What is the right model for thinking about countries? Are they “like” people, who start off in infancy, then move through adolescence and adulthood into old age? That model sounds reasonable at first blush—we talk about the “birth” of nations all the time—and logical, but that kind of thinking seems necessarily also to impute an unavoidable future of inevitable decline to even the healthiest of the world’s nations. And decline is not the worst of it: there is also the detail to consider that human life is inexorably finite, and that eventually the curtain comes down on even the most robust among us. Some would argue, I’m sure, that that model, dour implications and all, is exactly how countries live…and eventually die. The world—or, rather, the world’s history books—are filled, after all, with the stories of once-mighty nations that felt invincible in their heydays—but which eventually just stopped existing, even (like the old Soviet Union) without being defeated militarily in battle. Nor is there any paucity of nations to consider that were once world powers but which feel as though they eventually declined into healthy or unhealthy old age.
Or are other models more right for the history of nations and peoples? To ask the same question differently, are countries specifically unlike individuals in that they have the ability (which human beings lack but would all love to have) to morph forward from iteration to iteration specifically without facing the inevitability of decline and demise? Holland, for example, was once a mighty world power that controlled a huge empire with land holdings on five continents. Clearly, those days are long gone—all that’s left these days are a few islands in the Caribbean—yet it would seem odd to describe the Netherlands as a senescent nation merely because it was once immeasurably bolder militarily, more powerful, and more influential than it is today. More reasonable, I think, would be to say that Holland hasn’t declined as much as it has morphed forward into a new stage of national existence, into a new version of itself. Nor does it seem all that logical to argue that the death of the imperialist impulse that led nations to consider it reasonable to seize huge swaths of other people’s property and unilaterally to declare them part of a vast, far-flung empire must inevitably imply that the once-imperialist countries themselves too must eventually collapse. So if today’s Netherlands, with an annual Gross Domestic Product of more than $840,000,000,000 (which figure reflects a per capita rate of more than $50,000 per citizen, a rate higher than our own nation’s, Germany’s and the U.K.’s) isn’t reasonably understood as the doddering version of yesterday’s Dutch Empire, then perhaps we should be talking about metamorphosis rather than decline, about national growth forward specifically not characterized—or not inevitably characterized—by the inevitability of national decline and death.
All of these thoughts occurred to me this week as I perused an article in the paper this week that caught my attention, one in which it was noted that our country crossed an impressive, very interesting milestone last week when Governor Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate. It seems that, for the first time in history, there is not a single white, Protestant man or woman among the top governing officials, or perspective governing officials, of our country, considering in that category the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of both parties, the nine justices of the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate majority leader. At first, it seemed unimaginable to me that that could be the case. I quickly made my own hand list, letting Wikipedia supply the details I wasn’t sure about. But my own research yielded the same results: the above-listed group of fifteen is made up of nine Catholics, three Jews, two Mormons, and one black Protestant. That’s all of them…and, just as the article said, not a white Protestant among them. Even granting that the president himself is, at least genetically speaking, as white as he is black, he is still far from the white Protestant model that held sway not for decades or for scores of years, but for the entire span of our country’s existence. Until now.
As recently as the 1952 presidential election year, that group of fifteen would have included only one individual who was not a white Protestant man, Felix Frankfurter. And although there has not been an election year since 1928 in which the entire group of fifteen has been white, Protestant, and male, that surely was the case for the 150 years of American history that preceded that year. I realize that one can make a reasonable argument that Abraham Lincoln, whose religious beliefs have been endlessly discussed, was not a “real” Protestant, but, at the end of the day, he worshipped in Protestant churches (without actually joining any) and regularly spoke in religious terms that most of us would easily identify with Protestant beliefs. One could make a similar argument about Thomas Jefferson, who is often vaguely labelled as a “Deist” (that is, as someone who believes in God without actually espousing any specific religious doctrine), but that too is a bit overstated in that he played a role in governing the Episcopal Church near Monticello and regularly referred to himself as a Christian (“"To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian….”) Other than the two of them, only four presidents weren’t or aren’t formal members of Protestant Churches while in office (Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, and President Obama), but all had ties to Protestant Churches and self-defined as Protestant Christians. Other than Andrew Johnson, every Vice President of the United States except for the incumbent has been a member of a Protestant church. (I hardly have to bother adding that all have also been white and male.)
I suppose I could have seen it coming. Maybe even I should have, but this detail that we have crossed the line into a world of American political leadership in which no one at all is a white man affiliated with a Protestant church caught me completely unawares. Nor do I want to interpret this development by viewing it through self-conscious Jewish eyeglasses and lauding it based on the assumption that the more multicultural our leaders are, the more tolerant their leadership will be, and thus also the less likely to find acceptable any traces of prejudice, including anti-Semitism. That probably is true. In fact, I think it probably definitely is true, but that’s not the sole point to consider. Instead, I’d like to use this detail in our evolving American story as a springboard for considering how nations grow.
For the most part, social policy moves ahead imperceptibly as people gradually, sometimes over decades, morph into more sophisticated versions of their former selves. Ideas that are commonplace fall away almost glacially slowly, but then are suddenly gone almost to the point of unimaginability just years after they were almost universally held. The notion of bus stations having separate washrooms for black people and white people is a good example of something that now seems so difficult to imagine so as almost to sound more quaint than malign, something like putting sinners in stocks in town squares to allow them to atone in public for their misdeeds. The idea that it is reasonable consciously and intentionally to pay women who have the same jobs as men lower wages than their male counterparts, I think, falls in the same category of an idea that was once widely considered rational, but which now sounds beyond peculiar. Even the notion that there could be societal merit in pressuring gay people to devote lifetimes to making believe they are straight, despite the misery that kind of pretense must almost invariably entail, seems impossible to square with our basic American commitment to tolerance and reasonability. Yet that was indeed how people felt, and for a very long time!
And that is how I think countries too grow. Unlike with respect to people, where growth inevitably leads at least eventually to demise, nations and societies can morph into healthier versions of themselves without the experience necessarily leading to decline. There was a time when it would have seemed impossible to imagine a black family in the White House. There was a time when people spoke self-consciously about Jewish or Catholic seats on the Supreme Court, as though neither group could or would ever be represented without a seat being reserved for them in advance. And there was a time when the thought of the political leadership of our country not being affiliated with mainline Protestant churches would have seemed as unlikely as the political leadership of Russia not being Communist. Yet we have cleared all those hurdles not because we are losing our sense of what it means to be an American as we slowly decline into national decrepitude, but because we have managed to maintain a lively, ongoing national debate about ideas that has allowed us to grow forward into an ever-more-sophisticated version of ourselves and our nation.
In people, there is always an ominous, slightly dark, aspect to growth. But in terms of society, growth does not imply inevitable degeneration. The fact that we have in our lifetimes crossed a line that we would have seemed not just unlikely to our parents or grandparents ever to cross, but one that would have seemed to them totally uncrossable—that is not a sign of moral deterioration or societal decay, but rather one of healthy growth towards an idea we all profess to hold dear: the ideal of a society in which people are evaluated based on the morality of their behavior and on their ethical worth as productive members of society, not on the color of their skin, their gender, or the spiritual path they follow. It’s a whole new world out there…and, in many ways, a far better one than the one we inherited from previous generations.