The real reason for our moralistic, combative politics: False messianism and the nation-state myth

President Donald J. Trump, right, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, render honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, May 29, 2017. (DoD Photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

“Loyalty to our nation,” President Trump told us last week, “demands loyalty to one another…. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.” Commentators spent several days parsing those words, which formed the introduction to President Trump’s announcement of a new-ish U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Some felt that his appeal to national unity was an indirect attempt to atone for his abysmal performance in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville. Perhaps. Yet prescinding from their tactical success, or lack thereof, we should examine the plain meaning of the president’s words, for they reveal that Mr. Trump’s administration is not, as many imagine, an unsettling departure from the public consensus but rather an unsettling expression of it.

A fallen world requires a divine redeemer. An imperfect society just needs a better plan.

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To see what I mean, consider this tidbit of intellectual history: “Sometime around 1700,” the late Kenneth Minogue observed, “a lot of people, particularly the intelligentsia, abandoned the [traditional, Christian] belief that we live in a fallen world and adopted the idea that we live, not in a fallen world, but in an imperfect society.” This fundamental shift away from a self-conception rooted in the meta-narrative of creation, fall and redemption, said Minogue, ushered in modern political thought and the political idealism that accompanies it. Political idealists believe that our imperfections are largely explained by our participation in one or more systems and that the work of perfecting society is mainly about creating a better system than the one we have. This gave rise in the 19th and 20th centuries to various programs for a more perfect society, those famous “-isms” of left and right, which, not coincidentally, accompanied the most violent century in human history. In hindsight, it’s relatively easy to see how.

A fallen world requires a divine redeemer. An imperfect society just needs a better plan. In a fallen world, our redemption comes to us as merciful gift. In an imperfect society, our redemption lies in self-improvement. You see the problem: Either way, we need a messiah. According to traditional Christian theology, in our fallen world the messiah is the son of the living God. In an imperfect society the messiah is civil society, or, as is now much more the case, the nation-state.

Mr. Trump’s most unsettling words were, unfortunately, the ones he intended to provide comfort.

This false messianism is not the exclusive domain of left or right. In different ways it operates almost everywhere in contemporary political life. For the left, it appears most often in debates about economics; for the right, it is most evident in discussions about national security. As much as our cable news debates seem to indicate otherwise, there is then a kind of public consensus at work, namely, that the nation-state has a pseudo-messianic role to play, either in effecting a more perfect society or creating hegemonic world order.

This impoverished meta-narrative is precisely why our politics is increasingly moralistic and combative. As I have previously observed in this space, in an imperfect society, one closed off to the transcendent, there are no goals beyond human flourishing. The political stakes grow higher and higher, as our politics becomes a battle for control of the means of our self-perfection, a dangerous zero-sum game that is equal parts cynical realism and tragic fantasy. This is an especially dangerous game for Christians, for the shift from fallen world to imperfect society, writes William T. Cavanaugh, serves to “marginalize the body of Christ in favour of an imagined community, a false public body,” not civil society, but a single space, “centred in the state.”

Which brings me back to the president’s remarks. However disturbing the rest of his speech might have been, Mr. Trump’s most unsettling words were, unfortunately, the ones he intended to provide comfort. “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice....” These words should give us pause, for the role that the president assigns to patriotism here is, in the Christian tradition, assigned to the grace of God.

By accepting “the myth of the state [and its attendant symbols] as peacemaker, as that which takes up and reconciles the contradictions in civil society,” writes Cavanaugh, the church compromises its prophetic witness to the one redeemer, whose grace we require to perform the truly radical acts of mercy and justice he asks of us. At the same time, we risk complicity in the injustice and violence perpetrated in the name of the nation-state. Thus, we risk our souls. Modest love of country is a virtue. But when the idolatry of nationalism displaces the virtue of patriotism, people—often quite a few people—get killed.

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J Cosgrove
1 month 4 weeks ago

Jesus recognized the nation and its sovereignty.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's

This implies there is a role for the state. I find it amazing that ridding prejudice would not be an objective of the nation state as well as religion. They should overlap in many areas but not all.

This editorial also seems to imply there is no role for the state in our lives. Is this a move to advocating limited government by America the magazine.

In reality It seems the editors have no self control and must criticize Trump on anything.

And by the way Charlottesville had next to nothing to do with racism. It is all about politics.

I have a question for Fr. Malone. Should we go back to the 1700's when 80% of the world were either slaves or serfs? Or should we celebrate God's gift to his creation of the ability to make things better. It seemed that Jesus tried to make things better for people by feeding them and curing them. He even advocated for investment banking in the parable of the "talents." Human nature channeled by a higher goal may be the answer for a better world but it is not salvation.

C.S.S.M.L. N.D.S.M.D.
1 month 3 weeks ago

The King of kings has all the sovereignty - Caesar can collect the tax as a servant and a subject. See Psalm 2:
Why do the NATIONS protest and the peoples conspire in vain? Kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one: “Let us break their shackles and cast off their chains from us!” The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them, Then he speaks to them in his anger, in his wrath he terrifies them: “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” I will proclaim the decree of the LORD, he said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask it of me, and I will give you the NATIONS as your inheritance, and, as your possession, the ends of the earth. With an IRON ROD you will shepherd them, like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them." And now, kings, give heed; take warning, judges on earth. Serve the LORD with fear; exult with trembling, Accept correction lest he become angry and you perish along the way when his anger suddenly blazes up. Blessed are all who take refuge in him!
The Iron Rod remains in place in Revelation 9, 11:
Then I saw the heavens opened, and there was a white horse; its rider was [called] “Faithful and True.” He judges and wages war in righteousness. His eyes were [like] a fiery flame, and on his head were many diadems. He had a name inscribed that no one knows except himself. He wore a cloak that had been dipped in blood, and his name was called the Word of God. The armies of heaven followed him, mounted on white horses and wearing clean white linen. Out of his mouth came a sharp sword to strike the NATIONS. He will rule them with an IRON ROD, and he himself will tread out in the wine press the wine of the fury and wrath of God the almighty. He has a name written on his cloak and on his thigh, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Christopher Lochner
1 month 4 weeks ago

Watch out now. This concept is precisely the trap which Francis has fallen into hence my opposition. Open borders and social communism may sound appealing to him but they are political solutions which are not necessarily from Christ. We are urged not to mix politics and religion yet Francis does this routinely. So sad.

Joseph J Dunn
1 month 4 weeks ago

The trend toward identifying the nation-state as the provider of remedy to all our ills may have started in the early 1700s, but there have been plenty of worthy commentators who pointed to the error.

For Americans, the first was probably Thomas Paine, who wrote that “Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions…Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Common Sense, indeed. Several popes, beginning with Leo XIII, have cautioned that civil society (voluntary associations, unions, fraternal societies, etc.) is a necessary buffer between the state and the family, which is the basic unit of society. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote with equal vigor about the importance of individual responsibility and action.

R Henry
1 month 4 weeks ago

"an indirect attempt to atone for his abysmal performance in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville."

The anti-Trump media claimed Trump's response to Charlottesville was inadequate. I listened to the whole speech and found it entirely appropriate. I would venture to guess that any AmericaMagazine reader who listens to the whole speech objectively will reach the same conclusion I did. Too bad this phrasing plays into the hands of those who seek not to unify but to antagonize and separate.

Emmett Burke
1 month 3 weeks ago

Sorry, but you are you using catch phrases like "the whole speech" and the "anti-Trump media." If you wish to make a point you should provide specifics rather than generalities. Specifically his statement that the two groups present were morally equivalent is the biggest issue. To say that someone who espouses white supremacy over the other groups who were asking for what?

Henry George
1 month 4 weeks ago

What I worry about are those who seek to eliminate Free Speech,
starting on College Campuses and then extending into Newspapers/Journals and then into Society.

Those who wish to remove Trump from office for what he says or
fails to say, ignore the Constitution. Did Trump give up his right to
Free Speech when he became President ?

Eisenhower, J.F.K and L.B.J. spoke about the "Domino Theory".
You might agree with them or you might disagree with them,
but should any of them been Impeached for speaking about it -
yet that theory led to American's involvement in Indochina.
Should we retro-actively impeach all three presidents for
speaking in ways we wholly disapprove ?

Because of Original Sin we worship ourselves rather than God.
It has just been institutionalised since the Enlightenment.

Thank you, Fr. Malone for your article and wearing your clerics
in your picture, I would ask that you ask your fellow Jesuits to
do likewise.

Michael Barberi
1 month 4 weeks ago

I don't like criticizing Fr. Malone. For one thing, I believe if I met him I would like him as a person, a priest and someone who I could have a discussion with, albeit in respectful disagreement about certain issues. Nevertheless, I offer some thoughts for reflection.

1. I think Fr. Malone took Trump's words and then proceeded to misinterpret them. For example, Fr. Malone took Trump's statements that in patriotism there is no room for bigotry, prejudice and hate, then proceeded to tie what he saId to the writings of Kenneth Minogue in the 1700s. His analogy was a bit ambiguous because he seemed to be trying to compare Trump and his philosophy to what Minogue wrote about a shift away from a belief in and reliance on Jesus Christ, to a belief that the problems of the day can be resolved by merely choosing a different political philosophy and government. After the 1700s, this lead to a different form of 'ism' (as Fr. Malone put it) and to one of the most violence years in our history.

This is a very poor analogy about what Trump said and what he stands for. I really believe that Fr. Malone needs to recognize that some of us interpreted Trump's statements very differently.

In my opinion Trump was referring to how patriotism (in particular those in the military) have a unity of purpose toward a common goal, and success is often achieved because there is no room for bigotry, hatred and prejudice. 'Everyone' is focused on the mission, not on ourselves and personal ideas, not on any hatred for our fellow brothers/sisters, and not on being prejudicial because whether you are black, brown, white or yellow, the enemy is out there not among ourselves. From where I stand Trump was using symbolism to say that we all must be united, we all should love one another, and while we have differences we all should compromise for the good of the people. Symbolically, it was also an indirect call for Congress to stop the hateful polarized politics, and an indirect trumpet call to the media to stop the fake news and over-the-top destroy Trump bashing. This made more sense to me than Fr. Malone's reference to a 1700 author.

2. Let's talk about the 1700s. This was a time that the Catholic Church and Papal States and the Monarchies of Europe, in particular France, ruled the people. The Kings and Princes, Popes and Bishops were the elite and the people suffered greatly under their policies and governance. This, in part, lead to the French Revolution and what we call democracy today. Least we forget that the Catholic Church was also hated by most of the people at that time primarily because of their close ties to these monarchies. They were one and the same. Let's be clear. Democracy threatened the establishment including the Catholic Church. If a democracy was 'by the people and for the people', and the people could formulate and pass laws and elect heads of state, what would this do to the Catholic Church if such a form of governance, political and moral philosophy became widespread? Fast forward about a hundred years and the Catholic Church lost the Papal States and no longer could govern the land and the people who were mostly slave-peasants. In Italy, the people saw no difference between the Catholic Church and any country that was ruling them at that time. It also, in part, lead to the infamous Syllabus of Errors which no one in the Vatican today agrees with.

To conflate the writings and happenings of the 1700s and its aftermath by analogy with a Godless form of nation-state where the state becomes the people's savior and idol (e.g., a la Trump) is a bridge too far. Clearly, U.S. politics can be argued to have the trappings and symbolism of two extreme polar opposite political philosophies where God and virtue seem to be lost, minimized or distorted. However, there are many reasons for our lack of faith today and they don't have their origins in anything Trump. Trump may reflect the sentiments of the populace but a significant percent of the populace voted for him including Catholics, Christians and Evangelicals.

3. If Fr. Malone wants to write an article on moralistic, combative politics perhaps he could help us understand this better if he compared the moralistic combative U.S. politics today with the moralistic combative politics within the Catholic Church. They are related. All Fr. Malone has to do is refer to the many surveys done by Georgetown University and he will see how divided Catholics are over social and sexual ethical teachings. While one can argue that our Catholic faith has been highjacked by this secular culture, the Catholic Church is not an innocent party here. Our division over sexual ethics is a result of the failure of the Catholic Church to put forth a convincing moral theory in support of its teachings. In many ways we see political and moralistic division reflected in the dismally low percent of Catholics who attend weekly Mass and in a 50/50 split among Catholics who voted for Trump and Clinton. Granted secular society and its individualism, relativism, consumerism and liberalism contributes to our confusion, disagreements and lack of faith, but Trump is not the manifestation of this problem.

Keep in mind that Bush was a very faithful Christian but believed he was fighting evil, Obama believed he was standing up for the poor and people of color while many thought what he did was a form of reverse racism, and let's face it Clinton was no saint.

Michael Barberi
1 month 3 weeks ago

After re-reading Fr. Malone's article, there are a few other important issues at stake here.

1. There is a role for the state in a secular and multi-religious society.

2. Striving for self-improvement does not automatically mean idolatry of the nation state/government to solve all of our ills. It does not mean that God is missing in our lives or that self-improvement is the panacea for our immediate and ultimate happiness.

3. Fr. Malone may argue that a form of messianism is reflected in the far left when discussing economics and in the far right when discussing national security. However, these discussions do not automatically mean a false messianism or any messianism at all. Who of us truly believe that those who influence or formulate public policy in the U.S. (including the populace) do not pray to God for His guiding light and grace? Who truly believe that we live in such an extreme state of affairs where people are either atheists or agnostics on the one hand, or just bad Christians where God and His grace is missing in our lives and in our decisions?

Who are we to judge the spiritually but not religious, Catholics who believe in God and pray to him but do not go to weekly Mass? What about the great majority of the U.S. population who are Christians, Jews and the Islamic? Do we all fall into this false idolatry that Fr. Malone talking about?

When it comes to social ethics, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of providing general guidelines, unlike sexual ethics which are often communicated as absolute norms. As such the ultimate moral decision involving social ethics is left up to the individual given an informed conscience, prayer and discernment. However, let's face it, social decisions often involve a number of complex inter-related issues. There is space for different conclusions because we are human and not everyone, despite the best of intentions, make perfect decisions.

Fr. Malone's presumption that our moralistic combative politics is based on a false messianism, not based on God and His grace, is insulting to the many politicians who are Catholic, Christian, Jewish or Islamic, many of whom do pray to God for His grace.

In conclusion, I agree with Fr. Malone that our moralistic combative politics is not working. For many reasons, it is seems that we have lost our moral bearings and we are not becoming the men and women God wishes us all to be. Perhaps we are not examining our consciences sufficiently, or controlling our prejudices, presumptions, and false narratives. Perhaps we need to pray more.

Charles Erlinger
1 month 3 weeks ago

I see the nation-state myth as a variation on the dynasty myth, the kingdom myth, and the empire myth. It is even a variation on the tribe myth and the city-state myth. The difference is in the explosive concept of the separation of church and state that is an inheritance of the continental branch of the Enlightenment that really only took hold in northwestern Europe and North America until relatively recently. Even today the Orthodox Christians can’t let go of the ethno-national identity of their churches, and that place which we like to think of as being the philosophical birthplace of our constitutional rights, the United Kingdom, can’t let go of the identity of head of state (monarch) and head of church. And, of course, there is that other prime example of monarch and head of church identity, the nation-state of the Vatican. So I think that the problem that you identify is not really confined to nation states as such, but includes all societies that have the potential of idolizing the ruling entity, whether it be the state or the emperor-god or the divine monarch. There is a small subset of self-organizing societies that took the continental variation of the Enlightenment and ran with it. And frankly, I think that the small subset is in a better position to recognize where the solution can be found than some of the other entities are.

Beth Cioffoletti
1 month 3 weeks ago

RE: Patriotism & War

" ... He says uniforms are public pronouncements, like parades, and we should be careful about what we say in public.

He says we should be leery of men marching in uniforms.

He says no one has more respect for members of the armed forces than he does, but that it would be a better world if no one ever had to take up arms, and that is a fact.

He says in his experience it is the man who has been in a war who understands that war is cruel and foolish and sinful, and anyone who defends war as natural to the human condition is a person of stunted imagination.

He says a study of history shows not only that we are a savage species but that we are a species capable of extraordinary imaginative leaps.

He says that someday we might devise ways to OUTWIT violence, as Mr. Mohandas Gandhi tried to do.

He says most wars, maybe all wars, are about money in the end, and that when we hear the beating of war drums, we should suspect that it is really a call for market expansion.

He says war is a virus and imagination is the cure. "

- Brian Doyle, from an essay, "Memorial Day"

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 3 weeks ago

Father Malone
I have no trouble with your providing an analysis of the competing philosophies involved in the sharp division between the secular and Christian views of society. But starting with a few words from Trump that are on their face not offensive and trying to use them to create a whole cloth demonstration of your preferred conclusion point is really a case of your using "lint to knit a whole sweater". To the extent that Mr Trump talks to the public as a whole he must speak to the secular thoughts and virtues that bind us together. He is a national political leader . He is not suppose to espouse Christian ethic/virtues of "grace from God".....they are not shared in common by our people.. Similarly the Pope should not appeal to the state based virtues of "patriotism". The Pope's audience is pan national .....above simple patriotism.

Leonard Villa
1 month 3 weeks ago

The President may be many things but he is not a man promoting the "State." If anything the prior administration was involved with the myth of the State where government solves everything. A knee-jerk "both on the left and the right" is often thrown out to show I imagine a presumed impartiality by pundits. But who's defining the right these days? The usual suspects are: the media, Marxist-Leninists, socialists, in a word leftists. Historically the right were monarchists promoting the ancient regime. Not many of those left. The left are the "heirs" of the French revolution and the vision of State utopias and the State as messiah enforcing liberty, equality, and fraternity at the cost of your life. No, patriotism will not cure ingrained hatreds or ideologues who by ideological definition hate the country and want to see it overthrown based on their ideology. However, in Fr. Malone's "both left and right" a priori he does not ask the question: Quantitatively where is most of the violence, hatred, and unrest coming from? Fr. Malone also joins the media narrative re Trump's "abysmal" Charlottesville response. He does not cite what was abysmal assuming it is self-evident. Even if Trump spoke word for word a media script as his response, the media would still say it was abysmal. One thing the President touted in his response is something some of the media and Democrats are waking up to: the menace, violence, and hatred of Antifa.

THE CHRISTOFFERSONS
1 month 2 weeks ago

Fr. Malone draws a contrast between two models of reality, a fallen world model that requires a redeemer and an imperfect society model that needs a better plan. I'm not sure the distinction works that well, but it is provocative.

Do not the models merge in Catholic Social Teaching which, beginning with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum novarum" in 1891, has articulated a form of justice (expanding on the traditional three forms of St. Thomas) that calls us to reform the structures and practices of the institutions of society (and, indeed, of the church) in order to make them more just?

Does not the Redeemer work through the human heart, calling us not simply to individual salvation but to make this world a better place? Fr. Malone suggests that the "better plan" model substitutes civil society for the Redeemer, but Catholic Social Teaching also demands a reasoned approach to institutional reform.

Catholic Social Teaching as we now know it arose in the 19th century out of conflicting world views, each of which had their excesses. Workers felt oppressed and turned to a godless form of socialism. Those in command of a market economy viewed their ascendance as determined by evolution and safe from questioning by the state. Each of these views was idealistic in its own way. Leo XIII took a middle course, pointing out that social ills need not be accepted and that society can be reformed.

Is this not how the People of God move toward the reign of God that Jesus preached? Jesus said the reign of God was a fulfillment of the law (Mark 1:15). Is not the law -- whether implemented by one world view or another -- simply a human idealization? God's reality is much richer, and this richness is more accessible when -- as Fr. Malone notes -- our hearts turn around and receive the gift of a merciful outlook.

Raymond Marey
1 month 2 weeks ago

One nation under God.
I don't know any other nations stating this.
Priorities in place, no need for you to worry.

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