What Is America's National Identity?
Many were elated and approved of President Trump’s July speech in Warsaw, Poland acknowledging the central role Western civilization plays in defining who we are and what we believe. Our freedom and survival depend on defending it, he said. Beyond that, he celebrated Western civilization as something extraordinary: “What we’ve inherited from our ancestors has never existed to this extent before.”
A vocal few, popular in left-wing opinion circles, condemned Mr. Trump’s remarks as an affront to multiculturalism, labeling his linkage of us with Western civilization, and our pride in it, as “tribalism, white nationalism, and racism”, claiming that references to Western civilization and ancestors are code words for the above-mentioned vices. For some, even the broad term “Western civilization” is offensive and prejudicial since, as with all definitions, it necessarily conveys something distinctive and thus circumscribed.
The question we should answer is: does a country or nation need an identity, a unique identity with salient features that distinguish it from other countries and nations? In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville gave a resounding affirmation to the need for a specific identity. He wrote that a corporate entity remains what it is as long as it operates by the principles upon which it was founded. When it changes those principles, it becomes something entirely different, and the success it had, based on its original formula, becomes uncertain and imperiled. It atrophies and declines. He spoke not against periodic tinkering but warned against fundamental transformation.
According to the wise and prescient de Tocqueville, we define an entity by its original principles and the values that created its success. These are the seeds that animate it and supply its people with special spirit. What, then, is America’s identity?
Some say it lies in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, which delineate the liberties that enshrine our peoplehood and, on a functional level, make possible a daily life open to achievement, aspirations, and human potential. Our way of life and the blessings that have come to us depend on everyone living within this Constitutional framework and by precluding its replacement or abridgement with another set of laws claiming to be a “higher morality” or temporarily more important, or by enacting waivers or special accommodation in the name of multiculturalism.
There are those today wishing to sideline the Constitution and our historic way of life by invalidating the men, and thus the ideas, behind it. Using charges of racism as the singular and only important lens in which to judge a person’s value, they nullify the totality, the overwhelming contributions, and extraordinary sacrifices of great men and women of a different era. Meanwhile, they grant themselves unassailable superiority and rigid final judgment simply because of their claims to victimhood or for espousing one of the many isms in today’s pantheon for self-righteous virtue signaling. A nation’s historic identity is being replaced by identity politics, culminating frequently in automatic indictment of historical figures simply because their race or moral values are now out of fashion.
There are those in America wishing to define us strictly as a nation of tolerance and inclusivity, this deification resulting often, as in Europe, in tolerating the intolerable and including everyone and everything to the point of endangering those in society not ensconced within rarified and protective gates. They think the best identity is no identity. But this vacuum and void, as witnessed in Europe, allows for other assertive or aggressive identities and mores to creep within and replace, zone by zone; for surely, strong and energized identities will replace the mushy identity of No Identity.
Though tolerance is a laudable theme, it is found elsewhere and is not an exclusive element of Americanism. The President was correct in underscoring the importance of Western civilization and how it connects and ties America and Europe. But America moved Western civilization beyond its previous European contours. It fashioned something more grand, a majestic idea, something that not only preceded the Constitution, but from the time of Plymouth Rock distinguished America from other Western polities, unfolding into the American civilization. It is the Judeo-Christian ethos.
Though its roots began in a religious and idealistic outlook, this ethos shortly developed into a civic attitude and philosophy, shaping the themes and civic perspective that were America’s foundation and key to our freedom and prosperity. It supplies a set of moral and philosophic principles regarding economic, social, personal, and political life. Among its distinguishing features are: personal responsibility, liberty, seeing man as an individual, a work ethic, rights from God, meritocracy, rights to property and how one makes his living, and freedom of religion and conscience. Together with these principles were the uniquely American ideals of fair play, rugged individualism, innovation, volunteerism, speaking one’s mind, and demarcating between right and wrong.
America is much more than a land mass between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It is more than just a country. It is a nation; a nation with an exceptional identity born in a transcendent idea. The Judeo-Christian ethos made us singular among the nations.
The civic Judeo-Christian ethos does not demand adherence to the details of religion or to a particular form of worship or religious creed, nor loyalty to a particular religion. The ethos is open to all, just as is Western civilization. That its founders and ancestors were mostly white is not a structural roadblock to all sharing in its outlook, except in the mind of racialists eager to impute racism in anything distinctive or weaponize against those with whom they disagree.
Transnationalists determined to weaken and denude America know their route to victory lies in condemning the Judeo-Christian ethic which has provided America with its identity and life breath; and those at war with Judeo-Christianism know that in bringing down America the Judeo-Christian outlook will have lost its most vital fortress.
The Judeo-Christian ethos is an American treasure, a morality, to be defended and preserved, a gift and legacy to pass on to future generations.
Rabbi Aryeh Spero is author of Push Back: Reclaiming our American Judeo-Christian Spirit (Evergreen) and president of Caucus for America.