How does a Conservative differ from a Nationalist? – Part 3 (Church and State)
Updated: Apr 13
In Part 2 we saw how one of the benefits of nationalism is its role in providing defense for the nation/state. Today we’ll talk about how nationalism can provide for tranquility within the nation. In the fourth and final post I’ll turn to how nationalism can go awry.
Let’s roll the clocks back four centuries or more. Long before the United States came into being, the nations of Europe fought endless wars amongst themselves. While the causes for such conflicts are various and sundry, one prominent cause stands out: religious differences. Centuries of religious wars were endemic on the European continent as people couldn’t find a way to settle their disagreements without violence.
Religious disagreements are hardly vanquished in today’s world. So why is it that the United States and much of modern Europe no longer fights the endless religious wars that were so common in the past? What makes it easier for us to settle our disagreements without resorting to violence?
In a word: Nationalism.
Nationalism gives us something to belong to beyond our religious convictions. Nationalism provides for a unity strong enough to bind the nation/state but—when properly harnessed—loose enough to allow for the toleration of outsiders, and for neighbors of different faiths to live peaceably together. The unity of nationalism certainly may include religious overtones, but it is not limited to them.
As I argued in Part 2, a nation/state doesn’t emerge out of thin air. Nor does it come into being by arbitrarily drawing lines on a map. There must be some commonality that holds the people within the nation/state together. That commonality might be shared laws, culture, history, language, ethnicity, customs, hardships…or religious convictions. From these commonalities emerge a “people” that form a nation/state. The stronger the commonalities, the stronger the bond that holds the nation/state together.
Democracy vs Divine Right
As barbaric European tribes of the ancient world gradually became Christianized, they universally held to the Catholic faith and recognized the Pope as the leader of Christendom. This didn’t stop them from killing one another over political or territorial squabbles as ruling families sought opportunities to maximize their power; but things went into overdrive when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, beginning the Protestant Reformation. For more than a century, Europe was divided between Catholic and Protestant faiths and monarchies sought to consolidate their power by playing to whichever side they perceived as most advantageous for their own ambitions.
Kings were seen as ruling by divine right, not popular election. And the priestly class was the authority on what the Almighty had to say in any given situation. The entire system—from church to state—was enshrined in sacred, unchallengeable authority. To question the state was to commit holy sacrilege because the nation was built on the common faith of the people.
Religious beliefs—in most religions anyhow—aren’t malleable. Some religious traditions may tolerate or even encourage skepticism or questions, but the doubt is never aimed at the authority of the faith itself for commanding moral imperatives. An individual who advocates religious pluralism for instances is, at the very least, convinced of the virtue of tolerance.
“Secular law adapts, religious law endures,” observed British philosophy Roger Scruton, “Only when the law derives from national sovereignty can it adapt to the changing conditions of the people.” By placing the law of the nation in the hands of national sovereignty, we have effectively defused some of the inherent tension in nations that define themselves by their religious convictions. It’s one thing to enact a new law that has an adverse impact on the economy. It’s another to enact a law that offends the Almighty.
I don’t mean all religions are equally problematic at grafting into the national identity—a topic a friend and I explore at length in a recent episode of the Saving Elephants podcast. Rather, when religion is what primarily defines a nation, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people cannot endure. The popular will is a secular idea, not a religious idea.
“Here, then, is the truth in nationalism,” Scruton concludes, “When we ask ourselves the question, to what do we belong, and what defines our loyalties and commitments, we do not find the answer in a shared religious obedience, still less in bonds of tribe and kinship. We find the answer in the things that we share with our fellow citizens, and in particular in those things that serve to sustain the rule of law and the consensual forms of politics.”
A Guy Named Joe
How, exactly, does anchoring our sense of national belonging in what we share in common with those who live within the nation/state defuse the tension endemic of the religious states of the past? Let’s take, as a case study, a fictitious guy named Joe.
Joe is an American but, more than that, Joe considers himself to be a follower of Christ. He used to call himself a Christian when he was younger. Back then he was raised by his parents in what he now recognizes to be a terribly judgmental and legalistic Baptist church that taught homosexuality was a sin. The pastor frequently quoted from the Book of Leviticus about how homosexuality was an abomination to the Lord. Joe was horrified when gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004. He spent much of the following years campaigning for politicians in his home state who said they would support the Biblical definition of marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.
But one day Joe learned that Mark, his best friend from high school, was gay. He couldn’t believe it! He had been on several mission trips with Mark and he knew Mark loved Christ. This was the beginning of the end. Little by little, over the next several years, Joe began to rethink his beliefs about homosexuality. Eventually Joe professed a far more tolerant version of the faith. He meets weekly with a group of seekers of truth and love. Joe now sees that the God he worships is a God of love, not the God of jealousy and judgment that he was taught about growing up. Joe celebrated along with Mark when the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in 2015. After all, he’d spent most of that spring attending LGBTQ rallies and was in D.C. when the court announced its decision.
The point here isn’t whether Joe’s old views or his new views are the correct views, but that both religious convictions are expressed politically by working within the democratic system in the United States. Using religion as the basis for what holds a nation/state together ups the ante on how seriously we must have to get something right. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t agree with what you’re saying or doing, but I believe it’s in both of our long-term best interests to work out our disagreements within the system and agree to abide by the rules”. It’s quite another thing to say, “I don’t agree with what you’re saying or doing, so I’m going to try to bring down the system to keep you from saying or doing it.”
In our present case the “system” is America’s secular democratic society where we identify ourselves by our allegiance to the ideas of our Founding. “In the American context, patriotism is defined by adherence to a set of principles and ideals that is higher than mere nationalism,” explained Jonah Goldberg in his book The Suicide of the West, “It is also a cultural orientation that is inherent to the idea of American exceptionalism.”
These “principles” contain the idea that individual liberty should be protected against mob rule, and that the “system” is there to ensure that—while we might not all get what we want—we can at least rest easy knowing our rights will be protected. Ideas have formed the core of what it means to be an American. We hold our identity in the things we believe and in the stories we tell ourselves. And, while religion can be just as powerful at holding a nation/state together, it is often far more violent because it cannot adapt as easily as a secular system.
The Secularization of the West
As the European nations gradually became less religious over the centuries, some unified yearning of the human spirit had to be found to hold the nation/states together. Scruton holds that nationalism, “…with its myths and fables, would restore some of the meaning lost to the Age of Reason.” Something primal would step in to provide a sense of belonging. “Nationalism is a pre-rational, emotional, ultimately tribal commitment to one’s home country,” wrote Jonah Goldberg, “This place is mine and I love it not least because it is mine.”
In all this talk of the benefits of nationalism over a religious identity for the nation/state, I should pause here to say that I’m not advocating one’s national identity is greater or more important than their spiritual identity or religious convictions. Rather, I am suggesting that anchoring the defining characteristic of a nation/state in a shared religion is an improper, and dangerous, use of religion.
We don’t define the nation by our shared faith because our faith isn’t important, but precisely because it is most important. Ordering a nation/state around a secular identity means we are giving up the myth that we can run our faith through state collectivism. Our religious identity is so important, it must be left to the individual to pursue and not be entrusted to a central authority.
What I’m attempting to argue here is that nationalism has shown itself to be an effective means of holding a nation together with less violence that the religious glues of the past. The conservative certainly believes there is an important role religion plays in a healthy society—not the least of which is it provides the citizenry a transcendental outlet in a secular society. The precise role of faith in the state and the separation of church and state are much larger topics that we’ll have to save for another day.
Drawing Lines on a Map
Where does your sense of home or belonging come from? It may come from many places, but it is certainly not arbitrary or something simply imposed willfully. “You do not create boundaries by drawing lines on the map,” observed Scruton, “Boundaries arise through the emergence of national identities, which in turn require that religious obedience take second place to the feeling for home, territory, and settlement…democracy will always be jeopardized in places where identities are confessional rather than territorial.”
Here, of course, we’re wandering into dangerous territory (pun very much intended). For if the roles were reversed—if all that held a people together was a powerful sense of territorialism and a complete lack of any guiding moral principles or sound, religious orthodoxy—then we end up with fascism always looking for an opportunity to prey on weaker nations. Nationalism has shown itself to be an auspicious alternative to the religiously organized nation/states of the past. But there is a balance to be struck between purely secular nationalism and the benefits sound religion provides.
As bad as those religious wars in Europe had been, they paled in comparison to what came next. In the twentieth century, when nationalism swept across Europe, two world wars were fought and brought with it the bloodiest century humanity had ever seen. There is a dark side to nationalism. And that is where we’ll pick things up in the fourth and final post next week.