Some of the usual suspects, most part of what could be called the Religious Left, members in good standing of the Western Global Elite that Pope Francis appears to see his role as being the chaplain of, have had printed in Commonweal, the rag for Catholics who really hate Catholicism, an open letter decrying conservative nationalism. Doing so in Commonweal is rather akin to attacking Puritanism in the pages of Playboy. It is a silly attempt at global elite virtue signaling, but I will take it seriously enough to give it the fisking it is begging for:
Each day more signs point to a tremendous shift in American conservatism away from the prior consensus and toward the new nationalism of Donald Trump. This is evident not only in the recent National Conservatism Conference held in July in Washington, D.C., but also in the manifesto signed by a number of Christians who appear eager to embrace nationalism as compatible with Christian faith. Without impugning specific individuals, as fellow Christian intellectuals, theologians, pastors, and educators, we respond to this rapprochement with sadness, but also with a clear and firm No. We are Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant; Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Despite our denominational and political differences, we are united by the conviction that there are certain political solidarities that are anathema to our shared Christian faith.
Whenever I hear the terms “Patriotism” and “Nationalism” I am always reminded of this old George Carlin routine:
The terms really aren’t different, but rather are words that tell us about whether the third party observer approves of what he is describing or disapproves. A nice touch saying that the writers of the letter do not wish to impugn specific individuals before spending the rest of the letter impugning everyone who has the temerity to disagree with them.
In the 1930s many serious Christian thinkers in Germany believed they could manage an alliance with emergent illiberal nationalism. Prominent theologians like Paul Althaus and Friedrich Gogarten believed that the National Socialist movement offered a new opportunity to strengthen social order and cohesion around Christian identity. But some Christians immediately resisted, most visibly in the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which rejected the compromises of “German” Christianity and its heinous distortions of the Gospel.
Ah, no screed from the Left is ever complete without a reference to Hitler. The signers of the letter lump themselves into the role of the opponents of Hitler. One guess as to what role is assigned to their adversaries.
Our situation in 2019 is surely different, but American Christians now face a moment whose deadly violence has brought such analogies to mind. Again we watch as demagogues demonize vulnerable minorities as infesting vermin or invading forces who weaken the nation and must be removed. Again we watch as fellow Christians weigh whether to fuse their faith with nationalist and ethno-nationalist politics in order to strengthen their cultural footing. Again ethnic majorities confuse their political bloc with Christianity itself. In this chaotic time Christian leaders of all stripes must help the church discern the boundaries of legitimate political alliances. This is especially true in the face of a rising racism in America, where non-whites are the targets of abominable acts of violence like the mass shooting in El Paso.
Here we see the signers busily constructing strawmen adversaries who are racists and in favor of deadly violence. Instead of coming to grips with, and arguing against, what their adversaries actually believe, it is much easier to tar them with what they do not believe and do not support.
To be clear, nationalism is not the same as patriotism. Nationalism forges political belonging out of religious, ethnic, and racial identities, loyalties intended to precede and supersede law. Patriotism, by contrast, is love of the laws and loyalty to them over leader or party. Such nationalism is not only politically dangerous but reflects profound theological errors that threaten the integrity of Christian faith. It damages the love of neighbor and betrays Christ.
Now we have made up definitions of nationalism and patriotism with nationalism attacked as heresy. I find the definition of patriotism curious in being defined as love and loyalty to the laws. Such a definition is foreign to a country that began in rebellion to constituted authority. It is also curious coming from a Left that has, rightly, often claimed that love of country required disobedience to unjust laws. Whoever wrote the above paragraph must not have had their thinking cap on the day they scribbled it.
1. We reject the pretensions of nationalism to usurp our highest loyalties. National identity has no bearing on the debts of love we owe other sons and daughters of God. Created in the image and likeness of God, all human beings are our neighbors regardless of citizenship status.
Once again we see attacks on strawmen. It is Leftism that removes God from the center of our allegiances. It is conservatives who constantly warn against the power of the State. It is conservatives who attack abortion precisely because the unborn are our neighbors and made in the image of a loving God.
2. We reject nationalism’s tendency to homogenize and narrow the church to a single ethnos. The church cannot be itself unless filled with disciples “from all nations” (panta ta ethné, Matthew 28:19). Cities, states, and nations have borders; the church never does. If the church is not ethnically plural, it is not the church, which requires a diversity of tongues out of obedience to the Lord.
This is creating strawmen to the nth degree. Conservatives are certainly not proclaiming that any church should restrict its ethnic membership. This paragraph is simply firmly detached from reality.
3. We reject the xenophobia and racism of many forms of ethno-nationalism, explicit and implicit, as grave sins against God the Creator. Violence done against the bodies of marginalized people is violence done against the body of Christ. Indifference to the suffering of orphans, refugees, and prisoners is indifference to Jesus Christ and his cross. White supremacist ideology is the work of the anti-Christ.
And here we have the the Left trump card of race. Agree with us or you are nothing but a white bigot. It used to be said that the only argument the Nazis had was the bullet. Increasingly the only argument that Leftists have are false accusations of bigotry.
4. We reject nationalism’s claim that the stranger, refugee, and migrant are enemies of the people. Where nationalism fears the stranger as a threat to political community, the church welcomes the stranger as necessary for full communion with God. Jesus Christ identifies himself with the poor, imprisoned foreigner in need of hospitality. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me” (Matthew 25:41-43).
Here we have a religious text used for political purposes. Arguments about illegal immigration are to be silenced by waving a Bible about and claiming that opponents of illegal immigration are not good Christians. Bringing the Odium Theologicum into politics is a good way to make politics a blood sport.
5. We reject the nationalist’s inclination to despair when unable to monopolize power and dominate opponents. When Christians change from majority to minority status in a given country, they should not contort their witness in order to stay in power. The church remains the church even as a political minority, even when unable to influence the government or when facing persecution.
In charity and in hope, we urge our fellow Christians to repudiate the temptations and the falsehoods of nationalism. The politics of xenophobia, even when dressed up in high-minded social critique, can only be pursued in contradiction of the Gospel. A true culture of life welcomes the stranger, embraces the orphan, and binds the wounds of all who are our neighbors—all who lie lifeless on the road, as the pious walk silently past.
So if you are good Christians, to the catacombs with you, while the political allies of the signers of the letter may well ultimately persecute your loved ones. Let me ponder that for a moment.
No, I don’t think so. Rather I support rational political debate and this thing called elections to determine the laws of this nation, and a government that persecutes no one, including the signers of this screed.
Associate Professor of Religion, University of Southern California
Associate Professor of Political Science, Pepperdine University
Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ
Founder of Homeboy Industries
Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, Professor, DePaul University
Douglas E. Christie
Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University
M. Shawn Copeland
Professor Emerita, Boston College
Fr. John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, Fordham University
Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion, Columbia University
Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Diego
Professor of Historical Theology, Villanova University
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University
Associate Professor of Theology and Theological Aesthetics, Loyola Marymount University
Brad S. Gregory
Dorothy G. Griffin College Professor of History, University of Notre Dame
Paul J. Griffiths
Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, Mercer University
David Bentley Hart
Duke Divinity School
Aloysius P. Kelley SJ Professor of Catholic Studies, Fairfield University
Fr. Mark Massa, SJ
Director, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Professor of Theology, Boston College
Fr. Bryan Massingale
Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics, Fordham University
author / speaker / activist
Francesca Aran Murphy
Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Notre Dame
Professor of Theology and Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, Fordham University
Frank A. Thomas
Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics, Christian Theological Seminary
Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology, Yale Divinity School
Cornel R. West
Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard Divinity School
One of the interesting features of this letter is how completely establishment almost all the signers are. The letter sounds like a cry from a beleaguered group of martyrs to be, instead of a group of very well connected members in good standing of the powers that be in our society. This is a rant of the haves against the have nots when it comes to power in our country. If persecution ever comes to Christians in this fair land of freedom it takes no crystal ball to discern what the attitude of most of the signers of this letter would be. They proclaim that Christians are neighbors to the whole world. I doubt if they truly see the world this way, at least judging from the content of this letter. They divide their fellow citizens into “deplorables” and “non-deplorables” and I doubt if they view any “deplorable” as really a brother or sister in Christ, and that is what this letter really stands for, an attempted casting out from Christianity of their political opponents.