“america first” is not a catholic option

“america first” is not a catholic option January 20, 2017

“America first” said Trump.

And Christians cheered.

This is, of course, nothing new. American Protestants have always been enamored of the heresy of American exceptionalism. And, with the co-opting of the Catholic ethos by right-wing liberals masquerading as conservatives, American Catholics have joined in the love-fest. Perhaps it’s respectability politics: Catholics don’t want to return to the time when were looked upon with suspicion, as though we could never be fully integrated. As though our devotion to Rome would undermine our nationalism.

Would that this were so. Right now we have a whole contingent of right-wing Catholics twisting themselves into sophistical knots to defend the new regime, while finding heterodoxy in every utterance of our wise and kindly pope. The support of Trump by the Catholic right was in many respects the unavoidable apotheosis of our aligning ourselves with this peculiar brand of faux Christianity, in which love of country is equal to love of God in the white bourgeois code – in which the gospel of Jesus crucified is replaced with the prosperity gospel – in which self-interest somehow gets transmuted into a virtue, because it is marketable.

But it’s time to take a good hard look at how far we have fallen. When Catholics applaud the idea of putting one’s nation first, they are rejecting the principles of our faith. “America first” means that we no longer think of ourselves primarily as disciples, baptized into Christ – but instead think of ourselves as citizens of this modern, Deistic, liberal nation-state. It means we do not think of everyone as our neighbor, but only those who pass our citizenship tests and fit into our narrow ideology. The Good Samaritan is now seen as a bleeding heart SJW; the priest who passed by on the other side is our hero. A real winner.

“America first” is also a doctrine of damnation. The last will be first, and the first will be last, Jesus said. To seek to put yourself first is to court your own perdition. And no, nation-states do not get a special exemption from morality. What’s wrong in the individual can not become right in the collective, or because of the dicta of power and utilitarianism.

“God is dead,” Nietzsche wrote, well over a hundred years ago. Those who hear this quotation in passing imagine it to be a cry of triumph: it was not. Nietzsche saw the danger of the abyss that opens, when God has been destroyed, flattened out into a mere gilded idol to be nodded at in passing, entombed in the church but neglected in life. His response was to try to fill the void with an aesthetic grandeur: tragedy as the uplifting of suffering, the “Overman” as one who transforms his life, through spiritual power, into a work of art. This aesthetic plan is insufficient, of course. Two world wars and several tyrannies and genocides later, this is painfully evident. I am alarmed right now because we still have not learned: not because I think Donald Trump is a new Tyrant X, but because the impulses leading to his elevation are the impulses of nihilism.

When we cannot look to Christ Crucified and see that the Dead God died for us, and that his sacrifice in love has redeemed us from the need to fear, the need to win, the need to punish, the need to be first: what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches through our hearts to be born?


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