You have almost certainly read G. K. Chesterton quoted as saying that America is “a nation with the soul of a church” (1). The line is a favorite among belletristic conservatives who are themselves apostles in the Church of America, and who would not mind leaving their readers with the impression that they and the Sage of Common Sense have said that America is essentially Christian.
Like so many of the impressions with which belletristic conservatives would not mind leaving their readers, this one would be more than a little false.
Chesterton said that America was “a nation with the soul of a church” because it was not a natural, historical nation, formed over time by blood and custom, but was a theoretical nation formed around a creed. It was, indeed, “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” and therefore the only nation formed by “religious and not racial selection.” Like the Church that had gone before it, America was engaged in the project of “making a new nation literally out of any old nation that comes along,” and it was altogether confident in its ability to “Americanize the Kamchatkan and the Hairy Ainu” (2).
Not Christianize, mind you, Americanize. The creed of this “nation with the soul of a church” is not the Nicene Creed, which means that this “nation with the soul of a church” is a rival church.
And it is not in any honest sense of the word a nation, since confessing the same creed is not at all the same thing as descending from the same forefathers. The phrase “creedal nation” is a blatant oxymoron, because to say that a nation is a church is as asinine as to say that a baby is a Bible.
“Religious selection” is one thing; “racial selection” is another. The first sort results in a church, the second sort in a nation. I am not here ranking the importance of membership in a church or a nation, only insisting that they are two different things. Confusing them is not high-mindedness. It is wooly thinking or hoodwinking.
That which has the soul of a church is a church, just as that which has the soul of a man is a man and that which has the soul of a knife is a knife. Soul means essence, nature, quiddity. The soul of something is what it is. Thus, a fork with the soul of a knife is a dishonest knife that is for some reason disguised as a fork. A man with the soul of a demon is a dishonest demon that is for some reason disguised as a man.
And “a nation with the soul of a church” is a dishonest church that is for some reason disguised as a nation.
Which is why Chesterton should have written:
“America is a church disguised as a nation so as not to trigger the alarms in rival churches.”
Of course, if he had written this, I do not suppose those belletristic conservatives would roll him out as one of their chums.
- K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922), p.12
- pp. 8, 12, 14.