Defining the essential attributes of being an “American” is a dangerous undertaking. Although I’m hardly a member of a marginalized minority, it wasn’t too long ago that my Irish ancestors were considered by many to be not-quite-American by virtue of their Celtic heritage (and often their Catholic faith). Faced with a nation not only comprised of immigrants of various vintages, but uniquely able to integrate those immigrants into its cultural fabric, it has become popular to identify America as a distinctly “creedal” nation. Which is to say: what distinguishes America and her people is a shared set of political and philosophical commitments—those commitments which animated the founding of the United States.
Princeton professor of politics Robert P. George locates the source of “American exceptionalism” in this insight. In remarks after a presidential forum hosted by the American Principles Project early in the 2012 campaign, he correctly pointed out that “it is possible to become a citizen of France…but it’s very difficult, if you’re not already one, to become a Frenchman.” On the other hand, by virtue of committing oneself “to [America] and to its founding principles,” one can legitimately become “an American in the fullest and most robust sense.”
If we are to defend the concept of American exceptionalism, this is the how we must do it. There is a uniquely creedal element to American identity shared by no other nation. But in our excitement over this insight, it’s easy to overstate the case. Neither America nor any nation can be exclusively creedal.
We all recognize this, even if we don’t acknowledge it. At the end of his remarks, Professor George said that “if you come here and you buy into the conviction [the American creed], you can be…an American in the most robust sense.” The qualifier “if you come here” is subtle but essential. A born and raised Kazakh who affirms all the philosophical elements of the “American creed,” such as the equality of persons and the importance of self-government, is not in any real sense an American if he never leaves Kazakhstan. He may be a Kazakh with American sympathies, but he is not an American.
In order to become an American, he must “come here.” He needn’t become an American citizen; rather he needs simply to participate in the ongoing life of this particular people who inhabit this particular land. In so doing he begins to share in that aspect of the American identity that goes beyond voluntary ideological commitments: the unchosen historical, cultural, and geographical heritage that Americans share and that they can never totally slough off.
Another thought experiment shows that being an American must be about more than ideological self-identification. Imagine if tomorrow the people of America burned the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and set up a military dictatorship. Furthermore, on that same day the people of Angola adopt the American constitution with only superficial adjustments. Although we might say that totalitarian America is in no robust sense still America, we would not say that Angola became America or that Angolans became Americans—even if they were to claim this identity. This is because we recognize, even if only subconsciously, that in addition to a political philosophy America is a land and a people—even if a peculiarly and delightfully diverse people.
We can affirm this without falling into crude racialism because the American people is not a static ethnic or religious group. As Professor George said, a first-generation immigrant of any background can become an American by choice; but his children will be Americans whether they like it or not. This new identity needn’t subsume the children’s ancestral ethnic or cultural heritage; they can remain Irish or Indian or Indonesian, but they are now participating in the history of a new land full of a new people. They inherit both their previous cultural history and an American one: both the Famine and the Dust Bowl; both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.; both Dutch colonialism and British.
The fact is that simply by virtue of spending substantial time in the United States, one is formed among a peculiarly American collection of cultural memories. One learns about and from American places, American history, and American culture. Even if one rejects the “American creed,” one cannot shed one’s cultural, historical, and geographical heritage any more than a wine can shed its terroir. John Walker Lindh, the infamous “American Taliban” who was captured in Afghanistan, was raised in Maryland and California. He is an American. Expelling him or other traitorous Americans from membership in the American people would be comforting, but inaccurate.
Counterintuitively, in adding an aspect of unchosen heritage to the American identity, we broaden that identity’s inclusiveness. The dangers of defining a national identity solely on heritage are obvious enough: racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, etc. But there are dangers inherent in the creedal approach as well. It can be intellectually limiting, placing out-of-bounds (under threat of a kind of excommunication) certain strains of political thought that conflict with the American project. An American monarchy might cease to be meaningfully American, but an American with monarchist sympathies remains an American—even if he’d rather not be. Further, this approach to the American identity falls into precisely the Lockean voluntarism that writers like Patrick Deneen find fatal to the American project. Deneen himself, as a critic of big-L Liberalism, might be expelled under the exclusively creedal approach.
In combining the chosen and the unchosen, we can define an American identity that includes all “native” Americans (including and especially those whose presence predates European colonialism) while acknowledging the unique American capability to turn immigrants into natives—a capability honed through centuries of practice and inherent in the American creed itself. For an immigrant committed to making a life in America, affirming that creed is the only criterion for admission to the American people—and once it has been earned it cannot be revoked from him or his American descendants.
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