Last month’s Sohrab Ahmari-David French debate was the more recent skirmish about the meaning of American conservatism. Acton’s Joe Carter has helpfully compiled a reading list without appearing to favor one side over the other. Such equanimity is admirable because each side has something to teach us about the still-exceptional character of the United States and its conservative movement.
That these debates take place on the American right with some regularity is a sign of its vitality, not its decline. No such debates occur publically in Europe; there are instead private gatherings of conservatives who usually despair over their powerlessness in politics and culture. And even at these, it is the Americans, those living in Europe or making the trip just to take part, who often define the terms of the debate.
Americans dominate these European debates (see, for example, Steve Bannon) because the Europeans can see that there is something at stake in American politics. It still matters who wins elections and sets the direction of American domestic and foreign policy. I have been trying to convince Vatican officials of this since my time at the Holy See Mission to the United Nations. A Republican in the White House serves as a counterweight to the European Union’s pro-abortion, anti-family, and generally socialistic global agenda; a Democratic administration allied with the EU makes it very difficult if not impossible for the Holy See and its allies.
Vatican diplomats naturally have a more sophisticated approach to politics, trying to find common ground with whomever is in charge and providing ideological balance when necessary. Even if they are not Europeans themselves, the diplomats are trained in Rome and inevitably influenced by what is happening here. While they may not despair like their secular counterparts, they likewise do not think elections have significant consequences. Politics comes and goes, but the Church always remains.
It is no surprise that Church leaders have this high-minded, non-partisan (in Ernest Fortin’s words, trans-political) approach to politics. As I explained in my recent lectures on liberation theology and secular humanitarianism at Acton University, the Church is only following Jesus Christ’s own lead in taking a dim view of temporal rule. Yet anyone with a minimum of knowledge of European history knows the Church has had a political function, almost in spite of itself. It has eventually learned that the neglect of politics comes with a high cost to the Church’s own evangelical mission.
The cost of this neglect is quite evident in the rise of European nationalism. My First Things piece on Matteo Salvini and the bishops blamed the weakness of the institutional Church in Italy, which used to form Christian Democrats of both the right and the left so that no matter who was in government, the country’s leaders reflected Catholic sensibilities. The Italian Church has since moved from the formation of the laity to the issuance of episcopal policy statements, the perverse net effect of which has been a reduction in the Church’s own political influence.
Along with his counterparts in Hungary and Poland, Salvini has appropriated Christian symbols in defense of a historically Christian nation, providing some hope to European conservatives. Is this an indication of the return of Christian democracy? I remain skeptical that European nationalists will have much lasting influence, partly because I don’t see the Church hierarchy (or Christian political parties for that matter) regaining its formative role in this era of institutional decline. Unlike the concept of Europe itself, the modern nation-state grew out of sectarian differences rather than Christian unity. The Church’s experience with ethnic nationalism has lead it to see all nationalisms as potentially idolatrous and a threat to universal truths about God and man. Humanity must therefore take precedence over the particularities of race, nation and even religion.
As strange as it may seem, the debate over American nationalism is more reflective of the political tensions within Christianity. The Ahmari-French debate is a typically Christian one about how to engage with politics. Ahmari, a convert to Catholicism, takes a zealous approach, promoting not only the common good but the “Highest Good” as a matter of political concern; winning political battles with Donald Trump is preferable to losing them nobly with Paul Ryan. French, an Protestant evangelical who has served in the military and fought legal battles on behalf of religious liberty, thinks decency and civility should remain chief character traits of Christians in politics even if it means losing here on earth; Jesus has already won the war, after all. Martyrdom is therefore more appropriately Christian than winning ugly.
The current manifestations of American and European nationalism are reactions to the spread of secular humanitarianism. Both defend the idea of the nation along with its particularities as something necessary for human flourishing. While European nationalists make historical references to their Christian past and use its symbols, there is little Christian faith remaining on the continent. The intra-conservative debate in the United States assumes Christian faith as a starting point and asks what should be done. It is based on the American “creed” that all men are created equal and have certain natural rights that government must respect and protect; in principle, anyone can become an American, just as anyone can become a Christian, by believing in certain truths. As G.K. Chesterton famously (and somewhat ironically) put it, “America is a nation with the soul of a church.”
Even though statesmen no less than Winston Churchill spoke of creating a “United States of Europe”, European nationalists do not because they cannot believe in such terms. I have developed great affection for Italy and its people over the last twenty years, but I know that I can never become an Italian the way my parents became Americans. Perhaps it will be different for the Italian-born children of Filipino and Bangladeshi immigrants. The challenge, perhaps the tragedy, for European nationalists is to recover faith in something that many Europeans hold responsible for their divisions in the first place.
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