As a new administration and Congress begin, the merger of populism and nationalism at work in the cultural and political currents of the United States compels us to explore deeply the nature of both nationalism and patriotism and to evaluate them in the light of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The recent election campaign was deeply marred by exclusionary rhetoric and proposals that have driven deep wedges into our culture and raised the specter of imposing exclusionary government policies that target specific groups on the margins of our society. It is essential that this nativist element of the nationalist current in our culture, that does not represent a majority of Americans in either political party, be purged from the national debate in the coming months. “Who are the people” in the United States? All of us.
Three Key Issue Areas
There is an obligation of every nation to integrate its policies and the pursuit of its national interests with the good of humanity as a whole, becoming, in the words of Pope Francis, “a community that sacrifices particular interests in order to share in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” Parochial nationalism utterly rejects such an integration. Thus a central question for our nation, and especially for the Catholic community, is whether our nation’s actions in three key issue areas of foreign policy will be dictated by American self-interest alone or by American interest seen in the context of the international common good.
The first of these issue areas is the global economy. Speaking to the United Nations, Pope Francis was clear in describing the current economic realities of our world that all nations must sacrifice to change: “In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and the disadvantaged. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights….” In the vision of economic life that the pope has so powerfully presented to the world, grotesque levels of inequality, unemployment, dire poverty and malnutrition constitute the wholesale violation of core elements of an authentic substantive global common good. They are compounded by the instrumentalization of the human person through globalized markets in human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children, slave labor and the drug and weapons trades.
The second area of challenge between nationalism and Catholic social teaching centers on the global environment. In “Laudato Si’” Pope Francis sounds a fire bell to the world about the environmental crisis looming for our world in climate change, the deterioration of biodiversity and the loss of farmlands and water for the poorest peoples of the world. The pope is clear that the only pathway forward lies in international cooperation designed to confront the destructive trajectories that have been inflicted upon our common home by human choice. “An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption that affect us all; more important, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.”
The third major area of Catholic social teaching that conflicts with nationalism concerns the responsibility of all peoples for the refugees in the world. It was this responsibility that brought Pope Francis to the island of Lampedusa in the earliest days of his pontificate to remember in prayer those hundreds of refugees who had drowned seeking freedom from oppression and suffering. Recalling the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, Francis declared: “God asks each one of us: Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?… Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility.” In a world that is confronting the largest refugee crisis in more than six decades, the nationalism surging through the United States categorically denies just that sense of responsibility for refugees that Francis underscores. This is what passes for nationalism in a country that has historically distinguished itself as being a haven for refugees.
The Task Ahead
The Catholic vote was pivotal in the 2016 election. Now the Catholic community must be pivotal in bringing the vision of the church’s social teaching into the dialogue that will unfold in the coming months. That dialogue is immensely enriched by the new acceptance within the presidency and the Congress of the right to life for the unborn. It must also be enriched by a rearticulation of what patriotism means for the citizens of our nation: a patriotism that recognizes that every member of our society constitutes equally “the people,” a patriotism that sees greatness not in power or wealth but as a moral and spiritual aspiration founded in justice, freedom and solidarity; and a patriotism that advances America’s aims in the world in a manner that enhances the dignity and integral human development of all peoples.
Full story at America Magazine.