Peter Augustine Lawler
Each American knows he or she is a citizen, but also more than a citizen. Solidarity with all human beings—through a universal conception of rights and of citizenship in the City of God—means that our world isn’t irredeemably divided into bands of friends out to rob their enemies blind.
The future belongs to the leader and the party that combine the legitimate demands—both for jobs and respect—of our populists with our traditional principles of liberty. That’s the party that builds a coalition that properly balances civic equality with personal freedom. Neither party, for now, is getting that job done.
That’s one reason I was one of 11 citizens of Floyd County, Georgia, who voted for Mike Maturen, the candidate of the American Solidarity Party. I’m not saying I agree with much of that party’s platform, but it was a lot better than nothing this time. Better to be for someone than merely “Never Trump.” Now that Trump is president, of course, it’s the task of us all to help him be the best possible president, and that includes bringing out the best in what he’s said and done so far. We have no choice, in fact, but to be inspired by the possibility that he might become better than he’s ever been before.
One reason I voted for Maturen is the very idea of “solidarity.” Solidarity shouldn’t be confused with statist “collectivism.” It was the name of the party in Poland that resisted the totalitarian efforts of the Communists to destroy all relational life that existed between the isolated individual and the omni-competent state. Solidarity is about the freedom to be a citizen, a parent, a creature, and a dignified participant in economic life.
A virtue that accompanies solidarity rightly understood is subsidiarity—which Americans might call libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. Our freedom from government is not to be lonely individuals who whimsically maximize our preferences; it’s about being embedded in relational institutions—such as the family, church, college, and various other forms of friendly community—that are always deformed when politicized. Being a relational person has to be distinguished from losing one’s identity as part of the collectivity that Rousseau called the “general will.” It’s in responsible and loving relationships with others that personal identity is formed. None of us finds a secure and stable identity by looking within or being a flexible “role player,” a displaced person dealing with others only through the media of contract and consent.
Generally speaking, it’s best if we defer on the details of ordinary life to the “intermediary” associations and institutions that stand between the government and the individual. It is there, after all, that most of us find the love and work that makes life worth living, that ensure that personal significance is a cherished given. Subsidiarity is the opposite of the freedom that’s just another word for nothing left to lose, the freedom of the utterly displaced or disconnected person at home nowhere and with no one in particular.
Trump was right, in his inaugural address, to emphasize the solidarity that links together all Americans as citizens, the relational antidote to inevitable inequalities of status, wealth, and power. And he’s right to criticize our cognitive elites—our meritocracies based on productivity—for their inability to connect their personal privileges with civic responsibilities, as well as for their condescending efforts to script from a cold distance (say, Silicon Valley) the lives of those not of their kind. Trump, at his best, is right to oppose the kind of cosmopolitan elitism that divides our people into winners and losers, into those on the right and wrong side of history.
But Trump is virtually silent, in a very un-Christian way, about the solidarity we do or should enjoy, in some measure, with all persons under God. Citizenship, without some attention to human rights, disintegrates into tribalism. Each American knows he or she is a citizen, but also more than a citizen. Solidarity with all human beings—through a universal conception of rights and of citizenship in the City of God—means that our world isn’t irredeemably divided into bands of friends out to rob their enemies blind.
There is something irreducibly particular—and something undeniably universal—about the American romance of the citizen.
So in some ways America and Americans first makes sense; in others, the priority should be the human rights we all share. And that tension, for example, should guide a welcoming and generous—but far from unbounded—policy on immigration. America at its best, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, is all about the romance of the equal citizen. But America is also “a home for the homeless,” as Chesterton adds, insofar as American citizenship, in principle, is open to everyone who accepts what he calls the creed of our Declaration of Independence. That principle doesn’t, of course, mean opening our borders, because how to moderate our principle with a billion practical considerations is a decision that’s properly the result of civic deliberation. There is something irreducibly particular—and something undeniably universal—about the American romance of the citizen.
Trump has to make his solidarity tent—his circle of supporters—bigger or more inclusive, but not at the expense of genuine concern for those too often dismissed as being on the wrong side of history. And without thinking, as some of our multicultural libertarians and corporate cosmopolitans do, that citizenship is just another form of rent seeking. The citizen must be distinguished from the unencumbered individual—or a web of production and consumption.
Here’s one thing Trump might be uniquely positioned to do. He might show solidarity with gay and lesbian Americans by loudly affirming what’s quite obvious: He’s not about rolling back the Court decision that they understood to make them fully accepted citizens in their country. And he might reassure Evangelical (and other religiously observant) Americans that the gain for the gays need not be a loss for them, a way of marginalizing and even ostracizing them. Presidential leadership can reverse or at least deeply mitigate recent judicial and bureaucratic efforts to script the lives of believers, and churches—along with their educational and health-care institutions—will be free to organize themselves for thought and action without intrusive interference.
What our liberals and progressives forget, of course, is that both citizenship and “organized religion” in our country have been forces supporting egalitarianism. It’s the shared experiences of citizens—from military service through socioeconomically diverse public schools and active local government—that have been American antidotes to vast disparities of wealth and status. And it’s religion—by teaching us the equality of all men under God—that has been an antidote to the indifferent individualism emerging from our devotion to the sovereignty of the individual. Mr. Jefferson wrote eloquent words in opposition to slavery as a violation of rights, but he never did much about it, and our country had to be prodded into action by the neo-Puritanical abolitionists. In the same way, Martin Luther King deployed the spirit of religion—sampling not only our original Puritans but the theologians Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber—to persuade “white moderates” not to put a timetable on the equality of Americans under the law. And it’s in our churches—from the Catholics with their urban parochial schools to low-church Protestants (see the film The Apostle)—that view all of us as unique and irreplaceable creatures equally under God. We can’t forget, after all, that the opposition to Roe v. Wade is all about the equal right of everyone made in God’s image to live.
Who can deny that those in each bubble…have bigoted and ignorant prejudices when it comes to the lives of those outside their circle of knowledgeable concern and confidence?
Consider, just for a moment, the insistent egalitarian claims of the key Trump voters, those members of union families who voted for Obama but flipped to Trump in those rust-belt states. Their nostalgia was for the unions that, they believe, allowed them the “family wage” required to live a dignified relational life as “skilled labor.” It’s also for the institutional religion that was the source of much of their relational life—from schools to, say, the Knights of Columbus. And it’s also for the strongly patriotic conception of American citizenship that accorded them equal respect, a deserved respect they so often lived out through military service. Trump’s appeal, at its height, is to protect dignified jobs (meaning, to begin with, not the Amazon warehouse or Walmart), our churches, and our country as a country.
Solidarity, please notice, can be in the service not only of equality but of diversity, of a genuinely accepting country that has room for both same-sex personal relationships—institutionalized in various ways, beginning with the institution of marriage—and our singular moral, intellectual, and religious diversity found in our religious and educational institutions. There will, to be sure, be a clash of cultures—or even countercultures. But the greatness of America is having that clash civilized by civic unity. And conceivably under Trump, the courts and bureaucrats might step back enough to allow those issues that can be solved through “cultural diversity” to be addressed through civic deliberation—beginning, maybe, with abortion.
There’s a lot of solidarity work to be done here to put back together, if only to a point, a country that has in many ways fractured or come apart. The work will turn out to be hugely tough: Our nation is divided into tough hostile “bubbles” of roughly the same size, in part because we’ve become so short on experiences shared in common—from military service to the socioeconomically diverse public school. Who can deny that those in each bubble—both the one occupied mainly by skilled labor and the other mainly by college-educated professionals—have bigoted and ignorant prejudices when it comes to the lives of those outside their circle of knowledgeable concern and confidence?
Is Trump really up for this tough work? There’s little to no evidence so far. But every American has the duty to accept the rightful authority of our president, and to pray that he will receive the grace to be better than he’s even been before.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, editor of Modern Age and author, most recently, of American Heresies and Higher Education