Some Questions for National Conservatism’s Theological Critics

Some Questions for National Conservatism’s Theological Critics August 30, 2022

Yesterday, a number of well-regarded theologians—including John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, Adrian Pabst, Phillip Blond, and Eugene McCarraher, among others—published “An Open Letter Responding to the NatCon ‘Statement of Principles’” in the pages of the online magazine The European Conservative. As that title indicates, the open letter is a response to the recent document “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles” penned by scholars and writers affiliated with the Edmund Burke Institute. The response letter, while expressing support for the NatCon manifesto’s “timely critique of destructive globalization” and “call for the renewal of national culture and traditions,” ultimately takes a decidedly negative view of the manifesto’s critique of “universalist ideologies” and “imperialism,” among other points.

The response ultimately concludes that “the National Conservative statement is neither conservative nor Christian.” For their parts, the authors of the response letter argue for “the universal principles that underwrite nations, the natural law that is written on the heart of every man and woman in every nation, and the spirit of international friendship and charity that binds us together.” A gauntlet, in short, is thrown down.

In the interests of full disclosure: while I am not one of the signatories to the NatCon statement of principles, I’m friends with many of them and my day job is pretty closely aligned with their larger project. I’m also religiously conservative. However, I developed my present intellectual views not by reading Adrian Vermeule’s paeans to the administrative state or Patrick Deneen’s denunciations of liberalism, but by reading Milbank and Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue and other “left-integralist” critiques of secularity. (I still think their arguments are the strongest and best in the genre.)

I mention all this—and write this now—in the hopes of illustrating how Christians with this sort of intellectual background might find themselves aligned with “NatCon” political efforts. This piece also comes in the wake of a lengthy in-person conversation I had with Blond several weeks ago: Blond stressed the (electoral) need for politics to appeal to universal moral principles rather than the parochial interests of some particular group or other (an argument that West Coast Straussians will undoubtedly find familiar). I agree with him, and hence find this conversation to be a very important one.

The concerns raised by the response letter deserve a much more fulsome response than I can (or intend to) provide here. Consider this more of a provocation than anything else, one that takes the form of several questions for theological critics of “National Conservatism.” Also set aside, for the moment, the essentially interreligious character of the NatCon statement of principles; while there are important questions to be explored here, at issue for present purposes are questions of Christian theology. Finally, note that I use the formulation “empire” below to refer to the fact that several signatories of the response latter have, in various locations, pointed to something rather like an imperial model (positively) as a workable approach to transnational political organization.

First: to the extent that premodern models of “empire” are taken to represent a better way of harmonizing local cultural diversity and juridical unity than the Westphalian nation-state, how to account for the fact that premodern “empire” did not appear to conceive of itself as universal or global in the modern sense, but required an “other” against which to define itself? The Roman Empire—and later Christendom—was not unaware of the existence of lands and polities outside its borders. Those strange and alien domains were “barbarian” territories, and the self-identity of “civilized” imperial subjects was defined over against those barbarians.

Today, however, the institutions of liberal internationalism do claim to enjoy universal/global jurisdiction. Hence it isn’t clear to me that, in a contemporary global setting where one can point to a plurality of “civilizations” that exist in contradistinction to one another, appeals to the potential goodness of “empire” can map seamlessly onto the set of supranational organizations that emerged in the wake of the Second World War. Put more simply, today’s global transnational political authorities seem to represent something very different from the Roman Empire. And if it is in fact the case that today’s international institutions do not represent extensions of the same “premodern” understanding of empire, are those institutions likely to be as effective as “premodern” empires at preserving local differences, or do they represent something far more corrosive to those differences?

I suggest that those more aligned with the national-conservative camp might advance something like the following claim: given today’s empirical knowledge of the extent of cultural differences, it is reasonable to believe that a global transnational political authority is unlikely to be able to identify a common “center” that can justify terms of coexistence capable of peacefully mediating and preserving local differences.

More can be said on this. After World War II, Jacques Maritain was optimistic that “human rights” discourse—irrespective of its metaphysical grounding—could provide such a center. But recent debates over incompatible rights-formulations (the right to religious freedom versus “dignitary rights,” or the right to life versus the right to reproductive autonomy, to name just a couple of examples) strongly suggest that he was wrong.  It is likewise reasonable to note that the tradition of liberal Christian theology (understood as appealing to something like Tillich’s “ultimate concern” or Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence”) seems similarly unlikely to provide such a common ground: far from thriving, this tradition is demographically fading.

Conversely, those Christian traditions that are thriving—that are successfully handing on the principle that “the supreme theological virtue and the guiding ideal of Christian civilization [is] charity,” and grasping that virtue in reference to its transcendent source and exemplar—are those “conservative” branches keen to defend their doctrinal particularity in the face of alternative traditions (a particularity that is not, I note, opposed to a degree of ecumenism and co-belligerence). The defense of this particularity—and the rights of particular communities to govern themselves and hand on their traditions to their children—is, in a very real sense, a defense of local difference.

So, if I may extend the claim made above: it seems reasonable for those of a national-conservative bent to hold the view that the Christian tradition qua Christian tradition is more likely to be preserved and handed on within a political configuration that does not vest sovereignty in a body tasked with proceeding on the basis of a “least common denominator” of moral reasoning.

Some might note that in the argument I’ve sketched out here, I’ve taken the fact of cultural pluralism and difference as a given. That’s intentional: following Acts 17:26–27 (“And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,  that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him”)—I take a diversity of cultural responses to God’s universal act of creating and sustaining the cosmos to be an intrinsic and beautiful good. I am not confident, however, that this difference can be translated into an agreed-upon set of decision procedures for the mediation of force (which is, at root, what politics is).

Second: is the nation-state always and everywhere more opposed to the preservation of local difference? The response letter argues that “[t]he dissolution of national cultures was anticipated by the wiping out of local cultures, and the centralisation of power away from both local governments and civil society.” But the American example of federalism appears to pose an empirical problem for this claim. I’ve lived all over the country—from California to Texas to New England, to name just a few places—and it seems plainly true that local and regional cultures still exist and thrive (David Hackett Fischer’s excellent Albion’s Seed chronicles much of this in greater depth). I have much less familiarity with the European context, but I am not sure that strictly speaking, the formation of the nation-state and the development of a national culture need come at the expense of local cultures. There are too many variables in play.

Third (and here I find myself inspired by Hart’s recent Tradition and Apocalypse): to what extent are the potentialities of Christian theology actualized through an encounter with alternative traditions? Kathryn Tanner, for instance, argues that God’s transcendence was grasped more clearly and deeply by Christians through encounter with two branches of Hellenistic philosophy: Timaeus-inspired appeals to a demiurge working upon a preexistent cosmos, and a Plotinian emanationist cosmology. That is to say, Christian faith’s “non-contrastive” understanding of God’s transcendence—a transcendence that does not destroy human agency and responsibility—came into view by way of the existence of these alternative understandings. If God is more fully known on earth through the working-out of the implications of His revelation vis-à-vis other perspectives on and interpretations of reality, then should religious difference qua religious difference be suppressed on a global scale? Note that this is the flip side of the “least common denominator” argument sketched above: it asks whether if a “Christian globalism” were possible, it would actually be desirable. (It is also a “postliberal” argument for religious freedom, but more on that another time.)

I certainly do not intend here to suggest that all signatories to the response letter would make such a “suppressionist” argument; the argument is more properly leveled against “right-integralist” critics of nationalism. The point is that, to my mind, national conservatives can make arguments against globalizing theo-political projects that sound in a distinctively Christian register, without forfeiting the universal claims of Christian morality by succumbing to a thoroughgoing relativism.

Of course, vastly more could be said on any of these points. And I note that those aligned with the national-conservative project have, by and large, not really reckoned with the sorts of theological arguments pressed in the response letter. I hope that will change in the months and years to come. But for the time being, suffice it to say that there seem to be a number of viable avenues of response to theological critics of national conservatism, such that the whole project doesn’t just bottom out in a kind of neo-Maurrasianism. That kind of regime, I suspect the response letter’s authors would agree, should never be the objective.

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