"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Utter Fatuousness of All Nationalisms

Why is anyone a nationalist in any context, at any point, and in and for any nation-state ("that most dangerous and unmanageable of institutions" in MacIntyre's memorable words)? Is it a lack of education? An insularity that refuses to travel to, study, and engage other cultures which results in an othering and blindness so that I do not see how their struggles are like my nation's, and their supposed glories like unto mine as well?

I am hard-pressed to think of anything stupider or more pointless--or more destructive insofar as nationalism is often a key motivator of war. Anyone with a passing familiarity with historiography, narrative theory, psychoanalysis, and much else immediately can see how often nationalism is shot through with tendentious tales of "chosen triumph" and "chosen glory." Even the more plausible tales are invariably embroidered with all kinds of fantasies and illusions and therefore utterly unreliable.

Nationalisms, then, are sinister forces most of the time. The rest of the time they are merely banal. MacIntyre was right to denounce the idea of dying for the nation-state as equivalent to being asked to die for the telephone company. 

It is, of course, a staple within Eastern Christian discourse that nationalism has been a besetting sin of many Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches for centuries. This has long had ample demonstration by scholars with reference to Greece and Southeastern Europe, as well as the East-Slavic countries. But it had, and has, its greatest demonstration this year with the war Russia is waging against Ukraine. This monstrous evil has been lauded and blessed at every turn by the patriarch of Moscow to his everlasting shame. He will surely have to account before the dread tribunal of Christ for wickedly whoring himself out to Putin. 

But Eastern Christians, in a perverse ecumenism, now have their communion joined by fellow nationalist communicants from, of all places, America. (The Man for All Seasons line comes unbidden to mind here, amended slightly: "Why...it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world...but for America!")

These so-called Christian nationalists in America have come in for study in a brand new book by a sociologist whose work I discovered some months back: Samuel Perry. He's doing first-rate scholarship in the sociology of religion and deserves wide attention. His book Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants is a fascinating and sympathetic treatment of what happens when evangelical cultures meet pornography and how they try to co-opt clinical terms to describe their experience. Perry and others have pushed back on this, suggesting that "addiction" is not the right conceptualization to describe what he calls "moral incongruence." I may have more to say about this elsewhere and later. 

But for now I want to draw your attention to his newest book co-authored with Philip Gorski, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (Oxford University Press, April 2022), 176pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Most Americans were shocked by the violence they witnessed at the nation's Capital on January 6th, 2021. And many were bewildered by the images displayed by the insurrectionists: a wooden cross and wooden gallows; "Jesus saves" and "Don't Tread on Me;" Christian flags and Confederate Flags; even a prayer in Jesus' name after storming the Senate chamber. Where some saw a confusing jumble, Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry saw a familiar ideology: white Christian nationalism.

In this short primer, Gorski and Perry explain what white Christian nationalism is and is not; when it first emerged and how it has changed; where it's headed and why it threatens democracy. Tracing the development of this ideology over the course of three centuries―and especially its influence over the last three decades―they show how, throughout American history, white Christian nationalism has animated the oppression, exclusion, and even extermination of minority groups while securing privilege for white Protestants. It enables white Christian Americans to demand "sacrifice" from others in the name of religion and nation, while defending their "rights" in the names of "liberty" and "property."

White Christian nationalism motivates the anti-democratic, authoritarian, and violent impulses on display in our current political moment. The future of American democracy, Gorski and Perry argue, will depend on whether a broad spectrum of Americans―stretching from democratic socialists to classical liberals―can unite in a popular front to combat the threat to liberal democracy posed by white Christian nationalism.

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