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September 21, 2002

God, country and family (part IV)

Would you put your nation before your family? Would you put your nation before your God? Before your race? These are questions that people need to ask. Questions such as this lurk under the surface of all outward expressions of patriotism [1]. What really matters?

As I have said before, I feel that Christianity is not especially congenial to undiluted nationalism. This to me explains why Germany, the apotheosis of nationalism in our age, seemed on the verge of strangling the Christian faith during the ascendancy of Nazism [2]. But why is it that many (most?) American Christians are on the front lines defending this country and expressing unvarnished pride in America? The answer seems to be that the United States of America plays a special role in conservative American Christianity. These are the people that would assert that we are a Christian nation, not just a nation of Christians [3]. The Puritan idea of the "city set upon the hill" that serves as a beacon for the sea of heathens continues down into our present day [4]. Many Christians believe that the United States is a part of God's plan, a fulfillment of the divine promise. Mormonism seems to make this explicit, setting the location of the impending Second Coming in the heart of the United States, Independence, Missouri.

In this way, there is no tension between being a good Christian and being a good American, because to be a patriotic American is simply following God's plan, for we are God's country. Or are we? Let us be honest and say that that is not so for all Americans. In particular, I am speaking of two religious minorities that are getting much press recently, especially their contentious relationship with each other, Jews and Muslims. These are people who share a common theological root with Christianity, but neither have the numerical preponderance in this nation that Christians do, so this is most certainly not a nation of Jews or Muslims.

Stephen Steinlight, in the article I have referred to recently on Jewish attitudes toward immigration has stated that Jews have had a dual loyalty, and that in fact some might feel Israel is closer to their heart than the United States. This has not been too onerous a balance for the past 30 years, because the United States and Israel have always had such a close relationship that what was good for the United States and what was good for Israel has been the same [5]. So goes the thinking, especially in Jewish neoconservative circles where a rugged patriotism toward the United States is wedded without apology to a muscular support for Israel. But what if in the future (or now) the two are not so closely related, what if what is good for Israel is not good for the United States or vice versa? What would Jews do? This sort of question has been asked in the past by anti-Semites bent on casting aspersions toward the Jewish community [6]. The irony is that in the past (as in before 1967) the Jewish community's attitude in the Diaspora toward Israel was decidedly ambivalent, and the elite opinion sometimes hostile [7]. Today, the Jewish community tends to be pro-Israel, from cautiously so on the moderate Left toward aggressively so on the Right. But these sort of accusations would not fly well today, as they are beyond the pale of discourse.

Being who I am, I have asked friends of mine who are Jews if they had to make a decision with two choices, Israel or the United States, which prospers and which suffers, what would you pick [8]? Generally there is much hesitation, and sometimes anger that I would even ask such a question. I simply responded that though I consider myself a tepid patriot at best, I would have no hesitation, no qualms of declaring what nation is at the center of my patriotism. All my loyalties when it comes to country or kin are situated firmly on the soil of the United States (I will qualify that it is the idea of America, and not the polity itself, that draws me). In the end, the more secular ones seemed to pick the United States, with some anguish, while those with any religious feeling tended to pick Israel, again with anguish [9].

Now, understand that many of the people who I have asked this question of have family in Israel, so ties of blood are crucial, not just ideology or faith. I myself am somewhat devoid of conventional familial affinities, so again, I do not struggle with such a choice. I suspect that this was a source of the great amount of hesitation from those who were secular and in the end chose the United States. The ones that chose Israel did so for an obvious reason, Israel they believe is part of their religious tradition, for all the initial skepticism that religious Jews had toward a secular socialist state. Israel is a manifestation of God's covenant with the Jewish people, and God takes priority over any national feelings that religious Jews have imbibed over the past one or two centuries in this nation. I believe that if put in a similar situation, the Christian would also pick the City of God, rather than the United States [10]. This tension that lurks within the monotheistic religions is often hidden, but the proper context would flush it out. Roughly put, tribe trumps nation and God is Lord, the ultimate loyalty.

In the past year, many Muslims have been asked whether they would fight fellow Muslims. Many have said no, they wouldn't, and people have questioned their patriotism. And yet, one must understand that these Muslims believe that they are committing a sin if they go to fight those of their own faith. Certainly, this is a reflection of the discomfort that many isolationists initially had with fighting Germany, a Teutonic nation like the United States, and allying with Asiatic Russia (I know Russians are European, but many still felt that they were too long under the Tartar Yoke to not absorb some habits and blood from their rulers). Muslims are citizens of the United States, but they are also part of their religious nation, the Ummah. Similarly, Catholics are members of their transnational Church, while Jews have a connection to Israel and the Diaspora. These loyalties are not just in addition to their patriotism toward the United States, but sometimes they are more basic, more primal. They don't manifest themselves, or even impinge on the thoughts of most individuals, unless a choice must be made. In the case of American Christians fighting against Nazis, it must be remembered that many had listened to Bonhoeffer and knew the nature of the beast. They were fighting a demon that had been birthed within the heart of Christendom, ready to consume it from the inside out. During World War I, the Kaiserreich had been demonized, and Germans were termed "Huns," an explicit reference toward pagan barbarism and a defense of Christendom.

The sort of tension that I have spoken of does not always bend or break toward religious or racial feeling. German Catholic soldiers from the Rhine and southern Germany fought against the Austrians and French with aplomb under the leadership of Protestant Prussia. Shiite foot soldiers fought against the Iranians under the leader of the Sunni Arab elite during the Iran-Iraq war [11]. Most of the Japanese were impeccably loyal during World War II. And so forth. And yet certainly many conflicts today can be tied to minorities within nations that have ties to the outside, and precious little loyalty to their own country. The Catholics of Northern Ireland, the Arabs of Israel, the Muslims of Kashmir in India.

Nationhood is a multifaceted idea. It is comes at the intersection between God, faith and family. History, personal and national, also come into play. Very few people satisfy every criteria that defines the nation. We are a predominantly Protestant nation, a predominantly white nation and a liberal nation [12]. The different aspects of our nationhood have been emphasized to varying degrees historically. For instance, American Protestantism has a much lower profile than it did in the 19th century when Papist conspiracies seemed to abound in the imagination of every American politician that was faced the rising German and Irish Catholic masses teeming on the shores. The white identity is also on the wane in this country. The fact that the immigration laws until 1965 severely limited immigration from the vast majority of the world, and worked to favor the ethnic proportions of the nation in 1924 (therefore, favoring north and west Europe), made it clear that this was a nation with an ethnic sense of itself. I believe today that liberalism, the commitment to individualism and human dignity, is the cornerstone of the republic. We are becoming to some extent a proposition nation, because liberalism is something that can be acquired, unlike race. On the other hand, Protestantism is also something that can be acquired, and many (most?) non-Protestant immigrant groups remain tied to their ancestral faith. This does not make them less American, as the Protestant-Catholic-Jew paradigm has been ascendant since the 1950s (now Protestant-Catholic-Jew-Muslim). But it hints that liberalism can be rejected by new immigrants. Without liberalism what would be left, aside from basic legal conventions, to denote who an American is?

In sum, I think that nationhood can be viewed through the analogy of a Venn Diagram. Language, history, race, religion and family, these are a few of the many factors that contribute to patriotism. The problem to focus on is when all of these factors are shifted from the national norm. Muslims for instance often do not share religion, race, family and quite often political philosophy with Americans [13]. This is in contrast to older immigrant groups like Jews, who have an attachment to liberalism, and now often share family with many Protestant white Americans. Other immigrant groups, like Chinese and Hindu South Asians also are most likely more amenable to assimilation because they don't have as strong an ideological tie to illiberal politics based on religion [14].

My point though is we need to be careful of absolutes. There are disloyal white Protestants who have no sentiment for liberalism, and loyal American Muslims that have divorced their religion from illiberal politics [15]. On the other hand, it is not a prescription for a Pollyanna view of assimilability of people into our nation. We need to be aware of discordant cultural baggage that immigrants bring with them.

[1] My opinion of course.
[2] Not to beat a dead horse, but note Martin Bormann's memo elaborating on the coming cleansing of the German nation of Christianity.
[3] I am not just playing on words here. Our nation has always been predominantly Christian. But, the early nation was not filled will churchgoers simply because of the scattered rural nature of settlements. The early presidents were religious latitudinarians, whose Christian bona fides can be disputed with vigor. I would argue we are a nation of Christians, not a Christian nation. Others can make the reverse case.
[4] Read up on the hilarious propaganda during the Spanish-American War to Christianize the Catholic Filipinos!
[5] This is a contentious issue. I believe one can make the case that our Israeli connection contributed to some of the animus felt toward the United States, and I am of the camp that it is a secondary factor, or more appropriately a catalyst for an independently developing hostility.
[6] Of course, most of the accusations of Jewish disloyalty had less to do with Israel than Communism. Of course, this was not universal on the Right. The John Birch Society tended to avoid Jew-baiting, while McCarthy was a famous philo-Semite, Roy Cohn being his prominent Jewish aid.
[7] Especially true of the prominent British Jewry and their elite. Of course, that has all changed, but that is the work of history and the ebb of time.
[8] This is a contrived question, and some have told me it's not fair to ask. But life isn't fair, and certainly, some conservatives had mooted the occupation and overthrow of Saudi Arabia, which distresses many Muslims, despite what they might think of the House of Saud. What would American Muslims do in this case? Their religion clearly predisposes them toward viewing non-Muslim incursions into Arabia negatively, and yet it is not out of the realm of possibility that American troops might in the near future become involved in hostilities in the Gulf and its environs. But this time, directed towards Saudi Arabia. It is therefore fair to ask all people where their loyalties are in my opinion, even if only a few are tested. Chinese immigrants will have to face this question sometime in the next generation I believe.
[9] I am well aware of the anti-Zionist contingent on fringe of the ultra-Orthodox movement. I don't really know many ultra-Orthodox so I don't know if they'd pick the United States without hesitation.
[10] The conservative Christian I believe feels that the United States is in a way the City of God. This explains to me their belief that one can not be an atheist and a patriot.
[11] More realistically, they feared the whip more than their God.
[12] Liberal in the broad, not narrow sense.
[13] The problem being that Islam proscribes illiberal politics in its most common modern interpretation.
[14] Hindu South Asians come from a moderately liberal political situation themselves. Many of the Chinese are Taiwanese or older immigrant groups that fled Manchu autocracy. On the other hand, we should be careful of the mainlanders that are attached to the ancient ideal of the Middle Kingdom. On an aside, Latino immigrants are often from a rather politically illiberal tradition, based on patronage and power politics. Many southern and eastern European Americans also came from these traditions, and it took decades to break the machines that arose with their arrival in large American cities. I think the current situation in California bodes ill for the future of multi-ethnic America.
[15] German American Bund in World War II were still tied to the mother country despite their whiteness and often their Protestantism.

Posted by razib at 12:31 PM