Is There an American National Character?
There’s an old joke that goes like this. In heaven, the French are the cooks, the English are the police, the Italians are the lovers, and the Germans organize everything. In hell, the English are the cooks, the French are the police, the Germans are the lovers, and the Italians organize everything.
These are, of course, merely generalizations that do not excuse prejudging others on the basis of their ethnicity. But there is an element of truth in each generalization that makes the joke funny.
Many years ago, as a student, I had an opportunity to live in Europe for a while and heard a lot of criticism of the US. Almost daily I heard: “the U.S. is like this;” or “the U.S. always does that;” “what the U.S. really wants is such and such.” And inevitably the general characterizations always struck me as wrong. I often felt like interjecting: “No, that’s not us!” Usually, however, I held my peace.
But incidents such as those started me thinking. How would I circumscribe the national character of the U.S.? Is there really an overriding National feature that is uniquely American? After pondering that question for quite a while, it seemed to me that there is such a characteristic and that its nature helps explain why it is so often misread as something else. I find that overriding characteristic in the US is extreme competitiveness. That, needless to say, is often mistaken for hostility. What comes across to people not raised with this American ethos is “We will beat you at anything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s war, business, productivity – and charity as well!” And this is usually taken to imply that Americans think they’re better than everyone else.
Nowhere else that I have been in all the years since that first European stay (15 countries and counting), appears to be so clearly infected as the US with the belief that: for any issue whatever, everyone is either a winner or a loser and there can only be one winner.
Now there surely are circumstances under which it’s appropriate that we are called upon to do our best and have our best judged by comparison to everyone else’s best; in games, for example. But there is a huge difference between playing a game for fun, and playing a game as though our personal worth (and that of our opponent) hangs in the balance. There is also a difference between trying to do one’s best in the work that earns our living, and doing one’s best to make everyone else look inferior. The difference, in each case, is precisely the core of the Christian ethic: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The commandment of love works for the whole of life, while “win at all costs” is a disaster in a marriage, a family, a school, a church, a charity, and, yes, even in a business.
One of the best-known defenders of the ethic of competition was the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. It was his position that all people are naturally in competition with everyone else all the time and in every respect. That is what he called everyone’s “natural” condition. He described this condition in a phrase he made famous: homo homini luipus(man is a wolf to man). Hobbes saw nothing ethically wrong with that condition, though he had to admit that it made life “solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.”
But the Christian religion sees plenty wrong with that condition and depicts it as the consequence of sin. Instead of “defeat your neighbor in everything” Christ demands that we love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Rather than seeing all of life as a contest and every person a winner or a loser, it sees our lives as properly lived when we obey God’s calling
for us – whatever that may be. Instead of esteeming only those who are in the public eye as “real people,” our dear Lord’s example showed that we are to consider ourselves the servants of all.
John Calvin once eloquently summed up the Christian attitude this way:
Therefore, lest all things be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, [God] has assigned distinct duties to each [person] in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits,
He has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings.[Everyone’s] mode of life, therefore is a kind of station assigned to him by the Lord, that he may not always be driven about at random… free from the impulse of rashness, he will not attempt more than his calling justifies, knowing it is unlawful to overleap the prescribed bounds.
He who is obscure will not decline to cultivate a private life, that he may not desert the post at which God has placed him… The magistrate will more willingly perform his office, and the father of a family confine himself to his proper sphere. Everyone in his particular mode of life will, without repining, suffer its inconveniences, cares, uneasiness, and anxiety, persuaded that God has laid on the burden.
This too, will afford admirable consolation, that in following your properc alling, no work will be so mean or sordid as not to have splendor in the eye of God. (Institutes, III, x, 6)