The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How conservatives can get nationalism right

A woman wears an American flag dress as she attends a Cameron County Conservatives event in Brownsville, Tex., on Sept. 22. (Eric Gay/AP)

Last week’s National Conservatism Conference was the place to be for conservatives interested in an open debate about the movement’s future. Whether those debates unify the right’s collection of warring tribes or spin off into political irrelevance will largely turn on how this nascent grouping defines the American nationalism it seeks to conserve.

Defining the essence of American nationalism is deceptively simple — until one tries to do it. We might “know it when [we] see it,” as Justice Potter Stewart famously said when trying to define hard-core pornography, but as with that salacious category, it is hard to pin down which elements combine to create the whole.

Academics have attempted to define American identity from the nation’s history, but political actors can succeed only when they propound an identity that is both accurate and unites a majority of Americans around a single banner. That means political movements must choose from elements that derive energy from the protection and ennoblement of a national ideal. Choose correctly, and you win; choose wrongly, and you will be swept aside.

As George Washington University professor Samuel Goldman points out in his book “After Nationalism,” the American story has many sources from which to draw. The initial founding population was largely British and Protestant, which laid some cultural underpinnings that the country has never quite rejected. The founding era also drew inspiration from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu and Francis Hutcheson. These writers and their American acolytes spoke of natural rights inherent in humans and human society everywhere rather than of English or Protestant heritages.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

Subsequent waves of immigration brought new cultural influences, some more congenial to British Protestant mores than others. And American political history created its own rivers and tributaries. Conservatives can invoke Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as models for American identity without specific recourse to any other foreign, theoretical or cultural source.

A politically successful national conservatism should attempt to draw on all of these to build an ideal that makes sense in 21st-century America. Some speakers at the conference, however, preferred to focus on one or more of these constituent elements to exclusion or denigration of others. Following those courses would kill this nationalism before it is even born.

Efforts to read the Enlightenment out of the American experiment are particularly unhelpful. Speakers such as Patrick Deneen and conference organizer Yoram Hazony regularly inveigh against the universalist and international impulses that the Enlightenment encouraged. But it’s hard to deny that these are essential elements in our national history. State constitutions from the founding era often invoke Locke’s famous trilogy of rights — life, liberty and property. Thomas Jefferson was an open sympathizer of at least the initial French Revolution, and the Monroe Doctrine decisively placed the United States on the side of newly independent republics in Central and South America. Iowans even named one of their counties after Hungarian Louis Kossuth in admiration of his effort to bring liberal democracy to his homeland in 1848. An American nationalism shorn of its liberal, universal elements is not American at all.

Efforts to establish American nationalism as distinctly Christian are also misguided. It’s true that Christians have historically dominated the United States, and devout religious belief and practice are important parts of our national heritage. But it’s also true that this heritage was never enshrined in law. Early Christian political influences were also overwhelmingly Protestant, a feature that led to school prayers often being drawn from the Protestant Bible while also leading to bigoted “Blaine Amendments” barring public funds from supporting Catholic schools. It’s likely no coincidence the Supreme Court cases that held that sectarian public-school prayer was unconstitutional were decided within three years of the election of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. America’s Christian past was a denominational past, and a return to emphasizing Christian teaching would resurrect those denominational differences.

National conservatism can succeed only if it accurately reflects the entire American nation. That nation today draws from many religious traditions and includes people from many different ethnic backgrounds. This potentially combustible mixture can coexist only if the national story gives each the ability to live dignified lives of their own choosing; both drag queens and fundamentalist Christians must have rooms of their own. That will challenge those who want to insert pre-modern ideas into our modern world. But if our national faith is true — if all people really are created equal with certain unalienable rights — it is not only possible, but likely, that a national conservative movement built on that cornerstone will survive and thrive.