Commonweal is pleased to publish the following open letter about the disturbing rise of nationalism, especially among some Christians, in the United States. While this is not a Commonweal editorial, and none of the editors here had a hand in drafting it, we thought it would be useful for our readers to consider its arguments and claims as they reflect on their political responsibilities in these perilous times.
Each day more signs point to a tremendous shift in American conservatism away from the prior consensus and toward the new nationalism of Donald Trump. This is evident not only in the recent National Conservatism Conference held in July in Washington, D.C., but also in the manifesto signed by a number of Christians who appear eager to embrace nationalism as compatible with Christian faith. Without impugning specific individuals, as fellow Christian intellectuals, theologians, pastors, and educators, we respond to this rapprochement with sadness, but also with a clear and firm No. We are Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant; Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Despite our denominational and political differences, we are united by the conviction that there are certain political solidarities that are anathema to our shared Christian faith.
In the 1930s many serious Christian thinkers in Germany believed they could manage an alliance with emergent illiberal nationalism. Prominent theologians like Paul Althaus and Friedrich Gogarten believed that the National Socialist movement offered a new opportunity to strengthen social order and cohesion around Christian identity. But some Christians immediately resisted, most visibly in the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which rejected the compromises of “German” Christianity and its heinous distortions of the Gospel.
Our situation in 2019 is surely different, but American Christians now face a moment whose deadly violence has brought such analogies to mind. Again we watch as demagogues demonize vulnerable minorities as infesting vermin or invading forces who weaken the nation and must be removed. Again we watch as fellow Christians weigh whether to fuse their faith with nationalist and ethno-nationalist politics in order to strengthen their cultural footing. Again ethnic majorities confuse their political bloc with Christianity itself. In this chaotic time Christian leaders of all stripes must help the church discern the boundaries of legitimate political alliances. This is especially true in the face of a rising racism in America, where non-whites are the targets of abominable acts of violence like the mass shooting in El Paso.
To be clear, nationalism is not the same as patriotism. Nationalism forges political belonging out of religious, ethnic, and racial identities, loyalties intended to precede and supersede law. Patriotism, by contrast, is love of the laws and loyalty to them over leader or party. Such nationalism is not only politically dangerous but reflects profound theological errors that threaten the integrity of Christian faith. It damages the love of neighbor and betrays Christ.
1. We reject the pretensions of nationalism to usurp our highest loyalties. National identity has no bearing on the debts of love we owe other sons and daughters of God. Created in the image and likeness of God, all human beings are our neighbors regardless of citizenship status.
2. We reject nationalism’s tendency to homogenize and narrow the church to a single ethnos. The church cannot be itself unless filled with disciples “from all nations” (panta ta ethné, Matthew 28:19). Cities, states, and nations have borders; the church never does. If the church is not ethnically plural, it is not the church, which requires a diversity of tongues out of obedience to the Lord.
3. We reject the xenophobia and racism of many forms of ethno-nationalism, explicit and implicit, as grave sins against God the Creator. Violence done against the bodies of marginalized people is violence done against the body of Christ. Indifference to the suffering of orphans, refugees, and prisoners is indifference to Jesus Christ and his cross. White supremacist ideology is the work of the anti-Christ.
4. We reject nationalism’s claim that the stranger, refugee, and migrant are enemies of the people. Where nationalism fears the stranger as a threat to political community, the church welcomes the stranger as necessary for full communion with God. Jesus Christ identifies himself with the poor, imprisoned foreigner in need of hospitality. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me” (Matthew 25:41-43).
5. We reject the nationalist’s inclination to despair when unable to monopolize power and dominate opponents. When Christians change from majority to minority status in a given country, they should not contort their witness in order to stay in power. The church remains the church even as a political minority, even when unable to influence the government or when facing persecution.
In charity and in hope, we urge our fellow Christians to repudiate the temptations and the falsehoods of nationalism. The politics of xenophobia, even when dressed up in high-minded social critique, can only be pursued in contradiction of the Gospel. A true culture of life welcomes the stranger, embraces the orphan, and binds the wounds of all who are our neighbors—all who lie lifeless on the road, as the pious walk silently past.
Associate Professor of Religion, University of Southern California
Associate Professor of Political Science, Pepperdine University
Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ
Founder of Homeboy Industries
Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, Professor, DePaul University
Douglas E. Christie
Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University
M. Shawn Copeland
Professor Emerita, Boston College
Fr. John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, Fordham University
Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion, Columbia University
Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Diego
Professor of Historical Theology, Villanova University
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University
Associate Professor of Theology and Theological Aesthetics, Loyola Marymount University
Brad S. Gregory
Dorothy G. Griffin College Professor of History, University of Notre Dame
Paul J. Griffiths
Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, Mercer University
David Bentley Hart
Duke Divinity School
Aloysius P. Kelley SJ Professor of Catholic Studies, Fairfield University
Fr. Mark Massa, SJ
Director, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Professor of Theology, Boston College
Fr. Bryan Massingale
Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics, Fordham University
author / speaker / activist
Francesca Aran Murphy
Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Notre Dame
Professor of Theology and Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, Fordham University
Frank A. Thomas
Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics, Christian Theological Seminary
Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology, Yale Divinity School
Cornel R. West
Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard Divinity School