Empires are part of the Old Testament plan for reconstituting humanity and repealing the judgment at Babel.
Like clockwork, at least once a week, the wounds of dislocation, and that feeling of belonging nowhere, creep back into perception. The ache of exile is my muse; and it is my foe. Much of my work is an echo of Simone Weil’s: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
But is that desire for rootedness only of a spiritual nature, or does it have a corporeal attachment to land and people? Or is it both? The fanatical nationalism that so many fear would err on the side of corporeal—that is the blood-and-soil crowd. The pure spiritual universalists would err by discounting the need for physical attachment to land and people. I believe it is both.
National identity gives a person a grounding that many of us, immigrants and nonimmigrants alike, lack. The reason it does this is because along with the temporal and tangible land and people, the nation has a metaphysical source (much devalued in our day). That source has vertical and horizontal bonds. The vertical is the bond between a people and God. The horizontal is a bond among the people themselves, and its elements include history, culture, religion, tradition, and language. Without the vertical bond, the horizontal bonds disintegrate. If we do not recognize this, we are doomed to be free agents floating around the world looking out only for ourselves. Thus, roots can provide the human person with a kind of national identity and patriotism based on piety and charity encompassing the spiritual and the corporeal.
A new book by Yoram Hazony, a political theorist and president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, lays out this view of the matter. I admire The Virtue of Nationalism, and also its author’s courage in taking up such a project when defenders of the word “nationalism,” even when properly and carefully defined, are ridiculed and decried as racists.
The idea Hazony is working against is the idea of empire. The imperial view holds that the key to peace on earth is the dismantling of independent nation-states and creating one united world, or at the very least large, united regions. The idea he is working toward is that the peoples of the world do better within a nation-state political paradigm. And there is a sense in which (though I will enter some reservations below) Hazony dismantles the former and makes much progress on the latter.
He does so by setting the locus of a national political order in the “strong bonds of mutual loyalty” among the people of a particular land. In my articulation, these are the bonds of charity—without which no one would defend neighbor or homeland.
This idea of what a “nation” is, is distinct from what a “state” is. The nation is the people; as Jacques Maritain says, “the people are the very substance, the living and free substance, of the body politic. The people are above the State, the people are not for the State, the State is for the people.” He continues, “The State is a part and an instrumental agency of the body politic.” Simply, the state is the governing mechanism of the nation, that is, the people’s governing mechanism. Hazony seems to agree with Maritain, and one of the strongest sections of the book is his discussion of the Hebraic nation: how it was formed by God through Moses.
Surveying Western history, the author notes that it was through the Protestant Reformation that the West was able to recapture this Hebraic idea of the nation. He argues that contra the Catholic—universal—understanding of Christianity, Protestantism brought a more discrete and individualized form of Christianity, and that this, combined with the political ambitions of the Western countries trying to get out from underneath the influence of the Pope, paved the way for what he calls the “Protestant construction of the nation-state.” The argument is well-meaning, and partially true, but it is incomplete. Hazony praises what he calls the Protestant construction of political order, and sees it, if not as an ideal, then as the best formulation to which humanity can aspire.
Hazony is right that the old throne-and-altar political order was not good for humanity or for the Church. The Catholic Church has herself said as much and has consistently attempted to re-navigate her position and relationship with the state. With the current crisis the Catholic Church is undergoing, I realize that this may not be the best time for arguments in her favor. But such hesitations seem to me part of the problem. There is—and has been—so much criticism of the Church over its 2,000 year history. Much, it should be said, is justified, but much is disparagement by her enemies. It is precisely bringing justice and truth to bear on these arguments that will give the Church an opportunity to correct iniquities within it. And those who do not agree with her can still benefit from her wisdom.
Hazony writes that when Christianity became the established religion of Rome,
it adopted the Roman dream of universal empire, and the project of Roman law, which aspired to provide a single framework for a pax Romana…extending to all nations. For more than a thousand years, Christianity thus aligned itself, not with the ideal of setting the nations free as had been proposed by the Israelite prophets, but with much the same aspiration that had given rise to imperial Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia: the aspiration of establishing a universal empire of peace and prosperity . . . In this, Roman Catholic political thought paralleled that of the Muslim caliphs and the Chinese emperors, who likewise believed they have been charged with bringing peace and prosperity to the world under the rule of a universal empire of their own.
He then cites Old Testament-oriented thinkers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. It is with these Old Testament thinkers that he locates the revival of the Hebraic notion of nationalism. He continues to sketch for the reader how these Protestant thinkers helped countries like England, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden become independent of the imperial Roman Catholic Church, and put them on the road to national self-determination. And yet, it has to be said, a good number of these countries went on to build their own empires through colonialism.
The Liberal Construction
After this section comes a discussion of John Locke and what Hazony calls the Liberal Construction, which he takes to be a perversion of the Protestant construction of the nation-state. Yet the very “liberal construction of the West,” with its god of the autonomous self and its subjective truth, which Hazony laments as having usurped the Protestant construction, had its seed not in Locke, as he asserts, but in Martin Luther. And of course in Calvin and Zwingli, Zwingli being one of the most autonomous and anti-traditional agitators of the Reformation.
Whatever else they may have done, what these men valued was what John Henry Newman called “the principle of private judgement.” That is, the person is free to decide for him or herself what the Bible says about this or that—thus freeing the individual from religious authority. Pastor Joe of Country Life Church can exegete one section of Scripture one way “as the Holy Spirit leads,” while down the street Pastor John, of City Life Church, can exegete that same passage of Scripture another way. The pew-sitter can choose which one suits him best.
When Luther brought Christian teaching as handed down for centuries before the bar of self—when the Reformer decided that he would stand in judgment over what God really said and what de didn’t say, and which books he would include in his translation of the Bible and which he would denounce—when Luther set his personal conscience as the final arbiter of truth, that is when the seeds of an anthropocentric subjective universe were sown. That appropriation to self did not start with Luther, of course, but began long before the 16th century—in a garden, with a man and a woman. But at just the right time in history, Luther rent the metaphysical structure by breaking the bond between the individual and the Church. And although the residue of Christendom continued to provide the metaphysical support for society, a foundational metaphysical bond had been dealt a blow—the self became the authority over truth, which became a matter of preference, and not of received wisdom.
The Roman Catholic Church was in need of reform from within, to be sure (and is today). How that reform could and should have been accomplished we will set aside for another time. For within the metaphysical framework of Christianity itself, we can find the origins of human freedom tethered to objective moral truth, and the Biblical concept of a nation. This framework had for its foundation the Old Testament Scriptures that grounded Catholic Christianity.
Hazony sets the Catholic Church at odds with the idea of the nation due to its universalist metaphysics, and due to its having taken over the Roman Empire with its universalist claims. But he misunderstands the Church, for its universalism is ethical in nature. That it united its altars to thrones is unfortunate and a deviation from its task to evangelize the nations—to bring salvation and the light of God into a world of pain and darkness. God’s love and offer of salvation extend to every “tribe and nation,” and to the variety of the peoples of the earth. The creative God we worship along with our Jewish brethren is a God who relishes the beauty of diversity. This is why we often find that the Catholic Church takes on national characteristics—it is united in faith and doctrine, but within this unity there is a great capacity for distinct local identities.
Balancing Nationalism and Universalism
As Fr. Thomas Joseph White writes in an essay in the February 2018 issue of First Things entitled “The Metaphysics of Democracy”: “Truth be told, it is only the Catholic Church in human history that has shown any real long-term success in sustaining in concord the twin principles of balanced nationalism and ethical universalism.” And certainly after Vatican II we see an even clearer articulation of this position. Russell Hittinger writes:
The model of social cooperation at work in Western Europe was given prominence in magisterial and conciliar documents (Pacem in Terris, Populorum Progressio)—and recommended for the progress of the developing world: social markets without socialism, nation-states without chronic wars, development as “another name for peace.” The magisterial optimism of the postwar era did not foresee anything like a post-national (much less post-matrimonial or post-ecclesial) future. It was naively expected that the “friendly hands” of social cooperation could (would?) tame nationalism and overweening ecclesiastical authority without prejudice to the necessary societies situated within an international framework.
Israel set a precedent in, as it were, how to nation, and I for one rejoice in that and desire for all the peoples of the world to follow the Israeli precedent. Hazony, whom I respect and otherwise agree with, seems to tie universal salvation doctrines to empires. That is, he believes that universal salvation doctrines—of all stripes—produce people who call for empire. As a pious Christian who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, I respectfully disagree. Now, harboring no ill will toward Protestantism, and recognizing as I do that respect for the sacred in America owes its origin to the zeal of those early Puritans and Protestant colonists had for the Bible, I believe the Protestant construction of the nation-state is not an unalloyed good. For it carried within it the seed of its own destruction.
Hazony wants to say that one nation imposing its will on others and subsuming them into itself is wrong and destructive to the people who live in those conquered lands. I answer: yes and amen. He brings back the vocabulary of piety into the public debate on nationhood. This is yet another step forward. He offers a cogent critique of Immanuel Kant’s anti-nationalism. And his chapter, “Why the Enormities of the Third World and Islam Go Unprotested” is sharply insightful and deserves engagement.
Truly, The Virtue of Nationalism is a much-needed pushback against modern globalists and imperialists who would erase human distinctions. Yoram Hazony’s knowledge of Jewish history and theology gives the book depth, and eloquently revives the language of national piety. It gives all of us a much-needed impetus to rethink our current political paradigms.