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