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.