Nationalism is atheism. America was born of a grander vision | Bruce Ledewitz

September 13, 2019 6:30 am

This is a nationalist moment.

Bruce Ledewitz (Capital-Star file)

On Aug. 25, the New York Times published a Sunday Magazine piece by Kwane Appiah highlighting the keynote address to the July National Conservatism Conference given by rising Republican star, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, of Missouri.

The subject of the address was the divide between the “cosmopolitan elite” and everyone else.

For years, “the politics of both Left and Right have been informed by a political consensus that reflects the interests not of the American middle, but of a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities,” Hawley said in remarks prepared for delivery. “This class lives in the United States, but they identify as ‘citizens of the world.’ They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community.

“And they subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places: things like the importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress,” he continued. “Call it the ‘Cosmopolitan Consensus.'”

This is a theme not only of the political Right. On issues such as trade and China, the proposed policies of his Democratic challengers are not all that different from those of President Donald Trump. Long before Trump re-negotiated NAFTA, Democrats had ceased defending it.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton turned her back on former President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on trade, which she had previously supported.

The turn to nationalism is not confined to the United States. Similar trends are apparent in support for Brexit in Britain and in populist movements all over the world. This new nationalism is a large part of the reason that Trump was elected president.

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But in the hands of a slick and smart operator like Hawley, nationalism moved away from vague feelings by workers that they were getting a raw deal from their bosses —a theme that Republicans could hardly emphasize— to something more sinister: an attack on universal values and human solidarity.

His starting point, he said, is this: “America is not going to become the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is not going to become America.” Hawley ended his address by invoking the theme of “love of country and hearth and home.”

And if anyone could possibly miss the point that he meant barbarians versus Americans, he asked the audience to stand with him, and with Horatius, at the bridge, defending Rome in 500 B.C.

This weird parallel to the “blood and soil” theme of Nazi Germany, so reminiscent of the attacks on “rootless cosmopolitans,” spooked the Missouri Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, which called upon Hawley to apologize for the speech.

But, of course, Hawley was not aiming at Jews. His bridge was really Trump’s wall, defending against the dark-skinned hordes that threaten his vision of America and the vision celebrated by his audience.

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It was this implied theme that led Commonweal Magazine to publish an open letter from Christian theologians of different denominations and ideological perspectives, criticizing the new nationalism, both in the U.S. and around the world. The letter emphasized that the Christian’s highest loyalty is to God, not to the state, and cannot include discrimination.

The irony of the new nationalism is that America was actually founded on a hope that it would be exceptional—but not in the narrow sense invoked by Hawley.

Politicians as otherwise different as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan never shied away from the vision of America as a “city on a hill.”

These references intentionally echoed the sermon of John Winthrop to the Puritan settlers before they left England to found Boston, in 1630.

The title of Winthrop’s sermon was “A Model of Christian Charity.” The new community was to be as a city on a hill, for all the world to see.  And Winthrop himself was quoting Jesus addressing his followers, from the Gospel of Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

America was always to be the light of the world.

The framers of the Constitution shared this vision of America. They certainly would have agreed with Hawley that “America is not going to become the rest of the world.” They were breaking with the corruptions of the Old World and founding something new, a land of freedom and democracy.

But the framers would not have understood at all Hawley’s other claim that “the rest of the world is not going to become America.”

They believed, and declared, that all humanity is one—that we are all created with “certain unalienable Rights.”

Granted, they failed to live up to their own creed.  It fell to Abraham Lincoln and future generations to redeem this promise.  And we are still falling short and still having to redeem it. But this is the American faith. It has always been the American hope that these truths would be enacted by all people.  We have always wanted the rest of the world to become America.

The new nationalists no longer believe in universal values for all humanity. They do not want America to be an exceptional nation, standing as a model for this universal message. They want America to be a nation like all the other nations, more powerful than the rest, but following only its own interests and not caring about the world.

In the Old Testament, when the Israelites ask the prophet Samuel to give them a king like other nations, Samuel is troubled.  God permits Samuel to give Israel a king, but God adds that the Israelites have thus rejected their true king—God.

The question is not whether you profess a belief in God. The question is whether humanity is many competing groups and identities, or is fundamentally one?  The question is whether there are truths that bind all people.

If your answer is that each nation is a law unto itself, then you are an atheist, no matter how often you go to church or invoke the name of God.  But if your answer is that we are all one, under eternal truth, then you are a believer, whether there is a house of worship for you or not.

Let the Josh Hawleys of the world go to Hong Kong. Let them tell those brave protestors fighting for freedom and democracy that the rest of the world is not going to be America. Those protesters will respond, no, we are not going to be what America is now.

We hope to become what America used to be: A model for the whole world.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly.

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Bruce Ledewitz
Bruce Ledewitz

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne Kline Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He hosts the “Bends Toward Justice” podcast. His latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Kline Duquesne Law School.