America Has Tried Three ‘Narratives of Belonging.’ None Worked as Planned.

Written by on July 4, 2021

How a sober look at failed projects of nationalism can help Christians envision a better way.

Three days after polls closed on one of the most divisive elections in recent American history, Joe Biden delivered a victory speech intended to unite a fractured nation. “I’ve always believed we can define America in one word: possibilities,” Biden said. Yet more than six months later, a majority of Republicans still insist the 2020 election was not conducted fairly, and just fewer than one-third of all Americans don’t consider Biden to be the legitimately elected president. Samuel Goldman’s new book, After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, helps to place both Biden’s attempts at unity and national partisan polarization in a broader historical context.

After Nationalismis a gripping, fast-paced, and probing study into how American political leaders and thinkers—ranging from John Jay to Abraham Lincoln to Fredrick Douglass to Dwight Eisenhower—have debated the essence of American identity and what binds the nation together. Goldman, a political scientist at George Washington University, tells a history of repeated failed attempts by these American elites to sustain compelling “narratives of belonging.” He offers three symbols, or myths, of American identity that progress chronologically: covenant, crucible, and creed. Drawing inspiration from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), which identified fundamentally different conceptions of virtue “in which people mean different things by the same words,” After Nationalism points to a similar ambiguity surrounding the word nationalism.

Like MacIntrye, Goldman does not just describe a situation but also suggests a path forward. Instead of endorsing another attempt to define …

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