Nationalism and populism in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

The only way for the West to find a third way, an alternative to catastrophe or dystopia, is through an honest and open discussion of existential questions.

People displaced by war are seen at the Ivano-Frankivsk Theological Seminary of St. Josaphat in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in this photo taken in March 2022. (CNS photo/courtesy Archeparchy of Ivano-Frankivsk)

With the world in turmoil following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is worth noting just how singularly unfitted the current Western elite is for coping with the current disaster in Eastern Europe, precisely because the visceral issues at stake – nationality, patriotism, ethnic identity, borders, religion – are issues that the “globally-minded” political functionary refuses to take seriously on their own terms.

We can set aside the case made by various scholars and foreign policy experts, who have been arguing for years that the imperatives of globalism and NATO expansion has paved the way for this crisis of Russo-American relations. What is positively surreal is to find an American political class – which at home incessantly denounces love of homeland and national identity as small-minded, if not racist – now pretending to understand and empathize with the sentiments of Ukrainian citizens taking up arms to defend their territory. Since when have neoliberals or neoconservatives commended an old-fashioned devotion to one’s homeland?

A couple years ago First Things editor R.R. Reno presciently took it upon himself to explain the state of the West in Return of the Strong Gods. As Reno observes, ever since World War II Americans and Europeans have been dominated by a “postwar consensus” that insists upon fighting the last war, against Hitler and the Nazis, instead of recognizing the new threat to mankind posed by atomizing, secular liberalism, radical egalitarianism, and dehumanizing technologies.

For its partisans,

the postwar consensus is more than political. Its powerful cultural influence is evident in the emphasis on openness and weakening in highly theorized literary criticism and cultural studies in universities, often under the flag of critique and deconstruction, and in popular calls for diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusivity, all of which entail a weakening of boundaries and opening of borders.

For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with postwar intellectual history, Reno relates the ascendance of figures such as Karl Popper – author of The Open Society and Its Enemies – as well as the neo-Marxists of the Frankfort School, and libertarian Friedrich Hayek. All of these thinkers were deeply suspicious, even hostile toward transcendent aspirations, for they saw such aspirations as potentially fascist. Where religion, patriotism, tradition, and other passionate devotions were once regarded as sources of human enrichment, they are now seen first and foremost as threats to the rights of the individual.

Thus arose the ideal of “negative piety, which gives priority to critique and self-questioning over conviction.” This negative piety is directed against the Church no less than against the nation, Reno explains, for it “guards against resurgent authoritarianism by renouncing metaphysical claims. After all, someone who defines an end or purpose for man becomes a black-and-white thinker, a potential fascist.”

Yet in practice, he argues, “a too rigorously anti-utopian outlook is itself dangerously utopian,” and leads to sociopolitical dysfunction:

The nations of Europe are experiencing a profound demographic change. Since 1945, people from non-European lands have immigrated to the West in large numbers. Some have come in accord with government policies put in place decades ago to deal with labor shortages. Others are being settled as a result of emergency measures to accommodate refugees from the war-torn Middle East. Still others arrive illegally […] For more than fifty years, voters in Europe have told their leaders that they don’t like the cultural changes caused by immigration and they don’t want more immigrants. The politicians consistently promise to reduce the inflow. But they never do. In many instances, the leadership class pushes in the opposite direction, toward more immigration, while it celebrates “diversity” as redemptive.

So, well before the Russian invasion, many European countries were in the process of getting wiped off the map, or transformed beyond recognition, all in the name of diversity, and with not only the acquiescence but often the active collaboration of Western leaders. In Reno’s words, such leaders exhibit a “strange inability” to “affirm their loyalty to the people they lead.” It is hardly clear why anyone should count on a Bush, a Biden, or a Macron to prudently and responsibly provide for Ukrainian sovereignty and national identity when such leaders actively undermine that of their own nations.

Going deeper, Reno argues that the patriotic sentiment is best understood as rooted in but not limited to nature. “Human beings are by nature social animals,” he points out, and so,

My parents, grandparents, and ancestors before them are in a real sense far more necessary to me than my generic humanity, so much so that I’m far more likely to sacrifice my life for my blood relations than for someone outside the family circle, however equal he may be in the eyes of God. This is at once an obvious point about human nature — blood is thicker than water, as folk wisdom puts it — and something remarkable[…] It’s not simply a metaphor to speak of our motherlands and fatherlands. Here as well the power of the “we” transcends biology. Nations unite clans and tribes, villages and provinces. They can incorporate newcomers by “naturalizing” them, a process of civic adoption, as it were.

Here proponents of Popper’s Open Society might object that such attachments can turn into idols for fanatics. The Christian response is that anything – not only ancestors, or nation, but also “generic humanity,” as well as a heart-rending image served up by a manipulative mass-media, or an abstract principle like freedom or equality – can become an idol when made the object of disordered love. Even so, abuse does not invalidate proper use. As C.S. Lewis put it, it is the true patriot who is best equipped to resist jingoism, precisely because the true patriot actually knows what patriotism is.

Certainly there are limits to Reno’s analysis. For instance, he is clearly reluctant to admit that in America, ground zero for the “disenchantment” with homeland is the American South, which has for decades been subjected by the liberal establishment to a one-sided and simplistic demonization campaign. And while Reno is entirely correct to note that “the open society alone fails to meet our basic human need for a home,” it is still not entirely clear how a continental span populated by over 300 million people, of increasingly divergent heritages, can serve as a distinct home for anybody. It also seems to me that he goes too far out of his way to assure his readers that he is not himself a fascist. It is as if a pro-life activist were to feel obliged to say I am not a misogynist every five minutes. If one frank disclaimer isn’t enough, no number of disclaimers will be.

Yet to dwell too long upon such limitations would be not only ungracious but misleading. In the remote chance that some kind of modus vivendi is ever achieved among the parties in Ukraine – or, for that matter, in these United States – it will be because voices like Reno’s move from the margins to the center. The only way for the West to find a third way, an alternative to catastrophe or dystopia, is through an honest and open discussion of existential questions.

How such a discussion could ever happen in the public square is not clear. For some time now the liberal establishment has taken for granted its right to define who “we” are – and the establishmentarians show no signs of opening up to negotiation on the matter.

Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West
by R.R. Reno
Regnery/Gateway Editions, 2019
Hardcover, 182 pages

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About Jerry Salyer 54 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.


  1. The Catholic Church has been proposing a natural law-based “third way”from its founding, with special emphasis for the past two centuries with the rise of socialism and modernism. The social order must respect the dignity of every human person without exception, and it will not be achieved by fiat or vesting power in a capitalist or socialist elite, but in actual human persons by recognizing and protecting each person’s natural rights to life, liberty and private property, as described in the upcoming (March 15) book, “The Greater Reset” from TAN Books. Unless an effective, financially feasible, and morally justifiable third way is implemented and maintained, it’s all talk:

    • Having read that link and how you failed to get the facts straight, relying instead on Western propaganda (also used by the same WEF that you supposedly decry), I have no reason to take your book seriously.

  2. Hey Jerry, I agree with a lot of your points, but I want to expand on your last paragraph a bit in which you say that (paraphrasing) the liberal establishment isn’t going to give up its right to “define who ‘we’ are.”

    You are correct, sir. They are going to give us nothing, we are going to have to take it from them. The theme of Christianity the past 60 years has been “weakness posing as meekness.” It’s time for our side to, as they say, “man up.”

    Apparently, we need to “smarten up” too, because I only see Facebook/Twitter and all the other liberal bad guys represented in the “Share” section here.

    Hey CWR, you need Gab, Rumble, Truth Social, etc. instead of just censoring yourself with liberal tech-companies.

    Just sayin’.

  3. Years past I read Reno’s thesis on Strong Gods, their need for order as a balance to global disintegration. Sayler’s third way is open discussion of the existential questions – those implacables that polarize and ignite wars.
    For Adolf it was a rail service crossing the Polish Corridor connecting Brandeburg with Danzig and E Prussia. For Władysław Raczkiewicz the Corridor was inviolable to German encroachment. Putin’s demand that Ukraine remain neutral and decline Nato membership seems as trivial, compared to war, perhaps a world war, as Hitler’s request. Why not compromise as an alternative to deadly war?
    Thackeray pondered dissertations even consulted philosophy seeking the elusive cause for the 30 Years War. William Makepeace Thackeray’s [that middle name prophetic] failure speaks to the lack of justification for war, at least the vast majority.
    War as a means to resolve conflicting interests is irrational. Except in self defense, although that’s a defense rather than initiative. Ukraine’s just interest in independence as a sovereign entity must be considered a right, as well as Russia’s just request, demand for security. Both nations are adamantly polarized on what consists in meeting Russia’s demand for security.
    If there is a third way nationality, patriotism, ethnic identity, borders, religion must be as Sayler correctly suggests have to be modified, and are satisfied.
    Enter the human soul. Enter Christ. Good will, humility, honesty, tolerance are virtues that disappear when our passions are inflamed. All the media hype on targeting one side opposed to the other feeds the flames. At this stage of a conflict that may lead to an irrational [evil is always irrational] worldwide conflagration we really need something very basic. Prayer, personally to Christ, individual sacrifice [Lent the perfect time], the willingness to sacrifice some of our prejudices, even just desires for sake of a greater justice and peace.

  4. For some reason my earlier attempted comment was automatically blocked by Wordfence and thus wasn’t sent for moderation. This isn’t good.

  5. Once the population of a country becomes 51 % Muslim, that country is considered, by Islam, to be ‘’Muslim land.’’ Of course there is genuine human need and suffering that is driving people to Europe’s shores, but there is also stealth ‘’invasion by immigration’’ occurring, and not to recognize that fact is to be naive.

    • Yes, I have heard a Muslim quoted as saying, “We are taking over the country from within.” It may have been in Douglas Murray’s, “Madness of Crowds”, but you are basically correct. It would be interesting to know how many “European Muslims” are aware of that fact or actually think in that way.

  6. I would like to say, that those who support the American unipolar experiment on CWR—which is frankly being tested in the Ukraine—should not be let of the hook in explaining, not only their practical, but their metaphysical justification for their aims. To be slightly clearer, is there anything about John Courtney Murray’s propositions that should not be to applicable to all homo sapiens, and not just “Americans”? Maybe I am wrong and do not understand, but they ought to be put to a frank and honest exposition of worldview.

    “Here proponents of Popper’s Open Society might object that such attachments can turn into idols for fanatics”.
    Yes. But as the author goes on to say, this works both ways.

  7. “How such a discussion could ever happen in the public square is not clear.”

    Certainly it will be shut down on social media when required. What is needed now is less discussion, more action, including networking.

  8. Yesterday when I searched for the the internet reference for the del Valle Patriotism statue, I came across a CLICK ON DETROIT article that allows you an up-close introduction to the statues in Detroit public spaces. I walked through Detroit a few times and the art is breathtaking; and you will get a sense of it here. So if you are ever in that city take a little time one afternoon and stroll around, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. You can also use the People Mover monorail for free; it lands at all major sites, stations are very clean, there are elevators. And of course there is the architecture in general and other things like the River, etc.

    My experiences there also introduced me to Big Band music. There’s a lot of artistry in this music, from the way it captures a sense of “on the way”, to giving a feeling of ease and lightness, to the elegant dancing it allows, the swing, to the way it uses imaginative “off page” titles for its scripting, eg., Volga Boatmen, Back Bay Boogie. Very smart. The second link is Dianne Reeves performance of ‘s Wonderful, with the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m dedicating it to CWR. Ok, so yes, it’s early yet in 2022 and it’s Lent, therefore you can wait ’till after Lent to take a listen.

    The WIKIPEDIA discussion on Patriotism is, in my opinion, weak and muddled. Perhaps as a result, it causes the more fearsome aspect of the statue to appear. If you like studying the human virtues, have a read of David Isaacs’ book Character Building. It is meant for guiding parenting but the virtues are explored in depth and intelligently irrespective of the childhood and adolescent content. One of the things he goes into with patriotism, is about having a sense of shared appreciation and respect toward another’s own homeland, its purpose and aesthetic.

    In the Book of Revelation the various angels are active in bringing about the final judgment. The images within John’s testimony are very humbling and encourage the fear of God. Angel art ought to depict in some way, or recollect, the eschatological meaning, when they relate with us.

    In their exalted natures, angels are wholly dedicated to God. The implication from this is that patriotism is always to be conditioned subject to God’s dominion.

  9. A problem with intellectual analysis is a tendency to believe that words have meaning in an absolute sense when they do not. Words are received by others and interpreted in ways that the original writer could not have imagined. Take for example the words used to describe the Holy Trinity. Christians generally view these words are understood in a generally acknowledged way. This is not so and the current events in the Ukraine show this very clearly. If questioned and in discussions Christians will assume that when a Russian orthodox person is discussing the Trinity that it means the same as when western Catholics as discussing the same thing. And, the words used in both cases are the same. However, in lived practice the Trinity of the Russian Orthodox is voiced in words as the Trinity the one universal God of all that exists but that is not how it is practised. In day to day living the Russian Orthodox feel and act as if the Trinity is not the God of everything but the God of ‘Mother Russia’. Note that Putin is living the life of a recently baptized Russian Orthodox who has stated that Russia owns the true baptism. During the current war he has stated that the Russian cause is a divine cause and this view is supported by his Russian Orthodox Church leaders. Those Russians who may have a different understanding of what God would require of Russian policies are ostracized and occasionally jailed or killed. The emotionally accepted God of Mother Russia is not God. It is a symbol providing endless self justification for brutality of all sorts. I sometimes wonder if the God of Russian is lived as, not expressed, the devil in ecclesiastical trappings. This is a difficult idea to accept because so many Russian people live as if God is the one that teaches love of neighbour, as in the West. However, in practice the trinity has become the a state justification for power striving and delicate sensitivities protesting all questioning of the Russian state. It is clear from the words coming from journalists and western government officials that they do not understand why Russia, Putin, is behaving as it does. This implies that both of them have made themselves helpless with respect to enlightening their readers. Again and again they express their mystification regarding Russian behaviour. They do not appreciate that words are useless. The heart of the Russian Orthodox is that the State is what they are called to justify and even make more brutal if that works to strengthen the State. Napoleon knew this. Occasionally some philosophically sensitive thinkers like Eric Voegelin have seen it. The Pope and his minions have yet to learn that the Trinity for Russia is not a universal trinity.

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