The other day, a long time reader and frequent commenter made the argument that America is a “propositional nation.” This is a popular assertion, one that has no basis in American history, but popular nonetheless. Its popularity on the Right is largely due to neocons peddling it as a part of their efforts to redefine and co-opt the Right. It has also been useful in justifying open borders and endless military adventures on the fringes of civilization. These days, the biggest fans of this idea are the Civic Nationalists.
The argument is that America is an exception among nations because it is organized around a set of ideas and principles, rather than blood and soil like other nations. The foundation of the proposition comes from the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To be an American means accepting that and all that flows from it.
Over the years, lots of smart people have pointed out the errors in the propositional nation argument. The fact that the Declaration has no legal standing and that it is full of obvious contradictions should be enough to kill the idea. The Founders had plenty of time to figure out how to bake the argument into the founding documents, but were never inclined to do so. The “proposition” is nowhere in the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. The proposition is nowhere in their deliberations or commentary on them.
There is, of course, the fact that America was a Christian nation at the time of the Founding. The men who wrote and signed off on “all men are created equal” rather obviously did not believe it in the modern, secular sense. They were Christians so they believed that only two people were ever created, everyone else was born. They certainly did not think people were born equal. To believe that all people are equal in the corporal sense or the political sense is to believe that reality is a social construct.
The Founders were not academics in a gender studies department. They were practical men of their age. They crafted practical legal documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to establish the political order of the new country. The men who wrote the Constitution did not craft a metaphysical framework, so the people would behave in a virtuous manner. They assumed a certain type of people with a common morality and common culture. They accepted reality and built a political order to reflect it.
Even so, nations create their own myths and legends in order to bind themselves together emotionally, as well as practically. Rather than dismiss the “propositional nation” idea, let’s take it at face value and say we accept that whatever the origins, America of today is a nation of ideas. The glue that binds one American to another is a common belief in that mythological founding creed. Regardless of race, religion or national original, you can be an America as long as you accept and believe in the civic religion that defines America.
The implication is that no one is born an American. You cannot be born in agreement with a proposition. At some point, you reach an age and level of understanding that allows you to accept the deal on offer. This assumes that the deal is offered, and that is the underlying assumption of the propositional nation. It is available to anyone. You get to be an American as long as you accept the organizational ideas that make up the civic religion of America. That is not the law or present reality, but that’s the theory.
The other side of this coin is that you can stop being an America as soon as you no longer accept the national creed. For example, if you don’t accept that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” then you are not an American. If the propositional nation is going to be anything more than lip service, the proposition better have some teeth. That means someone like former President Obama, who is an atheist and rejects the idea of natural rights, is not an American and he never was.
The bigger implication of the propositional nation is that it argues against having a country at all, at least in the physical sense. Rejecting the blood and soil definition of a nation does not stop at the blood. If America is just a collection of people, who agree on the same set of principles about the nature of man and his political relationship to other men, what’s the reason to maintain a physical space? The clear implication of the propositional nation is that the physical aspects of the nation are, so to speak, immaterial.
Finally, the nation of ideas cannot be a nation of permanent ideas, unless the the Founders were gods, who handed these ideas down to us. Agreements among men, even deeply principled agreements, are open to revisions over time. That’s central to the propositional nation argument. It is how the promoters get around things like slavery, limited suffrage and indentured servitude. If the propositional nation evolved, it means it will keep evolving into the future. That’s the Progressive argument in favor of a living Constitution.
To return to where we started with this post, the commenter stated that you cannot have a nation without a common set of organizing principles. This is obviously false, but let’s assume nation in this context is limited to those with a consensual government. If those principles are arrived at by consensus, it means they were arrived at by men. The nature of that consensus and therefore the resulting principles must spring from the nature of the men who forged them. In other words, we’re back to a nation of men, not ideas.