September 12, 2019


Nationalism as Religion: The Proper Love of Place in Today's Politics (JON D. SCHAFF, 9/11/19, Public Discourse)

People are rightly anxious about nationalism. Its connection to malignant movements in Europe and Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gives reason to demur from the nationalist cause. More recently, the association of nationalism with race-based identity politics in America speaks to the ugly, jingoistic possibilities latent in the idea. In short, nationalism is bad, it is said, because it is too parochial and too exclusionary. These extremes together make nationalism too prone to violence. Nationalism is akin to primitive tribalism and thus to be avoided. . [...]

[T]the entrance into history of Jesus Christ provides a new perspective on this nationalist interpretation of the Old Testament. Christ fulfills ancient Israel's purpose, now carried forth by the Church. Christ explicitly extends his message to Jew and Gentile alike. As Paul puts it in Galatians, in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:28). The Great Commission and its call to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:18) suggests a mission that transcends the particularity of nations. The call to "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21) is often used to justify a crude division of authority between the state and the church. Which, however, are those things that are not God's? Is not all of creation His? Even Paul's famous admonition to obey worldly authorities (Romans 13) is in the context of stating that all authority comes from God. So, to be precise, there is nothing that is Caesar's independent of God. Caesar doesn't even own himself.

Similarly, Augustine's famous division between the City of God and the City of Man does not teach that the City of Man has some autonomous source of power. Augustine makes clear that each City has its proper role, but also that the City of Man has an inferior role. The role of the earthly city is essentially to create basic order and protect against rank injustice. It is the "tranquility of order" that Augustine seeks. But Augustine is not naïve about the earthly city. He famously says that worldly governments that do not properly understand their relation to the divine are "criminal gangs" or "robber bands." Augustine's political teaching in City of God is essentially this: the state's job is to protect public order and then to allow the Church to do what it needs to do, including acts of charity as well as the Church's more formal sacramental and liturgical duties.

Christians should be cautious about placing too much stake in any nation. As Christ himself suggests, the ultimate kingdom "is not of this world" (John 18:36).

Nationalism as a Substitute for the Church

In his classic work on nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson identified the rise of nationalism with a concomitant decline in the influence of religion. According to Anderson, the nation arose as an instrument of unity as both secularism and religious division weakened the unifying power of faith. Anderson was a Marxist, and he saw nationalism as an obstacle to his universalist ideology.

From a Judeo-Christian standpoint, political theologian William Cavanaugh has likewise argued that it is no accident that the rise of the nation coincided with the rise of secularism. Cavanaugh sees in nationalism a "migration of the holy" from church to state. 

If they weren't so destructive they'd be more pitiable.
Posted by at September 12, 2019 7:52 AM