There were two notable conferences in DC this past week: the second annual Ministerial on International Religious Freedom, hosted by the U.S. State Department, and the National Conservatism Conference, focused on promoting nationalism, and hosted by the new Edmund Burke Foundation.
These two events were partly at odds with each other.
The Ministerial highlighted global religious persecution, whose victims were featured speakers. The audience was comprised of mostly global human rights NGOs, later joined by dozens of foreign ministers. Secretary of State Pompeo spoke, as did U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. Former British Premier Tony Blair was also there. The aim was to align U.S. diplomacy, in sync with NGOs and civil society, with international religious liberty advocacy and to pressure other governments to join the initiative.
Underlying the Ministerial was the core American assumption that religious freedom is a natural right, articulated in our founding documents and globally expressed in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, crafted under Eleanor Roosevelt’s tutelage. That the USA should as policy promote religious freedom and human rights is intrinsically American Exceptionalism and presumes American principles are morally universal.
The National Conservatism event touting nationalism mostly offered a very different perspective, inclined against American Exceptionalism, universalism and global assumptions about human rights, which are seen as imperial. Its core premise, though certainly not shared by all of its very diverse speakers, was skeptical of the Declaration of Independence and its universal claims rooted in natural law. Indeed it would reject Jefferson and many of the Founders as “liberal” products of the Enlightenment. It heralded an older British tradition of organic conservatism and identified with Edmund Burke as defender of nationhood against the French Revolution’s universalism.
But Burke himself as a Whig was arguably a classical liberal who rejected utopian French zealots but embraced revolutions premised on ordered liberty as in 1688 and 1776. Yuval Levin, in his wonderful speech at the National Conservatism Conference, dissented from some of the event’s themes. He noted Burke was rooted in respect for national character:
And Burke can help us in another way—by pointing to the distinctly liberal nature of the American national character in particular. It is essential to realize, as Burke helps us see, that our country is not an idea but a society, with a character, a culture, and a history, full of people who are our real-life fellow citizens and to whom we owe our loyalty. And yet there is something ironically universalist in the claim that every nation’s character must be equally particularist.
Our particular national character, as Burke could see even before American independence, is uniquely oriented by certain principled commitments.
And American character is intrinsically tied to universal principles:
For Americans in particular, the appeal of the national can be both philosophical and visceral—because we share a common home in which we have lived a common life together that has always been committed to a set of ideals—religious and philosophical, communal and liberal, including a belief in natural rights, rooted in natural equality, and pointing to a politics of justice. Our national commitments add up to a people born and bred to seek freedom and virtue together.
Oversimplifying these commitments so that we leave ourselves a choice between an America of pure liberal abstraction or one wholly divorced from all universal ideals is no way to understand America, or to conserve anything about it. It even threatens to devolve into a nationalism rooted in race, which no legitimate American nationalism should ever allow itself to become.
Levin defended classical liberalism, which is central to American character:
The idea that liberalism is just radical individualism backed with state power is the shallowest of caricatures—concocted first by those who viewed such a combination as a dream and then, strangely, adopted by some of those who see it as a nightmare.
Liberalism has always been much more than that, and some liberals have always been aware of the danger of emptying the public square of moral substance and of the importance of sustaining the liberal society’s pre-liberal roots, so that it doesn’t lose sight of the highest goods.
Liberalism has always been engaged in an argument about itself. Is the liberal society a break from the pre-liberal traditions of the West—made possible by altogether new principles discovered in the Enlightenment and devoted to an ideal of radical equality to be pursued by continuous social revolution? Or is the liberal society the culmination of those pre-liberal traditions, achieved by the gradual development of political arrangements rooted in timeless ideals, that have allowed for an extraordinary balance of freedom and order, and that ought to be sustained by the conservation of that balance?
American nationalism can’t be sustained without this appreciation of America’s classically liberal principles with universal application, which include an aspiration of human rights and religious liberty for all, as articulated at the Ministerial. Arguably, the Ministerial, although global in focus and in audience, was its own kind of nationalism conference, seeking to export American ideals in service both to USA interests and broader humanitarianism. No doubt the global practitioners of religious persecution would recognize it as such.
This conversation recalls the stirring final scene from the 1990s film Amistad, in which an aging John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, defends before the U.S. Supreme Court the African captives who seized the Spanish ship taking them to Cuban slavery. Adams, strutting in the court before busts of the Founders, including his own father, and a framed copy of the Declaration, declares:
James Madison; Alexander Hamilton; Benjamin Franklin; Thomas Jefferson; George Washington; John Adams: We’ve long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality which we so, so revere is not entirely our own. Perhaps we’ve feared an — an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But we’ve come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now. We’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding, that who we are — is who we were.
This fictional appeal by Hopkins/Adams offers a profound Burkean insight into the irrepressible American character. We as Americans, despite our individualism, still belong to a wider national narrative whose aspiration for universal liberty, as expressed at the Ministerial, is inescapable. How this aspiration is pursued through policy, of course, is debatable; but denying American character itself is folly and profoundly anti-nationalist.