The American Idea

In the very first book I wrote (“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”), I advanced a theory I called “the American Idea.” My thesis was that one becomes an American through allegiance to what I call “the American Idea”–the philosophy of governance advanced in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Unlike citizenries that depend upon identity–ethnic, religious, etc.– for their cohesion, one becomes an American via acceptance of those overarching ideas.

Of course,it would help if more people knew what those “overarching ideas” are…

A recent book discussed in the New York Times echoes that thesis–and suggests that it may no longer be operative.

Robert P. Jones begins the column by sharing Chesterton’s description of the American Idea.

After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

This “voluntary asset to commonly held political beliefs” is what I meant in my earlier (less eloquent) formulation, and what I still believe is the essential characteristic of that elusive thing we call “Americanism.”

But it’s badly frayed. As Jones writes,

Recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations — harnessed effectively by Donald Trump’s campaign — are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.

Jones shares polling results that highlight the very different worldviews of today’s Republicans and Democrats, and concludes that America’s increasing pluralism is something of an existential challenge to many of the country’s white Protestants.

Taken as a whole, these partisan portraits highlight contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation — from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

Jones compares the current times with other eras in which the American fabric has been severely frayed: the Civil War, turn-of-the-century immigration upheavals, and the turmoil of the 60s. But as he points out, White Christians still saw themselves as owners of the civic table–the question was whether they would make room at that table for others.

Suddenly, they find themselves in a position in which they are not inviting “guests” to “their” table, but facing the prospect of shared ownership. That’s a new and very unsettling challenge, and the way forward is by no means clear.

The temptation for the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is to double down on a form of white Christian nationalism, which treats racial and religious identity as tribal markers and defends a shrinking demographic with increasingly autocratic assertions of power.

For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian. If this realignment continues, left out of this opposition will be a significant number of whites who are both wary of white Christian nationalism and weary of feeling discounted in the context of identity politics.

This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

I firmly believe that the American Idea can still serve that purpose. But we need to build a culture that supports and nourishes that Idea, and doing that requires that we improve and emphasize civic education and that we abandon–or at least stop encouraging–racial and religious resentments.


  1. Although Trump has done much to exacerbate this Balkanization of American society, there are aggressive proponents of such on both sides of the divide. Let’s be critical of divisiveness, regardless of the source.

  2. I still believe there are plenty of White Christians who align with the Democratic Party, but don’t believe that White Christians should have the freedom to oppress! How’s that for combining yesterday and today’s columns!

  3. Sandy, excellent point. I consider myself to be ine of those white Christian Democrats who has no desire to oppress, but to welcome all to the table.

  4. I was raised in a setting and at a time when real patriotic feelings were the norm. America seemed to be exceptional if imperfect and a big reason was the type of government we inherited built on the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. For sure not all politicians were exceptional but the middle of the road expectation of real democracy led to high quality decisions most of the time.

    The first iceberg that I noticed was actually Archie Bunker but then Archie got serious through Rush Limbaugh and I started to notice that those who listened to him changed. Many people started to hate my America, and yet they called themselves Americans. Talk about feeling violated!

    It’s only gotten worse lately as over the years the infection settled into the GOP organ of governance and led to these days.

    My boyhood wonder about how it was possible for Hitler to seduce a whole nation turned to adult wonder about the Bushes and Reagan and now Trump, all products sold through TV advertising and fake news/science.

    I would love to go back not just to my youth but to being proud.

  5. I began to think recently that there has been extensive civic education, continuously, in this country. We are living with its intentional results today. To counter this we should talk about the entire system of civic education including the delivery mechanism that might make the most sense.

  6. Happy Mother’s Day to all of those women and men who have acted as guides, providers of love and support to anyone in their lives. Especially to Sheila. Nurturing is not exclusive to women and is such a special gift to us all. Thank you.

  7. Thanks Sheila for mothering American idealism and pluralism with your many readers. Happy Mothers’ Day.

  8. Well said, everyone! And brief plus readable, too! Happy Mother’s Day, Sheila and all others here who are mothers. I salute the spirits of my birth mother and my adoptive mother. I owe everything to them both.

  9. A wonderful Mother’s (Mothers’) Day essay on the birthrights of our nation. So many insightful comments already, I have little to add except for this one observation. Many/most of the ‘white, Christian, Republicans’ tend to come from the conservative end of the spectrum – even to the point of being theocrats like our Pope Mickey. On the other hand ‘white, Christian, Democrats’ seem to be in the more liberal, freethinking parts of the spectrum, such as UUC and The Episcopal Church ( are they even Christian? 😉 ). If history holds true, there will be a swing of the pendulum to the other side in the future (soon, I hope). Those who truly believe the Good News know they are mandated to provide a seat at the table for all. Not all who cry Lord, Lord will receive the gifts of The Kingdom.

  10. America has always been an idea, a mixture of Florentine Enlightenment and Athenian democracy set apart from Europe by the Atlantic and Westward movement /pioneer spirit that was unavailable to Europe, which substituted colonialism for our westward movement. The American idea was and is a great idea, though as Shelia suggested, it may be unraveling due to greed, religious pretenses and power plays. Our task is to keep what is left of our democracy intact and build on it from where we are with a view toward inclusion for all irrespective of class, gender, race etc.

  11. Mr. Chesterton’s statement that the original aspiration of this nation was to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” may well be true, but the “exiles and vagabonds” were all white, and, if they were able to vote, property holders. As later exiles and vagabonds entered they were required to be white and assimilate (and in the process give up their native identity – see the book “How the Irish Became White” as an example, or read “Learning to Be White” by Thandeka).

    Jones sees “new poles of cultural pluralism and monism”. But isn’t the cultural pluralism really just a breakdown of the demand that exiles and vagabonds give up their native identity in order to assimilate? And isn’t monism just an archaic desire to keep things as they are – really referring to the 1950s. Cultural pluralism has been around at least since the sixties and seventies (remember the sixties and seventies?) I see this particularly in the millennial and Gen X generations, most of whom don’t understand what the problem is with race, gay marriage or Syrian immigrants. And of course the failure of these generations to demand total assimilation from the new “exiles and vagabonds” not to mention the ones who have been here for centuries, brought under duress, just exacerbates the fears of the archaists. Jones did say that this was a political shift from liberal-versus-conservative. But cultural pluralism is not a new thing, and in politics is just a logical extension of liberal or, more accurately, progressive politics, not a new orientation of our political system.

    The allowance of assimilation by these generations without throwing away your past, or hiding who you are is a logical continuation of the breakdown of prejudice and categorization. I have been telling people for 25 years that categorization is a human creation, a necessary result of language and culture. I used to nearly always get puzzled looks and have a further conversation, but I find that often, and particularly with young people, the response is “but of course!” Categorization does not tell you the reality of a person (or any other thing), it just tells you that the fit the primary fact that the categorization is based on. The secondary facts often do not fit the individual. As a trans woman I sometimes tell people that I am perfectly normal and share their values. I love my family, my church, my friends, my community, my country, I want good schools and safe neighborhoods, friendly neighbors. I also spent my first 42 years pretending to be a man, and the next 25 pretending to be both (I present female, but behave however suits the moment), and presenting as a woman, am married to another woman. But given my values, why does any of that matter? And this is what these more recent generations seem to believe as well.

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