Theology Thursdays: Americanity, The State Religion (July 5, 2000)
I've come to realize that white intellectuals and the political establishment that they influence, are in their own world when it comes to discussing the concept of patriotism. Though this characteristic is evident among liberals and conservatives alike, it especially applies to conservatives. From Robert Bork to Norman Podhoretz alike, conservatives almost unanimously have no tolerance for criticism of this country coming from anyone, not to mention the poor and Blacks - unless of course, in the case of the latter group, these Blacks are their conservative brethren and the criticism is directed at American liberalism. Short of that, you can forget about getting a fair hearing from America's conservative establishment no matter how many facts and figures you produce proving that this country has been unjust to many. I realized this more fully over the last few days as I reflected over the history of this nation and the recent debates and discussions over reparations and the death penalty that again, show Americans as differing along racial lines when it comes to issues of justice. Notice that I did not mention issues of economics, politics or culture but rather justice. This all crystallized in my mind after reading an essay by Norman Podhoretz entitled, " Patriotism and Its Enemies" in the July 3, 2000 edition of the Wall St. Journal. True to form, Podhoretz takes several thousand words to make the case that those liberals who have criticized this country's involvement in wars and this country's economic conditions, especially since the Great Depression, are somehow un-American or incapable of being considered patriots. The essay, though at times brilliant, can't resist swinging to extremes when applying its patriotism litmus test to post-Depression America
In short, Podhoretz reveals the blind spot and vulnerability in the conservative worldview which is their inability to listen, without flinching, to those who are able to articulate where America has fallen short of her promise; acted in direct opposition to the noble principles contained in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. constitution; and denied justice to those she calls her "citizens". Instead of listening to these critiques that often are accompanied by civil disobedience, conservatives cry "treason" and rush to label those voicing the dissatisfaction that exists in this country as "liberals", "radicals" and "communists" The only time that conservatives will tolerate criticism of America is when conservatives find themselves out of power in this country. Then and only then is America culturally degenerate or indeed slouching toward Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, America is going to hell when Bill Clinton is in office but was only struggling a bit when George Bush Sr. was president.
Unfortunately for them, the upcoming days and years will only get worse for conservatives who feel like this as I firmly believe that this country is slowly but surely returning to a left-leaning critique of American history and justice. And when I say left and right I do not mean the traditional liberal/conservative Republican/Democrat dichotomy. Rather, I am referring to the best aspects of the worldview of those who are on the left. For the sake of clarity, in my view, some of the best aspects of the worldview of those on the right are the emphasis placed on religion, family, discipline and economic risk-taking and the rule of law. Some of the best of the left can be found in its emphasis on freedom of speech, political inclusion, artistic expression, concern for economic security and miscarriages of justice. Of course this does not mean that each of these categories is mutually exclusive. Hardly.
When I say that America is returning to a left-leaning critique of American history I am saying that the American electorate in this country is moving away from nearly 20 years of its general concern with national defense, economic risk-taking and the rule of law, which have gone to the extreme, and is now returning to an assessment of what the last 20 years have meant, in total, to the country, and who in the process has been left behind or near the bottom. The group that has realized this leftward pull first are the most die-hard of conservatives who are beginning to feel that their influence over American society is weakening . It is this feeling, shared among conservatives, which in my opinion, has contributed to their rabid opposition to anything critical of this nation or of scenarios in which the United States is viewed unfavorably juxtaposed to another country..
This was most recently visible in the case of Elian Gonzalez - a case where conservatives dumped their card-carrying principle of family values in favor of emphasizing an aspect of their political ideology that enabled them to gain power in the first place. What the Elian case reminded the world of, was that the U.S. conservative movement first and foremost is a political worldview and strategy designed to conserve the status quo relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Conservatives are not international evangelists like Christians. If they were they would have seen how Elian's case nicely fit into their modern advocacy of family values. Instead an imperialist impulse kicked in and "America-first" trumped the natural order of family that they claim liberals deny on a daily basis; a natural order of which these conservatives claim God is the Author. Remember it is these same conservatives who project America as one nation under God.
Their position on the case demonstrated that conservatives were more interested in fighting the ghost of communism than they were in remaining true to their professed values. They looked more paranoid than principled. More like the boy who cried wolf than Ronald Reagan (though they speak in his name ad nauseum). Furthermore, many of the conservative positions in recent years have undermined the delicate balance of forces that permit conservatives and liberals to peacefully coexist and share power in America's political establishment, which maintains the status quo. So, in essence, rabid attacks by conservatives against anything contrary to their worldview only weakens their own sphere of influence.
In order to see how the forces traditionally have balanced one another think of it like this: the liberal movement, today, is primarily a political worldview and strategy designed to fulfill America's temporary need to tolerate societal disequilibria and yet, in balance, still maintain the status quo. While the conservative movement is to fulfill the country's need for stability - it has little tolerance for fringe elements and is most aggressive in warring against changes to the distribution of wealth in this country. Both groups take turns in power and yes, both groups need each other to balance power. As the group "in" power becomes less powerful, the group "out" of power becomes more powerful. While they may not be able to tolerate the most militant and violent of opposition groups, they are supposed to be able to tolerate the liberals who may periodically sit down with such groups. And they also are to see the truth in the arguments of the most militant and violent and absorb such truth into the conservative worldview and strategy. And they should be involved in a political discussion of such truths with their liberal counterparts. As they are in fact on the same team, though both try to deny it.
What few people realize is that both groups, when they channel their energy into America's two-party system, become controlled by one power: the wealthy property owners of this country and their interests. This is especially hard for the most sincere on the left to understand, which is why a great many of them are increasingly disenchanted with the Democratic Party. Ferdinand Lundberg described the two-party system accurately in 1968 when he wrote: "The United States can be looked upon as having, in effect, a single party: the Property Party. This party can be looked upon as having two subdivisions: the Republican Party, hostile to accommodating adjustments (hence dubbed "Conservative"), and the Democratic Party, of recent decades favoring such adjustments (hence dubbed "Liberal")"
There is no true political party that primarily serves the interests of those who do not own property in this country, though the Democrats lend a sympathetic ear (so it seems). If there were no liberals willing to engage the establishment such a third party could surely form. They (liberals/Democrats) slow the revolution down, so to speak. And the group that benefits the most from this is conservatives. The elites in both groups have always known this and worked together.
The problem is that now conservatives have forgotten the rules of the game. They do not see that they actually need liberals as a buffer to the genuine dissatisfaction and disequilibria that America's political establishment must be able to tolerate in order for the status quo to remain preserved and for people in this country to feel that their grievances are being heard. Conservatives in their latest era of zeal think that their worldview and strategy is all that is necessary in this country and now seem tempted to eliminate liberals at all costs. Even to write their contributions out of American history. They are even willing to brand them as "un-American". This was evident in the Podhoretz essay.
Rather than admit that the Great Depression was the result of a blunder on the part of America's political establishment, at the time, in the hands of a Republican and conservative administration and rather than admitting that the stock market crash was the result of those in Congress moving to pass the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act which endangered European-U.S. trade and which rocked the financial markets, Podhoretz focuses on the liberal reaction to events caused by those in power. He then, from there, builds momentum for a near wholesale indictment of the left as un-American. He does not so much as even concede that there exists a kernel of truth in the arguments that were made by the left against those in power over the last 70 years, at least this isn't apparent in his essay. Podhoretz writes:
When the Great Depression set in, the left at first interpreted it as a vindication of the attacks on business that had been launched since the 1860s. In accordance with this line of thinking, the Communists, and those liberals who sympathized with them, did everything they could to blacken the name of the U.S. they went so far as to declare that "social fascism" was governing America, and that it was no different from the openly totalitarian regime Hitler was building in Germany.
In 1932, a long list of non-Communist writers, including Edmund Wilson himself, even advocated voting for the Communist presidential candidate as the best means of taking the country back from the businessmen. But in 1935 the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin began growing fearful of Nazi Germany. Stalin decided it was the better part of prudence to establish friendly relations with Western democracies. Overnight, the revolutionism that had formed the core of the "party line" changed.
To kick off the new era of the "Popular Front", the leader of the Communist party in this country suddenly declared that "Communism was twentieth-century Americanism." Having scorned liberals as "useful idiots" or "running dogs of capitalism," the Communists now declared themselves to be on the same side. We too are liberals. Said the Communists, only "liberals in a hurry."
To provide concrete reassurances, they disguised everything they did as indigenously American. And if on the left patriotism was now the order of the day, much the same was happening on the right. The ghost of Henry Adams was exorcised, while conservative "isolationists" who opposed American entry in the war on the side of the British did so under the battle cry (echoed by some non-Communists on the left) "America First."
The argument between isolationists was rendered academic by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. From that day until the war ended four years later, patriotism became more pervasive in this country than at ant time since the founding of the republic.
So powerful was this resurgence of patriotic feeling that it spilled over into the immediate postwar period. It was even powerful enough to drown out the opponents of what came to be dubbed the Cold War. And when the Cold War turned hot in Korea, President Truman was able to mobilize just about the entire country behind a policy of responsibility for holding back the advance of communism in the name of the "free world."
What brought patriotism yet again into disrepute, of course, was Vietnam. Unlike the war in Korea, the one we entered in Vietnam gradually provoked heated opposition. As that opposition spread, mainly on the campuses, it resurrected the old tradition of leftists anti-Americanism that had grown dormant. In being awakened, this sleeping giant emitted many obscene roars. Thus, in a replay of the early 1930s and its theory of "social fascism," America was "excoriated as "Amerika" - meaning, as before, that it was no different from Nazi Germany. Protesters openly hoped for the defeat and humiliation of this country; spitting on the flag or burning it became commonplace.
It was all the more amazing, then, that the nation's 200th birthday on July 4, 1976, let loose a flood of intense patriotic sentiment. Even in liberal New York City, where huge crowds watched an armada of "tall ships" magnificently gliding under sail into harbor, many wept, no doubt to their own astonishment.
The change foreshadowed by this event swept Ronald Reagan into the White House 4 1/2 years later. As president, he did everything he could to restore the old spirit of patriotism of which he himself was so quintessential an embodiment.
Even so, the young people who had spat on and burned the flag in the 60s and 70s, and who had whenever possible dodged the draft, continued to win praise (in the words used at the time by Archibald Cox of Harvard Law School) as "the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known"
What Podhoretz's essay reveals is an adherence to a very peculiar definition of "patriotism". Those who love their country enough to expose its shortcomings and failures, have no redeeming qualities and no validity in their message, especially if that message is delivered in an offensive manner. It is a conservative at his thin-skinned and defensive worst. Never mind that spitting on a flag or burning one is protected by free speech under American law.
But even deeper than what Podhoretz's opinion reveals is the view, held by conservatives, that somehow this country is above admonishment, beyond criticism. Especially if such admonishment or criticism comes from those who are non-white or poor. Somehow your legitimate argument becomes "subversive" or "radical" even if it is just plain common sense or historical fact. To conservatives, if you are poor and non-white, telling the truth isn't enough. Pointing out historical injustices committed by this country serves no purpose. Constantly, the conservative calculates what your articulation means to the balance of power in this country, among the haves and have-nots. They even do so in a manner that smacks of elitism. It goes something to the effect that since the poor and non-whites are not in power why do I have to listen to them, even if they are telling the truth? Your lack of material wealth and/or political power somehow discredits your analysis, in their eyes, if you are poor or non-White.
And so, in the final analysis, if your forefathers are from a non-European country and you critique America in an unfavorable manner, in light of your unique ethnic experiences, you are asked to find another place on earth that you would rather live...you've heard it before, "Why don't you go back to Africa?' or the increasingly common "Why aren't you in Mexico?".. And if you are a white liberal and render a stinging critique of this country you are somehow no longer American but under the influence of a foreign power or even worse, under the spell of Karl Marx or even Adolph Hitler. The hyper-sensitivity is a result of the belief that somehow the conservative version of American patriotism is God's religion and that any criticism is not constructive but actually heresy. Though they may not realize it, conservatives have actually turned their political worldview and strategy into a religion. This explains their increasing lack of tolerance for those on the left and for criticism directed at this country from non-Whites who live in this country.
I first came across the concept of " Americanity" in a book about Minister Farrakhan and the Nation Of Islam entitled, In The Name Of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan And The Nation Of Islam written by Mattias Gardell. In the book Gardell attempts to explain why the FBI would view the Nation of Islam as a threat. The argument that he makes is very interesting and one that deserves attention on another day. But to follow the line of reasoning that I began yesterday, it is helpful to see exactly what "Americanity" is and then compare it to the worldview and strategy of today's conservative establishment. A quick review of Americanity reveals that even the world's major religions, including the Christianity and Judaism that most conservatives claim, are forced to take a back seat to the true state religion. To many conservatives, though they say otherwise, it is really "One Nation as God..." and not "One Nation Under God...".
We quote from Gardell's book:
The religion of the Republic, alternatively known as "Americanity" or the "civil religion" of the United States, is the semi religious dimension of the notion of America as a melting pot. Immigrants from various European countries, adhering to different religions and denominations, were supposed to substitute their particular identities for their new identities as Americans. A child of the Enlightenment and the Hegelian notion of progressive evolution, the creation of the United States of America was depicted as a fulfillment of mankind's ambitions to create a better world. Multicultural tolerance was achieved through transcending the specific, by projecting unifying fundamentals on a higher level of abstraction. The separation of church and state was supplemented by introducing a religious dimension as a central rationale for the American project, making Americanity a creed and the United States an instrument of God's work in the world. As discussed by Robert N. Bellah in his classic essay on the American civil religion, Biblical themes and symbols are used in the historiography of the United States. The Americans are identified as the "chosen people", who through an "exodus" from Europe reached the "promised land" and there founded the "New Jerusalem"." American civil religion has its own prophets (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington), its own martyrs (Abraham Lincoln, the Kennedys, all soldiers killed in war), its own sacred events (the Declaration of Independence, the Boston Tea Party), its own sacred places to which pilgrimage is made (Gettysburg, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Lincoln Memorial), its solemn rituals of commemoration (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day, Veterans Day), and its sacred symbols (the Stars and Stripes, the White House, the Statute of Liberty). As the sacred expression of the American dream, Americanity preaches all the values, norms, and ideas associated with the American way of life. The United States is the defender of freedom, democracy, and moral decency against every form of totalitarianism, which during the Cold War was principally defined as communism but is now increasingly being replaced by Islam. In this fortress of individual liberty with equal opportunities for all, each man can reach success... The ideology of Americanism pays homage to the lonely individual with a trust in God and denies the existence of collective injustices.
And so we return to the issue of justice and how many Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos and progressive/liberal and poor Whites have a vastly different concept of how American history weighs on the scales of justice than do white conservatives. To most conservatives, there is no room for America, as a collective, or society or even government, performing an injustice to a particular ethnic group inside of her borders. The concept simply doesn't register on their radar screen and if it does - it is neatly tucked away in a box called "the past".
In the conservative mind, non-Whites don't need historical injustices addressed; they need only to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. The subtle implication is that conservatives believe that any current hardships endured by non-whites or the poor of all colors, is not due to any real inequalities or injustices of the past but only from that individual or group not fully accepting their "American" status. This is most apparent among conservatives who reject any connection (in fact) between the poverty and broken families in Black America today and the institution of slavery yesterday.
Recommending the solution to all of the problems of non-Whites and the poor (accepting Americanity) absolves the conservative from listening to an articulation of the problem (historical injustices, America's bad fiscal and monetary policies that disproportionately affect the poor or a flawed criminal justice system). They do this in spite of the fact that the Torah and Bible from Genesis to Revelation deal with the transferring of good and evil down through the generations and in particular, that the specific teachings of Jesus and Moses explain how children, generations down the road, will face the consequences of the evil that their fathers performed on others. Collective injustices and how they are to be redressed are a major theme in the very scriptures that conservatives claim liberals want out of America's education system. Well, the argument can be made with ease, that if liberals want God out of the classroom, conservatives want God out of the courtroom and left out of any critique of U.S. history.
Before, there once was an unspoken rule among elite liberals and conservatives to cooperate, now there increasingly appears to be little or no room for the white American liberal critique of America history and justice. Now, in the eyes of conservatives, white liberals are committing treason or worse - blasphemy- when they say America is not a righteous nation and has committed serious injustices against her own citizens and that something must be done to repair the damage.
Such criticism, if it were true, would seem to destroy the validity of Americanity but the conservative wiggles out of such a predicament by hiding behind the individual successes of various individual "case studies", in other words "If Bill Gates, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods can do it why can't you?". The glory of individual achievement and the dismissal of collective injustices present a maze of argument that most liberals and non-white intellectuals find difficult to navigate. But in the final analysis, the conservative movement will have to ask itself whether its worldview and strategy will continue to make it a ruling class, firmly entrenched in the American political establishment or simply a group of martyrs who irritated the majority with their apparent self-righteousness, elitism and yes, religion.
Editor's Note: This essay originally ran it two parts, July 5th and 6th in the year 2000.
Thursday, June 30, 2005