Christians & the Temptations of Nationalism
THE "GOD & COUNTRY" TRAP
This article is adapted with permission of Ticknor & Fields from his book The End of the Twentieth Century, forthcoming in early 1993.
The decline of religion, and of the influence of the churches, became more and more evident during the 18th century, at the end of which it seemed as if that decline were irreversible. (In 2,000 years of history, the prestige of the papacy was never as low as in 1799.) Then there came an unexpected Catholic and ultramontane revival; but the decline, by and large, went on during the 19th century, and continued during the 20th. Even some atheists and agnostics regretted this on occasion: Orwell once wrote that the greatest loss for Western civilization was the vanishing of the belief in the immortality of the soul. That is a difficult subject, because it is not as ascertainable how men and women (how, rather than how much) believed in the immortality of the soul 250 years ago. But Orwell was right when he wrote that faith and credulity are different things.
Most people (including intellectuals, theologians, ecclesiastical historians) think that the decline of religious belief has been due to the rise of the belief in science. That may have been true in the 19th century, but even then the evidence is not clear. The decline of religious belief did not necessarily correspond to the rise of belief in science. Samuel Butler’s vehement rejection of Darwin did not lead to the recovery of his religion. Henry Adams’s discovery of the Virgin did not lead to his rejection of his own mechanistic-deterministic view of history. Now, at the end of the 20th century, many people respect religion as well as science, together; but respect for the former is faint. This has something to do with the fact that we have declined to a stage lower than hypocrisy, the problem being no longer the difference between what people say and what they believe; now the difference seems to be between what people think they believe and what they really believe.
Actually, the great threat to religious faith in our time — more precisely, to the quality and meaning of faith — is nationalism. The democratization of the churches has led to that; but that is only secondary to the democratization of entire societies. The primary element is that the religion of the nation, the sentimental symbols of the nation, are more powerful than religious faith, especially when they are commingled. Nationalism, I repeat, is the only popular religio (religion: binding belief) in our times. That won’t last forever; but there it is.
When in 1870 Jakob Burckhardt gave his great historical lectures to the citizens of Basel, he spoke of the grave and long relationships of churches and states. But he did not yet speak much of the then already rising problem, the relationship of churches to the nation, rather than to the state. When in the 1950s I asked my (then orthodox and rigidly catechized) American Catholic students: “Are you an American who happens to be a Catholic, or are you a Catholic who happens to be an American?” all of them chose the former. Burckhardt would have instantly understood — as he would have understood that this means something else than the problematic relationship of churches to states.
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