On Being a Good American

by Daniel Foster

Charlie has an article on the homepage today defending John Sununu, in the abstract at least, on the idea that there is such a thing as being a (good) American, and that this is something one can learn. (Remember, Sununu’s walked-back line was about how he wished President Obama would “learn” how to be an American). Charlie’s point — far more controversial than it ought to be — is that being an American in good standing has to do with more than the conditions of one’s birth or the disposition of one’s naturalization paperwork. There is no Belgian Idea, or Belgian Dream, Charlie writes, but there are American ones, and understanding and internalizing them is constitutive of American-ness.

Charlie makes the point that the existence and character of the civics test prospective citizens must take proves that being an American has real, normative content. For instance, one of the regular questions on the test asks which economic system the United States enjoys, and the correct answer is “capitalism.” Charlie argues that, surely, this at least strongly implies that capitalism — or at least the principles of limited government that make capitalism the only compatible economic system — is a fundamental part of the American Idea, and that embracing capitalism is thus a fundamental part of being a Good American. With an important caveat, I basically agree with Charlie, and would go even further. Here is the oath of allegiance prospective U.S. citizens must take:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God

So, not only does our oath of citizenship call on us to support the Constitution, it calls on us to defend it. Not only defend it, but defend it with arms. Not only to defend it with arms, but to take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. That gives a pretty strong indication that being a Good American requires embracing our founding document — and all the follows from it.

Which brings me to the caveat. What the Constitution means is, of course, essentially contested, which implies that what it means to be a “good American” is essentially contested, as well. But that’s besides the point. We don’t need to have a definitive answer to the question of what it means to be a good American. For starters, it’s enough to note that being a good American means something.

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