Looking for a Church in the State

Consistent with its commitment to traditional conservatism, National Conservatism’s “Statement of Principles” broadly re-articulates ideals found in older statements such as the 1924 Republican Party platform. The platform endorsed the protective tariff (“designed to support the high American economic level of life for the average family and to prevent a lowering to the levels of economic life prevailing in other lands”). It expressed concern with “mass immigration” to the U.S. from Europe as a result of the continuing effects of WWI. It aimed to avoid serious disturbance of American economic life “that would come from unrestricted immigration.”

While that century-old platform expressed a willingness to “cooperate with other nations in humanitarian efforts,” it repeatedly expressed opposition to entering into “political commitments” associated with those efforts. While it did endorse membership in an International Court of Justice, it more significantly rejected membership in the League of Nations, and expressed a preference for foreign policy by national agreement rather than membership in international organizations. “The basic principles of our foreign policy must be independence without indifference to the rights and necessities of others and cooperation without entangling alliances.” The platform also endorsed the adoption “at the earliest possible date [of] a federal anti-lynching law so that the full influence of the federal government may be wielded to exterminate this hideous crime.” And more.

The recent National Conservative Statement, therefore, is “conservative” in the sense of reasserting, mutatis mutandis, received wisdom and policy positions. I can imagine numerous circumstances in which I would vote for a politician articulating national conservative principles over a competitor.

There are nonetheless fundamental problems with the implicit political and social theory the Statement forwards in prioritizing the nation-state and other such worldly institutions. First, the Statement provides a simplistic and reductive account of current cultural problems. Secondly, the Statement looks to the nation and other worldly institutions to provide the type of solidarity only the Church can provide, and aspirations only the Church can realize.

As a result, the statement misdiagnoses the sources of the ailment of modern Western societies, and so at its most critical points it prescribes the wrong remedies.

Overstating the Importance of Nations

The Statement begins with a list of the goods and virtues offered by “the tradition of independent, self-governed nations.” The list starts out entirely fine, if tautologically, in asserting that traditional nation-states are necessary for restoring “patriotism.”

But as the list continues it asserts goods and virtues with more tenuous relationships to the nation-state. According to the Statement, the nation-state provides a foundation not only for patriotism but also for “religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice.”

What can one say? Only an untoward enthusiasm can locate a “proper public orientation toward” realities like “man and woman,” “religion and wisdom,” and even “the sacred” and “reason” itself in the restoration of the nation-state. I always assumed that conservatives generally hold as a part of their conservatism that these phenomena have their own integral existence outside the existence of the nation-state (it is certainly true that they all existed prior to the rise of the nation-state), and that recognition is due these phenomena as a result of their reality irrespective of the status of the nation-state at the time.

While the Statement offers itself as sympathetic to religion in general, if not Christianity in particular, it is a decidedly subordinated role for religion in general, and the Church in particular. In fact, the word “Church” does not appear in the Statement, although the word “congregation”—with its local and particularistic overtones relative to “Church”—does.

Yet it is exclusively to the political, and not to the religious, that the Statement looks for social redemption. It expressly proffers the nation “as the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies.” (emphasis added).

Even in the paragraph the Statement devotes expressly to discussing “God and Public Religion,” the Church makes no appearance, and not even congregations make it in.

While the Statement endorses Bible reading—which I heartily applaud—I am unsure what it is that the Statement thinks we derive from that reading. After all, the Statement asserts, “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition.” Yet there are problems with that.

First, I am unsure that national endurance as a generic principle is really a top priority for the God of the Bible (see, for example, Job 12:23 and Acts 17:26).

Secondly, and more importantly, while I have no issues with the Statement’s invocation of God’s judgment, it seems an odd choice to invoke judgment without even mentioning the good news of God’s love for humanity and the Bible’s grand narrative documenting God’s purpose and actions to draw humanity back into his presence.

Instead, what the Statement emphasizes about Christianity is not the Gospel but rather its “moral vision.” To be sure, the Gospel and Christianity’s moral vision are not antithetical; I do not in the least suggest that antinomian love should replace grim moralism. But, critically, the Gospel does not merely offer a “moral vision,” it offers transformation—literally a transfiguration of the human in Christ (Romans 12:2 and 2 Co 3:8). It is this transfiguration that critically frees the person to live in imitation of God. It is only after Jesus forgave the woman taken in adultery in John 8 that he added, “Go and sin no more.” Without the liberation of the Gospel, moralism only kills.

Ecclesiocentric Society

This problem is confounded by National Conservatism’s emphasis on naturally embodied communities of the world, such as the nation-state and the traditional family, in contradistinction to the supernaturally embodied community of the Church.

To be sure, here I want to be careful in drawing the implications of my ecclesiocentric political and social theory. With the National Conservative, the ecclesiocentric of course has substantial sympathy with the protection and facilitation of these natural institutions that are so important for human flourishing in this age.

At the same time, the principles of National Conservatism do not acknowledge the relativization of these worldly institutions by Christ and his Church. To wit, the Church is the Christian’s first family, the Church is the Christian’s first polis, and the Church is the Christian’s first ethnos.

By contrast, as noted above, the Statement asserts that the nation is “the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe.”

This is why the Statement’s use of the word “congregation” rather than “Church” constrains.  While local congregations do not, by definition, have universal domains, the Church does. Contrary to the Statement, it is the practice and theology of the Church that is a, if not the, “genuine alternative to universalist ideologies” asserting themselves across the globe.

Within the Church’s catholicism, the temporal nation certainly has its fully legitimate location and purpose in this age. But the Church is the eternal nation (or ethnos 1 Peter 2.9, etc.), and the Church is the eternal polis (Hebrews 11.10, Rev 21.2, 9-10, etc.). It is within her that justice and peace find their full and natural revelation.

The point is not that the Church somehow runs the nation-state in this age. Forsooth!

Rather, the point is that the community of the nation-state is but an image of the full community—the communion—found only in the Church. This telos is of course realized only in the Age to Come with the passing of the nation-state (as well as the earthly family, Mt 22.30). This deserves reiteration: the point is not to conflate ecclesial governance with civil governance; it is not an invitation to “immanentize the eschaton.” Rather it is to identify what is the proper ultimate in the Aristotelian sense. While the Statement identifies the nation-state as the “foundation” for revivifying civil, religious, and familial life, and so asserts a political-centric reality, it does so by ignoring the appropriately ecclesiocentric claims of the Church.

Rather, the Church uniquely offers what the nation-state cannot provide: A true solidarity, a true union between peoples without tyranny. Unlike the metaphorical national body, only the Church offers a real social Body. As French philosopher Jean-Louse Chretien pointed out,

Amongst collective bodies, only the body of Christ is truly personal and one under one head. So only here does the analogy to an individual body really work. Other collective bodies turn tyrannical because their bodiliness is incomplete and to a degree a lie.

There are similar problems with the Statement’s celebration of the “traditional family” as “the foundation of all other achievements of our civilization.” The problem is not recognizing the social importance of the traditional family. The Statement’s problem is asserting it as an ultimate rather than as a subordinate institution.

While the earthly family continues to be a vital institution in this age, its ultimate aspirations, its telos (or rather, teloi), are realized and reflected only in the Church. This is a bracing lesson of Christ as he explodes the ancient worldly institution and redraws it around himself in one of the hardest of his hard sayings. When told that his mother and brothers were outside seeking to speak with him, Jesus demurs. He asks “’Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And sweeps his hands across his disciples saying ‘Behold my mother and my brothers.’” Jesus doubles down on this elsewhere adding, “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” So, too, Christians call each other “brother” and “sister.” In the Church, water is thicker than blood. The union of baptism is more fundamental than the union of blood.

The Christian confesses that the Church is his first family, the Church is his first nation or ethnos, and the Church is his first state or polis. Social reality and political reality are, for the Christian, fundamentally ecclesiocentric.

Because national conservatism asserts that worldly institutions like the nation-state and the traditional family are fundamental, when they in fact are not, the political and social theory it implicitly asserts will not heal what ails society today. Thus, with the proviso that we can make common cause on some issues—perhaps even many issues—the Statement’s foundational commitments are fundamentally wrongheaded.