Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Bit More on American Constitutionalism and Imagined Communities

As I quoted in the post below, historian Gordon Wood has noted that the United States "was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language or religion." As a result, we have a unique way of establishing our nationhood that is, in many ways, different from other nations around the world. In the following video, Gordon Wood goes more in depth into the development of American constitutionalism and nationalism. If you are interested in this topic the video will be worth your time. Start the video at 12:00. That way you can avoid all of the stupid introductory crap!


Brad Hart said...

Sorry. The video cuts out at 25:00 for some reason. Here is the link to the entire video:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't have a huge problem with Anderson's thesis so far, although it seems a scholarly configuration of the obvious: for instance, the concept of "Christendom" goes back a thousand years before Anderson. An "imagined community?" Fine, call it whatever you want.

But Gordon Wood [or you] have got to do better than this:

"...the United States "was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language or religion."

I mean, Jeez Louise.

"The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion , manners, habits, and political principles."---George Washington, Farewell Address

"With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs..."---John Jay, Federalist No. 2

[All bold mine.]

And even if we ignore the "religion" part---which we certainly should not!---there is still the matter shared values, if we don't eradicate them, of course, and "imagine" a new community that breaks with the old one. The "Christian Nation," or whatever you want to call it, points out this very real possibility.

See, the beauty of the Founding was that unlike France, they didn't break with tradition, custom, and values, they only modified the politics. The 20th century, in its way, was something more radical than the American Revolution.

Brad Hart said...

Anderson actually does not call Christianity an imagined community. Nationalism is a relatively new concept, and Anderson points out how numerous factors -- including religion -- can contribute to a population developing their own concept for nationhood.

As for the quotes, this is the basic problem: both sides are armed with enough quotes that defend their respective argument to last for the next 1000 years. I think it is important to look past them. For example, we have been debating Adams as of late. Both sides have quite a few quotes from Adams to defend whatever the hell they feel like. Well, Adams was often an impulsive individual who said and wrote a large assortment of stuff on virtually everything. Washington, on the other hand, was relatively quiet. As a result, it's hard to gleam much from just looking at quotes.

This is what I HOPE to do with my paper (we'll see if it actually works). I don't want to engage in a tit-for-tat with Barton quotes defending the Christian Nation. Instead, I simply want to research its origins. Now, the first step is to put the Christian Nation into its proper place as a NATION...i.e. imagined community.

BTW, Anderson’s book is the type of work that is right up your ally. If you haven’t read it I think you would really enjoy it. It’s an EXCELLENT book!

Jonathan Rowe said...

With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion , manners, habits, and political principles.---

Dr. Frazer quotes this in his PhD thesis as supporting the theistic rationalist thesis. It was their tendency to see the same "religion" in different sectarian theologies that teach incompatible claims of truth.

Washington certainly knew of men who denied the Trinity (he himself may have been one). And he's essentially saying that's the "same" religion as orthodox Trinitarianism. Likewise there were a few Jews & Roman Catholics in the population as well. I guess these are the *same* religion as Protestant Christianity.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As for the quotes...I think it is important to look past them.


I'd rather look past Gordon Wood and his assertion in this case. How can you blandly assert something questionable then build a case on it?

As for Gregg Frazer's observation, it seems to be arguing against Wood's assertion as well. Whatever you call the religion of the Founding, it was something as opposed to the nothing that Wood treats it as.

Perhaps I'd like Anderson's book, Brad, and I realize it's a huge hit among the academic crowd, but at this point I'd be happy if "imagined community" joined "theistic rationalist" on the ashheap of unhelpful terms. It seems to be a concept looking for a reality to latch onto.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think you are right to note the relative newness of "Nationalism" as a concept. I think one could make the argument that America was a "nation" in 1776 or 1789; however, the Founders seemed to hedge on whether we were "one" or a collection of sovereign states come together via compact. You see a LOT of speaking of the United States as an "are" as opposed to an "is" back then.

I wasn't until after Lincoln that the issue was "settled" that the US was a "great nation." And one reason I think the infamous "unconfirmed" Patrick Henry quotation probably come from the post-Lincoln era is, given Henry's militant anti-Federalism, the notion that the United States was a "great nation" would have made Henry want to puke. This was a man who objected to the US Constitution chiefly because it was done in the name of "we the people" as opposed to "we the states."

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

"I'd rather look past Gordon Wood and his assertion in this case. How can you blandly assert something questionable then build a case on it?"

But isn't this what everyone is doing with their respective quotes? Blatantly asserting that their quote are THE SOURCE on the matter? We've gone in circles with quotes for months on this blog, have we not?

Tom Van Dyke said...

George Washington, man. George F. Washington.

I'm not against quotes, just quote wars that ignore the larger contexts.

I mean, we just can't surrender to epistemological nihilism, can we? For if we do, all is lost, and we have created Babel.

Now, I understand that Benedict Anderson is more willing than most in the secular academy to allow for religious influence. Good for him. After googling, I get the gist of where he's going, and also have read his critics, who aren't critics as much as those who feel he doesn't go far enough.

I'm not familiar with Gordon Wood, but if this quote is representative of his work, it reflects the blind spot that the secular academy has for religion, the "scholarly malpractice" James H. Hutson condemns.

Now, it's true that "nationalism" is a newish concept, only some hundreds of years old. Only in seeing nations break up do I imagine we can do an autopsy to find out what glued them together in the first place.

Still, I cannot imagine that America could have formed a single nation without a common worldview, a common reality: who we are, why we are, where we're going. God, man, the natural law, the whole shebang. The very definition of "reality."

If that common worldview is foremost a theological one---and I believe it is, namely Christianity and specifically Protestantism---our historians will be ill-suited to identify its essential nature unless their theological chops are up.

And of course my Protestant friends, without a proper knowledge of Catholicism, would tend to attribute certain ideas to the Reformation, just as secularists without theological backgrounds will tend to attribute Christian ideas to the Enlightenment.

And so it goes.

jimmiraybob said...

Still, I cannot imagine that America could have formed a single nation without a common worldview...

I would say that a common worldview at the time had more to do with location, survival and commerce rather than religion or philosophy. Which seems obvious just from the difficulty of trying to pin down the worldview of a couple of dozen men of the period.

It's no different today. Many influences ranging from the secular to the religious inform "us" - it's not just an either-or call.

Pinky said...

.Imagined Communities
The idea of an “Imagined Community” and its relationship to nation was covered by sociologist,
Talcott Parsons, in his work on social groups.

Parsons is renowned as one of the fathers of sociology--as a field of study--and he did seminal work on the ideas of social structure. In particular, he developed the basic structure of community as a group of people.

Beyond that, he developed the idea of Nation as a group in which people are bound together structurally. And, he developed the idea of Super Group (aka Super National) which is similar to a nation; but, which transcends national borders. It occurs when persons identify themselves as belonging to a group with more authority over them than that of their nation.
Of course, we live in Post Structural (AKA Postmodern) times now.

Pinky said...

For example, the World of Islam, makes up a super group of people--the concept is super national. As such it is imagined.
One of the things that inspired Parsons was, if I'm not mistaken, the "Nation of Israel" which had no geographical location back there in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century.
Imaginations are like dreams. Sometimes they come true.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Add the "green" movement and secular humanism.

Pinky said...

The video was most interesting and I am very appreciative of your putting it up, Brad.
It turned on a lot of lights for me.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I expect you'll do as much with it as you have with Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, Pinky. Cheers.