Proposition or Place?

I have heard America described several times recently as “the first nation built on an idea,” or words to that effect. It made me uncomfortable, somehow coming across as sinister blather. But I didn’t stop to figure out why.

Yet there are few questions – perhaps none at all – more important to our common life than just what it is we do “have in common.” In that form, the question has been roiling me for more than a decade. Now my thinking has been jump-started by Front Porch Republic “calling out” one of my usually-favorite people for celebrating America as “a propositional nation”:

The more I think about it, the more I think Robert P. George’s error (I don’t know him well enough to affect calling him “Robbie”) is celebrating; were he merely a political clinician, diagnosing part of what ails the nation, I think I’d have to agree with him, especially when he cites the idea “all men are created equal” – a truth from which we have fashioned a fetish.

But on the strength of what George identifies as the glue that binds us, I’m with Jim Kalb; the glue won’t hold:

Here are a few obvious issues the thesis raises:

  • If America is all about freedom of opinion, how come you have to sign on to a questionable political theory to be American?
  • Suppose you just want to have a country, the land where your fathers died and all that jazz, and you don’t want to sign on to George’s political theory. Are you out of luck if America is the land you’re attached to?
  • If it’s a big deal that rights are God-given, how does that fit in with the idea that America has nothing to do with any particular religion? And how does “credal nation” fit in with the concept that all religions are welcome? Is America a supreme creed that trumps all particular creeds?
  • If particular concrete human connections are irrelevant to whether you’re American or not, and being American means accepting the view of government presented in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and that view is universal in its validity, then does America by rights include the whole world?
  • Does the self-evident truth that governments are instituted to secure the natural God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean that libertarianism is the only legitimate scheme of social life?
  • Or maybe “liberty” means liberty to attain the true good, and the “pursuit of happiness” includes the right to a setting that facilitates the attainment of true happiness. If so, does that mean that a Catholic American (George is Catholic) should be committed to the transformation of America and indeed the whole world into a Catholic state?
  • That can’t be right, since America has no connection to any particular religion. But if America doesn’t depend on any particular religion—any particular view regarding reality and what we’re supposed to do in life—what do “liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness” mean? Maybe we’re back to libertarianism. But then does “America” really mean “global enforcement of democratic capitalism”? Is that the cause I’m supposed to be willing to sacrifice my all for?

HT Jerry Salyer, who adds:

Of course in this error George and countless other Catholics merely follow the (ostensibly) progressive zeitgeist, which has long since condemned mere historic nations.  Based as they are upon trivialities — i.e., shared experiences, heritage, language, blood, culture, and religion – historic nations are now seen as relics of a petty-minded past.

In fact, what the theory of the “propositional nation” has produced is an entirely new type of elite for whom home is no longer a category of the consciousness …

George is brilliant and tireless on Natural Law, but he’s not a Front Porch Republic kind of guy. Indeed, this performance on political philosophy rivals Rick Perry’s Thursday debate performance.

Crunchy Con Rod Dreher, on the other hand, is so increasingly Front Porchy that, having returned to his home in northeast Louisiana for a week or so for his sister Ruthie’s funeral, he has fallen in love with it again and is trying to leave New York, Dallas and Philly behind to return, with his family, to his ancestral home. He has been articulating that kind of value system for years; now he begins planning to live it (presumably staying plugged in to concerns about the nation-state via internet and other technology).

I’m not sure, though, that the nation-state, a relatively recent historic arrival, is worth worrying about (he said, aware of the irony that he’s worrying about why it’s not worth worrying about), or that we will ever find sufficient glue to hold things together with any permanence.

Other than that, I’m with Rod. Home matters. Place matters. Limits matter.

I’m lucky enough to have come home 30+ years ago without being conscious or calculatedly “localist” about it. This just felt like home after 15 years of boarding school, college, and go-where-the-corporation-tells-you-to-go-next urbanity.

I’m under no illusions about its perfection; I love my time in Traverse City (and other vacations); but my hometown has a lot to commend it.

Like, for instance, it’s my hometown. It’s not some grand, hubristic construct, but something I can actually care about.