Much has been written about the revival of “white nationalism” in the United States due to the ascendency of the alt-right. Most of it isn’t very good. Originating as a mixture of dark humor, trolling, and unaccountable venting on forums such as 4chan, the alt-right, according to many in the Left, is a political force to be reckoned with. That some, if not many, of those who claim to identify with the alt-right are both white and nationalist is not in dispute. What’s not entirely clear is if the alt-right represents a distinct and coherent political movement rather than just an amalgamation of dissenters, online troublemakers, and old-fashioned fever-swamp racists.
The only interest I have in the alt-right is why so many Catholics (many of them traditional) are drawn to it, especially given the Church’s historic condemnations of liberalism, racism, and nationalism. Keep in mind that despite its ostensibly extreme views, the alt-right is a liberal movement; it buys into the idea that democracy is a proper vehicle for political change and that religion has, at best, salutary function in maintaining social cohesion. (It is worth noting that many alt-righters, at least those who inhabit some of the darker regions of the Internet, are virulently anti-Christian.) As best as I can tell, the alt-right fills a certain vacuum for Catholics who have long felt disenfranchised from mainline American politics, liberal or conservative. Instead of banding together to form authentically Catholic political organizations in the United States, these individuals are leaping aboard the alt-right bandwagon in the hopes of gaining some measure of relevance in today’s fractured political landscape. Will it work? I’m skeptical. For though the alt-right or, really, the forthcoming Trump Presidency may deliver on certain promises relating to health-care reform, stricter immigration rules, and trade, “pelvic issues” such as same-sex marriage and abortion are unlikely to be touched.
Some might object here and claim that nationalism is no bad thing; it’s just an expression of patriotism, which the Church has never condemned. Indeed, Catholic teaching holds that patriotism can be a virtue (within limits). The problem with nationalism, particularly in its American guise, is that it often degrades into a political religion; the nation takes primacy of place over God and the Church. Even heavily Catholic areas, such as Galicia (west Ukraine) during the interwar period, risked succumbing to nationalism as a political religion due to both the passions of the people for self-determination and the uncertainty which loomed on the horizon due to the rise of Soviet Russia and the reassertion of Polish control of the region following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While Ukrainian nationalists could not be prevented in full from carrying out terrorist attacks, including ethnic cleansing operations, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) was able to serve as a check on nationalist ideology by both condemning violence and asserting the priority of the Church over politics. Without deep roots in Galicia, however, it is doubtful the UGCC would have had any success, and whatever success it did have dissipated by the 1940s with the invasion of the Soviets and the destruction of the Ukrainian Church.
What certain UGCC churchmen proposed at the time was a form of Christian nationalism, perhaps best exemplified by St. Mykola Konrad’s declaration: “The sword and the cross—this is the only hope of nations and humankind for a new and better tomorrow.” Konrad, like other UGCC clerics who supported Ukrainian independence within the limits of Church teaching, envisioned a social order that rejected both capitalism and communism; it was not built upon secular nationalism, but rather Christianity. Such a vision was sustainable only to the extent that the UGCC was willing to assert indirect temporal authority over Galician society by not only reminding the faithful of their duties before God, but also building-up the necessary infrastructure for a Christian state (e.g., schools, literacy programs, charitable organizations, etc.). What was sorely lacking during this period was meaningful and sustained external support, the sort which would have checked Polish nervousness over Ukraine and provided the fledgling nation with the means to defend itself from Soviet encroachment. It is little wonder then that the entrance of Nazi Germany into Galicia, and its promise to combat the Russians, was met initially with approval from Greek-Catholic authorities, including Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. That approval quickly dissolved into disgust once it became apparent to Metropolitan Andrei and others what the Nazis truly intended to do to the peoples of Ukraine, Jew and Gentile alike.
In America, despite what certain campfire stories claim, the Catholic Church has no deep roots. It is not, how shall I say, an integral part of the American enterprise, nor has it exercised any meaningful influence on society in politics, local or national, in a great number of years. If indeed more and more disaffected Catholics begin flocking to nationalism, either in its alt-right variety or some other equally unsettling form, the American Church can do very little about it. Oh, perhaps some liberal bishop or cardinal may opt to speak out against the alt-right, nationalism, or Trump’s policy platform, but their voice will be easily ignored. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the United States mortgaged its authority a long time ago. Between the still-ongoing sex-abuse crisis and gross revelations about the sexual behavior of seminarians, priests, and bishops, the American Church is bereft of moral credibility. Moreover, intentional injections of confusion into what the Church has always taught concerning marriage, divorce, and the sacraments has left many conservative and traditional Catholics feeling shepherdless. If the Church is so disorganized, corrupt, and beholden to liberalism, what does it matter if her leaders today are uncomfortable with nationalism? Nationalism, for all of its faults, at least provides the hope of surety, the promise of binding people together for a common destiny even if it is intramundane.
Nothing will change until the faithful are awakened from their secular slumber. The problem that remains is who will lead this awakening? If the “approved authorities,” either in America or Rome, cannot speak with credible voices, then who can? It is not enough to run, hide in a ghetto, and “wait for St. Benedict.” Now more than ever we need to be roused by St. John the Baptist. But if such rousing occurs, it will come with great personal and professional costs to the faithful. The time has long past for Catholics to live as Catholics and do so in harmony with the secular-liberal order. The nationalism now running amok in America is a temptation for Catholics, and like all temptations it comes from the devil. Like other modern ideological manifestations, it dangles the dubious hope that Christians can be both in the world and of it, that we can indeed have an earthly home, and that our greatest reward lies not in Heaven above but down in the mire below.