America: Christian or Jacobin?

The following review originally appeared in the Summer 2005 edition of The Intercollegiate Review, and appears with the permission of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.


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Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity,
by Samuel P. Huntington, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004, $16.


This is a rare book—erudite and readable, analytical but urgent, a work of political science which the author admits he wrote as “a patriot.” While few political theorists outside of certain radical circles are likely to admit that they are not patriotic, one encounters fewer still who write from an explicit desire to preserve and to protect their country. Not just its political institutions, or the ideology which undergirds them, but the concrete, shared reality that is America—so much of which, Huntington convincingly demonstrates, is the result not of inexorable historical processes, or the unfolding of mankind’s deepest yearnings and some obscure divine decree, but happy historical accidents. Serendipity.

Among these accidents, the author is not embarrassed to point out, is the national character which marked the North American colonists—specifically, their “Anglo-Protestant culture.” Samuel Huntington convincingly challenges the corpus of Cold War (neoconservative and liberal) apologetics for American exceptionalism, which grounded America’s virtues exclusively in the Enlightenment ideology of some of the Founders. Professor Huntington notices that literally dozens of other nations were founded at almost the same time, by Enlightened liberal Freemasons from Colombia to Paraguay, yet few of them persevered in their liberal institutions. Why did Bolivar’s Republic founder into chaos and tyranny while Washington’s prospered and stayed (in certain ways) free? Because political seeds can only flourish when they fall in fertile ground. The soil in which liberal, decentralized government could survive—insofar as it has survived—was one which had been prepared for centuries before Jefferson ever set pen to paper.

Huntington points to the suspicion of centralized authority which persisted in the dominant (Presbyterian, Quaker, and Puritan) strands of Protestantism to which the overwhelming majority of American settlers adhered, the century or more of congregational (rather than papal or episcopal) decision-making through which these churches were governed, and the very worldly work-ethic which dominated men of these creeds. These churches, he says, were the “reformation of the Reformation.” He contrasts their anti-authoritarianism, pragmatism, and general suspicion of institutions with the ways of Anglicans and Catholics—whose faith entails deference to established authority, resignation in the face of suffering, and a reverence for poverty. These are stereotypes, but who can look at Mexico and Texas (for instance) and fail to see their basis in fact? Compare, for that matter, the attitudes towards poverty, war and peace, and religious authority of President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI. One need not agree with the Puritan worldview to recognize that the psychological attitudes it inculcated still dominate American culture and are responsible for its most identifiable virtues and vices.

This Anglo-Protestant root was planted by America’s earliest settlers—which Huntington carefully distinguishes from immigrants, dispelling the myth that this is a “nation of immigrants.” The Puritans of Massachusetts, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Scots-Irish of Tennessee were not impoverished individuals asking admittance of a developed, pre-existing polity to which they would assimilate. They were alien invaders, arriving in groups with clearly defined communal beliefs, determined to buy or wrest a continent away from divided, mutually hostile tribes of hunter-gatherers. That is not the situation faced by subsequent and contemporary immigrants to the United States—at least, not yet. With loving detail, Huntington shows how members of every ethnic group that arrived in the United States came to accept the cultural and political mores of its Anglo-Protestant founders. Jews who were not particularly observant in the Old Country established synagogues so they could attend weekly services like the Protestants. Catholics embraced the separation of Church and State—eventually dragging their mother Church after them. Even when religious groups set up their own parochial schools—to resist the steady pressure of Protestantization imposed in the public schools—they invariably laid heavy emphasis on patriotism, mastery of English, and the virtues of “Americanism.” Yet such institutions of Americanization, Huntington warns, have by now largely broken down—leaving a degraded commercial culture and the mass media as the sole means by which new Americans learn the ways of their adopted country.

Huntington analyzes other developed and developing countries, in comparison and contrast with America, to suggest four themes around which national unity can develop:

  1. Ethnic, based on perceptions of a close-knit, consanguineous group. Examples include the nationalism which arose in Japan, Germany, Ireland, India,and the early American colonies.
  2. Racial, based on visible differences among peoples. Such a unifying principle, Huntington argues, inspired white Americans of various ethnicities once they had begun to intermarry and assimilate—until this identification was rendered morally repugnant during the Civil Rights Movement.
  3. Cultural, based on shared ways of living, unspoken preconceptions, and social mores. This mode of identification,Huntington suggests, is what unites most Americans today—although it is threatened by the racialism implicit in identity politics and affirmative action,and by the mass immigration of people from a single nation with a self-confident alternative culture, namely Mexico. He warns, compellingly, that these phenomena might well re-awaken an intolerant white nationalism, inflamed among members of a race who dare not speak its name, aware that their interests are under attack by other, self-conscious racial groups.
  4. Propositional, based on ideological maxims derived from political theory. Nations defined this way included Jacobin France and the Soviet Union. This principle of organization—surely the most fragile—is the only one offered as morally viable (and moral) both by liberal and by neoconservative theorists today. The extension of the American proposition, by force of arms if necessary, seems to be the goal of the ideology which Professor Claes G. Ryn calls, in his book of that name, The New Jacobinism

Huntington examines the curious but encouraging persistence of religious practice among Americans—almost unparalleled in any developed country—and concludes that the United States simply cannot be described honestly as anything but a Christian nation. However, America’s mode of Christianity is intrinsically tolerant, individualistic, even entrepreneurial—again, with all the positive and negative attributes that follow along.He cites Irving Kristol’s famous advice to American Jews that they accept and welcome the country’s Christian orientation, which has guaranteed for them an environment almost entirely free of the bigotry Jews encountered in other societies.

Furthermore, Huntington argues, most of the advances which America has seen towards equal opportunity and social reform have been driven by Gospel values and explicitly Christian movements—from abolitionism to the Civil Rights Movement— rather than by socialist activism, as happened through much of Europe. It is in this Christian core, which now encompasses Catholics, welcomes Jews, and accepts other, more alien faiths, so long as they accept the fundamental principle of tolerant co-existence, that Huntington hopes to ground the unified American identity of the future.

Huntington does not spend time exploring the roots of our Founders’ creeds and concomitant political virtues, although he points to one writer who does: David Hackett Fisher, author of the invaluable ethnographic study of American settlement, Albion’s Seed (1989). That book, which ought to be read in tandem with this one, grounds the intellectual and political habits of early Americans in the inherited folkways they carried with them from England, and suggests how they developed. Equally important—perhaps as a corrective to Huntington’s fervent embrace of the Reformation—is Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order (1974), which shows how the institutions essential to liberty developed in medieval England, grounded in Common Law developed by Catholic jurists, before they were smothered during the Renaissance by the revival of pagan, Roman Law.

Indeed, the reliance of both Protestant and Catholic churches on the support of centralizing monarchs to promote their ecclesiastical interests effectively demolished the Church as a countervailing force to the power of the state. It was left, ironically, to the most anti-Catholic movements in Christendom to restore that balance—which was achieved, irony of ironies, in America. The novus ordo seclorum had more in common with the older ordo than the American founders knew. And perhaps that fact is the real source of America’s exceptionalism.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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