Is Robert Kagan Right About America

In his brief 2008 review of George McKenna’s Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, Walter Russell Mead juxtaposes two interpretations of America’s Puritan inheritanceMcKenna’s and that laid out by Robert Kagan in Dangerous Nation:

In Dangerous Nation, Robert Kagan argues that the influence of Puritan New England in subsequent U.S. national development has been greatly exaggerated. McKenna has a very different take, and this thoughtful and well-written book makes a powerful case that Puritan values and ideas continue to shape American identity and politics down to the present day. 

Well, sort of. What Kagan argues is not that the Puritans lacked influence, it’s that they were not isolationists. They “helped unleash liberal, materialist forces within Protestantism that overwhelmed the Puritan fathers’ original godly vision and brought New England onto the path … toward individualism, progress, and modernity.”

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Now, adherents of Moldbuggian historiography — “We don’t just live in something vaguely like a Puritan theocracy. We live in an actual, genuine, functioning if hardly healthy, 21st-century Puritan theocracy” — might find it amusing that Mead would even find something dichotomous about Puritan values and acquisitive universalism. At the very least, it’s splitting hairs. (Mead is Episcopalian, and his criticisms of the church are excellent — bishops should shut up about their social justice crusading when their church is falling apart, “the blue social model is not the Kingdom of God”)

That narrative is rhetorically appealing — Harvard rules the world, the War of Secession was the “conquest of America by Massachusetts” — but there are significant flaws. Southern Democrats were often the loudest voices for expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it was Jefferson himself who coined the phrase “empire of liberty.” Nevertheless, the general point, accepted by Kagan, McKenna, Moldbug, and Mead is that as a revolutionary protestant country, we still behave like revolutionary protestants. This should concern today’s conservatives; it definitely concerns Yuval Levin.

Yet as Justin Logan points out, this is not an argument typically associated with thinkers of Kagan’s ideological stripe:

Kagan presents the history of American foreign policy since 1898 [and also since 1789] as one of almost constant foreign intervention and implies that America’s “wars of choice” are its destiny.

Wars can be either choices or destiny, but they cannot be both. Still, this is a tantalizingly provocative argument, one that brings Kagan close to revisionist diplomatic historians like Charles Beard, William Appleman Williams, William O. Walker III, and Richard Immerman. (Of course, these scholars see America’s tendency to intervene as a bug; Kagan views it as a feature.)


On the way from Fredericksburg to Williamsburg last Saturday I caught a bit of Tom Wallace’s “Fortress of Faith” show (the 5/3 edition entitled “Should Christians Be Involved in Politics” at the link). Most of it was nauseating Islamophobic claptrap, about how Andre Carson and Keith Ellison’s swearing-ins were illegitimate because they used Qur’ans, Sharia is on the way, and that sort of thing.

The more interesting segment was about the role of radical protestantism in the American founding. The hosts related stories about the “Black Robe Regiment” — which is all over the internet and conservative talk radio, by the way, in part thanks to Glenn Beck, a devotee of the anticlerical Thomas Paine. They talked about the Mayflower Compact and quoted mullah Charles G. Finney.

This is an extremely attractive worldview for the sort of person who is moved by slogans like, “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” But how conservative is it, really?*****

Rhys Isaac’s Pulitzer-winning Transformation of Virginia contrasted the Anglican gentry-led patriot movement prior to the revolution with the contemporaneous evangelical revival:

… the most important distinction between the two movements lay in the relationship of each to the old way of life. Where evangelicalism began as a rejection and inversion of customary practices, the patriot movement initially tended toward a revitalization of ancient forms of comunity. The mobilization to defy Parliament — the meetings at courthouses, the elections, the committees and their resolutions — coincided with, and for a short-lived moment reinforced, the traditional structures of local authority. The independent companies were a barely popularized form of the old militia, while the ceremonies of the toasts and the feting were but adaptations of customary conviviality. With aggressions for the moment turned outward, all of these forms featured and intensified the style and values of pride and self-assertion that evangelicalism so sternly condemned.

The political enthusiasts experienced no equivalent of the isolated anguish of the awakened who were awaiting conversion. Fundamental shifts in values and organization that occur outside and against existing structures are highly subversive of established authority. The spread of concern for vital religion challenged the hegemony of the gentry; the patriot leaders, on the contrary, vigorously reasserted the cultural dominance of the elite. A view of the diametrically opposed social tendencies of the two movements raises the question of whether the patriot ideology did not gain appeal among the Virginia gentry partly because it served as a defensive response to the open rejection of deference that was increasingly manifested in the spread of evangelicalism.


By all of the above, I hope I’ve sketched the outline of what amounts to an identity crisis in the lumpenconservative movement. An evangelical Tea Partier claims to want to conserve America’s institutions, but inherits a theological doctrine and rhetorical style that was built to overthrow them (both colonial and royal, as the Isaac passage shows). The implications are nontrivial. It suggests, for one thing, that populist conservative politics are a mistake, and that the conservative movement differs from our international diplomatic establishment over a mere few particulars about how we might build the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps there is a clue here to help explain conservatives’ relatively consistent support for war and empire, despite their morally, fiscally, and civilly destructive qualities.

I’ll leave McKenna with the last word:

Southerners and Catholics were the two stones rejected by the builders of American patriotism. The first was rejected because the Southern narrative–a pastiche of legend, fancied genealogies, and the dreamy tales of Sir Walter Scott–ran counter to fiercely dynamic, progressive story which the sons and daughters of the Puritans had absorbed from childhood. The second stone, Catholicism, was rejected for the more obvious reason that it was the stone that had to be smashed, ground into powder, before the final trumpet could sound. …

All that changed with Vietnam, Watergate, and long national Lenten period that followed. The Northeast, the birthplace of the Puritan narrative of an American “mission,” was now the region most hospitable to doubters. It was all just a facade, they claimed, for American capitalism’s global ambitions. New England, the birthplace of American providentialism, was abandoning the whole idea of Providence in American life, while Southerners, the outsiders in the Puritan-told story of America, and the Roman Catholics, once considered un-American because of their allegiance to a “foreign prince,” were now the most fervent believers in the Puritans’ patriotic account of America’s glorious mission. The wild olives, the church-going Catholics and Southerners, were now grafted to the main stem of American patriotism.

I think McKenna is putting a rather positive gloss on the modern history here — very recent events have proven that anti-Catholic persecution is alive and well. And if you’re feeling down on Dixie, just read Salon.

Update — TAC had a very related piece last week:

Unfortunately the modern conservative movement has operated under the false premise that economic self-interest will provide the necessary internal check. In an effort to counter so-called “liberalism,” postwar conservatives such as William F. Buckley substituted religion for the classical ideas of republican virtue and civic responsibility that are the foundation of earlier 19th and 20th century conservatism. By fusing a diffuse and undefined concept of religion with extreme libertarianism and its worship of free markets, postwar conservatives created a political philosophy that supports market competition as a good unto itself without any moral constraints based on a concept of the “common good” that transcends tribal preferences based on religion, culture, or race.

This philosophy is inconsistent with the Constitution in word and in spirit. It is inconsistent in word because it denies the competitive plurality of beliefs and ideas that is explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights. It is inconsistent in spirit because it not only denies our duty to pursue happiness together as citizens of the same republic, but also redefines “happiness” as the selfish pursuit of wealth, fame, and power in a manner incompatible with the moral principles of our founders. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines happiness as acts in pursuit of the highest virtue, carried out in the context of a complete life. Steeped in classical ideas, and particularly Stoic conceptions of virtue (Washington had his soldiers perform Addison’s Cato at Valley Forge), our founders would have understood, appreciated and internalized Aristotle’s definition.

Updated: October 9, 2020 — 6:21 am

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