White on Justice Kagan’s Dissent in Town of Greece

Over at the The Weekly Standard, Adam White picks up and expands insightfully on Justice Kagan’s comments about the nature of American citizens’ relation to their government, which I had noted here. I had not known about Teddy Roosevelt’s remarks concerning “hyphenated Americans.” Here’s a bit from Adam’s post:

On the other side of this spectrum, at its far extreme, we find Teddy Roosevelt’s famous criticism of “hyphenated Americans“:

What is true of creed is no less true of nationality. There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else.

Roosevelt reiterated a year later, “let us be Americans, nothing else.” Such sentiments find echoes, perhaps distant, in Justice Kagan’s dissent—at least when she urges each American citizen “performs the duties … of citizenship … not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.”

These arguments cut across familiar political lines; indeed, I suspect that all of us occasionally harbor thoughts on both sides of the spectrum. Conservatives might today share DeGirolami’s concerns about Kagan’s dissent (and Roosevelt’s concerns about “hyphenated Americans”); but they might also have bristled, just a few years ago, at Justice Sotomayor’s suggestion that as a justice she would benefit especially from “the richness of her experiences.”

And conservatives are not the only ones who likely have seen both sides of these questions. Indeed, note that Justice Sotomayor herself joined Kagan’s dissent, despite the notes strikingly at odds with her own account of how each judge’s own background affects the judge’s work.

These considerations cut across partisan and ideological lines because there is at least a kernel of truth at each extreme. Americans should not stand before their government exclusively as representatives of particular “little platoons.” But it would be just as mistaken to race to the other end of the spectrum and assert that Americans must strip themselves of all prior attachments and experiences before engaging the public arena—leaving us with, in Father Richard John Neuhaus words, a “naked public square.”

I am not saying that Kagan intended to imply that our public square is and ought to be “naked.” Far from it—if anything, I suspect that she was just a little bit too casual with her opinion’s specifics. (In that respect, she would be in good company lately.)

But even if Justice Kagan was just speaking a little too casually, her casual overstatement is an interesting one. Her offhand remark—and DeGirolami’s response—ought to challenge all of us to think more seriously about what citizenship and civic duty truly entails.

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