A powerful nationalism surges through our country. It points to the feelings of dispossession that have been abroad in our land. It hints of past betrayal. It calls forth sentiments of heartfelt patriotism rooted in the historic legacy of the American experiment in freedom and democracy. It signals a nostalgia for the past and searches for renewed greatness in our nation.
As a new administration and Congress begin, the merger of populism and nationalism at work in the cultural and political currents of the United States compels us to explore deeply the nature of both nationalism and patriotism and to evaluate them in the light of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
In Catholic social teaching, the love of country is a virtue. The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church states clearly that “the principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part.” And in his moving message to the people of Poland entitled “My Beloved Countrymen,” Pope John Paul II spoke of true patriotism amid the cauldron of oppression and upheaval: “Love of our motherland unites us and must unite us above all the differences. It has nothing in common with narrow nationalism or chauvinism. It is the right of the human heart. It is the measure of human nobility.”
But if love of country is a virtue and a moral obligation, the nationalistic impulse itself has no moral identity. It can signal the most virtuous patriotism that integrates the love of country into the spectrum of moral obligations that accrue to our humanity, or it can be rooted in pride, isolationism and discrimination.
There are three questions the United States must wrestle with in the coming months in order to insure that the nationalist impulse so prominent in our society today produces a substantive patriotism that is morally sound and unitive for our country.
But if love of country is a virtue and a moral obligation, the nationalistic impulse itself has no moral identity.
Who Are “We the People?”
The first of these questions is: Who are “the people” in the United States? Populist movements in American history, and in this most recent election cycle, have raised important and substantial claims of injustice against oppression by elites in economic, political, juridical and cultural life. They have brought to the fore the need for democratic reforms that have empowered the citizenry of the United States in enormously beneficial ways. But frequently populist nationalism has targeted specific marginalized groups in American society—the Irish, blacks, Southern Europeans, Jews, immigrants and the poor. As a consequence, populist nationalism has often been exclusionary and nativist, carrying with it claims that “the people” are really only some of the people who live within the United States.
The recent election campaign was deeply marred by exclusionary rhetoric and proposals that have driven deep wedges into our culture and raised the specter of imposing exclusionary government policies that target specific groups on the margins of our society. It is essential that this nativist element of the nationalist current in our culture, that does not represent a majority of Americans in either political party, be purged from the national debate in the coming months.
In its place, the church teaches, must be the principle of solidarity, which “highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples toward an ever more committed unity.” The well-being of our nation cannot be advanced by a search for unity rooted in exclusion. Rather we must seek to heal the cultural divide that is so detrimental to our country’s future by fostering a deep spirit of inclusion and put behind us the ideological and partisan tribalism that has brought us to this continuing national impasse on the most basic issues facing our nation. The Catholic sense of solidarity has been so absent in our nation during the past decade that we have lost our way. The first step to recovery is to rediscover the bonds that tie us all together as a people and to accentuate them in our society, culture and politics.
“Who are the people” in the United States? All of us.
Where Lies America’s Greatness?
The second question that America must confront is: What does greatness mean for the United States? Does this greatness revolve principally around questions of power, wealth and success? Or is the greatness we seek founded in the order of justice, freedom, truth and solidarity? In short, is it a material greatness or a greatness of the soul?
The question of American exceptionalism has long been a source of contention in historical and political debate. And this exceptionalism has been characterized in many different ways. But at this moment in our nation’s history the most important idea of exceptionalism that we might claim flows from the reality that we as a nation of immigrants are not tied together by connections of blood, but rather by the set of aspirations our founders set forth in 1776 and that they both succeeded in attaining and failed to attain. Thus patriotism for us as Americans is an aspiration renewed in every age by understanding the noble elements of our nation’s birth and the defects of its original vision. Our patriotism is not a foundation for pride but an ever-deepening challenge to ennoble our culture, society and government. As Pope Francis reminded us in his address to Congress, America’s greatness lies in the freedom proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln, the justice lived out by Dorothy Day, the poignant dream of racial equality articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. and the spiritual richness of Thomas Merton.
Such a greatness seeks to challenge every injustice in our midst—the reality that young black men fear for their security when facing law enforcement, the sense of dispossession felt by young white men without a college education; the specter of deportation for mothers and fathers and Dreamers and children in the millions, the fear that police face every day trying to protect society; discrimination against Muslims; the economic devastation of family life in the coal country of our nation.
Who are “the people” in the United States? All of us.
In the coming months there will be efforts from every part of the political spectrum to curtail this expansive vision of American greatness, to reduce it to something parochial, materialistic, divisive or superficial. But fidelity to the dreams and the failures of our founders, and, even more important, to the dignity of the human person and the common good demanded by our Catholic faith, must not allow us to ignore the fundamental reality that greatness for our nation is not a possession or power but an ever-challenging aspiration of the heart and soul.
Nationalism and the International Common Good
The final question our country must answer in relation to the nationalism coursing through our culture is whether that nationalism conceives itself as rooted in the interests of the United States alone, or whether it is connected on a fundamental level with our obligations to the whole of humanity. In surveying the effects of globalization on the world, Pope Benedict lamented, “as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers.” What are the central bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that the empirical reality of globalization thrusts upon the people of every nation as members of the human family?
The starting point for identifying the demands of the international common good lies in the pivotal affirmations of our faith that God is the father of the entire human family, that creation is a gift to every man and woman, that the stewardship of our planet belongs by right to all and that war is a massive failure of the entire human family.
Three Key Issue Areas
These teachings point to the obligation of every nation to integrate its policies and the pursuit of its national interests with the good of humanity as a whole, becoming, in the words of Pope Francis, “a community that sacrifices particular interests in order to share in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” Parochial nationalism utterly rejects such an integration. Thus a central question for our nation, and especially for the Catholic community, is whether our nation’s actions in three key issue areas of foreign policy will be dictated by American self-interest alone or by American interest seen in the context of the international common good.
The first of these issue areas is the global economy. Speaking to the United Nations, Pope Francis was clear in describing the current economic realities of our world that all nations must sacrifice to change: “In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and the disadvantaged. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights….” In the vision of economic life that the pope has so powerfully presented to the world, grotesque levels of inequality, unemployment, dire poverty and malnutrition constitute the wholesale violation of core elements of an authentic substantive global common good. They are compounded by the instrumentalization of the human person through globalized markets in human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children, slave labor and the drug and weapons trades.
The second area of challenge between nationalism and Catholic social teaching centers on the global environment. In “Laudato Si’” Pope Francis sounds a fire bell to the world about the environmental crisis looming for our world in climate change, the deterioration of biodiversity and the loss of farmlands and water for the poorest peoples of the world. The pope is clear that the only pathway forward lies in international cooperation designed to confront the destructive trajectories that have been inflicted upon our common home by human choice. “An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption that affect us all; more important, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.”
The third major area of Catholic social teaching that conflicts with nationalism concerns the responsibility of all peoples for the refugees in the world. It was this responsibility that brought Pope Francis to the island of Lampedusa in the earliest days of his pontificate to remember in prayer those hundreds of refugees who had drowned seeking freedom from oppression and suffering. Recalling the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, Francis declared: “God asks each one of us: Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?... Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility.” In a world that is confronting the largest refugee crisis in more than six decades, the nationalism surging through the United States categorically denies just that sense of responsibility for refugees that Francis underscores. This is what passes for nationalism in a country that has historically distinguished itself as being a haven for refugees.
The Task Ahead
The Catholic vote was pivotal in the 2016 election. Now the Catholic community must be pivotal in bringing the vision of the church’s social teaching into the dialogue that will unfold in the coming months. That dialogue is immensely enriched by the new acceptance within the presidency and the Congress of the right to life for the unborn. It must also be enriched by a rearticulation of what patriotism means for the citizens of our nation: a patriotism that recognizes that every member of our society constitutes equally “the people,” a patriotism that sees greatness not in power or wealth but as a moral and spiritual aspiration founded in justice, freedom and solidarity; and a patriotism that advances America’s aims in the world in a manner that enhances the dignity and integral human development of all peoples.