I’ve written about America’s regional differences and similarities—physical and cultural. A difficult question nags. Short of a defensive war, what defining aspect of America can put the United back into the United States?

I’ve exchanged thoughts with an American friend in Poland, who teaches university classes on American life. We agree that “freedom” is too broad a concept. 

Also, I suspect that many people are uncomfortable with freedom, others’ and their own. Making constant choices—from menus or on ballots—can be exhausting. Political and social issues can become a heavy burden. Some people want houses of worship or government leaders (or would-be leaders) to decide for them. Alas, the quest for simplicity and orderliness can lead down the slippery slope towards authoritarianism and reverence for “the man on the white horse” claiming to have all the answers.

Sadly, the most authoritarian rulers tout the freedom they give their obedient populace: relief from making choices.

So, let me propose a different, though not new, definition of America to bind us all. It doesn’t urge us to ignore our differences but to overcome them.

Start with the concept that America is not a traditional “nation,” which political scientists often define as an ethnic population in a geographic location. Rather, America is a “state”—a political construct defined by citizenship of both the home-born and naturalized immigrants. 

Yes, “nationalism” still fits in.

Jill Lepore (“A New Americanism,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019) distinguishes between liberal American nationalism—civic, inclusive—and illiberal nationalism—ethnic, here claiming power for white Christians. Regarding liberal nationalism defining our “state,” Lepore cites the 19th-century American historian George Bancroft. “The origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine; of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.”

America is not a melting pot but a quilt. “Real” Americans can share the common culture while treasuring their ethnic or regional roots. They can display any color skin, worship in any way—or not—celebrate any holiday, speak with any American accent or one reflecting a different first language.

Americans who’ve circled the wagons to define white-Christianity as true “American ethnicity” turn against the Bible they claim to be inerrant.

Genesis 1:26 states, “And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” This verse embraces all humanity. Leviticus 19:18 commands, “Love your fellow [neighbor] as yourself.” Leviticus 19:34 expands on “neighbor“: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

America can be defined as a “state-nation.” This differs from much of the world, although immigration has taken the West in this direction. Citizenship is open to anyone regardless of ethnicity. The “state-nation” declares: Difference isn’t bad. It’s just difference.

So, here’s to freedom, which is to be valued. And also to the humility enabling us to see all our fellow citizens as deserving equal respect. The wellbeing, even the continuing existence, of the United States depends on us overcoming the nationalistic demons of our nature.

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  1. Linda Connelly on May 17, 2024 at 10:33 am

    Bravo Dave. Well said and so important! Looking forward to see you on June 10th at the Giants game. Linda Connelly

    • David Perlstein on May 17, 2024 at 11:20 am

      Thanks, Linda. Getting together and catching up should be much fun.

  2. Joan Sutton on May 18, 2024 at 7:18 am

    So well said, David!

    • David Perlstein on May 18, 2024 at 7:58 am

      Thank you, Joan.

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