Covenant, Crucible, Creed
Do we have to abandon the idea of a national narrative, as Samuel Goldman urges? Or can our incomplete, imperfect canon see us through?
by Samuel Goldman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 208 pp., $24.95)
Who are we? We Americans have always had a difficult time answering this pivotal question. In After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, George Washington University political scientist Samuel Goldman traces three separate answers that have held sway during different stretches of American history. All three have tried to determine how much pluribus can coexist with our goal of unum, as well as “what kind of unum we should become.” Goldman finds each answer wanting. Indeed, he leaves readers wondering not just whether there is a satisfactory response but whether the question is worth answering.
Goldman begins with the “covenant” narrative of America. With roots in Puritan theological and political thought, like John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” sermon, the covenant “sought to constitute all of America as an offshoot of the Puritan experience.” The covenant envisioned a culturally homogenous and deeply religious American polity; and, during the Founding era, the New England-based Federalists took up the mantle of covenantal politics with vigor. But the vision of a unified and pious chosen people was no match to the reality of the expanding, diverse, and raucous early Republic. By the early 1800s, the “religious, cultural, and political constraints of the New England covenant” were “already too narrow to define the newly independent people” and “became even less fitting as that nation grew larger and more diverse.”
As the gap between the covenant and America’s reality widened, a replacement narrative arose. During the 19th century, persisting into the 20th, a second major national tradition took root: the “crucible.” Facing waves of immigration, the crucible narrative casts America as a “melting pot” that was shaping a “new human type:” the American. The notion was racially restrictive but could at least absorb the growing levels of ethnic and religious diversity reaching America’s shores from Europe. While Native Americans and Blacks would be subjected to “outright conquest,” writes Goldman, education in school and via the wider culture promised to pull European immigrants from the Old World into the New.
The crucible not only helped to make sense of the diversity of an increasingly urban and immigrant America but imbued the United States with a profound national purpose:
[M]elting-pot symbolism was conditioned by a progressive understanding of history. Influenced by German idealist philosophy, it posited that time was moving toward a period of redemption in which all contradictions and conflicts would be reconciled. The United States was the instrument of this divine process—not a chosen people set apart from other nations, but the whole of humankind reaching consciousness of itself.
The carnage of the Civil War challenged this “millenarian hope,” writes Goldman, while planting the seeds of a third unique American self-conception: the creed. During the Civil War and the drive toward abolition, statesmen like President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass began articulating a national vision centrally grounded in ideals like individual liberty, natural rights, and democratic participation. Douglass’ vision was more future-oriented, while Lincoln’s was more explicitly tied to that of 1776. Both, however, held a creedal conception of the nation that was “extreme” at the time, Goldman argues.
After all, the melting pot had always been more myth than reality: Immigrants often self-segregated, many went back and forth between the United States and their native countries, and they took care to retain their native languages and cultures. But during the 20th century, events intervened to transform creedal identity into the dominant American narrative. The twin totalitarian challenges to democracy in the 20th century, Nazism and communism, called for an ideological counterweight. It was the creedal narrative, not a melting pot story, that could provide the needed corrective.
The creed had roots in the Founding era, but the ideological challenges to democracy abroad brought the narrative out of “the background of American thought and experience” and into the “center of national life.” Many of us, as contemporary Americans, see the same flaws in the covenant and the crucible that Goldman does, but we know—and love—the creed. For Goldman, though, the creed is flawed just as the other narratives are. Specifically, Goldman argues, the creed is more or less incapable of actually making sense of our messy plurality—that is, of actually forging an unum out of our efflorescent pluribus. He points to the backlash over the civil rights movement and the uproar over the Vietnam War as examples of the “underlying disagreements about American meaning and purpose,” which persist today.
More, the creed houses conflicting principles within it: Think liberty versus equality. During times of stress, those tensions are laid bare. Even if we repeat creedal mantras like “liberty and justice for all,” we don’t agree on what the words actually mean—and, thus, on what makes us us: “The search for a creedal nation,” Goldman summarizes, has been a “failure.”
Perfect, Enemy of the Good
Goldman’s critique of the creed and its unifying capacity leads him to question our national imagination and our ability to forge the needed “elusive consensus” about America’s character and purpose. This is the point at which Goldman’s fascinating account of Americans’ shifting, flawed self-understanding turns into a misguided repudiation of the entire project of national meaning-making—and its necessary corollary, myth-making.
Goldman is quite right to argue that deep disagreement is an inescapable fact of American life and that we ought to “strengthen institutions of contestation” like political parties and local government to better cope with pluralism by allowing differences to flourish instead of trying to crush them. “The decision of the future,” he says, “is between acceptance, however grudging, of messy, frustrating plurality and pursuit of a unity that continues to elude us.”
But he is wrong to frown altogether upon the pursuit of an overarching American narrative. Goldman wants readers to regard the American creed “in a more modest light” and treat “Constitutionalism, the rule of law, and civic equality” as “rules of coexistence for people who otherwise don’t share much.” They are that, yes, but more as well: critical pieces of a most necessary narrative of national self-consciousness.
Americans’ past efforts to unite around shared understandings of one another and their common country, however flawed or incomplete those understandings may have been, were not misguided but natural and necessary. We can come to some sort of self-understanding (and, thus, sanity) as individuals and fellow citizens only by means of stories. Literature, history, and myth, whether shared through a textbook or around the dinner table, are the paths by which human beings and the nations they create grasp at a sense of self—and a sense of purpose amid the dizzying pace of events.
Goldman helpfully notes that the Revolution- and Constitution-centered American creed is undergoing a period of profound stress. Some revisions may be in order to help meet the moment—to forge a sense of national self that can withstand today’s particular challenges. But to counsel revision of our national identity is not to advocate abandoning the project: We must continue working toward a common understanding of who we are and where we’re headed. Complete agreement on such matters is illusory, but giving up the search would be destructive. Goldman is “skeptical that we can restore a coherent and enduring sense of shared identity and purpose,” but that does not mean we should not try.
Thomas Koenig, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a student at Harvard Law School and author of “Tom’s Takes” newsletter. Twitter @thomaskoenig98
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