Can a Christian Be a Patriot? (Maybe, Maybe Not)

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It is hard to love The United States of America these days. According to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), conditions in the immigrant detainment camps at the US southern border epitomize President Donald Trump’s characterization of them as largely “animals”, because that is how they are being treated. In response Trump, taking to his Twitter pulpit, advised Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and three other new congresswomen of color, to go back to the countries they came from. The fact that this remark is racist to the core, and manifestly so, will predictably have no effect. Hackles will be raised, then relaxed, and then raised again at the next paradoxically-mundane outrage. Outrage is so 2017. Seneca was right: what were once vices are now habits.

Looking outside the United States, one sees something similar going on. For example: Viktor Orban’s promotion of “illiberal democracy” (which, when you take a closer look at it, isn’t all that democratic), Marine LePen’s near victories in the French Parliament, and, the biggest disaster of all, Brexit. It is easy to label all of the above as part of a resurgent “White Nationalism”, or “radical nationalism”, or “nationalist populism”. While I am wary of enlisting the term “populism” to characterize global movements that do not seem to have much of a problem with the tyranny of capital or the depredations of the rich, “nationalism” seems to fit them well. It is the elevation of ethnicity, of belonging to a cultural group with a determinate history and cohesion, to the supreme standard of political value. It is xenophobia raised to the level of a moral imperative. (I do not think that the typical radical nationalist is conceptually sophisticated enough to think of it in these philosophical terms, but this is in effect what is being affirmed.)

Is loyalty to a nation, a place, a community, therefore a bad thing? As I have argued elsewhere in Medium and Public Seminar (under my pre-transition name), and drawing upon George Orwell and Alasdair MacIntyre, not necessarily. Orwell drew a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, with the former signifying a tempered love for one’s country’s traditions and allegiance to its institutions, and the letter indicating a bellicose promotion of one’s nation above all, viewing all challenges to its current state to be a form of treason. MacIntyre’s defense of patriotism as a virtue is also well known: without one realizing that one is part of a particular history, the inheritor of practices and loyalties prior to one’s conscious choice, one cannot act responsibly toward those people in the concrete communities whose fate is intertwined with one’s own. Patiotism, in MacIntyre’s telling, is a project that one can construe in different ways, as a conservative or a moderate or a radical. German resistors to the Nazi Reich and civil rights protesters in the United States acted patriotically: patriotism it need not indicate conformity to the Status Quo. So it would seem that, for both Orwell and MacIntyre, while nationalism is always to be viewed with at best suspicion and at worst alarm, patriotism names something good, maybe even essential to one’s moral identity.

Yet MacIntyre’s analysis in Is Patriotism a Virtue? leaves us in a much more ambiguous and ambivalent a place. Most commentary has ignored the final sections of his long essay, which pits what he calls “liberal universalist morality” against “the morality of patriotism” within a kind of dialectical standoff, where each side identifies the limitations, possibly fatal, to its counterpart’s position.[1] Consider the following passage just prior to the close of his essay:

Hence the charge that the morality of patriotism can successfully bring against liberal morality is the mirror-image of that which liberal morality can successfully urge against the morality of patriotism. For while the liberal moralist was able to conclude that patriotism is a permanent source of moral danger because of the way it places our ties to our nation beyond rational criticism, the moralist who defends patriotism is able to conclude that liberal morality is a permanent source of moral danger because of the way it renders our social and moral ties too open to dissolution by rational criticism. And each party is in fact in the right against the other.

The fundamental task which confronts any moral philosopher who finds this conclusion compelling is clear. It is to enquire whether, although the central claims made on behalf of these two rival modern moralities cannot both be true, we ought perhaps not to move towards the conclusion that both sets of claims are in fact false.

Let’s give the above a close reading. The problem with liberal-universalist morality is that it presumes a standpoint, neutral to and independent of given moral/political beliefs and practices of a society, from which they can be criticized. MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue is that this moral-political “View from Nowhere” is nonexistent, so the “universals” appealed to in, say, the political theories of Rawls and Nozick for example, are actually just personal prejudices elevated to the level of categorical imperatives, just ideology that masks raw class or individual interest. It precludes the kind of substantive political community that you find in, say John Dewey or Charles Taylor (both, it should be noted, Liberal Democratic Republicans), and to a lesser extent Hannah Arendt. But the morality of patriotism fares no better. To champion the norms and practices of one’s political community tempts one to assume that they are beyond reproach, at least as they currently stand. But to err is human: we are often wrong about many socially acceptable norms and practices, e.g. slavery, torture, racism. The morality of patriotism can have an ominous ring, such as “If you don’t like us, you can always leave.” Which I needn’t remind you is in the news a lot these days.

MacIntyre is agreeing with Foucault here: everything is dangerous. MacIntyre frames this in terms of Hegel’s distinction between Moralitȁt and Sittlichkeit, between the morality of universal rationality and the morality of local custom and practice. Both the politics of Moralitȁt and the politics of Sittlichkeit are at least partly false. They ignore a third option, outlined by MacIntyre in his other works on moral and political theory, that inheritors of the institutions, practices, and traditions of a community have the responsibility to test them against internal and external challenges. MacIntyre’s is a dynamic tradition-based view of moral-political life that has strange and unexpected resonances with that of Dewey in Individualism Old and New and The Public and its Problems. (Strange, because while Dewey wishes to reform liberal republican democracy in line with communal inquiry into the common good, MacIntyre rejects modern politics in all its forms.)

But one should not too eagerly expect this option to come to pass very soon, especially in the United States. For MacIntyre, the United States, like the European democracies but in a more extreme fashion, has fused the perspectives of Moralitat and Sittlichkeit:

[Immigrants] arrived in a country and a culture whose Sittlichkeit just is Moralitat. And thus for many Americans the cause of America, understood as the object of patriotic regard, and the cause of morality, understood as the liberal moralist understands it, came to be identified. The history of this identification could not be other than a history of confusion and incoherence, if the argument which I have constructed in this lecture is correct. For a morality of particularist ties and solidarities has been conflated with a morality of universal, impersonal and impartial principles in a way that can never be carried through without incoherence.

As is often the case, MacIntyre has wildly overstated a case that makes a sound point: there is something unique about American patriotism, and something uniquely disconcerting about it. Not only is it important to “be a true American!”, loyal to its existing institutions and customs: it is equally important to recognize that the United States embodies universal, timeless values that everyone should endorse and accept. So pace MacIntyre, I see the political culture of the United States less as incoherent than as violent: our way or the highway to the dustbin of history. Better yet, our way or economic warfare, carpet bombs, and unmanned drones.

It is this kernel of violence that leads me to the question posed in my title: “Can a Christian be a Patriot?” To answer this question one would need to consider the following three challenges.

1. Does adhering to the Christian community — the Church — automatically exclude one from being loyal to other such communities? I believe the answer to this is a firm “no”. One of the problems with MacIntyre’s analyses, here and in works such as Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, is that he does not come up with criteria for demarcating one tradition from another, one set of communal loyalties from another. We dwell in many political communities in the United States — local, state, national — as well as intermediate associations like labor unions and NGOs. The loyalties overlap and sometimes clash, but there is nothing necessary about having to opt for one over the other when they do clash. Viewed this, the Church as a polis, an Augustinian “Civitas Dei”, need not preclude patriotism. Our communities form both concentric and intersecting circles of allegiance. When our loyalties conflict, we employ practical wisdom to resolve the conflicts or seek a modus vivendi, with choice of one over the other a kind of last resort.

2. Does loyalty to the Church, the people of God, take precedence to allegiance to a people, a nation, or a state? I think the answer here is an equally firm “yes”, with the proviso that this does not rule patriotism, loyalty to one’s political community as a key feature of one’s identity, out either. It is a matter of acknowledging the priority of discipleship to citizenship, however. When it matters, in other words, the Sermon on the Mount takes priority over the Constitution, and witness, such as performed by Martin Luther King and the Berrigan brothers, is called for. But even this is not incompatible with patriotism, since patriotic motives — being a good citizen calling the polity back to its better self — can mix with discipleship, as in the cases above.

3. Do certain kinds of nations, states, polities warrant rejection from Christians, such that they can no longer exercise the virtue of patriotism? Yes. One ought to be cautious about making this kind of judgment. But any country whose patriotic line demands ultimate and unconditional allegiance, the nation über alles, has lost its claim to the patriotism of its Christian citizen. How might one discern when this is the case?

There are some crystal clear examples: Nazi Germany being only the clearest example. The witness of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer serves as a test case for when Christians ought to drop their patriotic convictions. Sittlichkeit can turn demonic, and when it does, Christians should seek refuge in the sittlich community of fellow disciples. This does not suggest any kind of political quietism: far from it. But the political action should be done in the name of the Church and those in other faith communities who also resist the totalizing claim of the corrupted nation-state. Sometimes Christians need to leave their secular political homes, if only to return and reconstruct them from their ruins.

Does the contemporary United States of America fall into this category? Should Christians remain patriotic Americans? I think the answer is ambiguous, for two reasons.

First, as MacIntyre suggests, the political culture of the United States welds together two incompatible theses: that the United States is the embodiment of truths and ideals that are eternal and universal, and that the United States consists in a way of life that enjoins its citizens’ unhesitating loyalty. Its Sittlichkeit simply is Moralitȁt. This is dangerous not only because it is inconsistent, but because it licenses a kind of violence toward all who refuse its putatively universal national mission. It licenses violence within and without, as well as on its borders. (Read a newspaper for a timely illustration.)

Second, the political culture of The United States of America has tended to absorb its religious communities into its celebration of “the American Way of Life.” As a corollary, it marginalizes those who cannot, or do not wish to, be absorbed. The identification by many conservative Evangelicals between the United States (and Donald Trump!) and the will of God is perhaps the most obvious example of this, and is clearly idolatry on a grand scale. And mass idolatry of the “Christian Nation” will always require an “other” to define itself against: the refugee, the immigrant, the foreigner, the poor, the black and brown, the woman, the LGBTQ, and so on.

So perhaps my original question, “Can a Christian be a Patriot?” should be reformulated as “Can a Christian be an American Patriot?” Without sounding too evasive, I think the answer is also unclear. The United States is presently at a crossroads, on the cusp of relinquishing its commitment to the rule of law, the rights of citizens and non-citizens, even the idea that its citizenry can include “a loyal opposition.” Red-baiting is fair game once again. Open bigotry and racism has returned. The unchallenged hegemony of Capital over Labor has survived the collapse of Neoliberalism, and the rich and powerful continue to assure the upward flow of wealth, often to the cheers of those who are not and will never be members of their exclusive club. This sorry state of the nation could change through human action, and Christians should do whatever they can to help this state of affairs come about, as did the abolitionists and the Civil Rights Movement, and the anti-war movements. But they should also be keenly aware of America’s peculiar political culture — the one “indispensable nation” whose way of life is to be endorsed by all — runs contrary to the Christian message that no nation is indispensable, that no nation has a divine charter, that God relativizes all human communities’ claim to absoluteness, and finally that it is God’s gracious way that draws us together, not the posturings of any City on a Hill.

[1] Sidebar: it is important to note that MacIntyre’s critique of “liberal universalism” is not meant solely as a critique of the contemporary American center-left, but as something characteristic of Liberal Democracy as such, left, right, and center. MacIntyre was once a Marxist, and his view is more resonant of that position than of anything that passes for “conservatism” today.

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