Culture, Religion & The Nation-State
The recent controversy at our blog over the appropriate relationship between Catholics and the nation-state gives us an opportunity to clear the air, and, hopefully, rebuke the provocative and absurd charges of “Christo-fascism” leveled against some of the contributors to this blog. Such a phrase could have any number of meanings, or be applied (or misapplied) in an arbitrary way.
I do wonder, for instance, whether or not our friend the Catholic Anarchist approves of the Church’s support of Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and the role it played in the Spanish state thereafter. One sometimes gets the impression that, in the view of some people, it would have been better if the Church offered herself up, and all of her flock, to martyrdom at the hands of the communist and anarchist marauders instead of acting in accordance with the most basic instincts of self-preservation. The Franco dictatorship was, of course, practically a democratic utopia compared to the horrors of Bolshevik Russia or Maoist China, especially for Christians.
What about the United States, or shall we say, “the American nation-state”? As in all matters, there are two extremes to avoid.
The first extreme, obviously, is worship of the nation-state itself, though no people in history have ever come close to Thomas Hobbes’ pure worship of the state as such. In Nazi Germany, the state was the guardian of racial purity and Ayran culture, not an end unto itself. In Franco’s authoritarian regime, the state existed to protect the traditional order and the Church. Soviet communism went through a brief period during which Marxist proletarian internationalism was the official ideology, but it began to crumble within a few years, and by the 1930s had vanished without a trace, replaced with the idea of building “socialism in one country”. Stalin revived Russian nationalism, the struggle against Nazi Germany became known as “The Great Patriotic War”, Russia was once again the “rodina”, the Motherland, and even the Orthodox Church was allowed to resurface for a time.
The same story could be told of every other statist regime, whether it had a left or right flavor, a red or a white streak. There was hardly anything less “nationalist” about the Chinese communists than their nominal Nationalist foes they chased to Taiwan. There were differences between them, yes, but those labels do not convey them.
The point of all this is that there has not been a pure form of statism, worship of the state as an end unto itself. This, I don’t think anyone will find controversial. But it bears repeating because it highlights an important truth about human nature; that the vast majority of human beings have never let go of their organic cultures in the service of universal, abstract ideals – including those of religion in general and Christianity in particular (though Christendom was pretty nice while it lasted), and especially the false pseudo-religion of Marxist internationalism. Not even totalitarian regimes can force people to fight “for the nation-state.” Stalin’s reversal of early Soviet idealism is only the most dramatic example of this truth.
But here we want to avoid going too far in the other direction, towards what some might call “Burkean historicism”, the elevation in terms of significance and importance of organic cultural traditions at the near-total expense of abstract propositions and political institutions. These always have, and always will, exist in a symbiotic relationship. No set of propositions or institutions can (or, God willing, ever should) replace the traditional culture of a people; but without such propositions and institutions, especially in the United States, it is hard to imagine what might even be left of culture.
This isn’t to say that America is completely culture-less, but that what culture it does have is not national, but regional. It has never been hard political-ideological differences, but rather regional-cultural differences, that have provided the impetus for polarization and animosity in this country. It was true in 1789, it was true in 1860, it was true in the 1960’s, and it is true today, through our red-blue divide.
If there is anything that can or should hold the nation together, it is fidelity to the Constitution of the United States and the ideals that it was created to embody and protect, such as we find in the Declaration of Independence (see this article I wrote for more). This is as close to a national culture as America will ever come. Christianity weighs in at a close second, and if all continues to go well between Catholics and Evangelicals, that accounts for half of Americans, though if we factor in the probable degree of secularization and liberalization even among these, it is probably significantly less. I don’t think the American framers ever envisioned a collapse of Christianity on the scale we see today. With Thomas Jefferson, I worry and wonder whether or not the basic conception of rights can exist without, as he said, “a firm conviction” that they come from God, whose wrath would fall upon any who dared to violate them.
For the moment it appears that secularists and practical atheists have no problem reconciling their worldview, which is, no matter how one tries to escape or redefine it, essentially nihilistic, and their continued respect for the proposition of the Declaration of Independence; the more entangled the United States becomes with the even more militantly secular institutions of “global governance”, including the United Nations, which promotes “population control” policies under the guise of family planning and women’s rights, the more I question how long our secularists will continue to keep up the illogical pretense.
When I read Daily Kos or Huffington Post, I see a throng of militant secularists who can barely restrain their enthusiasm for a final wave of “progress” that will finally sweep over the Western world and take any serious manifestation of religious values with it. With the exception of a small minority, I must forgive them for they know not what they do, which is not to usher in a wave of progressive but rather a corrosive acid that is destroying the foundations of civilization.
As I have argued thus far, I believe American culture is her central propositions, which are theist at heart and Christian in spirit. In addition to the plain historical and theoretical fact that Jefferson was not copying John Locke in writing the Declaration, there is even evidence to suggest he may have been influenced by the Catholic political tradition. How glorious, in my view, for American Catholics! And this brings us to the Catholic attitude towards the nation-state.
It depends, in the first place, upon what nation-state. If it is the kind of state outlined by Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei, I think our duty is rather clear. If it is a state lurching ever-closer to IngSoc, it is also clear. In the one case, we obey, in the other case, we resist. In the United States, it is evident that the Papacy has never condemned the American republic. Indeed, in that encyclical Leo wrote,
The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world… (4)
For much of her history, the United States stood close enough to this ideal to earn Leo’s praise, and not a word of condemnation. And why not? Contrary to the hype of the “spirit of Vatican II”, there was no crisis in the American Church prior to the reforms; Ralph McInerny’s What Went Wrong With Vatican II? amply makes the case that the Church thrived in America, in spite of rivalry and persecution at certain points.
The situation has obviously changed today. I would propose that our actual institutions are secularizing and globalizing, drifting further away from a proper interpretation of the Constitution, and indeed holding in contempt those people and those statesmen that attempt to remind them of it. Whether it is right-wing war hawks or left-wing welfare pimps, both are inclined to see the Constitution as a “piece of paper” that stands in the way of imperial ambition and/or global integration.
That’s precisely what it does and what it was designed to do. We have seen a gradual but steady usurpation and marginalization of the branch of government closest and most accountable to the people, the Congress, and a corresponding boldness on the part of the executive and judicial branches. The framers did not want a direct democracy, but they didn’t want rule by judicial decree or executive orders either. That’s why its called checks and balances. It only works if there’s, well, balance.
So, in conclusion, I propose that American Catholics rediscover their fidelity to the ideas of the Declaration – which may well be Catholic ideas, or at the very least inspired by Catholic political theorists – as well as the Constitution in letter and spirit. This would restrain and moderate both sides of an increasingly ugly rift in Catholic America, between the war party and the welfare party, between the “lets send a few thousand more American boys to die in a pointless war with Iran” crowd and the “lets force everyone to buy health insurance and threaten to fine and jail them if they don’t want it” crowd.
Catholics should stand united on the social and political philosophy of the Church, which encourages peace, diplomacy, and fair trade between nations, as well as economic freedom, a reduction in the welfare bureaucracy, increased worker ownership and participation of business, and most importantly a culture of life within them. In doing both Catholics would work within the actual confines of the actual Constitution, which through true federalism practically embodies subsidiarity, and thereby also be good and loyal Americans.
That’s how I roll, anyway.
Oh, and one more thing: The findings and/or recommendations of the USCCB’s left-leaning research staff are not a substitute for a thousand years of Catholic political philosophy or the social teaching as it has been developed since 1891.