Identity is basic to how people think about themselves. Am I a man or woman? Father or son? Catholic or Muslim? American or Japanese? Such things help people define who and what they are and their relations to others, and help them make sense of their lives.
Identities matter because of their function. Complementary roles for men, women, parents, and children are fundamental to society. To be Catholic is to have a particular connection to ultimate reality. And America and Japan are, among other things, systems for living together, loyalty to which is needed for a stable and functional social order.
A global, technological, commercial, and bureaucratic age does not want such things. It sees us as interchangeable components in a universal economic machine distinguishable only by subjective desires, and by objective criteria like money and organizational position that have no special relation to traditional identities.
If we adopt that perspective in a single-minded way, it would make sense to get rid of older forms of identity and look at our lives simply from the standpoint of individuality, career, consumption choices, and attitude toward the regime. That view is implicit in the current concept of bigotry, which has recently come to include any sense that traditional identities matter.
The horrified response to Brexit shows that it has also come to include any opposition to the project of constructing a borderless regime of equal freedom, prosperity, and inclusiveness. National identity is now considered bad, at least in the case of established Western nations. (The situation is not as clear outside the West, or in cases like Scottish or Catalan nationalism.)
This judgment takes a variety of forms, but it’s unmistakable. The Instrumentum Laboris of the Amazon Synod presents the West as a source of evil. The New York Times, following the collapse of the “collusion with Russia” story around which they had built their newsroom for two years, plans to spend the remainder of Trump’s presidency reconstructing American history so that slavery and racism become its source and center.
And a group of Catholic and other Christian scholars, some very prominent, has published a calmly intemperate open letter denouncing nationalism as “anathema” to Christianity. The statement mentions a manifesto published in First Things, and a recent conference on national conservatism to which First Things was also connected, and immediately starts talking about Nazism.
Such attitudes reflect a refusal or inability to think seriously about social complexities that in normal times we would associate with the political crank. The attitude taken in the Instrumentum Laboris toward the West, the successor civilization to Catholic Christendom, is of a piece with the attitude toward Christianity, and I won’t add to what others have said on that topic. The discussions at the New York Times reflect their hatred of Trump and the growing conviction at such places that “pretty much everything is racist.” They evidently think that selling that story to their readers will make for a better and purer world.
As for the open letter, it says that the important distinction is between bad “nationalism,” which “forges political belonging out of religious, ethnic, and racial identities,” and good “patriotism,” which is “love of the laws and loyalty to them over leader or party.” So unlike the Catechism, the signers of the open letter don’t want to understand a nation as a community that exists apart from the state, and whose common good is the proper object of government. Their view seems to be that taking pre-political connections as the basis for political society, and using the well-being of the community they help define as a standard for judging the law, has dangerous and anti-Christian consequences, including “pretensions … to usurp our highest loyalties,” a “tendency to homogenize and narrow the church to a single ethnos,” and failure to “welcome the stranger” (which apparently means limiting immigration).
Such a view has a number of oddities. One is that it turns the state into an ideological project, so that the value of patriotism depends on the value of the project. If during the Nazi period a German despised the laws of the Third Reich it tells us that he should not have pinned his loyalty to the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven, of learning and craftsmanship, of medieval towns, Baroque churches, and great universities. That would have been evil nationalism, because it would have been a loyalty that “precede[s] and supersede[s] law” to an historical community and its culture. As such, it would have had a strong ethnic and religious component.
What then should he have done? Abandoned all concern for his native country and its people?
Similarly, a patriotic American would now have to be loyal to abortion and gay marriage, since those things have been authoritatively declared fundamental to the American legal order. If he opposed them and appealed to better things in American history and culture, for example the ultimate origins of America in Christendom, and quoted Tocqueville on American religion, morality, and family life, that would be anti-Christian and possibly proto-Nazi, since the basis of the appeal would not apply equally to a Somali refugee who arrived yesterday, or for that matter to a variety of groups who have been here for quite some time. The appeal would therefore have racist and exclusionary aspects that the New York Times could then explain to us.
None of this makes much sense. Man does not live solely by formal institutions like the state on the one hand and private attachments to religious opinions and cultural habits and attitudes on the other. The latter inevitably pervade the former and stop being private, and the two develop historically in a way that eventually causes the community to take on somewhat of an ethnic quality. Americans become Americans who are recognizably different from people in their ancestral countries. The result is the community that government is bound to foster and care for, and the weaker and more chaotic the relationship between institutions and cultural and religious tendencies the less functional the community.
The liberal attempt to make things otherwise leads to endless failure and hypocrisy. It makes self-government impossible, since it makes ordinary people unable to discuss their common affairs in their own terms, it destroys willingness to sacrifice self-interest to a public good that can’t be defined, since there is no common public understanding of what matters in life, and it puts all power in the hands of those who control the formal institutions—billionaires and supposedly neutral and expert bureaucrats.
But what then should we say about America as a nation? The claim that it’s a “proposition nation” makes it once again simply an ideological project. Considered as a particular historical society it’s evidently complex, and has long been subject to influences that point to dissolution as well as integration. The former include its vast territory, large population, increasingly ideological politics, and the large-scale and increasingly diverse immigration that has episodically changed and is now continuously transforming it. The integrating influences include the vanishing and increasingly discredited remnants of a common culture ultimately stemming from the original English settlers, the traditional and also increasingly discredited ideal of assimilation to the national type, and a broader history of mutual dealings, common efforts in peace and war, and interchange of habits and ideas.
Will dissolution or integration prevail? Current trends suggest the former, actual patriots, concerned for the continuation of a mostly free and cooperative society, pray for the latter. The outlook of our official intellectual and spiritual leaders, who seem to have lost all critical distance from the increasingly uniform and deracinated institutions within which they make their careers, offers little assistance.
Life goes on, and so does the Church. America, like other historical societies, has been a mixture of good and bad, but it is better—if only because more human—than the global technocracy now seen as its successor. Catholics should therefore be patriots, although not in the sense of the open letter. As such, they should work as opportunity may offer for an America unified on the best possible interpretation of its principles and history. They should also realize that they cannot rely on their identity as Americans, however important, to define an overall way of life adequate to their Faith. As always, our first loyalty is to the City of God and not that of Man.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!