Protestant Theology and Nations as Moral Communities

Does Protestant theology point to an increased importance for nations as formative moral communities? Yoram Hazony, in The Virtue of Nationalism, speaks of the modern social order defined by the sovereignty of nation-states as “a Protestant construction of the West,” 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 Rome.

Although I’m allergic to the word “nationalism,” I think Hazony is right about the underlying issue in this case. Rogers correctly points out that Protestant theology is committed to the universal validity of the truth claims of the Christian religion, and that the Magisterial traditions are also committed in various ways to the universal scope of church institutions. But Protestant theology also implies that nations, as communities of discourse and practice, will exercise a greater formative influence over our thinking about political right and wrong, as compared either with medieval theology (the shared ancestor of both Protestants and Catholics) or with post-Reformation Roman Catholic theology.

Hazony Is Right for the Wrong Reasons

Unfortunately, Hazony introduces some confusion into these issues by not handling the Bible or theology with as much care as he could. To speak of the modern social order as being, even in one aspect, a “Protestant construction” is so oversimplified as to be more confusing than clarifying. And the Old Testament’s support for “national self-determination” is ambivalent at best. The nations do control their own institutions in the Old Testament, as Hazony observes. But the nations only exist in the first place because humanity rebelled against God at Babel. The division of our world into distinct nations is not a feature, it’s a patch for a bug – God’s tourniquet on the hemorrhage of human wickedness. This does support the legitimacy of national institutions, insofar as it shows why they are needed, but it hardly suggests a grand Wilsonian vision in which nations are morally entitled to absolute sovereignty.

Even the biblical concepts of what constitutes a “nation” do not correspond to the modern nation-state. Biblical nations are defined by their ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural homogeneity as much as, if not more than, by their political institutions and territories. So it is unclear how and to what extent anything the Bible says about “nations” applies to our nation-states.

Hazony also overstates the extent to which the medieval social order demanded universalism either in political ethics or political institutions. Eusebius’ great dream that Rome could become a global Christian empire, which Hazony takes to be the model of medieval Christendom, was already dying out by the time Augustine wrote The City of God around the turn of the fifth century. Augustine constructed the more complex and ambiguous approach to politics from which the medieval social order eventually grew.

The central tension of medieval political theory is precisely its desire to honor the universal religious authority of the church and the diverse, particularized political authorities of the nations simultaneously. Contra Hazony’s claims about Christendom having spent a thousand years vainly seeking a universalistic pax Romana, the strong papal claims to global power that loom so large in our historical imaginations emerged late in the medieval period. And these claims were hotly contested – often with success – by kings and dissenting theologians alike.

Protestant Ecclesiology and Political Particularism

A better place to look for distinctive Protestant contributions to political ethics and institutions is in its understanding of the role of the clergy and their relationship to the laity. From late antiquity onward, the Christian community has been divided between two views of the clergy. One view implicitly points toward more universalism in politics, while the other implicitly points toward more particularism.

The views are, in brief, as follows: One view holds that the daily life and work of clergy and laypeople operate on different ethical and spiritual planes – the things laypeople do all day are morally legitimate, but are essentially worldly affairs, and laypeople should therefore take direction and leadership from the clergy who devote their daily lives to eternal things. This involves an explicit ethical dualism in which the laity lives daily life by one ethic (which is good) and the clergy by another (which is better). The other view holds that clergy and laypeople are moral and spiritual equals; they have different jobs, but live by the same underlying ethic and connect to God in the same spiritual ways.

This debate over the clergy has never been resolved. The view that elevated the clergy tended to dominate during most of the Middle Ages – though not always, and not uniformly. It was this, not the long-dead dream of a global Christian empire, that made medieval theology tend more toward political universalism. When the Protestant reformers arrived, they decisively rejected the view that elevated the clergy, while Rome established that view as mandatory in Counter-Reformation doctrine.

The view that elevates the clergy is implicitly universalistic in politics. It locates the lives of the nations, including their political ethics and political institutions, among the good-but-inferior realm of the laity. It then subordinates this national life to the life of the clergy. This necessarily involves setting up the clergy as a trans-national class of ethical knowers, since national particulars belong to the life of the laity. And if the clergy are a trans-national class of ethical knowers, ethics as a body of knowledge is also essentially trans-national. (The question of whether kings must obey the clergy was the central problem for medieval theology; an unambiguous “yes” would collapse the distinction between the two realms, and an unambiguous “no” would neutralize the superiority of the clergy.)

This question of whether clergy live on a superior ethical plane was the very issue that began the Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses are not about justification or the authority of scripture. They assert that laypeople get connected to God not only in church (there, too, of course) but by doing everything they do all day with Christian love for God and neighbor. And for the whole history of the Reformation, even as other issues came to the fore, this question remained a central division point between Rome and the Reformers. And it still is today.

The more egalitarian view of the clergy, adopted by the Reformers and repudiated by Rome, is implicitly particularistic for politics. It affirms the equal value of theological and ethical insight coming from the laity in their lives among the nations. While pastors do continue to play a unique and indispensable role, that role does not involve living on a superior plane of theological and ethical knowledge.

Protestants have no separate, trans-national class of ethical knowers. This implies that ethics itself is not a trans-national body of knowledge. We learn and debate what is right and wrong within our national (and other cultural) communities. This does not imply cultural relativism or deny natural law. But it does imply that what we call “natural law” is something that is constantly emerging within particular political communities of discourse and practice. It might even be more precise to speak of the nations exhibiting a “natural lawfulness” rather than possessing a “natural law” as such.

Much else could be said, of course. These two views of the clergy are connected to issues in other fields ranging from biblical exegesis to philosophical theology and metaphysics to the social sciences. But if you want to think about how Protestant theology affects the role of nations as moral communities, this is probably the best starting point.

Rogers’ Objections – Universal Truth Claims and Institutions

Rogers raises two objections to Hazony’s argument. One is that Protestants have devoted enormous effort to spreading their religious message around the globe. They do this because they are convinced that the truth claims of Christianity are universally valid, and they want everyone to hear the good news.

This is true, but it seems to me that it misses the point. Political ethics and practice can remain diverse even when cosmological truth claims harmonize. If I share the good news with someone from China, that doesn’t imply I think Western traditions of political ethics and practice should eliminate and replace Chinese traditions. If everyone in China became Christian, I’d rejoice; if everyone in China became Aristotelian, I’d be disappointed.

Rogers raises a more important objection when he points out that the Magisterial Protestant traditions not only claim universal validity for their truth claims, but also universal validity for their religious institutions. At least, this is what I take to be the import of the story he shares from Richard John Neuhuas, where his mother listened to Neuhaus’ reasons for converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism, and then asked: “Yes, but why did you leave the Church?” Her Lutheran church saw itself as “the Church” just as much as Rome did.

Protestant church institutions, however, do not converge at the top upon a trans-national head on earth – a papacy. The church Neuhaus left is called the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, not the Lutheran Church-Global Synod. That is, of course, because Protestants believe having a trans-national head on earth effectively supplants the church’s true head, Jesus, who is trans-national, but not presently on earth. Without a visible trans-national head exercising infallible authority in faith and morals, Protestant church institutions cannot and do not aspire to develop a trans-national body of knowledge about political ethics and practice.

None of this, of course, suggests that non-Protestants cannot value the nation, or that Protestant religion must end either in religious nationalism or in Erastianism. It does suggest, however, that religious nationalism and Erastianism are more dangerous temptations for Protestants, just as Catholics are more likely to be tempted either toward clerical imperialism or clerical indifference to politics. Few insights are more valuable than knowing which temptations one is especially susceptible to. We must guard the role of the nation as a moral community responsible for knowing and practicing political ethics, while keeping watch against an overrealized eschatology that would look to our nations for a level of purity and authority that simply do not exist on earth in the present life.