It’s typical of me to be a day late in a 4th of July related post, but given that I’ve been reading through a fair amount of non-US 20th century history lately, I wanted to write about three aspects of my country that are (fairly) exceptional, and for which I am distinctly grateful.
The US has a real history of separation of church and state. Yes, many of the individual colonies had established churches, but the US never did, and even the established churches within the colonies were comparatively small and did not control major portions of the wealth in those colonies. Yes, this means that we Christians in the US have never had the kind of totally integrated experience of religious and secular life that existed in some of the societies of the old world, but it also means that we have been spared the ills that seem necessarily to follow eventually when the church functions as a quasi (or official) government or when it is one of the largest and richest landlords in an area. The more I read of European (and to a great extent Latin American) history, the more it strikes me that we in the US simply have no frame of reference for the levels of anti-clericalism and government hostility to religion which resulted from the breakdowns of these old church-state partnerships.
The US is not defined by cultural or ethnic nationality. When intellectuals warn about “nationalism” in the US, they seem to think that nationalism is a matter of holding parades and thinking your country is a nice place. It’s hard to see how this could be a bad thing, mainly because they aren’t bad things. The nationalism which has been at the root of most 20th (and many 19th) century conflicts is another and wholly darker animal: the belief that a cultural/ethnic group by virtue of its existence deserves to have a country that is distinctively its own. It sounds all very idealistic to say that a people deserves to have its own country, but if a country is defined as belonging particularly to one ethnic or cultural group, the necessary follow-on is that it does not belong to any other. This is why, to cite the most famously intractable conflict, the situation in the Holy Land is so poisonous: because Israel is intended to be a country of and for the Jews, while the Palestinian Arabs desire a country occupying the same space that is of and for the Arabs. Neither group can have what they want so long as the other group exists in the same area. The United States, by contrast, while it is vaguely a member of the Anglosphere, is as Chesterton put it “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” Because is the American idea which is considered central to America, despite all too much prejudice directed against whatever is the most recent wave of immigrants, not to mention the even more shameful history of slavery in the US, the country has remained notably free of the kind of nationalism which has made ethnic cleansing a nation building tool through much of the world.
The US has a noble history of a non-political military. For this we simply cannot give enough thanks to General Washington, a man so universally revered for his service in the Revolutionary War that he could very easily have made himself President For Life, and set the US on the road which is standard for virtually all countries which have their origins in revolutionary wars. Washington truly followed in the ideal of the Roman hero Cincinnatus, fighting for and ruling his country, and then stepping aside. 236 years into the American experiment, the idea of generals seizing control of the country and replacing the government is virtually unimaginable, and yet for many countries this has happened multiple times just in the last 100 years.