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Friday, December 2, 2016

The Problems with Eastern Christian Nationalism or: Can Patriotism Be a Virtue?

This article, about the intersection of Orthodoxy in North America (especially that practiced by converts, whom Fr. D.O. Herbel discusses in his excellent book; cf. Amy Slagle's similarly excellent The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) with new "nationalist" movements of the "far-right" or "alt-right" variety, has sparked some comment, part of a broadening commentary on the apparent resurgence of "nationalist" or other movements as part of, and apparently leading up to, the Brexit vote in HM's United Kingdom, and to the Trump election in Her Majesty's erstwhile American colonies.

As I have often remarked on here over the years, and elsewhere as well, nationalism and Eastern Christianity go hand in glove: this is so well known among scholars of the Christian East as to have acquired the status of a commonplace stretching back at least 200 years.

But more recently we have in fact been seeing an upsurge in such nationalism in Russia and elsewhere over the last decade and more, attracting wider attention--as in the linked article--from more than just scholars of the Christian East. But what does this all mean? Is it nationalism of the pure laine variety, or is it a mixture of multiple issues? What, if any, is the difference between nationalism and patriotism--or are they largely synonymous today? (I strongly suspect the latter, for reasons presently to be discussed.) Can we lump Brexit and Trump together? Is Russian Orthodox nationalism a prototype of all Orthodox nationalisms? Are Orthodox converts or other Eastern Christians in the United States proposing a racist nationalism, an economic nationalism, a hybrid of these two along with other issues?

Clearly these are all complicated matters requiring a good deal of careful thought beyond sloganeering, shaming, and silencing-- those tedious techniques by which too many people today attempt to abort important if uncomfortable debates about, inter alia, sexuality, immigration, Catholic canon law about divorce and remarriage, Islam, so-called nationalist or fascist movements, etc.

I will not for a moment pretend to have answers here, but I do want to suggest a few books and essays that have helped me continue to think through some of these questions; and then I want to suggest a few lines of inquiry that I think need to be taken up anew today. I hope to do some of this myself in the new year based, inter alia, upon a re-reading of Erich Fromm's landmark Escape from Freedom.

(Parenthetically, I would also, before going farther, want to strongly insist on bringing in another psychoanalytically informed social critic, Vamik Volkan, whose work I only discovered this fall and continue to find fascinating and compelling. I will say more about him and the nationalist question, on which he has written several things, in another post.)

For now, let us look to sort out some questions about patriotism and nationalism with the help of Alasdair MacIntyre.

As in many things, my early instincts upon entering a discussion are to return to what the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written, for he has a singular ability to render difficult questions pellucid. And so, 20 years after working on an MA thesis about him, I went back to read his essay "Is Patriotism a Virtue?" He begins helpfully by clarifying the nature of patriotism, noting how, in the American experiment, the old virtues of patriotism are covertly taken up in a new fashion and merged incoherently with the supposedly disinterested rationalism of liberalism and its bureaucratic apparatus in the modern state, creating the odd hybrid of what we could call modern nationalism.

And such nationalism has been witheringly scorned by MacIntyre. I have very often, on here and elsewhere, had occasion to quote MacIntyre's acid dismissal (in an essay discussing the politics of Irish poetry) of that "dangerous and unmanageable institution," the modern nation-state which pretends to be value-neutral except when its covert values invite/require you to die for it, a request/demand MacIntyre says is like being asked to die "for the telephone company."

And I have often thought of his rather witty essay, "The American Idea," on the bicentennial of the American founding, in which he talked about how, in some ways, everyone is an American today--whether living in Montreal, Mumbai, Montevideo, Munich, or Melbourne; and how, further, anti-Americanism is itself both American but also universal. So questions of nationalism, patriotism, and liberalism in late modernity are not nearly as clear as those coining the labels today would have us believe. Clearly more is at work, in most cases, than straight-up revanchist desires for some "pure" and protected "homeland" deracinated of all except my chosen tribe. At once we are entering a nexus of concerns--immigration, Islam, economics, etc. One must proceed carefully.

And carefully MacIntyre does proceed, noting at the outset that while many people may divide patriotism neatly into either a virtue or a vice, depending on their politics, matters are not so neat and tidy. MacIntyre says that patriotism needs to be distinguished from attitudes too often too easily assimilated into it, starting with a sort of political romanticism in which my nation is the bearer of some transcendent ideal--whether of "liberty and justice for all" or "peace, order, and good government" or liberté, égalité, fraternité. This group was active in Germany in prosecuting the Great War, seeing it as a fight for Kultur, a point MacIntyre has shown with some rather startling detail in his book Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922. This group is more interested in fighting and protecting the ideal wherever it may be found, and thus is not so attached to the particularities of place. Writing in the late 80s, MacIntyre gives a further example here of American notions of resisting communism and fighting for "freedom" not just in America or the North American continent, but worldwide.

Today, I think we could say that part of the Russky mir notions emanating out of Russia, and discussed in a variety of places, including the article linked to above, arise out of this concern to spread a transcendent ideal regardless of geography. (Putin has made it very clear that borders are an irrelevancy to him in many respects, as Crimea clearly shows.) In this regard, I would say that such movements are ironically branded as "traditionalist" or "nationalist" when in fact they are entirely too modern and unique creatures of late modernity, seeing that their understanding of morality is transcendent of time and place.

Equally too we could say that American imperialist attempts to foist decadent bourgeois sexual morality (LGBT rights, etc.) on other countries around the world are a form of colonialism masquerading as transcendent idealistic liberalism dressed in its familiar outfit of basic "rights," a notion whose historicity, at least, MacIntyre has scorned in After Virtue and elsewhere.

The patriot, MacIntyre says, is usually tied to a particular place, country, and/or people. But here too we must notice that patriotism is not usually mindless boosterism for a place or people simply because they are my own. Rather, it often involves an awareness that these particular people and this place are both my own and also the bearers of some praiseworthy virtues. To the liberalism of modernity, MacIntyre notes, this cannot but appear as a vice precisely because and insofar as it is not transcendent and "inclusive" of all people, but tied to and "priviliges" a particular people and thus offers prima facie evidence of racism, nationalism, xenophobia, etc., etc.

In the end--in a move familiar to readers of MacIntyre--he clearly demonstrates that liberalism and patriotism are in some ways mirror images of each other, and both have crucial, likely fatal, weaknesses that neither is able to overcome. (As he elsewhere says, in modernity we are all liberals: some are liberal liberals, some are radical liberals, and some are conservative liberals.) What is the alternative? Here MacIntyre ends his essay, saying a bit too breezily that that is a problem for another time. But since writing this essay, patriotism has not been a prominent theme in his more recent writings. Whether he returns to the issue in his newest book is not clear to me, not yet having had a chance to read Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. But I look forward to doing so.

Here, instead, let me turn to other sources, beginning with a new book by the English scholar Nigel Biggar, that suggests an alternative. Biggar, a Regius Professor of pastoral and moral theology in the University of Oxford, has recently penned a short essay, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (Cascade, 2014), 126pp.

As I said elsewhere in my review, the virtue of this book lies in its offering some useful but by no means exhaustive reflections that recognize not just the problems, but also the promise and even the positive aspects, of the modern nation-state. This is a discerning, careful treatment.

It is also a very English, very Anglican book--but in the best senses of both--with a suggestive, if not entirely convincing, case being made for how England manages to be both liberal-universalist, welcoming (as it has since the war) vast numbers of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere; and also at the same time not entirely bereft of a certain nationalism-patriotism that conserves its own venerable and long-standing traditions as seen in, e.g., the state Church of England and her rituals for coronations, royal weddings, prime ministerial funerals, national days of thanksgiving for the monarch's succession, or national days of mourning on, e.g., 9/11.

Biggar, strikingly, argues that a vaguely Christian state like the United Kingdom is better able to safeguard the values of modern liberalism than liberalism itself is. This vague form of Christian establishmentarianism also serves to remind people that nations and nationalism are poor substitutes for a transcendent metaphysic. This vague form of cultural Christianity  is preferable to a “triumphal secularism” (44) often promoted today by “illiberal barbarians inside the gates” (35).

Biggar's book doesn't answer all the problems raised by MacIntyre; nor does it really treat the ugly side of nationalism as it has been a stranglehold on Orthodox Churches in, e.g., Russia. But it is a helpful place nonetheless to try to find some common ground between equally unrealistic alternatives of a deracinated and impossible liberalism-from-nowhere, and a xenophobic crew of the Iron Guard in Romania or the Black Hundredists in Russia.

I have written too much already, so let me close with just a few other books that may interest those who want to understand Eastern Christianity and nationalism better.

There are useful essays or chapters in such studies as James Hopkins's 2009 book The Bulgarian Orthodox Church: A Socio-Historical Analysis of the Evolving Relationship Between Church, Nation, and State in Bulgaria.

I would also refer the reader to the edited collection, containing both commentary and primary texts: The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature. (Additionally, see here and here for a couple of other notices about much more general studies.)

But perhaps the most promising place to begin would be with a book I have discussed on here several times already: Lucian Leustean, ed., Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe (Fordham UP, 2014).

This book is a collection of scholarly essays, each of which is illuminating in its own way. But what is especially valuable about this book is the introductory chapter, which cogently sets forth an overview of forms and causes of nationalism and various scholarly theories and treatments of it, and is therefore itself worth the price of the book.

After that, the book devotes chapters to Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the sunset of the Ottoman Empire and its millet system. The details unearthed considerably complicate conventional portraits about ethno-phyletism, the role of the French Revolution, and much else besides. This is a deeply fascinating book that has been smoothly edited. Anybody with any interest in the vexed question of Orthodoxy and nationalism--as well as the wider religio-political history of southeastern Europe over the last 150 years--cannot be without this book.

None of these studies treats, of course, the problem with which we began: the apparent attraction of a tiny handful of "nationalist" converts to Orthodoxy in North America. But let us end by noting that converts to Orthodoxy are extremely few in numbers, as Orthodoxy itself remains such a tiny part of the American "religious" landscape that it regularly fails to appear in polls, surveys, and other studies. So this is not a huge movement at all, and still needs further study. I would hope that such study would--following MacIntyre--make a serious attempt to put into question not just such converts, or the Orthodoxy in question, but indeed to put into question the whole enterprise of an incoherent liberalism and its telephone companies masquerading as impartial nation-states of transcendent values to which any rational individual should give assent after having severed all ties to kith and kin.

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