Secular Messianism, On the Left and Right

Scott Hahn once remarked to me
that the biblical pattern seems to be that what pride is to an individual person, nationalism is to a people. Sooner or later, every people seems to hit the point where they want to feel as though they occupy a special and privileged place in the Divine Plan.
Now, of all ethnic groups, only the Jews have ever really had a claim to be Chosen. But the paradox of biblical election is that the Chosen are always chosen for the sake of the Unchosen. And that imposes a terrible burden on any who would aspire to such a terrible blessing. For if you are chosen for the sake of the unchosen, the day must inevitably come where it is required that you give up your life that another may live, since all (including the Jews) are “chosen in the Beloved” — that is, chosen in Christ and for His plans and purposes, not theirs.
So to be chosen is to be called to walk in the way of Christ, which is the way of death and resurrection. Sooner or later you must lay down your life — or not. When that choice is required, you can instead choose the mystery of evil and say, with Caiaphas, “It is better that one man die than that a whole nation should perish.” Like John and James, nations can and often have sought to have a place at the right and left hand of Christ. To them, our Lord has always replied, “You do not know what you are asking.”
That there is something in the nationalist impulse that hankers after the same claim of blessing God conferred on the people of Israel seems self-evident to me. Again and again we see nations, in their prime, desiring to be a royal priesthood, a chosen nation, a people set apart for the Lord with a mission to the world.
And so, for instance, the great nation-states of Europe all seem to have gone through their phase of claiming divine anointing and a Special Place in the Divine Plan. We see it reflected in the myth of the Grail in England and the notion that Jesus took time out of His busy schedule to pay some boyhood visits to Albion:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
Likewise, when France was in peak form, she claimed the title of Eldest Daughter of the Church (that’s before she went to Paris, took an atheist lover, and started reading Voltaire and Sartre). Russia too, had its spasm of Christo-nationalism in the 19th century when it claimed the title of “Christ of the Nations.” I once heard a talk by a Byzantine Rite priest who seriously claimed that Byzantium was the physical instantiation of the City of God on earth and that Constantine, not Jesus, was the “Founder of the Church.” The Boers of South Africa were once filled with a somewhat demented notion that they were the elect of God, chosen to bring light to the victims of their apartheid policies. Seventy years ago, Germany likewise embraced an (extremely debased) notion of being a Chosen People with catastrophic results, proving once again that nothing is more dangerous than a single biblical idea cut off from the rest of revelation.
And, of course, for nearly 500 years, America has had a long and rich history of discerning the Hand of the Almighty at work in her founding and history. From the Pilgrim’s City on a Hill, to the Founders’ Novus Ordo Seclorum to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to the theory of Manifest Destiny to Bill Clinton’s “New Covenant” and George W. Bush’s faith in the “power — wonder-working power — in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people” to the current anointing of Sen. Barack Obama as a sort of Messianic God-King by his disciples, American politics is suffused with the constant tendency to confuse the Kingdom of Heaven and the American Way. Not for nothing did Chesterton remark that we are a nation with the “soul of a Church.”
So it should come as no surprise that, in the late 1970s, just as conservative Evangelicals were feeling their oats, the theory that there was Something Divinely Special about America regained currency among Righty types and The Light and the Glory was published. Along with it came a great deal of quasi-biblical stuff about America’s Providential History and so forth.
Now, in one sense, we can of course speak, as Catholics, of “America’s Providential History.” God’s Providence, after all, governs Everything That Happens down to the fall of a sparrow and the numbering of the hairs of your head. Is America part of God’s plan? Of course! So is Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and the reign of Emperor Norton I.
After that, though, things get rather tricky and Evangelicals have to perform prodigies of exegesis that Catholics tend to shy away from in order to work out the specifics of “what the Bible says” about America’s “role” in God’s plan. The reason for this is simple: the Bible doesn’t say anything about America’s role in God’s plan. The only ethnos that figures, as an ethnos, in God’s plan as a nation is the Jewish people. But other nations, including our own, keep trying to see their reflection in the looking glass of the Old Testament. The only thing we know for sure, however, is that the story of Israel is intended to tell us, not about America, Britain, France, Russia, or Switzerland, but about the Church, which is, as Paul tells us, the Israel of God. 

The result of this thoroughly unbiblical notion about some more-special-than-everybody-else place for America in Providence has been, of course, a source of tremendous confusion on the Right for the past 30 years. Drawing from deep American cultural roots, the notion of America as a Chosen Nation is something that brings out the best and the worst in us. It inspired us to do great and noble things out of real self-sacrificial heroism — and it fills us with incredibly obnoxious hubris. It prompted us to storm the beaches of Normandy, save Berlin from the Commies, and found things like the Peace Corps.

But, because our Puritan missionary spirit goes marching on even when our culture degrades into complete apostasy, we continue our sense of mission even when the mission becomes to “export abortion and our pornocratic culture as far as humanly possible.” This frequently hurls Evangelicals into chaos because America acts like the whore of Babylon just as often as she mimics the Virgin Daughter of Zion.  It gets tough to cling to the Light and the Glory when your chief cultural export is Madonna, Sex and the City, and condoms.

For Catholics, the situation is rife with confusion too, but Catholic social teaching has always had a pretty good bead on primary and secondary goods. Love God and your neighbor are the two big commandments, in that order. Love of country is simply a corollary of the second greatest commandment. As long as the greatest commandment is Numero Uno, the second greatest can be followed with complete freedom. But the moment somebody tries to put the second commandment first is the moment a line has been crossed and idolatry has occurred.
So the sacred and secular are clearly distinguished in the Catholic tradition. If somebody tries to tell us to put the interests of Caesar before the command of God, they are speaking with the voice of the devil. Ultimately, our goals as a nation are not the same as those of Holy Mother Church, who is the only fully fitting recipient of all that prophetic witness in Scripture about being a “chosen nation,” etc. So Evangelicals are often at sixes and sevens about America, because she goes on stubbornly being a purely temporal creature concocted by Enlightenment minds and subject to all the mutability this world has to offer. They keep hoping she’ll fill the bill for the Church. But she’s not the Church. She’s only a nation with the soul of a Church — and she’s been exhaling that soul for some time now and breathing in lots of other spirits. She won’t last forever. No merely human nation will. On the Last Day, the only two peoples we are guaranteed to still see standing will be the House of Israel and the Catholic Church, finally reconciled in their common Messiah. 
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That’s not a reason not to fight for America. My mother won’t last forever either, but that’s scarcely a reason to give up on her. America is one of the greatest human inventions the world has ever seen: an almost sacred thing. But only almost. Great as she is, she remains a human invention, not the inspired creation of God. Not a Light of revelation to the Gentiles nor the Glory of His people Israel. That role has been filled for all time by Jesus Christ. So all the normal apostolic warnings about exalting human traditions to the level of the Tradition of God apply.

If you don’t make that distinction between human and apostolic tradition, you wind up getting unjustly angry at America (or whatever other human thing you idolize) for being only human and not meeting our divine hopes. That’s the blunder of Lefties like Jeremiah Wright and others. Like those on the Right who accord America hyperdulia or latria, they wind up honoring merely human things more highly than they ought.

Touchstone sums it up well:

There is a liberation theology of the Left, and there is also a liberation theology of the Right, and both are at heart mammon worship. The liberation theology of the Left often wants a Barrabas, to fight off the oppressors as though our ultimate problem were the reign of Rome and not the reign of death. The liberation theology of the Right wants a golden calf, to represent religion and to remind us of all the economic security we had in Egypt. Both want a Caesar or a Pharaoh, not a Messiah.
But a Messiah is what we have, thanks be to God.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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