Qu’est-ce qu’une Christian Nation?

Last week, in an article for First Things, the ever-insightful Peter Leithart suggested that debates about Christian nationalism are incoherent. What “Christian” means, has meant, or ought to mean is widely discussed. But disputants treat “nation”—and the difference between nations and other regimes like kingdoms, empires, and confederations—as self-evident. Surely, Leithart simply asks, those who dispute Christian nationalism should be as familiar with Giuseppe Mazzini, Ernest Renan, and Benedict Anderson as they are with theology.

Exactly right. But may I also suggest that, in the American case, the meaning of “nation” was canonically answered two centuries ago. Whether the new independent American states constituted a nation was a major topic of the ratification debates. And there was then broad consensus on the criteria for assessing nationhood.

The 1788 Constitution, after all, is a nationalist document. Behind the sealed doors of the Philadelphia Convention, the Constitution’s framers admitted that they were creating a “National government” and used “national” and similar words in early draft. But once they forwarded the Constitution to the states for ratification, the pro-ratification faction began labeling themselves “Federalists” to win mass support. Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris were only federalists because their real preferences would never have passed.

Nonetheless, the 1788 Constitution’s Preamble still proclaimed that a unified “People of the United States” pre-existed the formation of any government; that this People shared a “general welfare”; that they longed for “a more perfect Union”; and that it was because Americans already existed as a people that they could “ordain and establish” a government for “ourselves and our Posterity.” The Constitution never presents itself as a voluntary contract, agreed by separate states or isolated persons in the state of nature compacting themselves for their own temporary self-interest. Merchants sign contracts; gods ordain the governance of a people both living and yet to be born.

Once the 1788 Constitution was forwarded to the states, the anti-ratification faction—forever stamped by their enemies as “Anti-Federalists” when “Confederalists” or perhaps “Hellenizers” (due to their idolization of the leagues of Greek poleis) would be more accurate—immediately attacked the document’s nationalism. The “Federal Farmer” (Richard Henry Lee) decried the 1788 Constitution as setting up “a consolidated government” rather than “a federal republic” and insisted that the American lands were “too extensive” and local to permit “executing the laws on free principles under one entire government.” Similarly, “Brutus” (Melancthon Smith) believed that America needed a confederation of cantons, for “in a republic of the extent of this continent, the people in general would be acquainted with very few of their rulers” and the national legislature “cannot be sufficiently numerous to be acquainted with the local condition and wants of the different districts.” “In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar.” In contrast, “[t]he productions of the different parts of [the United States] are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions,” so any national legislature “would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogenous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.” To the Constitution’s critics, there was no single American nation, and so no one single government that could accomplish the nation’s general will.

The pro-ratification faction countered by insisting that Americans were a nation already prior to any constitution. Most famously, John Jay, in Federalist No. 2, claimed 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 . . . This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.”

Jay was far from the only Federalist to express this vision. Robert Livingston, for example, gave a speech at New York’s ratifying convention, describing how “[i]t has pleased Heaven to afford the United States means . . . which it has withheld from other nations. [Americans] speak the same language, they profess the same religion; and, what is of infinitely more importance, they acknowledge the same great principle of government . . . that all power is derived from the people.” Likewise, a newspaper article published shortly before New York’s convention declared that “Providence . . . will still make us one great, united, free and happy people. To that end we are blessed with the same language and manners, the same interests and laws, with a peculiar circulation of learning, and above all with the civilizing restraints of a most amiable religion.” A South Carolina article from 1788 spoke of “the people of all the thirteen states, as a band of brethren, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, inhabiting one undivided country, and designed by heaven to be one people.” And a decade later, George Washington, in his Farewell Address, could state that “The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism . . . With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.”

The Federalists, therefore, repeatedly advocated ratification by presenting Americans as already a nation, with a common language, customs, history, political traditions, and religion: that is, Protestant Christianity. Providence, moreover, had foreordained their nationhood before the creation of any governing institutions—perhaps before the creation of the world. If this is not Christian nationalism, it is hard to know what could be.

Of course, the Federalist depiction of nationhood was not literally true in 1788. German and Dutch were widely spoken. Localism predominated. The Catholic population was swelling. Many citizens were unreconstructed loyalists. And almost no one during the ratification debates bothered to mention the American Indian and Black inhabitants of the states. Nationhood was an official story, promoted (as Leithart suggests) by a particular faction in their struggle to centralize power over the new states. But the American citizenry, by ratifying the 1788 Constitution, seem to have adopted this national vision as their own.

Today, America’s national government looks like an empire in disguise, and the shared customs, traditions, and religion that supposedly justified this nation are disappearing. I find in myself a profound nostalgia for the Anti-Federalists’ vision—for a league of small agricultural cantons where free citizens voted in town meetings and gathered around the Liberty Tree to sing a hymn and burn tyrants in effigy. But that America is gone, if it ever existed. And, if the Federalists were right, perhaps empire is the design of heaven.

Nathan J. Ristuccia is a First Amendment attorney and the author of Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018).


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