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O, My America

From the May 3, 2004 issue: The clash of the Huntingtons.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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These, then, are the immediate threats to American unity. As a practical thinker, Huntington does not much bother with speculative arguments about the value of the nation. He takes its benefits as more or less given and speaks to "the America most Americans love and want." Huntington has not written Who Are We? to try to win over the non-patriots, but to help patriots figure out what to do. His approach seeks to identify the components of national identity--so that people can then begin to discern the concrete measures needed to save the country.

Huntington argues that America has two sources of identity. The first he calls "the Creed," by which he means the basic principles of individual rights and government by consent of the governed as these are drawn from universal arguments, such as can be found "most notably in the Declaration of Independence." The Creed claims to make its appeal to rational precept (to "nature"), which is in principle available to all people. (It is curious that Huntington selects the term "creed" to refer to this dimension, as the word evokes powerful connotations of acceptance on the basis of faith.)

THE SECOND ELEMENT of identity is Culture. Culture, as any social scientist knows, is a most useful concept until one is confronted with the task of having to say exactly what it means. Huntington does his best, defining it at one point as "a people's language, religious beliefs, social and political values, assumptions as to what is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, and to the objective institutions and behavioral patterns that reflect these subjective elements"--in brief, nearly everything. But Huntington boils the concept down, as he must, and culture comes to refer to language (English), to religion (sometimes "dissenting Protestantism," sometimes, more broadly, "the Christian religion"), and to a few basic English ideas of liberty. America's culture, in Huntington's shorthand, is "Anglo-Protestantism."

Given the vagueness of the concept of culture, it might be thought best to leave the complex relationship between the creed and the culture in the state of suitably blurred and loose synthesis. But Huntington suggests this is impossible. For whatever reasons, analysts insist on giving clear primacy to one component or the other. The patriotic party splits into partisans of either the Creed or the Culture. Huntington's own position in this dispute emphasizes the cultural core of American identity. America has a Creed, "but its soul is defined by the common history, traditions, culture, heroes and villains, victories and defeats, enshrined in its 'mystic chords of memory.'" Who Are We? is a defense of the importance, the legitimacy, and the dignity of Culture.

But Huntington goes much further. While never abandoning the Creed, time and again he warns against an overreliance on it. "A creed alone does not a nation make." The further one proceeds in the book, the clearer it becomes that his warnings shade into serious questions about Creedalism itself.

Just who are these Creedalists? Among the patriots, it is again the intellectuals who favor Creedalism, as it seems to speak their own language of theory and rational discourse. Huntington provides a partial list of Creedalists, among whom he includes Daniel Bell and Louis Hartz. He then calls attention to one "scholar," unnamed in the text, who has supplied "the most appropriate formulation" of this position, having stated simply that "the political ideas of the American Creed have been the basis of national identity."

THAT SCHOLAR, it turns out, is Samuel Huntington himself, from a well-known book of more than two decades ago, entitled The Politics of Disharmony. It is at least an oddity that in a work devoted to the theme of identity the author should ultimately supply testimony, albeit slightly repressed, of a split mind. Yet it appears to be a fact that one and the same person has advanced, each time with considerable skill, an almost opposite argument. In the case of Huntington v. Huntington, the author of 1981 ("Huntington I") appears about nine parts Creedal and one part Cultural, while the author of today ("Huntington II") is about the reverse.

This change is most readily observable from the historical analysis offered in each book. For Huntington I, the originality of the Creed is stressed, in the sense of its formative role in shaping and defining a direction for American society. As other Creedalists have argued, without recourse to nature America could have developed into any number of forms, as Anglo-Protestant culture was compatible with theocracy (just look at the Puritans).

By contrast, Huntington II shrinks the status of the Creed. It becomes an organic outgrowth of the Culture: "The American Creed is the unique creation of a dissenting Protestant culture. . . . Out of this culture the early settlers formulated the American Creed with its principles of liberty, equality, individualism, human rights, representative government, and private property." In this new way of thinking, which in American historiography was once known as "germ theory," everything was already there, as it were, from the moment of settlement, just waiting to unfold and develop.

THE MOST INTERESTING and troubling aspects of Huntington's current position are revealed by the reasons for his conversion to Culturalism. Huntington contends, first, that the Creed is inadequate to defend the nation. Proponents of the Creed, while patriotic in their intentions, are almost as responsible for national disintegration as the multiculturalists: "America with only the Creed as a basis for unity would soon evolve into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups." There is simply not enough "glue" in the Creed, Huntington insists, to keep a nation together: The only true supporters of the nation are those who make Culture the core.

Huntington's attack on his old faith in Creedalism undoubtedly has a point if it refers to the most zealous form of Creedalism, which clearly exists, that makes no practical concession to Culture. But one can imagine the earlier Huntington demanding the same treatment for Culturalism--as it, too, in its most zealous manifestations promotes fanaticism and sows its own seeds of disunion.

A second reason for Huntington's conversion is related to his current views of America's position in the world. While the focus of Who Are We? is mostly on the domestic side, the theme of America in the world seems never to be very far from Huntington's concerns. The problem with Creedalism in this arena is its clear "imperial" implication. Huntington is a nationalist, but a moderate one who has little use for contemporary international Creedalists who believe that "people of other societies have basically the same values as Americans, or if they do not have them, they want to have them, or if they do not want to have them, they misjudge what is good for their society, and Americans have the responsibility to persuade them or to induce them to embrace the universal values that America espouses."

FOR HUNTINGTON the emphasis on Culture and the tethering of the Creed to the Culture would perform the salutary role of cooling such universalistic pretensions. It would go too far to read Who Are We? as a complete renunciation of any kind of universal possibilities. Huntington ties the origin of the Creed to Anglo-Protestant culture, but he does not--or does not quite--equate origin with essence. He grants that the Creed can--indeed has--spread, albeit in an attenuated form, to nations that are not Anglo-Protestant. But there is no question that his argument moves in the direction of saying that spreading the Creed very far afield, given its chiefly cultural origins, is a delusion.

It is likewise the case that for Huntington the character of the international situation today, with the rise of militant Islam, fits with a growing emphasis on Culturalism. "Muslim hostility," he writes, "encourages Americans to define their identity in religious and cultural terms, just as the Cold War promoted political and creedal definitions of that identity." His analysis goes on to emphasize the religious dimension of the conflict, citing statements of Islamic militants attacking America "because it is Christian" and calling for a "jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders."

Here, however, Huntington's desire to bolster Culturalism at home may have led him astray. It is not at all clear that the primacy of the cultural assumption in the present conflict is true--Islamic fundamentalism is arguably even more opposed to the Creed than it is to Christianity. And even if it were true, it is not evident on strategic grounds why it would be wiser to allow the enemy to define us on his terms than for us to define him on ours.

HUNTINGTON'S THIRD REASON for converting to Culturalism goes beyond the language of pure "system maintenance" and raises perhaps the most interesting theoretical issue of the book. Huntington argues that Creedalism does not sustain the nation in the form that we want it to have. A great deal of what is most lovable about America, and perhaps also higher and more valuable, is contained in the Culture, not in the Creed. For Huntington, it is clearly not just a matter of convenience that Americans have one language, which happens to be English; rather, it is important that we speak English and find our roots in Shakespeare, not Cervantes. By the same token, it is not just a matter of convenience for Huntington that America is chiefly Christian, rather than Buddhist or Islamic. He wants it to be that way. More broadly, he argues that such preferences are justified, and they should be openly defended and preferred--not be made objects of shame, hidden from view. But Creedalism (at any rate, the zealous Creedalism that Huntington attacks) is not only indifferent to these cultural preferences, but it is almost antagonistic to them.

Samuel Huntington--and this goes for Huntington I no less than Huntington II--has tended to view Creed and Culture as different things, both necessary, but finally at war with each other. It seems to be the old war between rationalism on the one side and religion and tradition on the other. Our choice, for Huntington, seems to be either to subordinate the Culture to the Creed and eventually die, or to subordinate the Creed to the Culture and survive. Huntington has never looked for a higher regulative principle that might somehow subsume these two in a more rational account.

IT WOULD CERTAINLY be a nice theoretical project to consider how these two could be put together in a way that would make sense of each and give each its due. Such a project would have to begin by reflecting on the inevitable fact that universal principles must always be found and expressed within particular contexts. A Catholic or Buddhist or perhaps one day an Islamic nation that embraces the Creed will inevitably look different from America.

Further, the Creed would have to be understood--as it perhaps should properly be understood--not in the outsized way in which, unfortunately, it often appears, but in a way that does not deny the manifestations of Culture. The Creed checks the Culture only at the point at which it conflicts with the Creed--no further. A nation living under the Creed is under no obligation to be neutral. It is entitled, so far as it wishes, though hopefully in accord with its good judgment, to embrace all preferences or prejudices that do not deny essential rights. Finally, the Creed might claim to be the political standard that expresses a principle of justice for living together, not an account of the highest ends of life. Under such principles, and with necessary forbearance on both sides, Culture and Creed might learn to live together.

Samuel Huntington is a fine asset to the nation he loves. We should be pleased that over the past half century we have had the benefit of having had more than one of him. If the first Huntington was too Creedal, and the Second too Cultural, perhaps, if we are fortunate enough, we will yet see a third who gets it right.

James W. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.