People say the United States is different from other countries, but how, and what does it mean?
A basic distinction is that it is a comparatively new country governed by the oldest secular revolutionary government in the world. As a result, the inherited ties of blood, soil, and common history, culture, and religion that have tied European nations together are weak here in the United States. Such ties have been strong locally, as in New England until the middle of the nineteenth century, and in much of the South until quite recently, but where present they’ve been radically weakened by immigration, industrialization, increased mobility, and advances in communication, together with growth from a federation of thirteen states on the Eastern Seaboard to an empire of continental scale with worldwide interests.
So it’s difficult for America to understand itself as a sort of family, tribe, ethnic people, or historical community tied to a particular place. But what then is it? It might view itself as a sort of business partnership or charitable society, but political authority needs life-and-death loyalty, and no one is willing to lay down his life for Verizon or Kiwanis. For that reason it has been viewed as a cause, one that is political and more than political, since politics must point beyond itself to justify ultimate loyalty.
So America has depended on a political outlook that is religious in character. Hence the assertion that it is a “proposition nation,” and Chesterton’s more profound comment that it is “a nation with the soul of a church,” and indeed “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.”
But what creed? Abraham Lincoln, whose view on the point seems to have prevailed, said that the Declaration of Independence dedicates America to the proposition that all men are created equal. If so, then that document makes our national religion one of human equality conferred on us by Nature’s God and defined by reference to certain basic rights. The most prominent of those rights, of course, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is apparently defined as well as pursued individually.
Our national religion, then, is a sort of divinely-mandated liberalism that makes politics a matter of securing and advancing the equal freedom to pursue our individual goals. Such a religion gives God nothing much to do once His will is accepted and the system set up. He becomes irrelevant except as an ultimate justification for the structure as a whole. That is why the Constitution, a practical plan of government, left out God and prohibited religious tests, thereby creating the Federal Government as an entirely secular arrangement.
But such an arrangement raises serious issues, especially as the federal government grows, consolidates, and takes on more and more functions. Government is commonly thought of as the res publica, the way people deal with their common affairs. But if government is concerned only with establishing a framework within which people can securely pursue their own ends, what are the common affairs with which it should concern itself?
At first it seemed they couldn’t go much beyond national defense, law and order, and general efforts to promote industry and commerce. And those are indeed the responsibilities originally given to the Federal Government. But people also care about other things, such as family, religion, and the public moral standards that define a shared common life, and until recently no one wanted to follow liberal theory so ruthlessly as to exclude such things from public concern. They weren’t ready for the full demands of the universal right the Supreme Court now proclaims “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
The solution was to leave the non-contractual and non-utilitarian aspects of life up to individuals, voluntary associations, and the states. The latter, as the primordial political societies composing the United States, retained through their “police power” the ability to concern themselves with the public good as traditionally and broadly conceived. So the states could define family law, promote learning, morals, and religion, provide poor relief, and otherwise act like normal political societies.
Hence the worries about Federal overreach during the debates over the Constitution, the periodic talk of nullification, secession, and states’ rights, and the adoption of the First Ten Amendments, which limited the Federal Government in its dealings with the states but did not limit the powers of individuals, private associations, or the states in any way. People felt the need to limit the jurisdiction of a secular and utilitarian—and therefore soulless—national government over our lives together.
Also hence other features of our national life. For example, the emphasis on private property, and the emphasis Tocqueville noted on religion, local government, “family values,” and voluntary public-spirited initiatives, all of which were felt to create zones in which people could participate in broader and deeper goods than those offered by a narrowly secular and utilitarian national order. And since our national unity had to make up in intensity what it lacked in broadness and depth, a final consequence of our constitutional order was a very assertive patriotism focused on national power, and on national symbols such as the flag.
Europeans have often been puzzled by such things. They thought us very sensitive on points of national pride, found our attitude toward morals puritanical, and wondered “why is there no socialism in the United States?” We have seen that such questions have an answer. When transcendent realities do not order a political society, the opposition between my country and yours, my family and yours, my property and yours, becomes absolute. There is nothing to bridge the gap, so the alternative to their absolute opposition is their absolute unification in a sort of collectivist anthill. It is not surprising that Americans rejected such an inhuman sort of unity and preferred a stricter approach to such matters than Europeans thought called for.
Such a makeshift solution couldn’t last forever, and our national particularities are now dissipating. A society’s most authoritative principles ultimately work their way through all social life, and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, driven home at Appomattox, makes the Federal Government our highest social authority. The result is that life, liberty, and the pursuit of equal individual happiness are now expected to govern all human relations. Any deviation is oppression, and when subordinate associations such as states, families, and the Church (which is viewed in America as a subordinate private association) stand for a different ideal of life they are seen as illegitimate barriers to the universal sway of equal freedom.
The result is that American government is becoming as national, consolidated, and comprehensive in its supervision of social life as European. But while America becomes more like Europe, Europe becomes more like America. All Western states are now secular liberal revolutionary states, and all are officially multicultural, which means all have adopted a policy of extirpating pre-political community. The problem of a soulless national order that Americans have dealt with through their idiosyncrasies is now theirs as well.
They don’t have our defenses even to the diminishing extent they remain to us, and the result is the death of the soul of Europe. One manifestation is collapse of birth rates and loss of the will to survive as distinct societies. Another is a collapse of the Church even greater than elsewhere. When it is accepted that a wholly secular state joined with a global corporate economy should supervise and organize the whole of society you get a wholly secular—and therefore mechanical and soulless—social order.
The relation between America and Europe has been rather like the relationship between California and the rest of the United States. From the standpoint of the older societies the Far West looks like Lala Land, a strange place where people do odd things, but wait a while and it turns out they were ahead on the curve. Now the whole West is in the same situation as we are. No exit is visible, but the American approach of putting up concrete barriers to overall consolidation offers relative promise. In spite of everything, then, American exceptionalism still has something to offer the world.