The debate over nations, empires and the Church

National conservatism is not the same thing as Christian nationalism, although they are often confused. And no wonder, since one of the articles in the manifesto says that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the American public sphere. (See our article on this, National Conservatism and Religion.)

Now, an international group of prominent and mostly conservative theologians have responded to that manifesto with an open letter responding to NatCon’s “statement of principles.”

The letter says, for example, that

Pure nationalism, disconnected from universal ideals, risks becoming the mirror image of the abstract globalism that the signatories of the declaration rightly reject. By implicitly affirming the supremacy of nations over culture and communities, it subordinates both the universal and the particular to the national, as if national interests and national traditions were necessarily good and that anything beyond nations should therefore be bad.

The signatories criticize the “nation-state” for erasing local cultures and criticize the “Declaration”’s emphasis on the American constitutional order, leaving aside European models and questions of European conservatism:

Commitment to an explicitly “Anglo-American” ideal of “free enterprise” and “individual freedom” is at odds with much of the European conservative tradition which has historically sought to limit the market and uphold a model of freedom non-individualistic, balancing rights with responsibilities.

Moreover, the Declaration, while talking a lot about moral values, says nothing about love, which is “the supreme theological virtue and the guiding ideal of Christian civilization” and which binds the members of society.

“At the end of the day,” the letter concludes, “the National Conservatives’ statement is neither conservative nor Christian.”

John Ehrett, a Lutheran and political theorist, responded to the open letter with his post Some Questions for Theological Critics of National Conservatives. He notes that some of the signatories have advocated an “imperial model” as something to be desired compared to the “nation state”.

His first question is “how to account for the fact that the premodern “empire” did not seem to conceive of itself as universal or global in the modern sense, but needed an “other” in relation to which to define itself?Rome defines itself against the “barbarians”. “Today, however, the institutions of liberal internationalism do claim to enjoy universal/global jurisdiction”. Ehrett concludes (his italics):

given current empirical knowledge of the extent of cultural differences, it is reasonable to believe that a global transnational political authority is unlikely to be able to identify a common “centre” that can justify conditions of coexistence able to mediate peacefully and preserve local differences.

His second question:IIs the nation-state always and everywhere more opposed to the preservation of local difference?“He thinks not. In fact, “the American example of federalism [which the Open Letter signatories disdain] seems to pose an empirical problem for this assertion.

To finish, “to what extent are the potentialities of Christian theology actualized through an encounter with alternative traditions?He cites evidence that Christianity has thrived when it encounters different perspectives and that a one world church that suppresses religious differences – I am thinking of Roman Catholicism – might not be a good idea after all.

In my view, national conservatives can make arguments against globalizing theopolitical projects that resonate in a typically Christian register, without losing the universal claims of Christian morality by succumbing to substantive relativism.

So which is better, individual nations or an empire that brings together many nations? Individual churches or a global church?

Next time, my thoughts on the controversy.

Illustration: War Flag of the Holy Roman Empire, Ad17minstral, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

About Myra R.

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