The second National Conservatism conference concluded in Rome on February 4, and the day will surely become an important one for the resurgence of right-wing political thought. Politicians, from Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the rising hope of the French right, Marion Maréchal, as well as others from Poland, Sweden, and the UK, joined right-wing intellectuals, academics, journalists, and movement and institutional figures from both Europe and America, including organizer Yoram Hazony, Douglas Murray, John O’Sullivan, Rod Dreher, and Ryszard Legutko, for a day of speeches and panels on the future of the right.
This National Conservatism conference was of more immediate interest to Catholics than the first, organized in Washington DC last summer, as its title announces: “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations.” The pope who defeated communism, united his nation in faith, and encouraged nations to defeat transnational tyrannic ideologies was quoted again and again, not least in contrast to the current Pontiff, seen by some present as a figure of the Left, and no friend to nationalism.
National conservatism both holds Christianity in high regard, as the title of the conference acknowledges, and makes certain demands on Christianity at a political level. In its American version, national conservatism deals mostly with Protestantism, but in its European iterations, it mostly deals with Catholicism, which brings its own problems and solutions.
First and foremost, Catholicism offers a trans-national ground of justice, referred to several times during the conference: natural law. This, in the view of conference presenters, would make both diplomacy and European unity plausible in absence of the EU, the stated enemy of national conservatism. Catholicism could thus be both part of the past, the historical legacy necessary to conservative politics, but also part of the future, offering ways of dealing with political questions that limit the justification for conflict.
The identity of Europe outside of liberalism is naturally Catholic. But Catholicism was once as rife with conflict, as beset by local defeats and even schism as EU liberalism is now. It’s not at all obvious what lessons have been learned that could fix Europe’s problems. Perhaps liberalism was once necessary to tame religious wars, and Christianity is now necessary to tame liberalism’s self-defeating tendencies, within the context of nation states.
So far, national conservatism would seem to be a species of the genus Christian politics. There’s something in nation states that needs Christianity, though the speakers and panelists did not get into it, except in the negative way of noticing the obvious: that every European tyranny of the 20th century was also an enemy of Christianity.
But what is the hope of this new or renewed alliance between politics and religion? It would seem to be something that the politicians and intellectuals in attendance cannot do themselves: fix the crisis of modernity, or at least make it manageable. This would be an acknowledgement of piety unknown in our times—that we somehow need God, if our politics is to work tolerably well.
There are three major difficulties for the national conservatives’ would-be alliance with Christianity. First, Protestantism, which was mostly treated as no longer religion, but politics—no longer tied to history, but to an uprooted hope in Progress. This silently points to the central, if latent, EU conflict between the Catholic South and the Protestant North. The Catholic Church might be forced to take political positions, simply by the worsening of this conflict.
Secondly, Pope Francis, who seems to be held in low regard by some of the presenters, but was not openly attacked in any of the speeches. The perception seems to be that the progressive faction in Catholicism he leads is a threat to the authority of national politics and a force to chastise national leaders, possibly breaking open the theologico-political conflict at the heart of modern citizenship. While the conference speakers expected popular support, they were skeptical of Church support, which suggests a coming conflict concerning political loyalty.
Thirdly, and perhaps most urgently, the problem posed by Africa. National conservatism seeks to conserve the European nations, but the future of Christianity and of the Catholic Church might be in Africa, not Europe, for reasons of demography. There are more people and, soon, more Christians, in Africa than Europe. Should this force a conflict between the past and future of the faith, how will Christians choose sides?
As national conservatives become important in European politics, Catholics will have to learn to deal with nation states which own the Church’s past literally and figuratively. Nation states are supposed to be Christian, but not universal and proselytizing; bound by law, but strong enough to defend themselves; and popular without tyrannizing over minorities. This is a difficult stance at the best of times, and the times are unlikely to be anywhere near that favorable.
Like it or not, the arrival of national conservatism will force these questions into our minds and public affairs. That End of History liberalism is now questionable, that ever-closer Union is now implausible, is hopeful for a Christianity that has been denied any role in the new dispensation. But it is also dangerous and will require great prudence. National conservatism has affirmed the fact of the importance of Christianity to politics, but not explained how it might be made into a reasonable, persuasive policy. This will be the task of this generation.
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