Could Moderate Nationalism Save Us from Post-Christian “Americanism”?

By John Zmirak Published on February 10, 2017

As the president’s chief strategist Steve Bannon insists, the election of Donald Trump was a victory for “nationalism.” On that observers agree. But that’s where consensus ends. What exactly does that term mean? Is it something that should frighten us? Fill us with hope? Leave us ambivalent, neutral, or watchful? The answer to that crucial question depends both on what we mean by nationalism, and how its resurgence affects both domestic and foreign policy.

Thoughtful commentators on the right have been weighing in on this subject, especially lately. I’ll offer a round-up of their views in a moment. But first I would like to reiterate a distinction I offered here months ago, before it seemed even likely that Donald Trump would win the election. As I wrote then, there are two lodestars of loyalty among American conservatives, which can complement each other but also compete:

The Golden Egg: moral, civic and economic principles that could, in theory, be applied to any country on earth, and to any group of immigrants we admitted to America, however large. These principles are simply true for every human being, and we must insist on that fact. Instead of the left’s relativism and politics of group resentment, these principles offer conservatives an inclusive, persuasive program which should appeal to any voter of good will. You can find an excellent summary of America’s guiding principles right here at The Stream. Key among them are truths such as “Every human being has equal value and dignity,” and “Judeo-Christian religious faith guards our freedom.” If pursued consistently, these principles should always produce a more peaceful, prosperous, free country than would otherwise be possible.


The Goose: real, existing, historically-founded facts that explain why these principles have worked here in America, while failing spectacularly when tried elsewhere — for instance in the Latin American republics that declared independence shortly after the 13 colonies did, wrote similar declarations and comparable constitutions, and degenerated into a 200-year cycle of dictatorships and chaos. The most important of these facts was the dominance of a tolerant, Anglo-Protestant culture grounded in some 800 years of English resistance to oppressive governments. Change this fact too radically or too quickly, and the principles we treasure will wither and die.

If abstract ideology is all you are interested in, then it does not really matter where you were born. Or who your parents were. Or whom you love. Or the hymns you know by heart, the habits you’ve learned, the folk tales you treasure, the God you worship.

America as a Mere Abstraction

Back in 2003, when “Golden Egg” enthusiasts had almost completely captured the thinktanks, magazines, and other institutions of conservatism, I wrote a long “think piece” warning against the dangers of unmoored ideology that neglected the “Golden Goose,” called “America the Abstraction.” Jim Antle saw fit to reach back some 14 years and cite that piece yesterday in The Washington Examiner.  (Antle’s piece is itself an excellent starting point for understanding today’s debate—I encourage all to read it.) As I wrote then:

If you are trying to boil down citizenship to its philosophically respectable components, and if ideology is all you are interested in, then it does not really matter where you were born. Or who your parents were. Or whom you love. Or the hymns you know by heart, the folk tales you treasure, the God you worship. None of these merely human matters measures up, ideologically speaking. None of them can be enshrined in a manifesto, or beamed across the world via Voice of America, or exported in music videos. They do not raise the GDP, or lower the interest rate, or increase our command of oil reserves. They cannot be harnessed to drive the engine of globalization. Therefore, to some people, these things do not matter. Such pieties can be harnessed in the run-up to a war, can form part of the Army recruitment ads and propaganda campaigns, and may even find their way into presidential speeches. But essentially there is no difference between a fourth-generation American and an Afghan refugee who just landed at JFK—so long as they both accept the same ideology.

How did we get to this pass? How did conservatism, which once centered on the fierce defense of tradition, religion, and particularism, turn into an ideology — that is, a philosophy in arms, a political system shorn of its ties to real people and places, slimmed down by dropping historical baggage, packaged for export on the global market of ideas? The simple answer is the Cold War. …

The post-war conservative movement labored mightily to craft … a version of Americanism that could be promoted internationally, which Europeans and Asians, Latins and Africans alike could adopt as an alternative to Marxism. …

Increasingly, America was defined according to the most expansive, abstract reading of the Declaration of Independence, combined with a version of market economics well-suited to the unrestricted “pursuit of happiness.” Anything that did not fit that formula tended to fall down the memory hole: the Anglo-Celtic roots of the Founding, the specifically Christian (mostly Protestant) identity of America, the very existence of the Confederacy, and the profoundly Western roots of our culture. …

To conservatives schooled in this mode of argument, restrictions on immigration are simply insane; anyone, anywhere who will sign on to the Declaration of Independence is already an American. Keeping him out makes no more sense than building a Berlin Wall to divide Manhattan’s East Side from its West. Embittered blacks, or religious conservatives, or leftists who do not accept the Cold War ideology of America are not real Americans. An ideological litmus test becomes the standard of citizenship. American foreign policy must cease to pursue the concrete interests of a concrete, national community and become the tool by which an abstract creed is imposed across the world — hindered only by the resistance of the benighted and bigoted, who are fated to end on the ash-heap of history.

A compatible view of these crucial issues comes from Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, who write:

The outlines of a benign nationalism are not hard to discern. It includes loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it. And this sense attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws. Such nationalism includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners. When this nationalism finds political expression, it supports a federal government that is jealous of its sovereignty, forthright and unapologetic about advancing its people’s interests, and mindful of the need for national cohesion.

“Because nationalism is ultimately the fire of tribalism, having too much of it tends to melt away important distinctions, from the rule of law to the right to dissent to the sovereignty of the individual.”

Nationalism Can Be Dangerous

Jonah Goldberg, in the same magazine, respectfully differs, declaring his preference for the Golden Egg:

Our shrines are to patriots who upheld very specific American ideals. Our statues of soldiers commemorate heroes who died for something very different from what other warriors have fought and died for for millennia. Every one of them — immigrants included — took an oath to defend not just some soil but our Constitution and by extension the ideals of the Founding. Walk around any European hamlet or capital and you will find statues of men who fell in battle to protect their tribe from another tribe. That doesn’t necessarily diminish the nobility of their deaths or the glory of their valor, but it is quite simply a very different thing they were fighting for. …

[N]ationalism is healthy in small doses, but we must remember that all poisons are determined by the dose. Because nationalism is ultimately the fire of tribalism, having too much of it tends to melt away important distinctions, from the rule of law to the right to dissent to the sovereignty of the individual. This is why every example of unfettered nationalism run amok ends up looking very much like socialism run amok (and vice versa). The passionate populist desire for unity above all recognizes no abstract barriers to the general will.

Ben Shapiro warns, also at National Review:

Trump’s definition of nationalism is not the conservative definition of nationalism. Conservatives love America because we believe it is a nation founded on an idea. Our interests ought to prevail because our principles ought to prevail: limited government, individual liberty, God-given natural rights, localism in politics, religious freedom, freedom of speech and of the press, and so forth. If America ceased to believe those things or stand for them, we would not deserve to win. “Make America Great Again” would then ring hollow with the same blood-and-soil nationalistic violence of the Old World. If greatness is measured in utilitarian terms rather than ideological ones, nationalism is merely tribalism broadened, a way of valuing the collective over the individual.

America’s Founding Principles, De-Christianized, Can Be Poisonous

Of course, the critics of nationalism are right, up to a point. They correctly warn that an unreflective attachment to hearth and home, totem and tribe can quickly get out of control and erupt in the kind of ugliness we see around the world, which took its most infamous form in Hitler’s Germany.

But that’s not the only kind of danger. Countries bound together only by an abstract ideology can be very dangerous too — as we see not just from the Soviet Union and revolutionary France, but more recently in the empire created by ISIS, and the relentless drive for power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Stripped of their Christian context, America’s founding principles can prove very dangerous indeed; they were fatal to almost 60 million unborn American children.

Goldberg and Shapiro recognize this of course. They read their history, and know that ideologies can be dangerous. They just don’t seem to think that America’s can be. They don’t seem to see that American principles, while truer than most, can also be abused and applied to evil ends.

But isn’t that exactly what happened when our judicial elites declared that our Constitution enshrined the right to abortion? That central to our right of liberty is the right to make up the meaning of the universe exactly as we wish to? (See Casey v. Planned Parenthood.) That same-sex couples have the right to legally recognized marriage because of their human “dignity”?

You and I might rightly say that these are false inferences from our principles, but they are currently the official governing philosophy of the United States legal system. Stripped by judicial intellectuals of their tolerant, Protestant Christian context (the “originalist” reading of the Constitution that Justice Scalia insisted on), our founding principles can prove very dangerous indeed; they were fatal to almost 60 million unborn American children.

Our Founders were fallen men, and their ideas were not divinely revealed from heaven. The profound truths that did emerge in America’s founding were not some brilliant ideas that Enlightenment thinkers came up with and scribbled down. Instead, they emerged over centuries in a very specific context: the Christian soil of England, with its Saxon resistance to political authority and Protestant obsession with spiritual independence. That was the soil the Pilgrims and other English settlers carried over with them on their ships. Scrape it away, replace it with alien sand or secular gravel, and Liberty’s tree might wither. Or to go back to my first metaphor, the Goose might keel over and die.

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