Earlier this month, a conference on “national conservatism” in Washington, DC, showed that the terms of debate on the American right are changing. Intellectuals on the right are increasingly likely to cast their arguments in terms of what serves the nation, rather than what serves the individual.
Beyond these shared terms, there sometimes seemed to be little agreement. For instance, dovish Tucker Carlson and hawkish John Bolton were both keynote speakers. And among the conference speakers, at least three distinct ideas of nationalism were defended. Charles Kesler, editor of what may be America’s finest magazine, the Claremont Review of Books, defended a subtle form of “creedal nationalism” that defines America in terms of a common creed: all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Yoram Hazony, a Jewish thinker who organised the conference, condemned white nationalism, warning his audience that it is not confined to an insignificant fringe (an observation that would be confirmed later in the conference). For his part, Hazony described America as a nation with a Christian heritage. In order to be an American one need not participate in that heritage, but one must respect it and be ready to defend it. Hazony’s view might be summarised as a multi-racial, ecumenical, and philo-Semitic Christian nationalism.
In remarks that quickly became notorious, Amy Wax, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, defended what is in effect (though she disclaims the intent) a form of white nationalism. Wax would base immigration policy on the notion of “cultural distance”: First World countries, whose cultures are supposedly nearest that of the United States, would be given priority. Wax concluded: “Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism means in effect taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.”
In The Next American Nation (1995), Michael Lind argues that the only right-leaning nationalism that can command majority support is the “non-racial, pan-Christian” view of America. But this view is generally eschewed by elites, who hate in equal measure any defence of the nation and of religious belief. Until it finds more advocates like Hazony, it is unlikely to go far.
Creedal nationalism faces an opposite problem. As Lind notes, a creedal nationalist view of America enjoys its strongest support from conservative think-tankers and pundits but has less appeal among the populace.
Wax’s functional white nationalism has the least chance of success. It is unpopular not only among non-whites but also among whites, whose virtues it assumes. Nor is it clear that Wax’s “cultural distance” premise should yield the conclusions she draws from it.
Culture is centered around cult. To the extent that it binds us together, it is a form of religio. America was at the time of its founding an overwhelmingly Christian nation. It would seem, then, that a Chinese Christian dissident, or a Nigerian fleeing Boko Haram, has much less cultural distance from America and its founding than do most present-day Canadians or Swedes.
Cultural distance nationalism, rightly understood, should lead to something like Hazony’s multi-racial, pan-Christian vision. The same might be said of creedal nationalism. It is doubtful that its affirmation of equal dignity can be sustained without belief in the God who made man in his image.
If this Christian vision is simply reactionary, it will fail. If it manages to be aspirational and forward-looking, it has a chance to succeed. In the 1960s, America belatedly chose its Christian identity – what Martin Luther King called “the sacred heritage of our nation” – over white supremacy. In the same period, America’s self-consciously Protestant and unashamedly anti-Catholic identity collapsed with the election of JFK. A truly Christian vision of America would build on these achievements, rather than seeking to revive a white Protestant past.
Such a vision leads to radically different conclusions on immigration than those reached by Wax. Catholic migrants from Central America now have more in common with our Puritan forebears than do most Europeans. Their Church still proclaims the bodily resurrection of Christ, still believes in original sin and predestination, still opposes the evil of contraception. These are things the Puritans professed but many Protestant bodies, and many residents of formerly Protestant states – including Wax’s favoured “First World” countries – no longer believe. Central Americans should be favoured over Europeans under any immigration policy based on cultural distance.
That said, discussing immigration risks distracting us from our country’s most important divide. The greatest cultural distance is not between natives and migrants but between a religious, patriotic, multi-racial working class and a secular, progressive, and largely white elite. Our country’s opinion-makers hate faith, revile patriotism and contemn family. People loyal to what is most noble in the American heritage have less in common with them than with almost any migrant.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.