There are understandings of the human and nonhuman world that present themselves as true for all, everywhere and at all times, and as desirable for all if only everyone could learn to see things as they are. We call these understandings universalisms. The American experiment is an example: it’s founded on texts that make its universalism explicit (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”), and it has, in its better moments, offered citizenship generously (“give me your poor”). Christianity is another example: its central premise is that the triune Lord has done something for everyone by way of incarnation, resurrection, and ascension; and it offers baptism to all, without restriction, as a means of incorporation into and conformity with Jesus, the Lord who has saved everyone. And there are many others: Islam and Buddhism provide clear-enough cases; so does Marxism, and, in some of its varieties, Confucianism.
Universalisms aspire to be, well, universal. They’d like everyone to see their truth and goodness and beauty, and to embrace the institutional forms they take. It would be good, Christians often think, if everyone were baptized. It would be good, Americans often think, if the planet were Americanized. And so on. But all universalisms are also, and necessarily, parochial: each of them has a local origin, and therefore each has local shape and color and flavor. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is parochial in this sense, as are the Declaration of Independence, the Qur’an, and the New Testament. There’s no contradiction here: mathematical truths are all arrived at parochially (by Newton, by Einstein, by Wiles), but they may nonetheless be universally and necessarily true. So also, mutatis mutandis, for political and theological universalisms.
That there are rival universalisms is almost as obvious as that there are universalisms. It became clear during the course of the sixteenth century in England, for example, that the claims of Protestant Christianity (clearly a universalism), together with its associated political forms and practices, aren’t compatible with the claims, forms, and practices of Catholic Christianity (equally clearly a universalism). It is by now just as clear in, for example, France and America and Saudi Arabia, that the claims, forms, and practices of democratic, rights-based universalisms aren’t compatible with those of some forms of Islam. What then?
Recognition of these incompatibilities is a special difficulty for democratic, rights-based universalisms. That’s because they aspire, unlike most other universalisms, to provide a political form of life within which inhabitants and advocates of all other universalisms can flourish without being required to abandon or compromise anything constitutive or defining of their own distinctive forms of life. Americanism says that if you’re a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist you can live here, with us, under our regime, as what you are. Our political form of life is supposed to permit your flourishing without compromise. America—and any other democratic, rights-based polity—promises that whatever you bear as you come to us, you may continue to bear, without hindrance or constraint. What we offer you is the freedom to be yourself.
This is a distinctive understanding, a distinctive promise. I’m exaggerating it for clarity’s sake, but not much. Most universalisms don’t make this promise. Christianity certainly doesn’t. It asks its converts to leave behind most of what they were and to become a new creation. Christianity, by and large, responds to rival universalisms by asking those who’ve become Christian to abandon them—or at least permit them to be overwritten, transfigured, and perfected by Jesus. Islam, Buddhism, and, in its own distinctive way, Judaism, all do the same. These are universalisms of supersession: to accept them is necessarily to reject what you were. Not so for American universalism. America’s promise is a meta-promise—of a universalism that can accommodate all other universalisms without loss. That promise is the distinctive feature of the political trajectory that runs from the French and American revolutions to the promulgation of the Universal Declaration in 1948. America requires, of course, the rejection of allegiance to all foreign powers (I had to raise my right hand and say that when I was naturalized in 1994), but that’s a matter of taxes and wars and territoriality. It isn’t, as a matter of principle, a requirement that I should abandon my Christianity.
It’s increasingly evident that the American promise, understood in this way, has not been fulfilled and cannot be. That’s because American universalism is just like its rivals: parochial in origin and supersessionist in nature, all the way down. To become a citizen of a rights-based democracy, especially one that is inseparable from late capitalism, is also to accept the non-universality of every other universalism you adhere to. To have your Christianity or Islam or Buddhism framed by your Americanism is to make it something else, not any longer, properly speaking, a universalism at all. This is a deep difficulty for the United States and countries that follow its model.