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Barack Obama and Abdullah II of Jordan

The juxtaposition of two posts on The Imaginative Conservative this week has me thinking about U.S. foreign policy in our increasingly fractured world, and, more deeply, the moral stance of Christian humanism within the same encroaching chaos.

Let’s begin with Pat Buchanan’s thought-provoking article, “America’s Role in a Darkening Age.”  In the article Buchanan asks hard questions of Robert Kaplan’s essay, “The Return of Toxic Nationalism.” Kaplan’s essay concludes with the claim that, to combat the rise of nationalism throughout the world and to ensure that it can lead with moral legitimacy, the U.S. needs to put our “values” forward “right alongside its own exclusivist national interests, such as preserving a favorable balance of power.” Without “universal values in our foreign policy,” attests Kaplan, we “have no identity as a nation” and no moral credibility as we seek to quell nationalism in North Africa, the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and the Far East.

To which Buchanan asks, “Is this not utopian?”

First, he argues, how are we to affirm our “values” to nationalist groups and polities who have no truck with them? And second, what does it even mean to talk about our “values” when our nation is so internally conflicted about what our “values” are?

Buchanan concludes: “Other nations believe in indoctrinating their children in their own beliefs and values. Where do we get the right to push ours in their societies?”

It’s a good question. The U.S. does, of course, have admirable values articulated in our founding documents. But insofar as we have undercut the religious and moral grounding of those values–as in the case of the “rights” that Kaplan insists are so central to our national identity and moral legitimacy–how can we with any effectiveness, much less legitimacy, trumpet those values to the world? Without a transcendent basis for our values, in other words, our foreign policy is simply one more “interest” within the matrix of national interests in violent competition throughout the world.

Which brings me to my second The Imaginative Conservative post, Brad Birzer’s marvelous introduction to The Catholic University of America’s recent reissue of Christopher Dawson’s 1959 volume, The Movement of World Revolution. One of the themes from Dawson’s work that Birzer highlights in his introduction is the very theme discussed by Kaplan and Buchanan: the rise of nationalism in the modern world. Birzer points out that, for Dawson, nationalism and revealed religion, and in particular Christianity, are throughout history opposed forces. The modern nature-state requires a unity–to be forced if necessary–of thought, culture and politics. Yet it seeks that unity in ties of blood and local culture, and confirms them in national myth and ideology, or in religion that functions as ideology. In the case of secular ideologies, as Birzer quotes Dawson, “what we find is a substitute religion or counter religion which transcends the juridical limits of the political State and creates a kind of secular Church.”

Christianity by contrast, Birzer notes, “embraces the universal rather than the particular.”   As Pope John Paul II once said, there is only one culture, the culture of man. And just the other day, in an address to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps, Pope Francis reaffirmed one of the central themes of his predecessor’s pontificate: that without a grounding in universal truth, truth that transcends the particular interests of individuals, tribes and nations, there can be no such thing as peace, but only a “tyranny of relativism.” “There is no true peace without truth!” proclaimed the Pope. “There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”

Pope Francis here mentions, as the basis of peace between nations, the “nature” that at once transcends and unites human beings. It is precisely this nature, and the super-nature that is its origin, that is missing not only in American foreign policy, but also in political rhetoric throughout the world. We ignore the loss of the concepts of nature and super-nature in our politics at our peril. “It is not possible to build bridges between people,” the Pope reminds us, “while forgetting God.”

Indeed our recent popes are excellent examples of the kind of witness to transcendent truth that is so sorely needed on the geo-political stage. Buchanan ends his article on an ambiguous note, apparently calling for the U.S. to pull back from its triumphalist claims about universal values and mind its own business at home. Again, I acknowledge that, given the deplorable state of our understanding of universal values, there is some practical wisdom in this. But what would be even wiser is to turn our attention to the kind of Christian Republic of Letters that Dawson dreamed of. This Republic, at its heart, is no more and no less than a classical, Christian, liberal arts education. Unfortunately, this kind of interdisciplinary formation in transcendent truth is a rare commodity these days. Public education and academia have, for the most part, abandoned it. So too have the arts. There are outposts of Christian culture still existing and fighting bravely, certainly, little platoons still eagerly seeking to make known the Light of Nations to the nations of the world. Their work may seem insignificant in comparison to what our political leaders busy themselves with. But if there is to be the kind of peace we long for, we must summon the wisdom to recognize that, in comparison to these remnants, the nations themselves are but a drop in the bucket.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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5 replies to this post
  1. Nationalism makes sense, one may think, because as Chesterton might say, people prefer their own families to outsiders, neighbours on their own street to people on the next street, our village to the next village and onwards. That preference may be hard-wired into the human genome, to help our “selfish genes” compete with those of another clan or tribe, etc. The colonial and post-colonial experience, even today, shows that many people sharing a language seek nationhood across formal national borders, and in many countries people prefer cruel misrule by those such as themselves to good governance imposed by a perceived outsider.

    At its most benign, this means that “my” people prefer tacos to “your” people’s hamburgers. At its most benign, key overarching values, visible at a level of basic rules, can indeed be promulgated by a common religion but at enormous costs: a millennium of struggle over Christian Europe, and in South America something close to genocide (within my lifetime either Uruguay or Paraguay exhibited taxidermically-stuffed Amer-Indians in its national museum).

    Christianity has failed to take root in much of the Middle East and South Asia because other religions (both older and newer than Christianity) appeal to older (pre-Islamic, even pre-Hindu) cultural values addressing, say, family honour and privacy (as affect the sequestration of women in particular). This is not to say that Christianity is not better, but that the soil of Europe (and perhaps elsewhere) was most conducive to its spread (we shall see if China and Korea are now as conducive). As for Bob Kaplan, is America rich enough and blood-thirsty enough to become the New Conquistadors down to the level of every village and farm? For that is what it would take, followed by centuries of brutal enforcement.

  2. “Christianity by contrast, Birzer notes, “embraces the universal rather than the particular.”

    I find that statement troubling inasmuch as “universal” suggests to me the rarefied Platonic realm of abstract Truths, while “the particular” is the quotidian world where actual people live, and where I for one am much more comfortable. And I find it interesting in that Christianity is a religion founded on historical particulars and rooted in historical persons and events; it is not (or is it?) a form of Platonism. There are those who would suggest that Christianity’s universalizing tendencies have provided the template for all sorts of secular, and even totalitarian, Utopias; I realize that Christians can fall back on the simple assertion that “Well, but Christianity is true and those others are false,” but of course advocates of non-Christian (and anti-Christian) alternatives would make similar claims of their own.

    I may be making too much of this, but I’d rather believe that Christianity’s embrace is personal, not universal: that is, universally available to all but extended to particular persons living particular lives in particular places at particular times.

  3. Mr. Schifflett,

    Christianity’s embrace is indeed personal. It is often conflated with the Hellenistic tradition due to the synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelianism with Christian thought on the part of Scholastics.

    Then Cardinal now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has a fine essay on Christianity and the Hellenistic tradition where he argues that Christianity is not Hellenism and is radical, personal and unique in history.

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