A great deal of ink has been spilt in recent months about the “new nationalism” taking hold in American politics. Last week, an impressive line-up of theologians joined the chorus of denunciation with an “Open Letter Against the New Nationalism,” published at Commonweal. Unfortunately, in its haste to warn Christians to “repudiate . . . the politics of xenophobia,” it widely missed its mark—and with it, an important opportunity to condemn the resurgence of racism and tribalistic nativism in America. Christians should condemn these in the strongest possible terms, but responsible condemnation, like just war, requires discrimination.
This open letter makes little effort to target its salvos accurately. The authors (“without,” they insist, “impugning specific individuals”) single out as their examples of “the new nationalism of Donald Trump” an April First Things manifesto “Against the Dead Consensus,” and the National Conservatism Conference in July. However, the five errors which they go on to reject bear no resemblance to ideas championed by either the signers of the First Things statement or the speakers at the National Conservatism Conference.
First, they “reject the pretensions of nationalism to usurp our highest loyalties.” The “highest loyalties” the authors have in mind are our loyalties to God—more specifically, to Jesus as the King of Kings—implying that the conference and manifesto are guilty of making an idol of the nation. To be sure, the human heart is a factory of idols, as John Calvin liked to say, and we must guard against the temptation to place any human institution in the position of supreme sovereignty. But this is precisely why many of the devout Jews and Christians who signed the statement or attended the conference so emphatically reject the idols of global governance and the Invisible Hand of the market. These are seductive visions which have captured the highest loyalties of elites on left and right.
Of course, an individual nation can also usurp the place of God. However, the speakers at the National Conservatism Conference did not venerate either American political institutions or some American Geist. After we reject all such idols, there remains an important political conversation to be had about which institutions within the temporal realm demand the highest loyalty, without compromising the subjection of all powers to the Lord of Lords. If I can defend the right of parents to care for their own children without pretending to elevate parents to the position of God, there should be no reason I cannot similarly defend the right of nations to care for their own citizens.
The letter continues: “We reject nationalism’s tendency to homogenize and narrow the church to a single ethnos. . . . Cities, states, and nations have borders; the church never does.” It is unclear to me whom or what the authors have in mind. The new nationalism exemplified in gatherings like the National Conservatism Conference places no limits on the boundaries of the Christian Church; indeed, R. R. Reno explicitly affirmed the Church’s universal mission in one of the plenary sessions. Instead, the conference was focused on recovering the boundaries of cities, states, and nations.
In its third rejection, the letter condemns “the xenophobia and racism of many forms of ethno-nationalism, explicit and implicit, as grave sins against God the Creator.” So have the leading national conservatives. At the opening of the conference last month, David Brog announced: “If there is anyone here tonight who believes that being an American has anything whatsoever to do with the color of someone’s skin, there is the door—please leave; your ideas are not welcome here!” This theme was loudly echoed by the other plenary speakers.
The fourth rejection seems equally wide of the mark: “We reject nationalism’s claim that the stranger, refugee, and migrant are enemies of the people.” That angry nativists exist I do not doubt, but I have yet to meet one of them in person—certainly not at the National Conservatism Conference. In another lecture, Brog declared, “My nationalist role model is also my ideal immigrant.” He went on to tell the story of his Jewish immigrant grandfather, who taught him the meaning of love of country. The question of immigration was pervasive at the conference, but it was never framed adversarially. Instead of hyperbolic talk of people treating immigrants as “enemies,” the real question is how to exercise national hospitality, as Paulina Neuding’s plenary lecture highlighted.
True hospitality requires judgment. I doubt that the authors of the open letter have an absolute open doors policy at their homes. Their children have a home there in a way that other children don’t—not because the authors see other children as “enemies,” but because for them to have a home to welcome people into, the home needs to have boundaries, needs to cultivate its own culture and healthy family life so that the blessings can be shared with others. Nations, too, must carefully nourish and protect their national cultures, customs, and values precisely so that they may share them with strangers. This is the biblical vision of Israel as the “light to the nations,” commanded to show hospitality to aliens and sojourners while also maintaining a clear national boundary and sharp distinctions between citizens and sojourners.
The letter concludes with a bizarre accusation: “We reject the nationalist’s inclination to despair when unable to monopolize power and dominate opponents.” One is tempted to see in this last condemnation something of a Freudian projection. I didn’t observe a hint of “despair” among the four hundred enthusiastic delegates at the National Conservatism Conference. The leading emotion in the air was hope for the future of our country, coupled with a commitment to “love of our fellow citizens,” as Brog put it.
Perhaps so-called “national conservatism” has provoked a backlash precisely because it insists on engaging the world as it really is, in all its stubborn particularity and difference—between one sex and another, between one creed and another, between one nation and another. Such differences are not simply the product of the fall, to be erased in some overrealized eschatology of one church and one world. They are the glorious garb in which creation and human history are clothed, and which St. John depicts as persisting even in the New Jerusalem: “They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:26).
Confronted with the differences of places and customs and peoples, we must learn to cultivate anew what St. Augustine called the ordo amoris, the right ordering of loves. This ordering is not only a response to the intrinsic gradations of goodness in the things of this world—people should be loved more than cats, and cats more than chocolate bars. It is also a recognition of human finitude. Many of the world’s greatest evils have been perpetrated in the name of the love of humanity, an abstract sentiment that is far easier to cultivate than the love of the screaming toddler or grating spouse. Being finite means having limits, and if we take these limits seriously, we will recognize the need to order our loves.
I cannot provide for the needs of every child, so I must start with my own; I cannot solve the problems of every church, so I prioritize serving my own congregation. Just so with places, communities, and nations. I cannot love all alike. I am called to a differentiated, ordered love for the communities in which God has placed me and through which he has nurtured me. If there is one gift on which I depend, and to which I must show filial gratitude, it is the gift of birth, of natio. As John Paul II declared, addressing the United Nations in 1995,
By virtue of sharing in the same human nature, people automatically feel that they are members of one great family, as is in fact the case. But as a result of the concrete historical conditioning of this same nature, they are necessarily bound in a more intense way to particular human groups, beginning with the family and going on to the various groups to which they belong and up to the whole of their ethnic and cultural group, which is called, not by accident, a “nation,” from the Latin word nasci: “to be born.” This term, enriched with another one, patria (fatherland/motherland), evokes the reality of the family. The human condition thus finds itself between these two poles—universality and particularity—with a vital tension between them; an inevitable tension, but singularly fruitful if they are lived in a calm and balanced way.
The central task for Christian intellectuals today is to take up anew this challenge to do justice to the richly varied obligations God has laid upon us. It seems that some reject this task as too heavy a burden, preferring blanket denunciations of those who seek a fitting order of love for our globalized age.
Bradford Littlejohn is president of the Davenant Institute and headmaster of Loudoun Classical School.