“Covenant was the binding together in one body politic of persons who assumed through unlimited promise, responsibility to and for each other, and for the common laws, under God. It was government of the people, by the people, for the people, but always under God, and it was not natural birth into natural society that made one a complete member of the people, but always the moral act of taking upon oneself, through promise, the responsibility of a citizenship that bound itself in the very act of exercising its freedom. For in the covenant conception the essence of freedom does not lie in the liberty of choice among goods, but in the ability to commit oneself for the future to a cause and in the terrible liberty of being able to become a breaker of promise, a traitor to the cause.”—Richard Niebuhr
To be an individual in the 21st century is to be confronted with more options for how to live than anyone else in the history of the world. Today, we can live almost anywhere, in whatever community we decide. We connect across continents with a click on a trackpad or post pictures on Instagram in the middle of the jungle. We define our own gender and personal pronouns. We buy throw pillows with slogans on them telling us to “pursue our own truth”—while selecting from a menu of options about what, exactly, that truth will be.
We have never had this much individual freedom to define who we are and how we will live.
This license has certainly given us more choice. But it is arguable whether these choices have made us freer, our relationships richer, our lives more meaningful, or our society better off. Rather, it seems the option to choose—rather than the substance, the weight, and the contemplation of the choice itself—has become the highest good. (One recalls the plaintive wail of Sex and the City’s Charlotte York, “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”) In pursuing our hyper-individualist, choice-saturated lives, we seem to have lost something fundamental.
To paraphrase conservative scholar Yuval Levin, pursuing society’s highest hope—our individual freedom to work, play, and live as we choose—has come at a cost. As society has sprung individuals free from oppressive social constraints—rightly, in many cases—we have diminished the bonds of family, community, work, and faith. In accepting a profusion of options in every part of our lives to meet every conceivable want, we have unraveled society’s foundational faith in institutions. In loosening or outright rejecting cultural conformity and national identity, we have deeply fractured our mutual trust—in society, and in one another.
The consequences of this are real and must be acknowledged. A sense of general anxiety, “unrootedness,” loneliness, and anomie have begun to define our age. New York Times columnist David Brooks diagnosed it more specifically:
Alienated young men join ISIS so they can have a sense of belonging. Isolated teenagers shoot up schools. Many people grow up in fragmented, disorganized neighborhoods. Political polarization grows because people often don’t interact with those on the other side. Racial animosity stubbornly persists.
This is the particular paradox of modernity—individual liberation was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. Instead, it’s led to a malaise in our politics and a pervasive sense of powerlessness in our society—a lonely, anxious dysfunction characteristic of our age.
The obvious question is: why? Why are people living in the most successful liberal democracy on Earth so discontented? Why has the prosperity generated by one of the world’s strongest economies not brought a proud sense of accomplishment rather than a general ethos of vague dissatisfaction and self-loathing? “Why,” as author Paul Rahe asks, “is there such fury, such disdain for the authorities whose traditions and discipline produced the luxury of such emotion in the first place?”
In other words, why do we rage so hard against the machine when the machine has brought us the means to live as freely as possible?
The “exhaustion of Modernism,” so voluminously described by sociologist Daniel Bell, has its roots not in the structural system of our government, but in the means by which we pursue societal happiness.
Even Bell, once a committed Socialist, somewhat reluctantly concluded “the system”—in his case, capitalism—was not ultimately to be blamed for the growing national miasma. That is because the system has less to do with how we live in relation to one another. Rather, citizenship, patriotism, “American-ness,” has far more to do with the choices we make than the wealth or abilities we have.
“We are moving into problems of modernity where public policy is not obviously relevant,” wrote Charles Murray as he sought to define the pursuit of modern happiness. The modern life has brought us material wealth, but also a need for a new understanding of how the world works—”a historical phenomenon on a grand scale for which Congress presumably has no quick fixes.”
That is because of the nature of our relationship to one another, which patterns the relationship we have between ourselves and our government. It’s relational, not structural.
As it turns out, people are most effective in pursuing their individual goals and identities when they are grounded in something larger than themselves—community, religion, family, or work, to name a few.
The challenge of our current era is to preserve, as one academic put it, “separability amid situatedness.” In other words, how do we maintain the individualism which our freedom cherishes with the social fabric that makes it possible? How do we go off and create and explore and revel in the independence required to push boundaries while maintaining the strong communities and robust cultural infrastructure that gives rise to these values and goals in the first place?
We propose before those ideas can even be discussed, an even more foundational concept must be reclaimed. And that is the idea of covenant.
What Is a Covenant?
Many Americans, at least those with a decent civics teacher, are likely familiar with the Lockean notion of a social contract. The idea is, as a citizenry, we give the government detailed authorities in exchange for certain services. When the government fails to uphold its end of the bargain, it is the right of the people to withdraw their consent. Contracts are temporary, temporal, and mutable.
A covenant is something entirely different. It is “a relationship of reciprocal concern, the commitment by each to give for the flourishing of the other, generously, not quid pro quo.” Put another way, “covenants have three interrelated concepts: permanence (even extending beyond the lives of the promising parties), unconditional love, and involvement (or witness) of God, or, at minimum, the larger community.”
In other words, a covenant involves choosing to join in long-term, mutual commitment, pursuits, responsibilities, and concern for the other. It is a commitment based upon principle rather than conditions and is carried out by a way of living rather than an execution of terms.
Couples who marry in a church make a covenant to one another and to God. Babies are baptized or dedicated in a covenant relationship with Christ, their parents, and the church congregation. Neighborhood covenants are formed when people living in community get together to form voluntary agreements to guide how they will live together.
In a national sense, covenants occur when individual citizens make commitments to their fellow citizens, their government, or to a greater, more sacred cause. As Brooks writes, “Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”
It is this freely given commitment, this care for our country, our family, and our neighbors, that forms the basis of our social fabric. Covenants are not compelled by the government. They arise out of a sense of love, commitment, patriotism, religious duty, or the simple, profound desire to live in community and care for one’s neighbor.
This foundational idea of living in thousands of tiny covenants has its roots in the goals of America’s founding. Our Constitution is nothing more than a “covenant of covenants,” defining the nature of our government as a relationship between equals rather than a hierarchy of the ruling and the ruled.
In that sense, covenants are more about responsibilities than rights— responsibility for ourselves and our fellow citizens. It is about stewardship of our communities, states, and nation. In short, it is about being a citizen bound in covenant with other citizens to build a stronger nation and create a better life for everyone. The preamble to the Constitution sums up the purpose of this covenant:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The writers and signers of our Constitution considered themselves part of a covenant with all Americans. “We the People”—not the government, not even the states—established the Constitution. The words “common,” “general,” and “ourselves” all confirm the understanding this covenant was written on behalf of all Americans.
In his essay, “The Forgotten Key to American Freedom,” Os Guinness reminds Americans of the unique nature of our republic’s founding and of the importance of keeping our covenant with each other and God.
If the notions of covenant and constitution are central to the founding of the American republic, then the health or malignancy of their condition must be central to any assessment of the State of the Union, for quite literally they constitute America. A founding creates a nation’s DNA, and establishes the lines along which it will develop until and unless the nation is defeated or its founding arrangements replaced. No one can hope to make America great again in any direction without understanding what made America great in the first place. America can neither be understood correctly, nor led well, unless the covenantal and constitutional character of American freedom is taken into account. Covenantalism [sic] and the essential responsibility it requires of citizens provide the missing key to restoring American freedom.
Fundamentally, a covenant is a promise. In declaring fealty to the equality and mutual striving of all men, the Constitution promises the American government will do its best to create a society in which everyone may equally aspire to happiness—“the lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole.”
The Aristotelian tradition of happiness generally defines lasting satisfaction as grounded in reality, in accord with virtue, and springing from four sources: family, vocation, community, and faith. If this seems too simplistic, try thinking of a source of lasting and justified satisfaction that doesn’t fit into one of those four. It’s hard.
But the other half of that promise is we, as individuals and as communities, will seek to ensure our own happiness—and, more broadly, that of others. Effort, self-donation, individual care, and commitment are required.
This need for individual participation, for people “to take trouble over important things,” is what makes the American covenant unique. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great observer of the American character, highlighted it back in 1835 as one of the critical nuances keeping America free and flourishing:
There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.” They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.
Lately, this “ownership” of and responsibility for our mutual liberties have been misconstrued as an entitlement. The covenant language of our Constitution has been replaced with contractual attitudes—”I’m here, I’m an American, my government owes me!” The sacrifices and vision of those who strained to build this nation are now treated as a trust fund to be accessed, rather than a tradition to be sustained.
Essayist Marilynne Robinson characterizes this distinction deftly in describing the growth of the phrase “taxpayers” to define Americans, rather than the term “citizen.”
There has been a fundamental shift in the American consciousness. The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of the shift, public assets have become public burdens. […]. While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes.
[…] Citizenship, which once implied obligation, is now deflated. It is treated as a limited good that ought to be limited further. Of course, the degree to which the Citizen and the Taxpayer ever existed, exist now, or can be set apart as distinct types is a question complicated by the fact that they are imposed on public consciousness by interest groups, by politicians playing to constituencies, and by journalism that repeats and reinforces unreflectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air. It can be said, however, that whenever the Taxpayer is invoked as the protagonist in the public drama, a stalwart defender of his own, and a past and potential martyr to a culture of dependency and governmental overreach, we need not look for generosity, imagination, wit, poetry, or eloquence. We certainly need not look for the humanism Tocqueville saw as the moving force behind democracy.
This is not at all what America, a country founded on a “covenant of covenants,” promises us. Before we can know what else to keep, we must relearn how to keep our covenants.
America’s Covenant: Two Parties Equally Yoked
“All men have equal rights,” wrote Edmund Burke, “but not to equal things.” In other words, your citizenship grants you nothing but a level playing field, what Abraham Lincoln called, “an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” We—as individuals and as part of our communities—must do the rest. This is where the idea of a covenant descends from the realm of the philosophical onto terra firma. Our Constitution establishes that all men, being equal, shall have an equal right to the pursuit of happiness. But what does that look like, in practice?
When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, philosophers from Aristotle to Charles Murray to the rapper Tupac Shakur have observed that happiness can’t be found in a vacuum. It occurs in the context of communities, where people’s core needs are met and their individuality developed. Indeed, before there is individual flourishing, there must be community flourishing. As Robert Nisbet wrote in The Quest for Community, it is the family, religious associations, and local community that “are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct.”
A good community is simply our larger constitutional covenant writ small. It is neighbors attending to neighbors, creating rules about how they will live together, caring for their shared goals and contributing individually to a shared ideal, a corporate whole. Burke called this mutual striving of neighbors the “little platoons.”
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of our country, and to mankind.
Social organization in communities is vital to individual flourishing and to the pursuit of happiness. It makes sense. Where else can you experience the greatest joys, sorrows, satisfactions, and general preoccupations of daily life but in your community?
The pursuit of happiness, then, comes when an individual is allowed to form a community: a little platoon of people voluntarily doing important things together. As Murray put it in his larger meditation on happiness and good government,
No one has to teach people how to pursue happiness. Unless impeded, people form communities that allow them to get the most satisfaction from the material resources they have. Unless impeded, they enforce norms of safety that they find adequate. Unless impeded, they develop norms of self-respect that are satisfying and realistic for members of that community[…]
The government’s side of the equation—its role in this covenant among citizens—is thus made clear: to create the “enabling conditions” for individuals to freely form communities and pursue meaning by freely choosing, risking, and cultivating rewards. In other words, to leave “the important things in life for people to do for themselves,” and protecting people from the roadblocks that would hinder them in those pursuits.
This covenant relationship becomes distorted when either side of it becomes coercive; when the government centralizes a solution to community problems, or when a majority faction of individuals uses the state to impose their vision of the good on the rest of society. Fundamentally, this distorts the balance of power in the covenant relationship and thus, the free pursuit of happiness.
As the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has formulated, people are happiest when they are able to balance challenge and skills. The possibility of failure is something centralized governments often seek to prohibit—but it is in the possibility of failure that the concept of “measuring up” resides. Take away the ability to fail and you take away the capacity to triumph, removing the ability to develop the self-respect that makes life meaningful.
Though it seems counterintuitive, a government that allows individuals to face and overcome challenge to some extent is one that facilitates the development of a mature citizenry able to pursue meaningful lives. Tocqueville put it another way: “Happiness is impossible unless people are left alone to take trouble over important things.”
A government keeping its covenant under the American Constitution is one with a stopping point; that limits what it does for people—not just because of budgets, but because humanity depends on the exercise of human potential.
People who keep their covenants nourish and sustain them. They give of themselves to their communities, each derived of small or large covenants, to care for one another’s well-being across income, social, and racial divides toward the larger purpose of protecting and promoting a collective commitment to individual liberty.
How Covenants Can Lift Us—and Replace the Forces Tearing Us Down
The distinction between a social contract—the idea that we are entitled to services as a condition of citizenship—and a social covenant—the belief that our citizenship is made up of thousands of individuals freely giving of themselves in community—has never been more central to our national dialogue.
The deep divisions in America today are caused, in large part, by people who don’t consider themselves in covenant with their fellow citizens or their government. Many see themselves in blind competition with others to get better placement for themselves in society and more resources from the government. Others have fallen prey to the false notion that to pursue social change, one most uproot and remake the system entirely.
All these distort the fundamental nature of the American covenant, which is cooperative rather than competitive, and, when implemented correctly, prioritizes the liberty of the individual to pursue his own happiness rather than regressing his potential to that of the mean.
But covenants also contain the seeds of social reform, a critical point missed by those who would upend America’s covenant rather than work within it. A covenant relationship seeks to better each person in it, to strive to be the best version of oneself—whether in individual relationships, community relationships, or, particularly, in the constitutional covenant Americans make with one another.
Indeed, the American founding was an affirmation of human beings’ potential to build the best of all possible earthly worlds. Bernard Bailyn surmised the founders’ optimism in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution:
The details of this new world were not as yet clearly depicted; but faith ran high that a better world than any that had ever been known could be built where authority was distrusted and held in constant scrutiny; where the status of men flowed from their achievements and from their personal qualities, not from distinctions ascribed to them at birth; and where the use of power over the lives of men was jealously guarded and severely restricted. It was only where there was this defiance, this refusal to truckle, this distrust of all authority, political or social, that institutions could express human aspirations.
But the founders were also distrustful of the innate human impulse toward self-interest. James Madison, specifically, warned against men collectively destroying their freedoms via factions—that is, “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Suppressing factions is not an option—because banning them or demanding everyone share the same views and opinions requires a totalitarian state. (Indeed, diversity of thought and preservation of free discourse in the public square is something we will touch on later as a critical value America must, without question, keep.)
The founders sought instead to create a Constitution that was the ultimate covenant—a dispersal of power among various branches, each with a contributing responsibility to the betterment of the other. No branch can exist independently, but each is interdependent and reliant on the others to, at times, sharpen, mollify, or encourage its exercise of its powers.
This is what the founders intended for individuals too. A representative government deriving its character from the people at once provides a forum for individuals to exercise their freedoms, as well as a requirement they seek to hold the government accountable to protecting the founders’ image of man: autonomous actors sharing equal dignity and rights, full of potential, and able to pursue happiness that accompanies the free working-out of his or her life.
In other words, the Constitution-as-covenant pushes us always to strive toward the “better angels of our nature,” to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase. It pushes us to become the best version of ourselves and our government a continual reflection of that aspiration.
This is at odds with the way many currently view the American covenant—be it the order of our communities, government, values, or traditions. Groups like Antifa heckle the police, belittle America’s history as racist, and deem our cherished symbols as patriarchal. Factions on the Left reject long-held American value systems as systemic obstacles to progress. Groups like Black Lives Matter and white supremacy groups on the alt-Right further seek to divide Americans into racial groups, suggesting some groups deserve different treatment than others.
All of this runs directly counter to how the American system was designed to work. Justice, equality, opportunity—all these ends are noble; in fact, we could call them covenantal pursuits. But to pursue these ends by blowing up the system that made their attainment possible is short-sighted.
A Continual Betterment
The American constitutional covenant demands our continual betterment as individuals and a society. The key to reform is the reapplication of our unchanging ideals to our ever-changing times. The equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unifying—indeed, universal— principles. The fact that injustice persists does not mean justice is a lie; it means we need to constantly recommit ourselves to it. Reform is only sustainable when it is an inclusive reassertion of our covenant.
The civil rights movement accomplished some of the greatest social triumphs of the 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr., who inspired many of the movement’s victories, did so by appealing to the very virtues on which the country’s covenant is based. King considered our founding documents to be “promissory notes” in need of redemption.
“All we say to America,” he said in 1968, “is ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’” He went on:
If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.
By appealing to our constitutional virtues, King made the case that the injustices being done to black Americans were the result of America’s failure to keep its covenant—not the result of the covenant itself.
To be clear, King used more than just words to achieve much-needed social reform. He preached a strategy of non-violence, but one using his constitutional rights to their fullest; he spoke, wrote, assembled, marched, boycotted, peacefully protested, and rallied countrywide. He did so while facing terror, violence, unjust imprisonment, mobs, dogs, and tear gas. Yet King and his movement never once declared America—the country that had perpetuated generations of injustice against blacks—as a failure, as an effigy to be burned, or as a failed system to be dismantled.
“I criticize America because I love her,” King said in a speech about the Vietnam War, “and because I want to see her stand as the moral example of the world.”
King continued to lift the American covenant as something not yet fully achieved. His speeches reminded Americans our shared constitutional covenant declares all men equal, and until that was true in practice and in law, our shared commitment to America meant we all had a responsibility to make it right.
For King, his movement was as much about all Americans as it was about black Americans. “Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, ‘White Power!’ when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power,” he said in a speech in 1967.
Indeed, King’s late wife, Coretta Scott King, characterized her husband’s legacy as a mutual commitment of all people—not just black Americans—to America’s betterment. “It is a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation,” she said of the federal holiday which honors her husband.
Whether you are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, whether you are a Caucasian or Asian-American, you are part of the great dream Martin Luther King, Jr. had for America. This is not a black holiday; it is a peoples’ holiday. And it is the young people of all races and religions who hold the keys to the fulfillment of his dream […]. The holiday celebrates his vision of ecumenical solidarity, his insistence that all faiths had something meaningful to contribute to building the beloved community.
King’s words and actions were at times harshly critical of the country, the government, and its social policies. But at no point did he lose hope the nation could be made better. For King, it was not about upending the system, despite how terribly it treated him. It was about fulfilling the vision of America as a nation of equals—for black Americans and for everyone.
His oft-repeated quote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” has been used by the Left as a cudgel against their perceived opponents, as a means to justify violent protests and rhetoric that seeks to de-legitimize America as a country rather than to improve it. Those who do so miss the key context of King’s quote which is found in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
In other words, despite our differences, we are all in this together. Keeping our covenants requires us to do so across neighborhoods, political affiliations, religious differences, racial differences, and social class. Dragging down one class or one group and dismissing them as unworthy of the American ideal or the reverse, elevating one group for special treatment over another—whatever the reason—leads to the same outcome. We all suffer.
Where Modern Movements Fail
Compare King’s soaring appeals to unimpeachable sources—the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—to contemporary protest movements, which seem to value the act of protest and destruction over the articulation of an actual unifying and sustainable vision.
Justifying violence, physical harm, foul language, and destruction of property in the name of “social justice” or “equality” completely misses the point. Members of Antifa and other violent groups justify violent behavior by seeking to reject the system they feel has betrayed them. There is no appeal to a higher ideal, nor is there a unifying message that seeks to restore America to a shared vision.
Voicing grievances against the government is a long American tradition, but, as King demonstrated, sustainable change comes from working within our shared ideals—not demanding they be destroyed and rebuilt in an externally-imposed image.
And it’s not just King’s example we can point to. Movements that are critical of America, but ones whose criticism resides within a deep sense of patriotism and adherence to America’s shared values, have given root to many important and lasting social changes. Historian Michael Kazin summarizes a few:
Thomas Paine, born in England, praised his adopted homeland as an “asylum for mankind”—which gave him a forum to denounce regressive taxes and propose free public education. Elizabeth Cady Stanton co-authored a “Declaration of Rights of Women” on the centennial of the Declaration of Independence and argued that denying the vote to women was a violation of the 14th Amendment. The Populists vowed to “restore the Government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’ with which class it originated” through such methods as an eight-hour day and nationalization of the railroads. In the 1930s, sit-down strikers proudly carried American flags into the auto plants they occupied and announced that they were battling for “industrial democracy.” Twenty years later, Martin Luther King Jr. told his fellow bus boycotters, “If we are wrong—the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong” and proclaimed that “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.
One could list analogous statements from pioneering reformers such as Jane Addams and Betty Friedan, industrial unionists John L. Lewis and Cesar Chavez, and the gay liberationist Harvey Milk. Without patriotic appeals, the great social movements that weakened inequalities of class, gender, and race in the United States—and spread their message around the world—never would have gotten off the ground.
Moreover, as Kazin points out, “it is difficult to think of any American radical or reformer who repudiated the national belief system and still had a major impact on U.S. politics and policy.”
Even the movement against the Vietnam War remained on the fringes when it was led by Abbie Hoffman and marked by flag burning, waving Viet-Cong symbols, and violence by the Weather Underground. It wasn’t until the movement drew in the leadership of such Liberal patriots as Walter Reuther and Eugene McCarthy—men who truly believed in the values of America as much as they believed in their cause—that the country began to take it seriously.
Successful and lasting social change comes from working within our covenantal system rather than attempting to upend it. Our nation has a long tradition of being bettered by people who understood this. After all, how can one seriously engage in a conversation about improving America, or protecting her, if the nation does not hold a privileged place in one’s heart? As Russell Kirk pointed out, “Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light.”
Keeping Our Covenants
Those who love America have always fought to change it when it fails to live up to its founding vision. This is America’s covenant. But we are in danger of losing it—not just to those who reject its covenant traditions, but to a government that seeks to displace the core functions of communities, remove the risk inherent in individual striving, and take unto itself the tending of important things.
America, as a covenant, requires us to set aside what divides us— creed, class, race, religion—and instead focus on what it is that unites us: our shared citizenship and shared striving to make our communities, our country, and our world a better place.
During the Civil War, the greatest period of national fragmentation we have yet faced, Abraham Lincoln again and again appealed to the shared love of country, and to America’s long tradition of striving to meet its aspirational vision.
They [the founders] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
Our social fabric can only be repaired by millions of Americans deciding to reach across boundaries and make the local covenants that are the tradition of our shared, collective life. In an interview in 2016, Sen. Cory Booker (D.-N.J.) articulated this by distinguishing between mere tolerance and the patriotism that defines our American covenant. Tolerance, he said, means, “I’m going to stomach your right to be different, but if you disappear off the face of the earth I’m no worse off.”
Patriotism, on the other hand, means “love of country, which necessitates love of each other, that we have to be a nation that aspires for love, which recognizes that you have worth and dignity and I need you. You are part of my whole, part of the promise of this country.”
Fundamentally, America’s covenant is a promise of continual striving, of a constant aspiration to improve ourselves as communities and a nation—improvements which will then be reflected in our government. But our larger covenants must be sealed every day by the thousands of tiny covenants we make in our local sphere, within our communities. To return to Burke, we must learn to love our little platoons. That is, before we can grow our wider public affection (love of country), we must first cultivate our smaller loyalties to family and community.
The benefits of citizenship require us as individuals to keep our covenants. This means we must deliberately choose to engage one another as fellow travelers, to weigh in with thoughtfulness and passion rather than to opt out with a social media riposte or a tawdry meme, and to build up those individuals and institutions around us rather than to dismiss their legitimacy and tear them down for some historical betrayal.
In a letter to his friend David Hartley in 1787, Thomas Jefferson called this notion of America “our experiment.” It remains so. America was never an immutable concept written in stone as a guide for the ruling to govern the ruled. Rather, as a covenant among equal citizens, America as a concept has the room to grow, change, evolve, and be made better, to pursue what James Madison called “a new and more noble course.”
Ultimately, the American covenant asks that before we claim anything for ourselves, we give of ourselves first. The first thing to keep is our covenant.