still largely held the reins of political, cultural, and economic power, at least at the national level.) This demographic shift, combined with the condition that the new Southern and Eastern European immigrants’ “appearance and their expressions made them immediately recognizable, an alien element in the midst or on the edges of the American mass,” led to a groundswell of support for immigration restriction. The result was the Johnson Act of 1921, which established the “national origins” system, followed closely by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which favored Anglo and Northern European immigrants.

Immigration restriction was a reasonable response to the cultural and political transformation that was occurring in the early decades of the 20th century. And this response gives the lie to the idea that America has been, since the Declaration of Independence (or even since Lincoln’s nationalist reinterpretation of it), a “credal nation.” The 1921 and 1924 acts make no sense in the context of credal nationhood. They were, instead, concrete responses to the growing realization that Anglo-America was fading away.

Combined with the natural propensity of immigrants to form their own communities (or, in cities, their own neighborhoods), immigration restriction might well have led over time to the coalescence of a different, but still recognizably American, national identity, based on a broader European cultural identity.

But that was not to be. Instead, the federal government, in the 1920’s and 30’s, launched a crusade to “Americanize” the new immigrants, to try to create a credal nation by crushing the immigrants’ lingering European national identities. Nationality—an historic identity tied to a particular people and a particular place—became identified with citizenship, a political identity. (Even for some time after the Civil War, naturalized citizenship was granted through the states; now, it was entirely a federal concern.)

The public schools played a primary role, which is one reason why Catholic schools came under such bitter attack. Citizenship manuals such as Howard C. Hill’s The Life and Work of the Citizen (1935) encouraged the use of English, membership in such civic organizations as Rotary, and participation in wholesome American sports like baseball. To be a good American meant abandoning one’s history and traditions (and please, no more incense in church or garlic in your food!) and pledging fealty to the federal government. Hill’s book is festooned throughout with fasces, symbolizing the attempt to bind the diverse European national identities into a common American one and to create a uniform citizen-worker. (Even more ominously, the title page features four hands of different shades—symbolizing Law, Science, Order, and Trades)—grasping each other in the form of a swastika.)

Compared with the songs and stories, faith and food, language and kinship that compose a true national identity, it was all very thin gruel. And yet it triumphed, becoming the basis of post-World War II American nationalism. Small wonder that, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, opening the floodgates of immigration once again (and this time, to the entire world), that credal nationhood quickly crumbled.

And yet the idea lives on, both among the proponents of credal nationhood and among those who claim to oppose it. The problem with the writings of such Catholic critics of credal nationhood as John Rao and David Schindler is that they anachronistically project a largely 20th-century phenomenon back on the earliest days of America. They and others argue, essentially, that no true patriotism can exist in the United States, because credal nationalism is our Original Sin, and the only kind of baptism that could remove it is a baptism by fire, in which the United States itself would be consumed.

This, though, is really only the flip-side of what Barack Obama believes when he claims that “patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is also loyalty to America’s ideals—ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion.” Those who oppose credal nationalism but who argue (against the record of history) that it is the only possible American national identity do as much as Obama to empower the federal state that imposed this abstraction on us.

(Here I have to register a minor note of disagreement with my colleague Dr. Trifkovic. On this question of credal nationhood, Obama does not represent a “massive, revolutionary shift”; if anything, this is just one more area in which Obama has proved that he is not really an agent of “change” but merely a defender of the liberal and neoconservative status quo. It’s hard to see, for instance, why any FOX News commentator would object to Obama’s speech, except for the fact that Obama delivered it.)

The problem for those of us who understand that a credal nation is no nation at all is that, like everyone else, we are fixated on centralized government and centralized culture. We’re too focused on the forest to see the trees. Yet nations, like trees, are not imposed from the top down, but grow from the bottom up.

You say you want a revolution? Put down roots. Drop a few acorns. Grow your own forest.

And start studying American history, so that you can quit making yourself the prisoner of the ideological constructs that your opponents have imposed on your people and your native land.

Previous Installments in “Church and Nation”:

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