Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Is There Such a Thing as the "American Way"?

In the recent "Superman Returns" movie, the mention of "the American Way" was apparently too politically incorrect to include in Superman's traditional formulation: "Truth, Justice, and the American Way". Instead, the best the editor of the Daily Planet (played by Frank Langela) could do was, "Truth, Justice, and all that other stuff."

When I posted this on another blog, it attracted at least two comments that voiced the skepticism only inherent in the newspaper editor's modified formula. The question those commenting seemed to be asking was, "Is there such a thing as the American Way worth mentioning in the first place?"

This seems to me a very important question, and one to which there is a definite answer.

Of course there is an "American Way", and of course it is worthy of mention. I would say furthermore, that, if there is not, we are all in deep trouble.

I think that the failure to see this is the result of a deep confusion in what a nation, or polity, is, and what our role as Christians is in it. It is a matter I think, of primary loyalty. The concept of a "primary loyalty" is one which few people can articulate, but all possess.

What is a "primary loyalty"? A primary loyalty is a commitment we must have to a thing, and it is a loyalty over which we have no choice and may not even be aware. It is not the result of any commitment we may have consciously made or that we can even escape from. It is something we are born to, in addition to being born into. There are various primary loyalties in our lives. Our family is one of them. If we are Christians, our membership in the covenant community of God is another. Another primary loyalty is that to our community.

When we are born into our family, we take on commitments and responsibilities from which we cannot escape. They are ours by virtue of condition over which we have no control. They are ours whether we wish to accept them or not. When we are told in the Ten Commandments, for example, that we are to honor our father and our mother, we cannot escape the responsibilities of this command by saying that we had no input into who our father and mother were.

Likewise, when we are born into the Church, and are given the sign and seal of this membership in infancy (Baptism), we are shouldered with commitments that are ours regardless of our acceptance of this later in life.

I submit that citizenship is the same kind of primary loyalty as these. If I decide to go 70 mph in a 35 mph zone, and the nice highway patrolman takes me aside and asks why I was going too fast, I cannot say to him that, yes, I saw the sign, but that I had no choice in having been born into a society that sees the limitation of speed as important. I cannot say, "I never committed to following the law, and am therefore not culpable for complying with it."

I can't say that I simply disagree with the laws or with the Constitution or with the current political leadership and expect to be free of the responsibilities that are mine by virtue of my natural citizenship. There are commitments that are mine simply by virtue of my being born into them. There is civil authority (ordained by God, if Paul is an authority on the matter, which he is) that I come under, whether I like it or not.

G. K. Chesterton, in his book, Orthodoxy, takes this point a bit further, and points to another primary loyalty: that to the universe itself--to reality. And he uses the idea of citizenship as the very analog to this:

If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it ... To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.

...My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.

The feeling I sense in the comments to the post I mentioned before, in which the American Way (let's take the double quotations off of that phrase so that we do not demean it) is somehow implicated in the fact that there are things about our country that are very obviously wrong. There are things that we do not want to endorse when we confess our commitment to an American Way.

If we say that we are for the American Way, are we not making ourselves complicit in all of the wrongs of our country? Well, we could ask a similar question: If we say that we are committed to our family, are we not making ourselves complicit in all of the wrongs of our family?

Aren't the answers to these two questions the same? I think they clearly are. The answer is, "Of course not." Chesterton says that we can say, "My country, right or wrong," as long as we can say it in the same sense as we might say, "My mother, drunk or sober." There is a primary commitment involved in both cases, one we cannot escape.

Chesterton again:

The world is not a lodging-house in Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.

Is this not also true of our country? We love these things--our family, our country, God--Chesterton would add reality--"with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason."

"Men did not love Rome because she was great," he says, "She was great because they had loved her."

If we cannot say this about America, then I think we are in a pitiable state. We have repudiated a primary loyalty. We can repudiate it, but we cannot escape it.

This being the case, what is the American Way? I submit that it is the same thing as Russell Kirk refers to as the "American Cause" (I use the double quotes here only to introduce the phrase, not to demean it). There are, like there are with all things to which we have a primary loyalty, ideal characteristics.

In the case of the American Cause, there are three elements or assumptions: a moral, a political, and an economic. The moral assumptions involve the Christian view of the nature of man and the proper view of the relation between church and state. The political assumptions are those which involve the concept of ordered liberty, which is based on the Christian view of man--primarily that he has inherent dignity and that he labors under original sin. The economic assumptions are those, again, which involve the Christian view of man, and imply a belief in economic freedom, which is based on this view of man.

The American Way, which is made up of those things to which we, as Americans, owe a primary loyalty, are ideals. The reality, to which we look to see how we measure up to them, do not affect or qualify them. In fact, if we do not have an ideal to which we expect our nation's action to live up to, then we have undermined our ability to criticize its actions at all, since we have not standard by which to criticize it.

Russell Kirk's book, the American Cause, is the best explanation of this that I know. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cothran

I was pleased to see your reference to Kirk. As someone who grew up spending time at Piety Hill both for seminars and socializing, references to his work always bring home fond memories of a man gifted in wisdom and humble in God. I was doubly pleased to see an excerpt from one of his books in the latest Memoria Press catalog. Please keep up the work of introducing the Sage of Piety Hill to those unfamiliar with his work.