Should Christians sing “God bless America,” “God bless the whole world,” or both? Should Christians display national flags in their sanctuaries? Is it responsible for Christians to decry ill-defined movements like the “Alt Right”? (is it white nationalism or something more subtle?)
This post aims to make you think more critically about questions like this – even though these questions are, for the most part, not directly addressed in the content of this post.
My thesis is that the reason why these questions — always good questions — are taking on particularly import for many today is because we are all wrestling with what Paul Gottfried points out in his 1986 book, The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (p. 123):
“There is a difficulty integrating the past into a regime whose founders declare it to be a “Novus Ordo Seclorum [New Order for the Ages].”
And the quote also syncs with other things Gottfried has observed, most recently in his 2012 book on Leo Strauss, arguably the thinker most embraced by political conservatives in America in the 20th century (he is certainly one of the most influential in terms of seeing “success” [as measured by the right, at least] in politics).
Given the events in American (and European) politics over the past couple years, anyone reading his book will no doubt find what he says on page 128 to be extremely interesting:
“Like the neoconservatives, Straussians refer to the United States as a ‘propositional’ or ‘universal’ nation, held together by a natural-rights creed applicable everywhere on the planet. Such a notion, which has become widespread in America, breaks with any notion of democracy’ in the premodern… sense. In the 1980s and 1990s, Straussians and their neoconservative allies fought with an older American Right, which they accused of being tribalist and antiglobalist in their patriotism. It would be hard to argue in light of this recent history that the Straussians are trying to apply organicist ideas to a hypothetical American volkisch community.”
That is, however, part of the concern now – not that the Straussians are doing it, but that the Trumpians of the world are. Going along with the quote above about the “Novus Ordo Seclorum [New Order for the Ages],” they, “tribalist and antiglobalist in their patriotism” vehemently resist things like immigration and free trade. On the other hand, someone like Karl Marx was very much in support of something like “free trade”. Why? Because he believed that it would break down traditional (think tribal and organic) communities.
On one level that might sound like a very good idea. On the other hand, for Marx and those who follow him today – overtly or covertly – this effort includes the attempt to break down the traditional family.
And that is kind of logical, right? Isn’t the tribe basically an extended traditional family? The idea of nationalism has gotten a good deal of attention from Christians in America lately, due to the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent condemnation of white nationalism as well as those identifying as “alt right” (see here and here and here for more). I think, however, that we dismiss the concerns that many of these folks express too quickly and, ultimately, to our own peril.
Yes, I think so. What follows is another fascinating observation/proposition Gottfried makes in his book – this time about Straus himself. We see in this extended quotation that even in the 1960s Strauss had noticed something about conservatives and liberals that foreshadowed the emerging nationalism today (as the American right starts to “regress,” as many see it) vis a vis the more “globalist” philosophy (now, increasingly coming to be seen even by thinkers like R.R. Reno as communism’s replacement!):
“…unlike his followers, Strauss in the 1960s foresaw the true lines of division between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives.’ In his preface to Liberalism Ancient and Modern, he abandons his customary distinction between ‘liberal democracy’ and its enemies to observe the tension between ‘modern liberals’ and ‘conservatives.’ Strauss tries to narrow this difference by stating that most people are ‘moderate’ in their identification with either of the two ideological poles; therefore, the distinction between them might not amount to much in the end. Strauss then muddies the water by telling us that ‘the conservativism of our age is identical with what was originally liberalism.’ Indeed, ‘much of what goes now by the name of conservatism has in the last analysis a common root with present-day liberalism and even with Communism.’ All of this repeats what are merely truisms. No one but a historical illiterate or a hardened, time-bound ideologue would deny that the current Right looks like some form of the archaic Left, whether it is celebrating a crusade for human rights or preaching some variation on eighteenth-century anarchism, with appropriate attributions to Tom Paine.”
Note again what is happening here: Gottfried shows us that Strauss is distinguishing between what we might call “classical liberals,” (he calls them “modern liberals” above) which might make up the majority of today’s “conservatives” in America, and other “conservatives”. Again, this is a frequent complaint of some on the Alt-Right. Today’s conservativism really isn’t “conservative” as it doesn’t really conserve anything. It, rather, is just a constant capitulation to the left (hence the popularity of the word “cuck”). They have nothing but mockery for those like William Buckley, who gave the impression that conservativism is simply the man standing in the railroad track, bravely facing the incoming locomotive, and shouting “Stop!” (or, perhaps, just “slow down”?)
“What is more interesting, however, than these references is Strauss’s pinpointing of two diametrically opposed worldviews. Partisans of the Left, according to this interpretation, look toward a ‘universal homogenous state,’ a creation that Strauss’s correspondent Kojeve defended in his writings. Any ‘approximation to the universal homogenous state is for liberals a move in the proper direction, although they may conceal their enthusiasm by pretending to be advocates of ‘hardheaded politics,’ who believe that ‘the state has been rendered necessary by economic and technological progress,’ ‘the necessity of making nuclear war impossible for all the future[‘] and by the ‘increasing wealth of the advanced countries.’
Against this liberal vision Strauss opposes an essentialist conservative one. Its advocates ‘regard the universal and homogenous state as either undesirable, though possible, or as both undesirable and impossible.’ Conservatives may have to accept in the short run a United Free Europe, as an alliance against the Soviet communist threat, but[,as Strauss says]:
“[T]hey are likely to understand such units differently from liberals. An outstanding European conservative has spoken of l’Europe des patries. Conservatives look with greater sympathy than liberals on the particular or particularist and the heterogenous; at least they are more willing than liberals to respect and perpetuate a more fundamental diversity than the one ordinarily respected or taken for granted by liberals and even by Communists, which is the diversity regarding language, folksongs, pottery and the like.”
Yes, that is right. Strauss is saying that it is conservatives, not liberals, that are ultimately more respectful of diversity. Chew on that for a while!
“Furthermore, ‘[i]nasmuch as the universalism in politics is founded on the universalism proceeding from reason, conservativism is frequently characterized by distrust of reason or by trust in a tradition which is necessarily this or that tradition and hence particular.’ Finally, ‘[c]onservativism is therefore exposed to criticism that is guided by the notion of the unity of truth,’ whereas liberals, ‘especially those who know that their aspirations have their roots in the Western tradition are not sufficiently concerned with the fact that tradition is ever more eroded by the changes in the direction of the One World which they demand or applaud.’
Gottfried then goes on to say: “It would be hard to find a more perceptive analysis than this one for addressing the distinction between Left and Right.”
“The underlying insight goes back to Carl Schmitt and his criticism of the ‘universal, homogenous state.’ Strauss is repeating here Schmitt’s critical observations for the benefit of Anglo-American readers. He assumes Schmitt’s famous equation of the universal state with universal tyranny, and he incorporates this distinctive perspective into his delineation of the conservative worldview. Strauss also cites Charles de Gaulle, who as French president in the 1960s argued against an overly close union of European states in favor of a continued national consciousness among European peoples. Strauss presents this conservative type as the exact opposite of the liberal, with his unrealistic and utopian expectations. This conservative antithesis is nothing, however, that he finds disagreeable or which he feels threatens ‘liberal democracy.’
Still and all, it would be a mistake to associate Strauss with his conservative pole too closely. The ‘conservative’ side in his analysis bears a certain resemblance to his targets in [his famous 1953 book] Natural Right and History, particularly to [Edmund] Burke and German romantic conservatives, whom Strauss considered to be more revolutionary than even the Jacobins. One must also keep in mind Strauss’s descriptions of ‘conventionalism’ as an obstacle to philosophy and his insistence that the search for virtue and justice necessarily encompasses the universal.”
Strauss’ implied criticism that conservatives believe excessively in the ‘unity of truth’ goes back to his brief against relativism. He long complained against those who paid homage to Tradition as Truth and he was now reviving this animadversion in a less incriminatory fashion. The unwillingness to apply a universal standard of Reason, we are told in Natural Right in History, has led to destructive wars [my comment: read wars caused, in part, by religion that was unwilling to give up its place in more enlightened society] and has precipitated the demoralization of liberal education. Like his students, Strauss saw this failure to apply rational judgement because of an infatuation with particularities as a conservative flaw.
In other words, what this means is that Strauss does not see particularities such as Christianity as giving any support whatsoever to the idea of “universal standard[s] of Reason” (which one might think would help point to, perhaps, consistent laws in the moral realm). Perhaps given the impact of persons like Hegel on 20th century American conservativism, all of these statements from Strauss above should not have surprised me so much. Hegel, to, would have some real issues with the idea that respected Tradition, in any sense, could be equated with Truth (and insofar as Christianity is seen as being an integral part of what we call Western Civilization, I argue it can’t be separated from this notion of Truth).
But at the same time, you might say, “didn’t Strauss speak out against historicism?” He did indeed, but I note that elsewhere in Gottfried’s book he seems to drop hints that he thinks that even Strauss himself could not escape what were in fact his historicist tendencies. This makes some sense in the context of Gottfried’s work, because it seems that in his view, anyone who thinks positively about progress to some degree should and will embrace a conservative form of historicism (again, see this post for more).
From my limited reading on this topic, it appears to me that Strauss was perhaps unaware of – or not forthright about – what were in fact his historicist tendencies, but that someone like Edmund Burke for example, a devout and traditional Christian interested in society’s advancing, should not necessarily be lumped in with the historicist philosophy, with its, I think, very acidic tendencies. It seems to me – again, from the limited reading I have done on the topic – that Burke is misread by both Strauss and Gottfried.
Just the kind of thing you might expect a Liberal Christian Nationalist to say…. That said, don’t think that my interest in “identity politics” means that truth has no place. In fact, if you want real, and not just feigned, concern for the truth to stay, I submit that Christians and Christian allies need a continuing voice in our nation’s political conversation.
But the Left also occasionally appealed to particularity, albeit more disingenuously, to win acceptance for its ‘one world’ idea. In the short run, it stressed the diversity that it would ultimately have to remove to fashion a universal homogenous state based on uniform human rights (pp. 63, 64).
When concepts of equality, social justice, and human rights are untethered from a Christian frame, what we in the West have experienced in our lives to be good about those concepts is lost.
There was a time that the idea of “uniform human rights” had some appeal to me. Now, however, I see this as the primary tool of those who would spurn the Christian religion en route to accomplishing their own Global, Utopian promises. As one Alt-Right voice recently put it, Jesus Christ didn’t die for the sins of the world so that you could build your new Tower of Babel.
That, at least, rings true. God won’t be mocked – used – by either nationalists or globalists.
Practical application? If, for example, communists or globalists demand we put their flags in the church’s chancel, we should refrain. But we should also be cautious about people who say things like this:
“A Christian church has absolutely no business displaying a national flag in the sanctuary, at least not as it is commonly done. The church born at Pentecost was a reversal of Babel, not a doubling down on the fragmentation of Babel.” (see here).
For more of my thoughts on Christians, nations, and nationalism, see here.
William F. Buckley: https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2015/oct/01/william-f-buckleys-fbi-file/ ; Joe Carter – Gospel Coalition website.