Living there, you’ll be free, if you truly wish to be.” ~Gene Wilder, Pure Imagination

The frigid breeze gusting through downtown Des Moines, Iowa, did little to help the Democratic Nominee for President, Joe Biden, as he struggled to project his aging voice over the cacophonous sounds of traffic. It was October 30, 2020, just two months after he secured the nomination, and coronavirus protocols and public image management dictated that the audience for his speech remain in their cars, safely distanced from each other, and from Biden himself. Barred from clapping and shouting, the eager crowd instead honked their horns at his applause lines, giving the combined impression that a used car lot had attained sentience and developed an interest in national politics. The Biden campaign, perhaps not trusting his voice over the wind and car horns, left little to chance by printing his central message on their campaign banners, on his podium, and behind the dais, leaving even the hardest of hearing in the audience informed that Biden thought that we are in a “Battle for the Soul of the Nation.”

To say that America has a soul may be opaque, but it is not new. The 1904 version of the poem now known as “America the Beautiful” invoked God to sanctify the nation and “Confirm thy soul in self-control/thy liberty in law.” Here America not only has a soul, but it, like the souls of small children, needs formation, and like the souls of small Christian children, requires Confirmation. Christians have it on good authority that human beings have souls, that they are the sorts of things the maintenance of which one ought rather to prefer instead of gaining the entire world.

But it is altogether unclear what might be meant by extending that metaphor to the nation. If nations, like people, have souls, that must mean that they have some essence, that they are some thing and not some other thing, that they might acquire characteristic virtues and vices that, through long habituation, become resilient against change. It means that the very essence of the project might be imperiled, or redeemed. The soul of America might be that thing which is, as Reagan suggested, essentially good, or as some Left Identitarians suggest, essentially racist.

Yet ask any of these believers in the existence of the American soul what the definition, the essence of the American soul might be, and you are more likely to get, at best, yet another metaphor or metonymy. America is her flag, her armed forces, apple pie and baseball, freedom, “cold beer on a Friday night / a pair of jeans that fit just right / and the radio up,” a great unfinished symphony, purple mountain majesty and amber waves of grain. At worst, they will reply polemically, partisanly: America is that thing which my opponents hate, and which will be lost eternally if you do not vote for me in this most consequential election of our lifetime. In short, America is imagined, a constellation of images, practices, institutions, brands, personages that evolve and mutate. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass are now essential and great Americans, though many of their contemporaries were not so sure. Even the very concept of the nation is a metaphor; the word itself derives from natus, “birth.” A nation is those who share a birth, as most Americans do not.

When Benedict Anderson argued in 1983 that nations are “imagined communities,” he had in mind this strange combination of the pervasiveness of national allegiance and rhetoric alongside the inability to reduce that essence or that soul to identifiable features. He observed the obvious fact that each individual citizen of most nations will, over the course of her life, never meet the vast majority of people nor visit the vast majority of places that constitute her nation: “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (Anderson 6). In light of this fact, he argued that nations are imagined, which is not to say that they are fictitious. On the contrary, they are constructed into something quite real, but constructed nonetheless. When the hearts of patriotic Americans swell, it is likely at the thought of D-Day, or Gettysburg, or the Statue of Liberty, or National Parks, not the slums of Detroit, the food deserts of Appalachia, or the crumbling tunnels and bridges of the Metro North Railroad. But those latter liabilities are descriptively as truly American as are those former glories, though they might be less American normatively. To call something one likes ‘American,’ and something one does not like ‘unamerican’ slips easily and imperceptibly between the descriptive and the normative. Enormous amounts of political rhetoric in America today turn on precisely this unspoken equivocation.

To perform America, our national politicians fly themselves to Iowa, as Biden did on that cold day in October, and visit the Iowa State Fair. There they eat food impaled upon sticks and feign delight in the presence of hometown diners, before returning home to their large coastal cities and private chefs. Joe Biden came to Iowa to talk to America about her soul, and was on a plane out of the state by nightfall. But Marilynne Robinson has taken up residence in that state the political class only visits, and when she imagines America, she imagines Iowa. Her Gilead novels are all set there, among its amber waves of grain. Like the still-life paintings of the Dutch Masters, her novels are full of the glories of the quotidian, of tranquility that is domestic in the most literal sense. Nobody in her novels runs off to Broadway. When they do run away, it is into the Far Country in exile, away from the house of the loving father. The promised land, the land of nostalgic longing, is Iowa.

Iowa is also Robinson’s microcosm of America. “The United States,” she says in her What Are We Doing Here?, “is in many ways a grand experiment. Let us take Iowa as an example.” She then presents a brief history of her adopted home state, where farmers plowed the fields and set the foundations of a public university specializing in the arts, never seeing any contradiction between the active life and the contemplative life. Here is a city that has foundations, where farmers and scholars are members of one body, neither of which can say to the other that they have no need of them. The harmony of agrarian dignity and scholarly excellence is something like the heart of Robinson’s account of America. When Marilynne Robinson imagines America, she envisions a learned and human tradition that cascades down from the alpine heights of Whitman and Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, Edwards and Calvin, into the minds of the alumni of America’s great land grant colleges all across the Midwest.

Robinson believes that to be an American is to hold title to an enormous inheritance, the abandonment of which impoverishes her citizens and robs the world of admirable displays of human grandeur. Part of that inheritance is Christianity. Her essay “Fear” begins by stating plainly that “America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses.” She is not only a Christian country, but a Calvinistic one. In “Open Thy Hand Wide,” she observes “Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation, and this liberalism largely has had its origins in the Old Testament.” Political theorists are fond of noting that Tocqueville, when he moves his attention to identifying the Point of Departure of the Anglo-Americans, looks not to the Federalist Papers, but to the New England Puritans and their love for bounded liberty, civil society, piety toward God and suspicion toward kings. Robinson is thoroughly Tocquevillian on this point.

Yet Americans seem stubbornly insistent upon living like the many Bitcoin billionaires who have forgotten the password to their accounts. They live a life of poverty, isolated from the wealth that is rightly their own, but which they have not the means to access. The result is that it lives captive to a fear that expresses itself in a paranoid style of politics, in widespread gun ownership, in an eagerness to be captive to conspiracy theorizing and persistent suspicion against internal dissenters and domestic threats. We have heard these complaints before, yet not, perhaps, in precisely the way she phrases them, for in her view, these ills come not from overmuch patriotism, but from a deficient patriotism: “We might step back and say that there are hundreds of millions of people who love this nation’s soul, who in fact are its soul, and patriotism should begin by acknowledging this fact. But there is not much fear to be enjoyed from this view of things. Why stockpile ammunition if the people over the horizon are no threat?”

The other great storehouse of inherited wealth is the American literary tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman — that latter two of whom she confesses to “revere.” That theological word is fitting, for it is precisely a kind of democratic reverence that she has learned from them, a persistent awe, sometimes willed and sometimes spontaneous, in the presence of and by the fact of other people: “everything depends on reverence for who we are and what we are, on the sacredness implicit in the human circumstance.” The other great virtue she seems to have learned from them is democratic piety, which Jeffrey Stout, following Emerson, called “the just or appropriate response to the source of one’s existence and progress through life.” She is fantastically grateful, and therefore unabashed in her use of phrases more native to the soil of campaign rhetoric, like, “I defer to no one in my love for America.” She says and, by all appearances, feels patriotism that might sound more natural coming from a much-beloved small town mayor just before he kicks off a parade of fire trucks and beauty pageant contestants through Main Street. She seems altogether unaware that those who can speak at length about the cultural programming on NPR are not supposed to feel a flutter of pride pass through their breast at the sight of the American flag.

And yet, she would not call this nationalism. She has little kind to say of the so-called American nationalists of the last few years, scorning them as “those lovers of country, these patriots, [who] are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate. Neither do they feel any need to answer the objections of those who see their shaping and their discipling and mutilation.” She is never more like Jeremiah than when warning that “something called Christianity has become entangled in exactly the strain of nationalism that is militaristic, ready to spend away the lives of our young, and that can only understand dissent from its views as a threat or a defection, a heresy in the most alienating and stigmatizing sense of the word.”

Undoubtedly there would be some features of Robinson’s political imagination that today’s American conservative nationalists might endorse. In “Family,” she endorses public recognition of the Sabbath, “I do not think it is nostalgia to suggest that it would be well to reestablish the setting apart of time traditionally devoted to religious observance.” She bemoans in that same essay the impossibility of raising a family today on a single income. She is convinced America has a national culture worth preserving, and that public displays of religiosity are among them. And yet, you will never find in Robinson’s writing the more noxious utterances of today’s conservative nationalists: the coded and esoteric endorsement of suppressing minority religions, the vilification of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the very countries our predator drones have bombed into dysfunction, the Ivy League law school graduates insisting that “the professors are the enemy,” the sham performance of virility and faux masculinity by a man altogether too cowardly — too lacking, in the old Greek definition of courage, in manliness — for repentance at aiding and abetting a seditious mob in front of the Capitol. Robinson shows that loyalty to country, full-throated endorsement of its traditions and institutions, and an almost giddy optimism about its future, need not be attended by the invention and ritual castigation of the sinister other, foreign or domestic.

To catch Robinson’s imagination of America is to find today’s American conservative nationalists hocking knockoff goods at inflated prices, while the real item, offered elsewhere, with far greater pedigree, can be had quite easily, at no price, like all inheritances. To read Robinson’s giddy panegyrics on America is to realize that shouldering the serious task of stewarding America’s institutions and traditions need require nothing of the denigration of non-Americans or the vilification of the sinister other. To love someone is to will that they have the good. So it is with nations.

Robinson is happy to insist that the valorization of America, and of high literary culture, and the refulgent glory of being a human, are all easily compatible. We need not abandon our fellow moderns out of love for the ancients, nor compare bashfully the paltry literary achievements of our young homeland with the giants of the Old World. Americans can stand proudly on their national traditions, and that standing proudly does not at all besmirch the denizens of some other country from their willingness to do the same.

Yet perhaps this is all just a bit too clean, too much harmony and not enough cacophony. The American intellectual tradition is much more a long argument over time than a sustained and echoing chorus. When Edwards and Calvin speak of the glories of the human creature, as they assuredly do, they are speaking of the glories that God has preserved from total destruction by sin. When Emersonians speak of the glories of the human creature, they mean to deny the fundamental disorientation that Calvin and other Augustinians insist can rightly be attributed to humanity and recognized in even the best of our works. Emerson’s religion relies on a kind of pantheism for which Calvin might have been tempted to bring out the matches and kindling. We are told that one day the lions and the lambs might one day lie down together, but even then, the Emersonians and Calvinists might be a bit more hesitant.

At the height of Robinson’s popularity, it was sometimes common to hear professional scholars of Calvin and Edwards speak appreciatively of the free publicity she provided to them, even while softly demurring to each other about her interpretations of those figures. She seems to adore Edwards largely on the basis of a single (albeit quite beautiful) footnote about moonlight in his The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended. Meanwhile, Robinson’s Calvin, far more Renaissance gentleman than burner of Servetus, finds fictional echo in the Reverend Ames of Lila, who is far happier waxing poetic about water and trees than about hell, sin, and judgment. In that famous taxonomy of lumpers and splitters, Robinson is a lumper, who imagines an American intellectual tradition by sanding down rough edges to establish harmony. The result is the construction of a history in which a pantheistic nature mystic, a fire and brimstone Augustinian slave-holder, and a New Deal Democrat are all basically interchangeable with each other, and synonymous with the essence, the soul, of America itself.

But America in reality seems a bit less sanitized than this, and her traditions not an unbroken chorus of echoes from Edwards to Emerson, but a family feud of warring interpretations and contestation. The radicals, like the conservatives, are part of the family as well. Americans fight with each other all the time, and there was never a moment when this was not so. Our vices mix with our virtues all the way down, inextricably, like wheat and tares. If America is going to produce sons and daughters with enough bravado, alone among all dwellers upon God’s earth, to stand on the surface of the moon, that same self-confidence against the odds is probably going to produce some anti-vaxxers as well. A country in which Thomas Edison and Bill Gates tinker away in their basements, ignoring altogether what the scientific establishment thinks is possible, is inevitably going to be one in which some people tinker away on themselves with Ivermectin, similarly disregarding the scientific establishment. Our mode of public discourse is less Socratic questioning in the agora, and more wild gesticulating with breadsticks in hand around an Italian family dinner table.

America is an unruly place and an unruly people, all troublesome and loveable mixed in together. Harmonizing Edwardsians and Emersonians appears an easy task compared to harmonizing the Afropessimists, the Catholic Integralists, the Lost Cause apologists, the Stalinists, who all hold the same passport as the Neoliberals and Libertarians among us. These are all Americans too. We may not look forward to seeing all of them at the family reunions, but they are among us, and the habits of democratic citizenship demand that even they learn to live together with each other, and we with them. Barring some miracle of persuasion that does not seem forthcoming, the only other solution to dealing with our contestation is domination by one faction over another.

It is sometimes said that a nation without a shared view of the good cannot be preserved. It is not altogether clear what those who say such things mean by them. In extreme cases, they are obviously correct; a house divided against itself cannot stand. And yet, the vast majority of human societies in history have not been preserved to this day except in museums, regardless of how much they agreed on a substantive account of the good. Meanwhile America, that hotbed of disagreement and ungovernability, has done pretty well for itself these last four centuries, despite never agreeing among ourselves on matters of final significance. A greater share of Americans routinely report believing their country to be “the greatest in the world” than do the citizens of any other country about their own nations. Most Americans have not lost faith with America, even if they are tempted to lose faith with each other. But that we must not do. The habits of democratic citizenship require nothing less than a willingness to continue arguing with each other and to forswear domination against each other. The soul of America depends upon it.

(Justin Hawkins assisted with this essay.)

Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.

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Posted by Moriah Hawkins

Moriah Hawkins was born and raised in small-town West Texas, educated at Baylor University and Yale Divinity School, and now works as Program Manager of the Augustine Collective, a department of The Veritas Forum. She is managing editor of Fare Forward.

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