Protestant Nationalism and Catholic Empire? A Comment on Yoram Hazony

In The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony argues on behalf of what he terms the “Protestant construction of the West.” This affirms “two principles, both of them having their origins in the Old Testament.” The first principle is “the moral minimum required for legitimate government.” Here Hazony means “ten precepts” (more conventionally, if less accurately, known as the Ten Commandments). Leading Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin recognized the Ten Commandments as natural law, revealed to and accessible to all people. The second principle is “the right of national self-determination.” This meant, beyond the moral floor required by the first principle, “it was not expected that all nations would become as one in their thoughts, laws, or way of life.” He adds,

[T]he second principle – permitting each nation to determine for itself what constitutes a legitimate ruler, a legitimate church, and appropriate laws and liberties – brought the Christian world directly into dialogue with the biblical vision of an order of independent nations. And it was this principle that set the world free.

Hazony contrasts the “Protestant construction” with the imperialist vision of the “Roman church.” The Roman Catholic church, he writes, “adopted the Roman dream of universal empire, and the project of Roman law, which aspired to provide a single framework for a pax Romana (“Roman peace”) extending to all nations.” He adds,

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 Israeli 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.

Hazony provides a lot to chew on.

As an initial matter, I think Hazony goes a bit too easy on Protestantism and a bit too harshly on Catholicism—and I say that as a true-believing Missouri Synod Lutheran. In Hazony’s telling, the Protestant construction aligns itself, and issues from, “the biblical vision of an order of independent nations.”

There are two difficulties with Hazony’s claim. The first is whether the Old Testament prophets and writers in fact taught this “the biblical vision of an order of independent nations.” The second is whether if indeed they did, it motivated the Protestant construction, a construction Hazony treats as essentially equivalent to the Westphalian system of nation states.

One might just as easily invert Hazony’s hypothesis regarding the historical genesis of Catholicism’s universal vision and the emergence of the Protestant national construction: To wit, that the latter developed as a practical accommodation to the religious divisions in Europe, the former issued from universalistic religious visions in the Bible, very much including, if not actually founded upon, universalistic religious visions in the Old Testament prophets and writers.

To be sure, “an order of independent nations” would still provide the advantages Hazony argues for even if it is not inspired by a “biblical vision.” (And, indeed, I’m inclined to agree with many of the advantages he suggests derive from the system.) Nonetheless, I think it’s pretty easy to see that the Protestant construction, as Hazony puts it—the Westphalian system, as I would put it—has more to do with the very practical need to end a ruinous cycle of religious wars in Europe than with Protestants deriving a commitment to “an order of independent nations” from their reading of the Bible.

Indeed, if anything, Lutheran and Reformed (i.e., “Calvinistic”) churches share the religious universalism of Roman Catholicism.

I’ll dip into Hazony’s characterization of what the Old Testament prophets and writers taught in subsequent posts. But two practical items of note regarding Protestant universalism. First, the huge commitment of time, money, and manpower of Protestant churches, particularly conservative Protestant churches, to missions and evangelism, to Jesus’ call to “disciple the nations” at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, testifies to a religiously universalistic orientation. That is, to becoming “one in their thoughts.”

The second is an anecdote illuminating the same. A couple of decades back, on learning I was a Missouri Synod Lutheran, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who was raised in the LCMS and converted to Catholicism in 1990, related this personal story: After he converted to Catholicism, he sat down with his elderly mother to explain why he converted. He went through all his reasons and justifications. When he finished his explanation, his mother reached for his hand, patted it, and said, “Yes, John, I understand all that. But why did you leave the Church?” This was the classic self-understanding of Old Missouri. The Synod was the Church; it shared Rome’s universalistic aspirations. 

Protestant churches, at least classically Protestant churches, are as universalistic as Rome. The Westphalian system was a practical necessity, whether or not it was biblically motivated as well. And, again, the motivation for the rise of the Westphalian system need not affect the practical value of a commitment to a system of independent nation states. Nonetheless, Hazony’s religious argument, both historical and Biblical, are contestable. I plan to consider Hazony’s claim that the Old Testament writers and prophets distinctly endorse a system of independent nation states in subsequent posts.

Reader Discussion

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on January 09, 2019 at 08:30:13 am

Professor Rogers makes a very insightful point: Hazony's is a false distinction between Roman Catholicism, which Hazony says had a universalist/imperialist political history, vs. the nationalist consequences of Reformation history. The objectives of both were in fact universalist insofar as their Christian mission was to evangelize. Yet Roman Catholicism, under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, particularly fighting the defensive wars of the crusades, became politically and militarily imperialistic, not just evangelically so, a fate spared Protestantism by virtue of the later political circumstances and much narrower range of its mission.

I think the distinction Rogers makes is interesting and historically accurate but of no significant consequence, ultimately, to Hazony's thesis. I also think Hazony had been much better off not to cite Roman Catholicism as an example of imperialism (like Communism and Fascism) advanced through military and political aggression and conquest but rather as an example of spiritual universalism that, but for the defensive wars of the Crusades, did not seek to advance its mission through military and political aggression and conquest.

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on January 09, 2019 at 08:49:08 am


I do not know the book, but I know you to be a careful and thoughtful scholar. Assuming you have characterized the argument accurately, it is defective history and, as you demonstrate above, defective theology. Human behavior, especially on complex phenomena like nationalism and state formation, is almost never attributable to single causes.--yet another reason to treat this argument with skepticism.

So why are you bothering with it at all? If this question really motivates you, why not produce your own understanding of the origin of nation states (one of the great historical questions, after all), and argue FOR that, rather than AGAINST something that seems, at least as you describe it here, simplistic and erroneous?

When time permits, I will post the more important thinkers from my working bibliography on this question, at least as I see it now. An exercise like that, it seems to me--a partial accounting of the broader range of explanation that thoughtful scholars have offered on this question--further demonstrates, if that is necessary, the intellectual poverty of the argument you sketch above.

Best wishes,

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on January 09, 2019 at 10:06:11 am

Hazony lost me right off the bat when he called the opposite of nationalism imperialism. Nonsense.

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Peter Buchsbaum
on January 09, 2019 at 10:17:13 am

Very carefully and nicely done by the author and commentators, although I do think the book is worth critiquing because it forces one to go back to some important basics.

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Donald Devine
on January 09, 2019 at 11:06:42 am

I too was at first surprised by that usage. But upon further reading I began to understand that it was an intentional choice and it worked to shift the tone of the argument. It shifts from unquestioning acceptance of the progressives' intentional ambiguity of "globalist" to a more precise and , yes, pejorative political identifier of "imperialist." Is there an accurate political term you would substitute for imperialism that is not ambiguous about the "Top Down" nature of any single whole world government? The Genghis Khan model of governance?
From my individual rights and soft libertarian leanings I find the term "Imperialist" quite accurate for any single government ambitious enough and powerful enough to actually rule the entire world and all its people.

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Tom Reeve
on January 09, 2019 at 11:22:41 am

I especially like Mr. Devine's admonition that we must not dismiss Hazony's book (or his other work.) He is a very thoughtful scholar of Western religious and political history and philosophy and an insightful thinker as to how that all bears on contemporary political phenomena. Some of the history of "The Virtue of Nationalism" as to the significant forces impelling the rise of nationalism and nation states is understandably brief and simplistic, deliberately provocative and arguably questionable. Yet, the book is an important work because it provokes a serious challenge to the undesirable but ascending force of internationalism and provides an intellectual grounds for political conservatives to mount that challenge.

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on January 09, 2019 at 12:10:34 pm

In support of Hazony, I want to introduce two distinctions.

1. Any form of monotheism has within it the seeds of globalism or imperialism. That does not mean that it will develop that intimation. Historical circumstances (not theology or philosophy) may push it in that direction.

2. The Roman Catholic Church developed that intimation both because it assumed/inherited the unifying role of the Roman Empire and later because it rationalized itself in Aristotelian terms (the state encompasses all good and has the responsibility to make humans virtuous) by promoting the papacy to uber-state. The present Pope believes in world government.

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Nicholas Capaldi
on January 09, 2019 at 12:25:42 pm

I second Kevin Hardwicks comments (as well as others).
Both theology and politics may be generated from multiple impulses and aspire to multiple purposes.

The fact that the "theological" impulse of Protestantism may have also been "universalist" is of no special consequence to Hazony's thesis. I think Mr Reeves is more on point than is Rogers in Reeves acknowledgment of the particular *ordering* of a society / culture present in ALL imperialist political societies.

Perhaps an example close to home may suffice.
The United States at its founding was "national" in both structure and posture while advancing a "theological" call for human liberty. Yet, it is clear from Washington's admonition against foreign entanglements that the national and the universal purposes may be remain distinct. (Sadly, we appear to have forgotten that admonition AND we also are now *ordered* "TOP DOWN."
One could imagine that the ordering and the universalist impulse are related.

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on January 09, 2019 at 12:27:04 pm

I haven't read Harzony's "The Virtue of Nationalism" (Amazon says it's in the mail) so I don't know how he is defining a "nation" but if he means it to include discrete populations, cultures and tribes that may or may not be politically independent then I believe Harzony is on solid ground as references to nations broadly defined are as ancient as written history.

Certainly, the Reformed churches are not at all universalist. At most, they struggle to to be national churches and even then only Scots Presbyterianism and early New England colonial Congregationalism succeeded in establishing a national Reformed church. [N.b.; even in the Dutch Reformed Church and in the early Prussian Church, the Reformed expression of Christianity was only the favored, not the established, church.] The second phase of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s was between Presbyterians who wanted and established church and a king and Independents who wanted neither. The Independents won.

Membership in one of these "classically protestant" Reformed congregations was not as simple as professing to accept Christ as one's personal savior followed by a sprinkle of water. If the convert wanted to actually join an existing congregation then the convert had to be examined by the congregation and demonstrate that his understand of Christ, God and the Bible was compatible with that of the existing congregation. If not, the convert had to look to form his own congregation. The was an acceptable result for Reformed missionaries like John Eliot and Roger Williams because, in the early days, Reformed churches were either newly gathered churches, often led by lay preachers who were ordained by the church elders and ratified by the congregation at large, organized on Calvin's model of independent self-governing congregations or conventicles within existing CoE parishes. James I recognized the fundamentally republican nature of Reformed churches as early as 1604 when he observed "no bishops, no kings."

In my opinion, Reformed protestantism fused with English nationalism after 1558 and became a revolutionary political movement after 1620. During this formative period, the universal Catholic Church counter-reformation was quite militant and was continuously orchestrating plots, coups and wars of conquest against both Lutheran and Reformed states. The term "imperialist" does not seem to be wrong although there is some room for nit-picking. Further, while the Lutherans do seem to have specialized in national churches, the evidence for them also being universalist churches seems thin.

Finally, in England, the Rhineland and Switzerland during the first half of the 17th C., the Bible and rabbinic glosses on the Old Testament were assiduously mined for passages that justified replacing monarchies with republics (see: "The Hebrew Republic" by Eric Nelson (2010)).

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on January 09, 2019 at 14:11:00 pm

As a practicing Jew (but not a scholar by any means), my understanding of the Torah's stance with respect to the nations (in a political sense) is that they are mandated to establish rules of basic justice (e.g., forbidding theft, murder and sexual immorality) and provide for enforcement mechanisms (sometimes called "courts of justice").

I am hard pressed to think of a place in The Canon where a form of sovereignty is demanded of the nations. The Book of Samuel expatiates at some length on the Jewish Monarchy and none others.

In nearly all instances in the Torah, the nations are governed by monarchs.

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Lawrence Polon
on January 09, 2019 at 15:06:37 pm

The lesson from the events of the 1620s-40s in England was that the Puritans understood certain passages in Samuel as allowing the deposing of ungodly kings and the establishment of republics where ultimate sovereignty is vested in God and temporal political power is vested in the magistrates elected by the godly. Their understanding seems to have heavily influenced by Flavius Josephus' description of the 1st C. Jewish theocracy as a republic under God.

The Pilgrims of 1620 and the Winthrop migration of the 1630s also seem to have modeled Plymouth Plantation and the Massachusetts Bay Colony along these lines.

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on January 09, 2019 at 15:10:52 pm

two things:

1) In the Bible, the Monarch WAS the expression of national sovereignty.

2) Not all Monarchs are imperialists or even universalists and Hazony cites biblical proscriptions against seeking the land of one's neighbors.

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on January 09, 2019 at 17:49:49 pm

"Historical circumstances (not theology or philosophy) may push it in that direction."

Quite right. Imagine if Constantine had not received a vision of The Cross prior to battle. One wonders whether the RC church would have had anything to inherit from the Roman imperium.

Also, as Hazony argues it IS historical circumstance that may determine "nationalist" sentiment, i.e. that collection of shared experiences, beliefs, practices that tend to coalesce diverse tribes into a "whole". OPne of those shared experiences is successfully defending ones own / related tribes AGAINST the imperial ambitions of neighboring states. thus, it is clear to my mind anyway, that nationalism is distinct from universalism / imperialism AND in many instances is direct AND OPPOSITIONAL RESPONSE TO SAID IMPERIALISM.
(Excuse the caps - unintentional. I am a terrible typist)

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on January 09, 2019 at 19:55:36 pm

Thank you--this is helpful. Still, if we write history solely for the sake of legitimating positions to which we are already committed, that is to say with a teleology, we almost always wind up writing bad history. Polemics are fine if one is clear about what one is doing up front. The aspiration to write non-teleological history is mostly I suspect anyway unattainable, but I believe practicing historians ought at the very least to aspire to it. The "noble dream" remains noble, even if human frailty renders it beyond my grasp.

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Kevin Hardwick
on January 10, 2019 at 01:02:13 am

[…] Protestant Nationalism & Catholic Empire? A Comment on Yoram Hazony […]

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Image of THVRSDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
on January 11, 2019 at 07:56:12 am

[…] in contrast to the alleged political universalism of the medieval social order. James Rogers challenges Hazony’s position, arguing that the Magisterial Protestant traditions (at least) are just as universalistic as […]

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Image of Protestant Theology and Nations as Moral Communities
Protestant Theology and Nations as Moral Communities
on January 11, 2019 at 10:27:00 am

Very interesting topic. I was taught (at a Catholic college) that in terms of power, secular authorities and religious authorities have been in competition with each other since the beginning, jealous of each other’s power, and that the theological aspects of the Protestant Reformation were eventually used as a justification (some might say pretext) for the nascent states to assert independence from Rome. This is NOT to say that Luther’s complaints were without merit, because the Roman hierarchy had frankly become arrogant and corrupt.

With respect to what the OT teaches about this, as a practicing Catholic not wishing to argue with fellow Christians about such matters, and because I think an outsider view would be valuable, l would look to rabbinical teaching as a starting point.

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on January 12, 2019 at 13:08:40 pm

Eric Nelson's "The Hebrew Republic" (cited, among others, by Hazony in "The Virtue of Nationalism") focuses on that very point during the period 1620-60 in England (See; "Nationalism" at footnote 23 on p. 23).

This whole line of thought is usually called political Hebraism and adds the Jewish experience in antiquity to that of the Greeks and Romans when accounting for the major influences on the political thought that emerged from the Thirty Years War. Nelson places the first Hebrew revival in the Dutch Republic in the 1610s. From there it quickly spread to England.

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Image of EK
on August 09, 2019 at 00:25:25 am

[…] Testament) and was fulfilled by ‘Protestant construction’ is deeply contestable. As argued here by a Professor of Political Science, the rise of the Westphalian system of nation states in Europe […]

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Yes to Nationalism, No to Imperialism
on December 11, 2019 at 07:32:04 am

[…] political and cultural nationalism, defining nations in terms of shared language, history, and religion, as well as the group loyalties arising from them. And there are some, like Senator Elizabeth […]

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Image of Why Economic Nationalism Fails
Why Economic Nationalism Fails
on May 20, 2020 at 06:27:22 am

[…] Conservatives are no more immune to this temptation than leftists. Yoram Hazony, for example, studiously ignores the universalistic religious vision in the Scriptures in making his biblical case for The Virtue of […]

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