The majority of our political and pundit class associate “blood and soil” with the Third Reich, though they rarely associate the “proposition nation” with the Soviet Union. So, can we put those two horrors away for a moment? ~Michael Brendan Dougherty

Many readers may have already come across Michael’s fun, fortune cookie takedown of neocon arguments elsewhere, but I highly recommend the original post and the follow-up.  On a more serious note (hardly anyone will ever accuse me of being too glib), the substance of Michael’s response to Foreign Policy’s James Forsyth’s post regarding Mr. Buchanan and State of Emergency is excellent, so let me quote a little more from it before I go on with my remarks:

Forsyth posits that anyone who “believes in the value” of certain ideas is an American. If I’m supposed to take him literally then there are a number of absurdities that result : anyone in Latvia, Belize, the Congo, or China IS an American if they believe in a certain ideology. They may not know George Washington is the Father of their country, they may not understand expressions like “mom and apple pie”, they may not be impressed with American ingenuity, or literature. They don’t have any of the thousands of cultural marks that being an American imprinted on them unconsciously. They don’t even have to speak English - they believe in an idea, you see.

He goes on to suggest that Mr. Forsyth’s views on what makes an American American are not necessarily all that interesting or meaningful, since Forsyth is not an American and might be missing out on a few important things that go into making Americans who we are.  Indeed, that would almost be worse than a recently naturalised citizen declaring people with generations of ancestors in this country unpatriotic because of policy differences–but that couldn’t happen here, could it? 

Unfortunately it can, and it is precisely the kind of thing that happens and will keep happening if we define being American–and by extension patriotic loyalty to America–in terms of the political positions we take and ideological commitments we make.  But before we can successfully combat this ideological turn, we need to make clear what the origins of the ideological “proposition nation” idea are and why this idea has been increasingly misleading us for 140 years.  At first it seemed very odd to me that, along with the usual list of texts and “values” that people embrace to become American, Mr. Forsyth also listed the Gettysburg Address, but the reason for its inclusion became clear to me soon enough.  This address is rightly understood as the seminal document that expresses the idea of the ahistorical, consolidated nation dedicated to a proposition, as the opening lines say very clearly:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The other day I referred to this as “mendacious revisionist propaganda,” which I think is a fair assessment of its character, but my reasons for saying so may be obscure to those who have not given much thought to the numerous problems with this text and the inordinate influence it has had on modern Americans’ conception of how the Union came into being. 

M.E. Bradford is our surest guide through the minefield of the Address, just as he is well-known for his powerful opposition to everything that the Address represents in the politics and rhetoric of our country.  In the following, I am including excerpts from his “Lincoln, the Declaration and Secular Puritanism: A Rhetoric For A Continuing Revolution” contained in A Better Guide Than Reason:

The reason behind this movement of mindless rehearsal into myth is then the success of Mr. Lincoln’s battlefield performance.  In such a cauldron history is easily remade.  For Lincoln’s Pennsylvania miracle is visible in the shape and surface of its accomplishment, a retreat from proposition, discussion, and argument into oracle and glorified announcement: an advance from discourse of what is believed to be into an assertion of what must be, and yet forever remain in the process of becoming.

———-

For Americans, the effect of this epideictic encapsulation is what the Greeks called “Asiatic.” after observing its prevalence and usefulness among natiions living beyond their eastern boundaries.  It is a prerhetorical rhetoric, suited to judges, prophets, and priest/kings who instruct and command without explaining: that is, suitable to a “closed” world.  As no dispute concerning the materials it enshrined was imaginable, the end to which it was employed was obviously very different from that of the deliberative and forensic discoursings of which the Athenian philosophers approved.  Never did the epideictic serve in pure Hellenic “deciding before” or “judging after” a genuine choice.  Probably its intent was instead the affirmation of a common bond–often in its user, but always shared by those who heard or read after him.  Of course, as long as there have been “authorities” among or over their people, the style has remained a part of every rhetorician’s equipment, a magic to be used whenever what was there for the saying was less important than the saying itself.  Now, we may at first reasonably resist this association of Lincoln and Oriental despotism, especially if we know of Necessitarian Rationalism.  But before we resist too strongly, let us look at what the biblical style implies, and conceals, in his address, aqnd ask if he is not assuming the role of a Joshua, whose authority is such that he need only speak the command of the Lord for it to be obeyed.  

What troubled Bradford, and what should trouble us, is the move beyond discourse and deliberation in political rhetoric to declarations and affirmations of unchallengeable mystic truths.  The Address that fathered the idea of the “proposition nation” is spoken in the language of command and dictation–it and the idea that comes from it both demand unstinting obedience.  This rhetorical move by Lincoln began a tradition of taking sacred idiom and applying it to profane political disagreements that takes the gnostic step of seeking to realise the sacred through politics:

We were a fellowship of “the Book” and took all government and political philosophy–even the Constitution–to be practical and unworthy of mention in the same breath with Holy Scripture.  Politics might, within reason, be tested against revealed truth.  But we never imagined more than a tangency for the political and the sacred–never a holy beginning or conclusion by politics.

In this new confusion of the sacred and political, the creation of the “nation” (which he ahistorically locates in 1776) cannot be simply the separation of one political community from another, but a sign of a commitment to a timeless abstraction.  The Address’ abuse of the Declaration denies the importance of history and custom and all of the actual causes that the Declaration gives for the separation.  The substance of the Declaration itself has little to do with the timeless abstractions with which it is so often solely identified:

Prescriptive laws and kings and honor have nothing to do with the “self-evident” and “metaphysically” proved first principles of Burke’s doctors of the closet.  History is their “legitimate” ancestor; trial and error, reputation and disrepute, sifting and selection stand behind Jefferson’s appeal.  In weight, this argument from the record will not replace revelation or anointment by a Samuel.  But it is far removed from the abstractions of the Encyclopedists or mechanical universe of their perpetually absent “Creator”.  And therefore it does not pretend, despite “self-evident,” to bespeak His will.  Respected for what it is (and with its explosive sentences circumstantially grounded and converted into “mere argument” by a Whig rhetoric), the Declaration is agreeable enough.  Its implicit denial that there was a “founding”, its complexity and dialectic (recognized by most responsible American leaders who invoked the document before 1860, and acknowledged by the very different language of the 1787 Constitution) are, I repeat, inverted by Father Abraham.  And the forces which he thus released in manufacturing his “political religion” [bold added] find their tongue in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” 

So here we come to the heart of the matter.  Not merely a confusion of sacred and political, but the creation of a “political religion” that all good Americans now must confess to belong to the nation.  From the horrors of the twentieth century, we know the full destructive power that political religions can unleash, but, as Michael said, let us leave those horrors aside.  The “proposition nation” idea is even more dangerous than a generic idea of an ”ideological” nation, because it comes from our own history and possesses a mythology of its own.  The problem and the evil of the “proposition nation” idea are that this idea has been ingrained in our national consciousness; we have been to some degree initiated into the political religion of Lincoln from a very early age, perhaps before we could even reason, and many of us have been convinced that to turn against Lincoln and this religion is to set ourselves outside of the boundaries of the nation whose “founding” he invented and rhetorically invested with sacred purpose.  When someone suggests to us that being American is defined by the acceptance of certain values, the dedication to certain propositions, we are predisposed to heed this falsehood, because it is a homegrown falsehood and so it seems to us that there must be something to it. 

There has always been something deeply worrisome about the phrase “credal nation,” so closely tied as it is to a similar notion of “proposition nation”, and it is in the likening of the nation to the Church and the transformation of political ideals into the equivalent of the Deity.  If taken literally, this is blasphemy and idolatry.  Even if taken only metaphorically, it is extremely dangerous to the continuation of reasonable discourse and deliberative politics of the kind fundamental to our republican system and our common experience.  The “proposition nation” idea possesses all of the same dangers. 

In its potential to exclude or denounce dissenters as traitors or enemies of the nation, the “proposition nation” idea is perhaps the single most poisonous idea in American thought today.  That it is taken up with the greatest zeal by those who seem to glory in causing upheaval, violence and revolution around the world and by those who are the heirs of the prophet of “perpetual revolution” should not be a surprise.  It is a revolutionary idea designed for the furtherance and continuation of political revolution.  For this and other reasons, conservatives–if they are to be conservatives–cannot have anything to do with it.