A History of American Identities

A History of American Identities

After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division
by Samuel Goldman
University of Pennsylvania
208 pp., $24.95

What does it mean to be an “American?” There is nothing new about this question, according to a recent book, After Nationalism, by Samuel Goldman. Goldman has written a highly readable, well-researched, and persuasive account of the contexts and conflicts that have shaped different responses to this perennial question.

The one certainty that Americans can retain about their national identity, according to Goldman, is that there has never been unanimity about it. He writes, “We do not only disagree about how much pluribus is compatible with republican government; we also disagree about what kind of unum we should become.” This observation is a fateful one. For if history cannot provide guidance as to what unites Americans as a people, can the present age of conflict and polarization lend any clarity?

Americans face hard questions today. Should “we, the people” find our identity in “specific institutions in a particular place” or seek out “an organic and previously existing community?” In other words, should Americans create new identities or build on old ones? Most importantly, who exactly among “we, the people” should have the power to define what “American” means for Americans?

Goldman focuses on three ambitious attempts in chronological order: the Covenant, the Crucible, and the Creed. Besides serving as attempts to address the question of nationality, they all share two other features. First, they express their ideas and themes in biblical or religious language. Second, in the implementation of their vision, the adherents have at times coerced or excluded some Americans. In the process, all three narratives have indulged in myths that often collided with the reality of their times.

The first attempt at defining national unity—the symbol of the Covenant—had unmistakably religious origins. Goldman writes, “Emerging from New England, it ultimately sought to constitute all of America as an offshoot of the Puritan experience.” In other words, it presented Americans as essentially Anglo-Protestant English settlers of the Atlantic Coast with a special relationship with the God of Abraham. New Englanders were a new chosen people “entitled to populate and rule a specific piece of territory.” This obvious debt to the Bible did not contradict the novelty of the project. What John Winthrop famously called a “city upon a hill” would be a new society consisting of citizens dedicated to the practice of Christian charity.

By placing the community as a whole in a “vertical” relationship to God, covenant also establishes a “horizontal” responsibility among its members. This matrix of mutual obligation is the subject of John Winthrop’s famous “A Modell of Christian Charity.”

For the earliest American defenders of the Covenant, this ethic of charity began at home, limited to true believers, or “visible saints,” who retained an Anglo-Protestant identity. Although this “Christian republicanism” paid lip service to the separation of church and state in the 17th century, political participation was restricted to pious Calvinists. Still, this symbolism was so powerful and enduring that it captured the imagination of Americans who were spread across all 13 colonies during the War of Independence. The new republic born out of revolution was a covenantal nation, dedicated to the worship of God, the preservation of order and liberty, and the enjoyment of “shared prosperity.”

To be sure, the universalist themes of this covenant did not obscure the particular interests of New England. Yankee nationalists who opposed the evil of slavery rankled the South. Likewise, New Englanders who preferred a small republic “constrained by a shared faith and defined territory” were pitted against Americans set on migrating westward. Opposition to the War of 1812, Jeffersonian democracy, and Jacksonian populism also set New Englanders apart from their fellow Americans, who sought their destiny in the wilderness. As waves of Catholic immigrants increased, Puritan bigotry and suspicion of popish plots also intensified.

Notwithstanding this fractious history, Goldman appreciates the covenantal tradition for achievements that both the crucible and creedal traditions failed to attain. He writes, “Despite its tendency to degenerate into Protestant supremacy or ethnic bigotry, though, the appeal of the covenant has endured.” What explains this fact? “Covenant theology provides a way of avoiding the abstractions of an ideological or creedal nationalism without moving too far in the direction of blood and soil.” Moreover,

It was the most coherent attempt to develop American identity from within English identity and Protestant political theology. At its best, it combined a generous hope for national flourishing with a sophisticated appreciation for the social and economic preconditions of self-government.

Yet hopes for the revival of this tradition are implausible in Goldman’s judgment, given the huge conflict between the covenant’s strict theological morality and the diverse secularity of modern America.

The next tradition, the symbol of the Crucible, first entered the American consciousness alongside the idea of the melting pot. In 1782, the French émigré J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur described the New World as a place in which “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” This theme received a more openly theological articulation in Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot (1908). Zangwill described America as “God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”

Although the origin of this symbolism is arguably biblical, Goldman doubts that the Covenant and the Crucible share much in common. While the Covenant “is oriented toward patriarchs who established a sacred community,” the Crucible “envisions a new kind of human being living in a new world, in which arbitrary borders and boundaries will be dissolved.” He also agrees with Herman Melville’s interpretation of this aspiration as an “inversion of the biblical narrative.” Goldman writes, “Rather than nations succeeding human unity, unity would replace national division.” He also quotes Melville’s observation that “all tribes and peoples are forming into a federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearth-stone in Eden.”

This desired return to Eden does not literally emulate the covenant, which succeeds the Fall. However, the possibility of new beginnings is central to both the Covenant and the Crucible, whether they point to a new nation or a new unity.

Of course, new beginnings have their destructive side as well. The Civil War drafted millions of immigrants into a new American identity forged by “an apocalypse of fire and blood.” What John O’Sullivan famously called “Manifest Destiny” justified, in the name of Providence, overseas imperialism (e.g. the Spanish-American War) as well as westward expansion. Here Goldman downplays the resemblance between the theme of chosenness within the covenantal tradition and the progressivist rationale behind the melting pot. “The United States was the instrument of this divine process—not a chosen people set apart from other nations, but the whole of humankind reaching consciousness of itself.”

Whatever the differences here, however, the belief in a God who commands one people to bring about His providential design is a persistent pattern within American history. Despite the universalism within this redemptory mission, however, not all Americans were welcome to join. In addition to black slaves and native Americans, whites who lacked an English ancestry faced discrimination. Defenders of the melting pot, as Goldman admits, “relied on Protestant texts and assumptions” in the hope that “American Catholics would eventually abandon their mother church.” Universalism, once again, had its limits. Ultimately, the melting pot could not melt all the cultural and religious differences that defined Americans.

The final symbol that has defined American nationality is the Creed. More specifically, the “American Creed,” a term popularized by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, arises from the assumption that principles are the basis of unity—not ethnicity, culture, or religion. This creed consisted of the belief in equal rights for all, despite the fact that many Americans—especially black Americans—had not been its beneficiaries.

The high-water mark of the Creed was World War II and the ensuing Cold War. During these times of conflict, the Creed served two purposes. “At home, it pointed toward the realization of racial equality through gradual but consistent reform,” Goldman writes. “Abroad, it involved the defense of democracy against totalitarian enemies: first fascists, then communists.”

In ideological terms, the Creed was identical to “midcentury liberalism.” Out of this historical context arose the belief that America “was formed by an idea” (in the words of Hans Kohn), not by blood, soil, or historical memory. In today’s political parlance, America is a propositional nation. In retrospect, as Goldman shows, World War II, and to a lesser extent the Cold War, were the last times in which America enjoyed a unity of purpose, to which the Creed provided a moral legitimacy.

Like the Covenant and the Crucible, the American Creed’s defenders appealed to a biblical tradition that preceded progressivist liberalism. Although, as Goldman points out, G. K. Chesterton worried that “the American Creed was an ersatz religion that threatened Christianity,” Myrdal expressed the opposite worry that “political leaders are continuously deducing the American Creed out of the Bible.”

The novelty of the Creed lay in the fact that, unlike the Crucible, its focus on high principle did not require the “elimination of differences” that the melting pot demanded. Unlike the covenantal tradition, creedal nationalism promised that the “nation could absorb so much immigration … because its essence lay in ideas rather than in blood, soil, or religious confession.” In pragmatic terms, America’s leadership was under pressure to create a universalistic message that could be an “ideological counterpoint” to the appeal of Marxist universalism during the Cold War era.

Yet the initial promise and advantages of the Creed were no match for the cosmic conflicts that shook the American psyche during the Cold War era. The “underlying disagreements about American meaning and purpose,” which both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War exposed, left an open wound on the American mind. “The search for a creedal nation was a failure,” a casualty of these conflagrations.

Even before the tumults of the 1960s, the Creed inspired a dangerous lack of humility among its defenders. Goldman highlights Lincoln’s famous warning that Americans were an “almost chosen people” who should avoid the confident assumption “that they had a special claim on divine favor or understood God’s ways.” This has often been lost on other leaders in American history. Goldman writes:

Not all of Lincoln’s admirers shared this religious and moral caution. Inspired by Protestant eschatology, many supporters of the Union developed an account of America as the “redeemer nation” that would determine the fate of liberty for the whole world.

Woodrow Wilson, a great admirer of Lincoln, had little doubt that he himself was an instrument of God’s providence. The hopes of Lincoln became certainties for Wilson. In Goldman’s words, Wilson turned Lincoln’s famous description of the Union as the “last, best hope of earth” into a “fighting faith.”

Like most political religions, Wilson’s own version of the American Creed had its nasty side. “Political centralization, official propaganda, and the repression of dissent” became features of Wilson’s presidency during World War I. Like the Covenant and the Crucible, the Creed inspired coercion as well as idealism.

What Goldman lists as the reasons for the failure of creedal nationalism could broadly apply to the Covenant and the Crucible as well. “[S]imultaneous commitments to liberty and equality, the pursuit of justice and respect for the Constitution, the universality of moral principles, and particularity of the nation did not entirely hang together.”

In fact, every time a particular group of Americans sees itself as the new elect or chosen people that defines identity for everyone else in America, there is bound to be conflict and even civil war. If there is any pattern to the usage of biblical symbolism, even in secularized form, it is that Americans have fundamentally disagreed on how to apply quasi-religious credos to the public square.

What Eric Voegelin called “derailments” of religious symbols are part and parcel of the American experience. I am not suggesting that Americans should repudiate the biblical tradition and the attendant desire for new beginnings. Rather, they should cultivate a realistic skepticism towards today’s political and corporate leaders who are only too happy to employ quasi-religious language that sanctions a revolutionary politics to cleanse the world of sins both past and present.

In the last chapter, Goldman favors two options that stop short of grandiose plans to create a new national identity. First, he defends a “constitutional patriotism,” which in good creedal fashion emphasizes constitutionalism, the rule of law, and civic equality. These principles would provide “rules of conscience for people who otherwise don’t share much.” Second, he desires a republic in which there is “a variety of overlapping and sometimes contending groups that reflect and cultivate different conceptions of identity, responsibility, and purpose.” He goes on to say that

[p]olitical parties, labor unions, and religious communities must be allowed to pursue their clashing views of public policy, economic issues, and the meaning of life. It is through their conflict that we will discover the terms on which we can live together.

Sadly, the obstacles to this proposal to “strengthen institutions of contestation” are far more formidable than anything that the Covenant, Crucible, or Creed ever faced. The leftist elect that governs America today has not only unprecedented power—through the Leviathan state and social media—to define what national identity and consensus ought to be, but it also seeks to impose a neo-Puritan intolerance that is utterly devoid of the forgiveness or charity once central to the covenantal tradition.

In order to enjoy a rebirth of autonomous institutions that seek to define what America is, the leftist elect would have to give up its self-appointed role as the guardian of identity, which is an unlikely prospect, to say the least. Conversely, a majority of Americans would have to launch a counter-revolution against these entrenched interests. Although Goldman refrains from recommending this radical action, his invaluable study of history subtly reminds his fellow Americans that those who have the power to define identity for all also have the power to curb the liberty of those who dissent from this imposition.


Top image: Cracked flag by Mediamodifier, via Pixabay

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