The National Conservatism “Statement of Principles,” recently released by the Edmund Burke Foundation, gets a lot right. The signatories rightly call for a restoration of “patriotism and courage, honor and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the Sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice.” They’re rightly suspicious of today’s global institutions and the elites who run them, and urge Western nations to rejuvenate national traditions and institutions. Western nations should support families, encourage procreation, and adopt balanced immigration policies. The statement endorses the rule of law and offers a cheer or two for free enterprise.
Identity politics is one of National Conservatism’s targets. “Decent nationalism” will dispel racial tensions by providing a “sound basis for conciliation and unity among diverse communities.” But the statement sets its sights primarily on universalist ideologies and global institutions. Nationalism is good, and imperialism, whether authoritarian or liberal, is bad. Each nation should chart its own course, rather than transferring authority to international bodies, and national ends should shape policy. Economic policies should promote the “general welfare of the nation” and governments should direct research and education to meet “national needs.” National Conservatism sees a world of independent, self-governed nations as the only viable alternative to corrosive globalization.
As critics have pointed out, the NatCon statement ignores the universal ethical and political vision at the foundation of Western civilization. Specifically, it ignores the universal political vision of Christianity. It’s important to stress, though, that Christianity’s universalism is substantive and particular, not formal and generic. It’s a biblically-rooted universalism. Refreshingly, the National Conservatism Statement is overtly biblical in orientation, calling Scripture “our surest guide . . . to the political traditions of the nations, to public morals, to the defense of the weak.” The Bible is “first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities.” In nations with a Christian majority, Christianity should be at the root of public life and “honored by the state.”
All good. But the Bible isn’t simply a source of shared culture or a ground of national tradition. It judges traditions and calls nations to repent of long-standing customs. It’s difficult to shake the sense that National Conservatism instrumentalizes Scripture, appealing to it not as the word of the Creator God but as a wellspring of national values. Jeremiah counseled King Zedekiah to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus condemned the traditions of the elders and instructed his disciples to hate father and mother. Could either prophet get a keynote slot at a NatCon convention?
Christian universalism takes concrete political form in a global communion of saints. It’s an ecclesial universalism. The bonds that connect Christians across national boundaries are deeper and stronger than bonds of blood or culture; Christians are in solidarity as members of one multinational body, joined by one baptism and one Spirit, eating and drinking at the table of the one Lord. Churches exist within nations and impart many social goods, but the church isn’t a creature of the nation or the state, nor a “mediating institution,” nor an instrument of national greatness. However deeply the church, her teaching and her rituals may become embedded in a national culture, she remains essentially an outpost of an alien civilization, a heavenly one, and she exists to point the nation to ends beyond the end of the national interest. Her vocation, like the apostle Paul’s, is to bring about the obedience of faith among all nations (Rom. 1:5). She honors the king, but above all she pays homage to another king, one Jesus (Acts 17:7).
At one level, National Conservatism states a triviality: The solution to national decline is national revival. Theologically, it’s far from trivial. National Conservatives bemoan the collapse of institutions and liberties in Western nations, then propose the restoration of the tradition of self-governed nations as the solution. That looks very much like a program of national self-salvation. It can’t work. The church, not the nation, is the telos of political life; without the universal truth to which the church bears witness and which she embodies, nations don’t know what they’re for. Nations flourish only as they join the peaceable pilgrimage of tribes, tongues, and peoples to Zion.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.