At a time in American history when group seems to be pitted against group, when irradicable differences are stressed to the detriment of commonalities, when there seems to be no end to claims of victimization, and when social critics worry about the society falling apart, we need to take a fresh look at the ties that have bound a diverse people together.
Americans are united within a civic culture that is much stronger and more durable than current worries suggest. These ties that bind are primarily legal, political, and spiritual; they nurture and promote the interests of the individual within a national community; and they are institutionalized within the American constitutional system. The Supreme Court of the United States, which is at the apex of the country's legal system, plays a central role in explicating, reinforcing, and expanding the range of these ties. To show how and explain why this is so is what this book is about, but first we need to address some threshold matters relating to American society—the people who compose it and the nature and function of law within it.
From the beginning, Americans, lacking any traditional basis for nationhood, defined themselves in terms of ideas—liberty, equality, and republican government founded upon the people's consent—and embarked upon an experiment to determine whether a people so defined could constitute an enduring nation. Although many generations have passed since the founding of the United States, the experiment continues, and the unfinished nature of American society remains one of its most distinguishing characteristics. So it must be, for this joining together on the basis of shared principles leaves much in a person's identity to be determined outside the parameters of this limited community. Those who seek to tighten the embrace of this community by attempting to read into it their cultural preferences as further tests of one's Americanism contradict the community's core principles. On the other hand, those who stress their diversity and attack the cultural grafts that their opponents would attach to being American too often fail to distinguish these vulnerable grafts from the core principles themselves. No matter how strident and seemingly total is the identification with a particular group, the American remains a member of the national community and both implicitly and explicitly works within its understood parameters. For instance, "claims for tolerance, equality and justice must be based on the democratic principles of the national . . .