The Confessional Nature of Anglo-American Nationalism

My last post, and much of the “controversy” (sic) over Barack Obama’s birth certificate, got me thinking about England’s “Glorious Revolution of 1688” and the nature of Anglo-American nationalism. As I recall, I think most of this comes from Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe.

For those not familiar (and I am not as familiar as I would like to be), the “Glorious Revolution of 1688” was the toppling of the Catholic Stuart dynasty and installation as King of England one William of Orange, a good Protestant Dutchman. In the Whig version of history, it was a non-violent uprising against the alleged injustices and usurpations of James II (the Stuarts themselves had been interrupted by the Civil War and Cromwell’s über-Protestant Protectorate), in which England as a mass (or at least the Protestant elite) rose as one and ousted the king without the head-chopping and bloodletting that had convulsed the country a half-century earlier. Kaplan’s not quite so sanguine about the matter — he notes that William was actually the leader of an invading army that was helped by most English elites.

What is interesting, however, is how willing England’s elites were to get rid of a more-or-less English monarch (the Stuarts were Scottish but related to the Tudors) and replace him with a Dutch prince who probably spoke no English whatsoever merely because of religion — William was protestant and James was Roman Catholic (who had produced a Catholic heir). Now, granted, there was more to this than that. The great struggle in England in the 17th century was over monarchical absolutism, with the Stuarts (beginning with James I) claiming to be absolute kings akin to Louis XIV of France while parliament was claiming absolute power. (Hint: Parliament wins.) But it is the religious component that fascinates me most.

There is a confessional aspect to Anglo-American nationalism. It is not enough merely to be born in a place, or to speak a language (though that helps; the English were paranoid about foreigners and language as far back as the 13th century). One must confess one’s national identity. A perfectly good English monarch is tossed overboard for being Catholic (and thus representing all things foreign and tyrannical) in favor of a foreign noble who, by being Protestant (and willing to defer to parliament), can confess the right national identity.

In a popular age, it is not enough merely to be born in the United States. One must confess one’s Americanness. And in the right way, too. I’ve long believed the United States is not so much a nation as it is a confessional church with a flag and an army. Our political discourse isn’t so much about ideas or even ideology (though we live in an ideological age), it is religious. It is about the exegesis of sacred documents (Constitution, Declaration of Independence, other significant foundational documents) and overt confession of what those documents are believed to mean. Because we don’t, as Americans, really share anything else. Not language. Not culture. All we have in common are governing principles. And that’s it.*

For many, Barack Obama isn’t a proper American because he doesn’t confess the right kind of Americanness. (Bill Clinton didn’t either.) His skin color and African heritage on his father’s side are a convenient proxy for this. Were he a Herman Cain or Congressman Alan West, confessing the same ideals they do, the right would not question his “Americanness” one bit even if he had been born in Kenya of a Muslim father. (For the left, it doesn’t matter where he comes from because he confesses, for them, the right kind of Americanness.) The political right, like many rightist religious groups in this country, is eager to impose its understanding of sacred doctrine on all and demand allegiance to that understanding by all. Failure to confess that understanding places one outside the confines of what it means to be a citizen and participate in the civic life of the nation. (Lutherans should be familiar with this use of the law to exclude.) For their part, the progressive left shows every desire to have its own confessional identity that will exclude some from participation in civic life. And it is doing so. There is law enough for all.

Because these two confessional camps are increasingly mutually exclusive and increasingly unwilling to allow opponents to “commune” (again, sorry for the religious language, but it is what I believe is happening) and participate in the sacramental aspects of the state, I believe conflict is coming. Because unlike in a church group, where people can walk away and start their own churches, the conflict here is over the state — the right and ability to rule others against their will. At some point, someone will decide the stakes are far too high to let the other side win. That way lies strife, war and dictatorship. Which I have long believed is coming to this country.

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* This really should give pause to libertarians.

Includes Roman Catholics, Communists and Muslims Too!

Stanley Fish, in a column about the public discussion of Jews and Jewishness in the West today, writes this at the New York Times:

An important part of the protean and shape-shifting history of anti-Semitism is illuminated by Matthew Biberman’s brilliant book Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature. Biberman traces the intertwined careers of two characterizations of the Jew — the Jew as devil, an impossibly strong alien being who blocks and destroys everything that is good, and the Jew as sissy, an effeminate, slight, pasty figure who stays in the background and assimilates, but who, because of his having disappeared into the woodwork, is able to rot it out from within. (This quick summary does not do justice to the richness of Biberman’s analysis.) So you can have the fierce barbaric Jew (Israel as the atom-bomb wielding destroyer of Arab armies, at least in 1967) and the insidiously bland Jew, the obsequious figure who, while no one’s looking, takes control of everything. That means that whatever a Jew does there are a number of pre-packaged, and often mutually exclusive, narratives in which to place him, and, by and large, they are not positive ones.

This notion of the almost supernaturally strong, essentially evil enemy who is at the same time weak and cowardly and blends in so as to destroy society from within also forms the substance of English anti-Catholicism (though it tends to focus on the person of the pope, rather than average Roman Catholics), was central to anti-communism and has found new life in anti-Islamism in America.

I cannot speak to how other societies view enemies real and imagined, but it seems the kind of paranoia reflected in English anti-Catholicism/Semitism/Communism/Islamism is an essential fact of Protestant Anglo-American culture. It is foundational, an essential fact that some in the culture can transcend in times and place, but not for any great length of time. It is something that cannot be explained so much as it explains. It is so much a part of the culture that many Jews — particularly right-wing supporters of Israel — have embraced the language, images and logic of this paranoid-conspiracy thinking when they intellectually deal with Muslims and Islam (and even Arabs in general).

This fear is not grounded in much fact, and so reason cannot explain it away or even ease the fear much. (In the 18th century, there were never more than 100,000 Roman Catholics in England, and yet occasionally the English public would erupt into paroxysms of violent anti-Catholicism in which fear of a take-over of the country by the pope — that century’s version of the sharia scare — was primal, and said take-over would end English liberty because rule by the pope was the very definition of tyranny.) But it is grounded in some fact — Roman Catholic Stuart pretenders hung around in France making ominous noises for decades after the Revolution of 1688; Jews did seem to play a overly huge role in finance and the professions Europe in the 18th and 19th century during a time of several social dislocation; Communists did actually believe they were going take over the world (science allegedly proved the inevitability of revolutionary socialism); and Revolutionary Muslims did attack the United States throughout the 1990s and spectacularly on September 11, 2001. But the fear departs from the fact by creating a moral universe of both irredeemable evil and cowardly weakness incarnate in the same opponent.

I wish I understood where this fear comes from. It does seem to be primal to Anglo-American Protestant existence. (The King of England would take on many of the features of the pope in the run-up to the American War of Independence.) I want to root this with the Scots-Irish protestant, but it appears to be just as English as it is Scots-Irish. So I have no idea where it comes from. But it is fascinating. And frightening to behold.