First Things: The Return of Ethno-Nationalism

A conversation earlier this week about the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ observation that the Catholic Church is literally a “here comes everybody” sort of institution — a living embodiment of Christ’s command to preach to the ends of the world.

So it is not without a bit of concern that many Catholics see the rise of ethno-nationalism in the wake of economic tightening, as Brandon McGinley writes in the pages of First Things:

Whatever else is said about the election of 2016, we will remember this campaign for the reemergence of explicit ethno-nationalism as a force in American politics. Rather than listing and litigating the well-publicized instances of pandering to white identity politics that have marked this campaign, let me make some personal observations that I believe are widely shared: I have seen and heard—in public, in private, and online—more unambiguous racism in the past year than I can remember from the rest of my (admittedly rather short) life, combined. I have been exposed to terms of racial abuse that I had not known existed. I have communicated with non-white Americans who are frightened by our politics in a way they never were before.

I was one of the many foolish people who thought a resurgence of explicit white identity politics in America was impossible. The politics of race is an area in which American conservatives often apply a whiggish hermeneutic: We want to believe that the politics of racial and ethnic hierarchy are well and truly behind us—that our society has evolved. This optimism has been encouraged in part by the success of salutary norms of public discourse that mark out of bounds any rhetoric that gestures toward racial supremacy. (This is not “political correctness,” but a humane response to more than four centuries of de facto or de jure oppression on the basis of race.) These norms are currently being eroded at an alarming pace.

Ditto here.

Of course, the Catholic experience in America has typically smacked of these labels: the Irish, the Italians, the Slavs, and today the Hispanics.  As McGinley observes, the Catholic Church has traditionally been on the side of the downtrodden and poor — if for no other reason than the Catholic Church has been the faith of the very same.

Many Catholics of the intellectual bent are struggling with the rise of a populism that is completely alien to the idea of “here comes everybody.”  In that sense, Catholicism is far more globalist than nationalist, and traditionally has served a role that transcends nationalism in the wake of the Protestant Reformation (and earlier than this — certainly during the collapse of the Roman Empire, this was the precise political role of the Catholic Church).

McGinley argues that mainline Americans did not want Catholics in the past, and we are discovering very quickly that we are inconvenient to the political religions of the present day.

Perhaps he is right.  Then again, the temptation to reduce ourselves to our little Trotskyite platoons was never an option.  Rather, Catholics ought to remain and speak contra mundi.

After all, this is the Great Commission, whether we are welcomed to do so or not.

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