Symposium: Citizen, Community, and Welcoming the Stranger

by Peter Augustine Lawler

From my view, the two classic sources are G. K. Chesterton and Orestes Brownson. What Chesterton, our friendly and endlessly ironic English critic, saw in America was “the romance of the citizen.” For Americans, being a citizen is much like being a member of the Catholic Church. What unites Americans is not race or class or tradition or culture but a kind of orthodoxy, the one about the equality of all human creatures expressed in the Declaration of Independence. American citizenship, in principle, is as universal as the City of God. Anyone who believes what we believe is eligible to join up. That makes our country “a home for the homeless,” for those who are refugees, for one reason or another, from their native countries.

Is a nation with “the soul of a church” either good or sustainable? Well, the Americans Chesterton observed in the early twentieth century thought so, which is why immigration to our country was almost completely unlimited by law. But the openness of immigration and the attendant cultural diversity was bounded by the dogmatic rigor of political assimilation. Being an Englishman—a matter of culture or shared tradition and habits—allowed for almost infinite political diversity; aristocrats, socialists, and anarchists are all citizens together in Chesterton’s country. Being an American means accepting and living our political creed, which was taught everywhere in our schools as beyond question. Socialists and anarchists are ostracized and, if necessary, locked up for engaging in un-American thought and activities.

Chesterton’s point is that there’s something noble and deeply Christian about applying the equality of men under God to political life. It was the foundation of our country’s abolition of slavery, and the progressive abandonment of the Declaration’s dogma began, after all, with the South’s positive defense of scientific racism and continued through various eugenics schemes and the like. But Chesterton also suggested that the American effort might be criticized as a mistaken (or borderline insane) effort to abolish the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man.

And so it’s good to recall that Brownson, in the wake of the Civil War, tried to restore the distinctively and irreducibly political dimension to our republican life. America, like all republics properly understood (on the classical or Athenian foundation) is a “territorial democracy.” A republic is a way of life shared by people in a particular part of the world bounded by geographical borders. The republic is distinguished from the tribe, which is essentially selfish, nomadic, and grounded in kinship. A republic, especially the American republic, is held together by a shared devotion to a common good. The most perfect of republics are characterized by racial, ethnic, and religious diversity; the common bond that unites the diverse people inhabiting a particular territory is loyal citizenship. As Roger Scruton has said, the republic, or nation, is the political mean between the extremes of tribal xenophobia and what he calls oikophobia—or being repulsed by the goods and loves that shape a relational life of personal significance in favor of an abstract or unrealistically disembodied humanitarianism or cosmopolitanism. It’s as citizens that we learn how to trust strangers, and it’s through our civic loyalty that we approach the truth all human beings share.

From Brownson’s view, every republic has a “providential constitution,” which is, in the American case, a complex array of religious, political, and philosophical inheritances. The Declaration of Independence, by itself, might justify secessionism; the individual with rights can renounce his political attachment when it, in his judgment, impedes his exercise of his individual rights. Brownson reminds us that the pure philosophy of John Locke is actually rather tribal, insofar as it detaches the individual from his civic and religious duties, from the responsibilities that come with his social dependence. Our Founders might have been Lockean in theory, but they founded our country as statesmen, drawing, as needed, from the whole range of possibilities given to us by the providential constitution. And that means that the Constitution they constructed is meant for us, and not a universal possibility or a model for all nations. The apolitical, a-religious, and even a-familial Lockean individual, Brownson reminds us, is based upon a theory of human nature that no rational person could regard as an adequate account of the human being in full.

Immigration policy, it follows, doesn’t aim at making everyone an American, and it necessarily privileges the way of life shared by our citizens. It’s not even guided by some apolitical conception of “human rights.” Rights, after all, have to be secured politically by citizens willing to fight and die for them. And the loyal patriotism of the soldier is not the experience of the faux cosmopolitanism of some global elitist lacking in courage and commitment. There’s no universal solution—no egalitarian dogma—that determines the immigration policy of any particular republic.

Immigration policy should be not the result of detached cosmopolitan scripting—either from trendy experts or the alleged imperatives of the global competitive marketplace. It should flow from civic deliberation and compromise, by citizens and statesmen who know better than to defer unrealistically to some theory of justice. Global citizenship really is an oxymoron, and even St. Augustine made clear that membership in the City of God was not meant to dissolve the division of the world into a variety of political communities that command the allegiance of Christians as much as anyone else.

So, from Brownson’s view (and my own), Trump was right to remind us that “a country is a country,” and, in his inaugural, that it’s the solidarity of civic devotion that overcomes bigotry by uniting us all. But, for Brownson, that’s only part of the truth about who we are, and Trump was wrong (and rather ridiculous) to demand that our devotion to our country be absolute and total. He was wrong to say our policies should only be America (and Americans) first. Each American experiences civic solidarity, but also knows that he or she is more than a citizen.There’s also the solidarity we experience with the whole human race, both through religion and through reason. So we can’t be absolutely oblivious to universal rights, and it is, after all, through them as an inheritance of both Christianity and philosophy that we know that slavery is wrong everywhere. And it is through them that we’re connected to free men and women everywhere, that we experienced, with the help of the potent eloquence of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, solidarity with the Solidarity Party of Poland in its struggle against Communist tyranny. There is, as Chesterton observed, a Christian dimension to the Declaration’s egalitarian and universalistic contribution to our providential constitution.

Humanitarianism all alone abolishes all sorts of crucial human distinctions, but humanitarianism, nonetheless, expresses part of the truth about who we are. From this view, Trump’s error is to emphasize one form of solidarity at the expense of the other, lurching to the opposite extreme from “Obama, citizen of the world.” It remains the case that part of our greatness is the generous acceptance of refugees—providing homes for the homeless. It is also part of greatness is the unrivaled ability to politically assimilate diverse displays of cultural (including religious) identity. If we want to make American great again, let’s attend to who we are at our best.

The dissing of the egalitarian dignity shared by citizenship by the elitists on the left is one reason for the rise of Trump’s populism. But more telling, perhaps, is the alliance between those progressives on the left and the oligarchic libertarians on the right. Our libertarians tell us that citizenship is a form of cronyism and rent-seeking, and that it is offense against freedom to think of people as anything but individuals. And so our borders should be open to anyone one who wants to come to our country to work, and American workers shouldn’t be shielded from fair competition with individuals from throughout the world. Sure, wages might go down, but that’s the free market for you, and the eventual result will be more prosperity for all the individuals of the world. Our populism has been, in part, a reaction against flooding our country with guest workers who are here legally but ineligible for citizenship and averting our eyes from people being here illegally to work cheaply and compliantly—and without any effectual protection of their rights. Our populists are often right to make civic—someone might say civilized—claims against our complacent oligarchs.

After all, the oligarchic way is not the American way. People here should all be either citizens or on the path to citizenship, and they should be held accountable for civic assimilation. Permanent guest workers and undocumented aliens are incompatible with our romance of citizenship. And how many people—and what people—to admit into our country should be a political decision, one made after thinking about what’s best for American workers, our economy, our shared political life, our open spirit of egalitarian generosity or charity, and all the legitimate security concerns. To be concerned about, say, Muslim immigration on the security front is not to suffer from Islamophobia, but that’s not to say we should ever think of ourselves as a Christian nation at war with Islam as such. And the legitimate claims of loyal citizens resisting manipulation by a cosmopolitan elite in some undisclosed location (symbolized by Wall Street and Silicon Valley) aren’t xenophobia.

We have yet to have a national discussion on immigration that would produce a reasonable compromise flowing from the somewhat conflicting demands of our two forms of solidarity, not to mention other compromises based on security concerns and economic needs. That’s mostly the fault of the libertarian-progressivist elitist alliance that has slighted unreasonably the connection between the privileges of wealth and status and the civic responsibilities those privileged few share with all their fellow Americans. Maybe the main reason our country seems to be divided into two hostile bubbles is the withering away of shared civic experiences, from military service to socioeconomically diverse public schools (and churches) to somewhat participatory local government. The perception that our country is the thrall of a “culture war” between elitist globalists and xenophobic tribalists is rooted in the decline of the egalitarian republican dignity of shared citizenship, the principle of middle-class American assimilation.

Another form of civic irresponsibility, of course, has been the generation of unaccountable and imprudent policy through Executive Order by both Obama and Trump. Is it possible to hope for a Congress that would see what reason there is on both sides of our immigration controversy, and make its deliberation and compromise transparent to American citizens?  

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College.