Patriotism and Creedal America

Sharing a national creed is supposed to enable Americans to avoid the European nation-state model of national identity. In that model, a state is the state of a people, and peoples are defined by a shared territory, religion, language, and ethnicity. A creed, on the other hand, is potentially universal. If what’s required for citizenship is endorsing a creed, then one can belong to any nation or no nation and still be a good citizen.

But if creed is criterial for belonging, it would seem to follow that those who don’t endorse the creed don’t belong.

On the European model, the idea that your nationality would depend on your beliefs is out of place. I don’t believe it has ever occurred to my English wife to worry about the “Englishness” of her beliefs or those of others. In creedal America, things are different. If the creed includes respect for property, does that mean American socialists are somehow un-American? If the creed is egalitarian, are libertarians less than full citizens?

The situation is complicated by the fact that a substantial number of Americans do not regard the country as a creedal polity. One aspect of current partisan hate has to do with changes in what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican. It’s no longer just a matter of left versus right. Now, each party represents a different concept of American national identity. Roughly speaking, these two are in play:

Creedal nationalism, or the cosmopolitan, civic state: American citizenship is based on endorsing a family of principles expressed in the founding documents.

Ethno-nationalism, or the nation-state: Americans are a people based on territorial, religious, racial, linguistic, and cultural commonalities.

What to do?


The terms of the debate must somehow be shifted away from agreement on principles and towards attachment to practices for living with disagreements over principles. If we understood American citizenship as a practice oriented towards accommodating and living with differences, the tension between a creedal and a national view might be less severe.

The nationalist understands that political membership requires non-negotiable attachments to particulars such as peoples, traditions, roles, and trans-generational inheritances such as the rule of law. But individual human beings are more than the roles assigned to them by history and nature. As rational beings, they are also capable of reflecting on their circumstances and deciding how best to relate to them.

Both perspectives are implicit in the Constitution. The founding documents clearly unite the nation around the universal truths of equality and self-government. But they just as clearly exhibit particular, time-bound, and local formulations of these abstract truths that are shaped and limited by their contexts, and are periodically reviewed and improved.

Universal truths can be perfectly represented only as concepts; any realization of a concept will be a particular. Uniting around a creed shouldn’t be understood as the shared endorsement of certain beliefs in the abstract; it should be seen as a shared ensemble of moral, legal, political, and civic practices and dispositions that exhibit distinctive and unique qualities. An implication is that citizenship requires both a deep immersion in the particulars of the nation’s history, regions, institutions, religions, and traditions *and* a good deal of critical reflection on them.This framework explains why the nationalist can rightly say that political membership requires attachments to a particular people and its traditions. But it also explains why the cosmopolitan can justifiably say that as rational agents, we are not reducible to our inherited attachments. We can always choose to evaluate our particular circumstances from a more comprehensive standpoint. Each of these apparently mutually exclusive dispositions is in fact united by virtue of the fact that abstract universal principles only ever take the form of concrete particular practices and institutions. This ineradicable unity suggests a conversational topic, namely their relationship to one another, and it is in the medium of this conversation that the narrative unity of an identity is forged: a national conversation in which we reflect on the evolution of our norms and practices. Attachment to this conversation, which entails both the desire and ability to take part in it, constitutes the most comprehensive American national identity.

Such a conversation, of course, is itself a practice, and it suggests the form American patriotism should take: a patriot is one who looks for, finds, and articulates a mean between particularism and universalism. This can be practiced by anyone in any setting. A student will share and defend his or her local values and practices while also seriously considering the cosmopolitan’s opinion of them. A philosopher will define and conceptualize the mid-point. An artist will represent or express the mid-point. A politician will craft policies that support the efforts of citizens to preserve the traditions that matter to them while incorporating criticisms of and improvements on them. Yes, there will always be some for whom the conflict between particular and universal is a zero-sum competition, and that’s as it should be; what matters for a democracy is that those who perceive their unity maintain a majority and that the extremists are politically marginalized while still being able to express themselves.


If a view like this could be made plausible and attractive, it might put us in a position to see how the conflict between civic national and ethno-national views of identity is driven more by mutual misunderstanding than by genuinely irreconcilable differences. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder whether this approach doesn’t demand more than can be expected from the citizens of a liberal democracy. An attraction of the Constitution, according to Madison, is that it requires little in the way of virtue, and it may be unrealistic to hope for more.

1 Comment Patriotism and Creedal America

  1. Allyn McAuley

    Highly interesting analysis, thank you! Your overall point regarding a citizen- conversation that finds a fruitful dialectical midpoint between the particular and universal seems persuasive. There is perhaps a third perspective of interest: that of Aristotle and the concept of politics as “ruling and being ruled in turn” under a particular “form of government” (politeia). This might entail that the process of acting continuously in a manner that frames, debates and executes laws is the way one learns to conceive what it means to be a citizen of a particular regime. I believe that this view still indirectly animated the Founders themselves and was implicitly present in America, at least up until Toqueville’s visit it 1830. The New England town hall was one model for this type of activity for Toqueville, and according to Arendt, Jefferson at the end of his life wished that the Constitution had preserved a place for this sort of local political participation. At any rate, the press of massive immigration, urbanization and technology seems to have removed this possibility for most Americans today. Without this sort of experience, I wonder if citizens have any hope of actually learning how to negotiate the balance of creedal and nationalist thinking. All thinking becomes abstract argument over principles, or assertion of the particular self-interest of myself or my tribe. It’s as if Madison’s faith in pitting “faction against faction” to avoid tyranny ends up as a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating process that indeed assures us of never accessing our “better natures.” Factionalized loyalty and self-interest take the place of any discussion of the “general Welfare” for a very large portion of our citizenry.

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