Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 92 (April 1999): 12-13.
Sometimes the phrase became so intolerably ubiquitous that entire comedy routines were made around it. But neither political leaders nor the press nor furrowed–brow academics nor editors of prestigious journals nor indeed "the American people" have seemed able to desist. All parties to our recent disputes have incessantly claimed either to represent "the American people" or to be looking out for its better interests. Polls constantly measure its "will." President Clinton has professed himself determined above all to get on with its "business." And queried by roving reporters, presumable members of "the American people" regularly complain that government does not sufficiently heed it, or its will.
But what sort of thing is "the American people"? (I will from here on mostly refrain from the scare–quotes.) As soon as the question is posed, and a quick mental survey is made, the answer becomes obvious: the phrase as used must name a wholly fictitious entity. According to the grammar of current (attempted) references to the American people, the thing referred to exists strictly in the moment of reference. But human being, individual or collective, subsists only diachronically, occupying a stretch of time.
The will of the American people is, according to recent usage, ascertained by polling a present cross–section; it is a momentary phenomenon to be measured as we measure degrees Fahrenheit. Past persons do not belong to this American people. Thus, for a key example, the authors of the Constitution appear in debates and analyses only as authorities, perhaps supporting or perhaps challenging, but in any case other than the American people. (I owe this observation to a comment by William Bennett.) Future persons do not belong to it either: "our children" have figured prominently in the discourse, but only as those for whom the American people are concerned. But of course no person, to say nothing of a people, subsists in a momentary present tense.
The author of this essay is just as much constituted by his former utterance of perhaps now embarrassing opinions as by the present act of writing. His will is not what he happens at the moment to want; his faith is not what a present inventory of his religious opinions might discover; his conviction is not the answers he might give even to an omnicompetent poll–taker; his love spans all the decades of the beloved’s life. Indeed, only the most superficial observer would attempt to describe him without reference to an indeterminate group of persons quite other than him, most of them past, as to Thomas Jenson, buried at Clifton, Texas, or to Lena Nerhaugen, buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery in Chicago. And any attempt on my part to act as if it were not so could only be a sort of attempted moral suicide.
All this is of course doubly true of a people. If we were to use the phrase "the American people" with meaning, it would refer to Thomas Jefferson and Benedict Arnold and my grandparents just named fully as much as to anyone now living. The will of the American people that actually exists is stated by the Plymouth Covenant and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and "I have a dream" and the contrarian judgment of Clinton maintained by a straight–backed widow in Peoria who is included in no surveyor’s sample or focus group. And it is wholly unavailable to polling. Does the American nation "support our troops"—wherever they currently are occupied? If it does, the support does not consist in a majority wishing them well at the moment, but in their being legally dispatched by a legally elected government, in the provision of weapons and food by taxes collected in common consent over the years, and above all in the coherence of their sending with the nation’s historically achieved common good. I could go on in this vein, but perhaps the point is made.
That "the American people" (sorry, it was necessary) as currently evoked cannot exist, does not mean it is harmless. Americans’ self–identification with a non–entity must be, if not actually a cause of our nihilism, at least a very clear symptom. Surely it offers partial explanation of a strange phenomenon: that the more Clinton has refused responsibility for his past, the more popular he has become. It is very hard not to love one’s own image; I suggest that the more blatantly Clinton refused to live a morally continuous life, the more Americans recognized their own isolation in the moment. Americans have notoriously been short on historical self–awareness, but determination to have no past or future seems at the moment to have reached the point of mania.
Perhaps we can explain also a second phenomenon of the recent unpleasantness: the agreement by all parties that sexual misconduct is a private matter. Some argued that because Clinton’s perjury was about sex he should not be impeached for it; others that perjury is perjury, though of course his sexual behavior is none of our business. Now, if ever a common opinion was manifestly absurd, it is the notion that sexual acts are not the community’s concern. Sexual attraction and union is—as every field anthropologist knows and as is in any case obvious—the very creation of community. Intercourse, or deliberated abstention from it, is the primal act by which in an absorbing present moment we reach out from ourselves to the future. It is the arrangement God has made for the continuation of community across time, and the enticement he provides for individuals’ interest in that continuity. Is not Americans’—hopeless—passion to privatize sex simply one part of our rebellion against diachronic humanity?
We have to get past Augustine in this matter. It has for some years been so fashionable to blame Augustine for Western troubles that a counter–fashion has arisen of debunking his debunkers. Nevertheless, Western Christendom’s great spiritual and intellectual founder did teach both church and civilization that the past exists only in the present moment of our remembering it and the future only in the present moment of our anticipating it, and he was utterly and disastrously wrong. For the past exists in God’s remembering it, and the future in His anticipating it; and what is remembered and anticipated in the life of God is not reduced to a present moment but rather spans and enables all moments. Our lives and our nation’s lives transcend the present moment, to make genuine stories plotted between future, past, and present, because there is the biblical God—which Augustine of all people should have known. His lamentable and perhaps only serious error seems to be the one thing the general culture still retains from him.
Robert W. Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.