“America is winning again. America is respected again. Because we are putting America First… We’re taking care of ourselves for a change, folks… You know they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned, it’s called a ‘nationalist.’ And I say, really? We’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist,” President Donald J. Trump proudly told a crowd in Houston in October 2018.
By invoking the word “nationalism,” Trump is appealing to one way of thinking about political organization. What is nationalism, and why would the president say “we’re not supposed to use that word”? Is nationalism a good way of thinking about politics? Is there an alternative?
Nationalists believe that humanity is divided into mutually distinct, internally coherent groups defined by shared traits like language, religion, or culture, and that these groups should each have their own governments.
There is an alternative. I want to contrast two different ways of defining American identity. We can define American identity creedally or culturally. In the first definition, we define America by its civic identity, basic requirements of citizenship, the membership criteria of our polity. In the second, the nationalist definition, we define America by some notion of our cultural heritage.
In the creedal or civic definition of American identity, we think of America as the nation defined by the American Creed: by the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—broadly, the ideals of classical liberalism, the ideals of the American experiment. This is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he talked about America as a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
In the cultural or nationalist definition of American identity, we understand America as defined by shared cultural values. Which values are often left vague, but sometimes advocates will specify the cultural values of Anglo-Protestantism.
You might be thinking these two definitions of American identity are the same thing. After all, the ideals of the American experiment grew out of our Anglo-Protestant heritage. American ideas are the fruit of America’s heritage, so it seems that if we want to sustain the one, we have to keep the other.
That’s what proponents of the cultural definition claim. They believe our cultural heritage of Anglo-Protestantism is the necessary precondition for the survival of American democracy. They argue that to separate the creed from the culture is to misunderstand both.
I disagree. There really are two rival versions of American identity. The creedal and cultural understandings diverge, and that the creed does not ultimately depend on the culture.
First, I want to describe how the different understandings of American identity play out in four specific areas of public policy to show that this is not just an abstract argument. There are real, concrete differences in how these ideas play out in policy and in the public square. Second, I want to describe the difference in theoretical terms. Third, I want to anticipate, and respond to, an objection to the creedal understanding of American identity. Finally, I want to explain why the cultural, nationalist understanding is deeply flawed.
Four Areas of Divergence
There are four areas where we see rival versions of American identity result in different approaches to public policy.
The first area is immigration. Creedalists believe we can restrict immigration as needed for national security or economic reasons, but that the cultural diversity immigration brings is an asset, not a liability. Nationalists believe we should restrict immigration to preserve our demographic or cultural identity, giving priority to those culturally predisposed to accept the liberal ideals of the American experiment, usually understood to mean Christians or Europeans.
The second area is morals legislation, such as whether or not we should ban drag queen story hour at public libraries. Creedalists argue we should pass laws to uphold public order and public decency, but that the government should otherwise sustain “viewpoint neutrality” and not privilege one religion, culture, or ideology. Creedalists are far more hesitant to use the power of the government to ban or limit the activities of groups whose views we may find objectionable.
Nationalists argue we should pass laws to privilege or protect Anglo-Protestant or Western cultural norms and standards of morality. America is and should remain a “Christian nation,” whose standards of public morality are explicitly derived from the Judeo-Christian ethic.
The third area is how we teach American history. Creedalists understand that, while we want to celebrate shared achievements, it requires confession and repentance for the past to challenge ourselves to do better in the future. Learning about national sins and failings is an important part of understanding who we are. Nationalists tend to emphasize national victories and achievements and minimize national sins and failings, even becoming upset at efforts to dwell on them.
The fourth area is foreign policy and America’s role in the world. Creedalists understand the United States is an exemplar of liberty, a city on the hill for all the world to see. We celebrate and recognize that the spread of liberal ideals is an asset to our national security. We can trust other like-minded states, cooperate with them, form alliances with them, and more. Relations with other democratic states are positive-sum; most of our disputes can be resolved with win-win solutions that are good for everyone. While authoritarian powers who do not share our ideology might sometimes be partners of convenience, as the Soviet Union was during World War II, over the long run they are at least rivals and possibly enemies because they envision a different world than we do.
Nationalists espouse the doctrine of “America First.” Nationalists believe that, because American ideas are an organic outgrowth of America’s heritage, we cannot and should not try to spread our ideals around the world. America has no particular interest in seeing democracy spread, and we should not try to get involved because that effort is doomed to failure. Instead, when we engage with other nations—both democracies and authoritarian countries—we are primarily engaged in zero-sum competition for prestige, power, and wealth. Nationalists are suspicious of alliances and international cooperation, which they denigrate as “globalism.”
The Difference, Broadly Conceived
From these four areas of divergence, we see that the creedal and cultural versions of American identity have radically different implications for policy and public life.
Creedal patriotism is affection for our homes, loyalty to our neighbors, and, in the American context, dedication to American ideals. America is defined by ideals of liberty, as reflected in the Constitution and the Declaration. The ideals are universal, but America is the story of living them out and striving toward that goal in this land. We love our country, cultivate the best of our history, and strive to embody our ideals in the future.
Nationalism asserts a complicated theory about how human life is best organized. “Nations” are not simply territories under a common rule, but groups of people defined by a common language, religion, culture, or “heritage.” Nationalism says these cultural groups should form the basis of political organization. Nationalists believe nations, and the people in them, flourish best when they govern themselves without interference from other nations, and national units should be the fundamental units of political organization and international relations.
Nationalists believe that the government should promote and protect the nation’s cultural identity, which means it should encourage whatever traits define the nation and discourage, or possibly even outlaw, other traits. Nationalists believe America is and must remain defined as a nation of predominantly Anglo-Protestant culture. (The best rendering of this emphasizes culture, not race, and is thus distinct from white supremacy.) The ideals of the Constitution and Declaration are vital, but, in this view, they cannot exist apart from Anglo-Protestant culture. They are, functionally, the same thing.
They are not the same. We can, and should, patriotically love our country without believing it embodies a “nation” defined by language, ethnicity, or culture; without believing that the jurisdiction of our government should perfectly overlap with the boundary lines of an imagined cultural group; without believing that our government should take upon itself the responsibility of protecting and promoting a universal template of national identity for all citizens; without insisting that our government engage in a competition for prestige with other nations; and without believing that the nation is essential to our identities or our fulfillment.
Critique of Creedalism, and a Response
Some critics argue defining America as a creedal nation is dangerous because it sets up one system of “right-thinking” or compelled belief that contravenes the spirit of the First Amendment. If you don’t believe in the American Creed, creedalism seems to say you’re not fully American. Creedalism cloaks itself in the language of freedom and openness, but critics ask whether this is almost a kind of theocracy, ruling in the name of an official belief system.
Whatever the merits of this critique against creedalism, it is even more damning leveled against nationalism. Nationalism tells us that to be fully American, we have to assimilate to Anglo-Protestant culture, that Anglo-Protestantism will be our quasi-official established belief system. That hardly seems consistent with the commitment to the sort of individual freedom implied by their critique of creedalism.
But a creedal understanding of America does not violate the ideals of the First Amendment or erect a system of “right thought.” Nationalists are fond of saying that without a border, we don’t have a country. I agree. Borders are essential for defining who “we” are and who isn’t part of “us.” All groups need an exclusion principle for the group to cohere. The Constitution and Declaration are the borders of American identity.
Yes, the creed is a principle of exclusion; some form of exclusion is inevitable and necessary. The question is on what basis will we exclude. Will we exclude people because they do not assimilate to Anglo-Protestantism? That would exclude quite a lot of Americans. Excluding people based on disloyalty to the Constitution is far better than excluding them based on their cultural identity or their mere physical presence on American soil.
We rightly ask immigrants to go through a process before becoming American. They have to demonstrate knowledge of US history and civics and basic fluency in English, and they must pledge loyalty to the Constitution. Naturalized citizens have gone through a process to show that they want to be here and want to be part of a polity with us, and they accept the rules of the polity and our way of life.
But there have been Americans who were born here and showed disloyalty to the American Creed. Such was the case with Confederate leaders, who renounced their citizenship and waged war on America. Despite sharing in the Anglo-Protestant culture and heritage of the American Founding, they rejected loyalty to the Constitution, rejected the American Creed, and rejected the lessons of American history. Such is the case today with spies and traitors. Confederates, spies, and traitors are in an important sense not American.
Creedalism would be a repressive system of compelled belief if it (a) was a creed about the substantive good and (b) disallowed disagreement. But the American Creed does neither. The American Creed is a set of beliefs about the basic preconditions required for humans to pursue their vision of the substantive good—things like life, liberty, and property. Beyond that, we are free to define and pursue whatever substantive good we want.
The American Creed not only allows for disagreement but also established mechanisms for expressing that disagreement peacefully and even for amending the Constitution. We’re allowed to carry out our disagreement about the good, and about the meaning of the Constitution itself, within the framework of ordered liberty established by the Constitution. The only thing the Constitution disallows is to contest for power outside the bounds of the Constitution—which is to say, it disallows political violence.
The Case against Nationalism
I want to conclude with seven points against the nationalist, cultural definition of American identity.
First, nationalism is impractical. Cultural change is inevitable and ubiquitous. Government can’t stop cultural change, and government lacks the competence to orchestrate or control culture. Why would anyone think government is competent to sustain, create, or orchestrate a common national cultural template for a nation of 320 million people? It can barely deliver the mail.
Second, nationalism is counterproductive. It will provoke a backlash. Throughout American history the official or elite effort to dictate to us who we are has always produced dissidents, activists, non-conformists, and others dedicated to resisting the official narrative. That tradition of dissent, too, is part of American identity. The harder nationalists try to tell us that we have to assimilate to Anglo-Protestant culture, the more progressives will flock to identity politics and tell us that we should define ourselves by some trait other than Anglo-Protestant nationality. Nationalism does not produce unity; it throws fuel on the fire of our never-ending culture war.
Third, nationalism is unnecessary. We don’t need Anglo-Protestant culture to sustain the ideals of the American experiment. The ideals of the Constitution and Declaration can exist and thrive outside the cultural context of Anglo-Protestantism. Anglo-Protestantism was the originating condition of liberal democracy in the past. That does not mean it is the necessary precondition for liberal democracy in the future. Liberal democracy has spread and is thriving all around the world over the past two centuries, having taken root in non-Western cultures, such as Japan and India, without an Anglo-Protestant influence. American and European culture has profoundly shifted over 250 years, departing in dramatic ways from Anglo-Protestantism, yet democracy still lives.
Fourth, nationalism is incoherent. “Nations,” in the sense that nationalists use the word, do not exist. There are no internally-coherent, mutually-distinct cultural units with easily-demarcated borders between them. Nationalism rests on a claim that there are things called “nations” defined by a shared trait, but which trait counts? Language, culture, religion, race, ethnicity, history, “heritage,” and land have all been proposed as candidates by different nationalists, but they never seem to agree on which one matters. There is no rational decision principle to resolve the dispute for us. Of course, we share traits in common with others, but nationalists want to elevate one trait about others and make it the basis of our political community. That requires drawing hard boundaries and writing exact definitions. Another way of putting it: Nationalism cannot account for cross-cutting identities. It insists that we fit into one identity category, that we identify with just one group, when in fact we have multiple group affinities—and the way we combine our particular set of group affinities rarely lines up exactly with anyone else’s.
Fifth, nationalism is illiberal and unjust. Because nationalism is incoherent, nationalists try to resolve the ambiguity by fiat, by simply decreeing to us what our national identity is supposed to be. But who gave them the authority to tell us who we are? In the absence of moral authority, nations can only establish themselves by force. The nationalist emperor has no clothes, but he can order the execution of anyone who says so. Or, to switch metaphors, nations are the Wizard of Oz, and nationalists are the man behind the curtain furiously insisting that we pay no attention to him for “the Great Oz has spoken!” as if that were sufficient.
Orchestrating culture is not within a government’s rightful jurisdiction. The business of government is rightly circumscribed to a handful of important but modest goals, like keeping the peace and defending rights. It is wrong for the government to arrogate to itself the authority to tell us who “we” are, to privilege one cultural template against others, to pick winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas and cultures, and to interfere with our free choice about how to interpret and reinvent American identity for ourselves. The work of maintaining and replicating culture across the generations should be the work of civil society, of families and schools (run locally, not nationally), of neighborhood associations and veterans’ groups, of newspapers and town councils. In a country dedicated to freedom, we ought to be free to explore and discover American history and reinvent American identity; to adapt, revise, reject, and recreate our heritage and our national identity. If Anglo-Protestantism requires federal backing to survive, it should probably die anyway.
Sixth, nationalism is un-American. America was not founded as the homeland of a certain cultural type. It is the home of the free—of every background. Anglo-Protestantism was important and influential in American history, especially during the American Founding. We should study it, understand it, and emulate and respect the best parts of it. But we should never conflate Anglo-Protestantism with the nation. The Anglo-Protestants who founded the nation specifically made room for Catholics, Jews, and Germans. More importantly, the ideals to which they dedicated the nation would gradually make room for Africans, Mormons, Chinese, socialists, Mexicans, and Muslims. We made room for all those willing to move to our shores, pledge allegiance to our Constitution, and be part of our ongoing story. That is what it means to be an American.
Finally, seventh, nationalism is idolatrous. Despite its incoherence and illiberality, nationalism is widely popular around the world. Nationalism is an irresistible political tool for leaders looking to win support and whip up enthusiasm. We get enthusiastic about it because we are naturally social creatures and we gravitate toward experiences that help us feel part of something larger than ourselves. We are already part of nations, in the thin sense, and the temptation to thicken our national identity, to strengthen our group feeling around some shared commonality, can be irresistible. Simply put, nationalism is fun and feels good. It imitates the thrill of being in a stadium rooting for the home team alongside tens of thousands of like-minded fans, except with greater gravitas, historical depth, and a sense of religious awe. The religious fervor inherent to nationalism is the last major problem: nationalism is a religious movement, one that competes with traditional religious communities. The biblical term for the worship of false gods is idolatry.
America doesn’t need nationalism to be its best self. Of course, loyalty and affection for our own communities are essential for human life. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis praises the “love of home, of the place we grew up in…of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds, and smells,” as well as “a love for the way of life,” for “the local dialect,” and more. Edmund Burke rightly teaches in Reflections on the Revolution in France that we ought to cultivate affection for our inner circles of associations as practice for the next-most outward circle: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.”
But note what Burke thinks such public affections are ultimately for: “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” We should, in principle, love every human being in the world. Loving the strangers whom we call countrymen helps us practice that kind of universal, disinterested love of humanity. A love of country is healthy because it trains us for spiritual cosmopolitanism.
In the creedal or civic definition of American identity, we think of America as the nation defined by the American Creed—ideals which are, in principle, universalizable. This is what Lincoln meant when he talked about America as a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It is precisely these ideals that allow us to see the universal in the particular, and thus to move seamlessly from a love of our country to the universal love of humanity.
This article is adapted from talks given at Providence’s annual conference in October 2019 and the AEI Faith and Public Life annual faculty retreat in January 2020.