Just started reading Roger Scruton’s book How To Be A Conservative, and while there’s a good bit that commends itself to the reader, three chapters in and he’s already struggling with the relationship between religious and national loyalty and allegiance. Of course this is nothing new, and so much of the conservative conversation continues to circle around this question.
The chapter opens by connecting some dots brilliantly, essentially pointing out that the World Wars were the culmination of the French Revolution. And the widespread conclusion by many was that nationalism was the culprit. Bonapart’s mad dash across the continent succeeded in spreading a rash of romantic nationalism across Europe, a virus that Germany eventually contracted. Thus the United Nations and later the European Union were born of that anti-nationalistic mission. Scruton asks whether that was right: “nationalism, as an ideology, is dangerous in just the way that ideologies are dangerous. It occupies the space vacated by religion, and in so doing so excites the true believer both to worship the national idea and to seek in it for what it cannot provide — the ultimate purpose of life, the way of redemption, and the consolation for all our woes” (32).
I think Scruton is right about this. There is no way of ultimately vacating the space of religion. Every attempt will only welcome a new place holder, or what we would call a new god. So Scruton rightly recognizes this tendency, and he rightly credits the Enlightenment with the spreading assumption that we keep our religious sentiments out of politics: “To put it bluntly, religion, in our society, has become a private affair, which makes no demands of the public as a whole” (32). But he wrongly makes peace with this settlement. He basically accepts this privatization of religion as a political necessity. He say nations need an identity, and since different religions create disagreement, “democracies need a national rather than a religious or ethnic ‘we’… Its law is territorial rather than religious and invokes no source of authority higher than the intangible assets that its people share” (33-34).
In other words, even though Scruton sees the tendency of nationalism and other ideologies to occupy the space vacated by religion, he is still committed to the basic Enlightenment project. He can see no other way to unite localities and territories, except by some sort of secular, geographical identity. But this is a fatal move on two counts, one he has already identified. How will this secular identity avoid occupying the place of religion? If there is no authority higher than the assets of the local people, can’t they decide that they want their secular allegiance to be their religion? Who says they can’t? What authority would forbid it? And I would argue that no matter how long and loud everyone swears they aren’t actually establishing this secular nationalism as their religion, the point of order, the point of greatest unity, greatest allegiance simply is the religion of the people. You can banish “religion” all day long with straight faces and censorious tones, like that king commanding the tide not to come in, and there you are at the end of the day with wet socks.
The second reason Scruton’s peace with the privatization of religion is a fatal move — and this is closely related to the wet sock image above — is because “secular” is an imaginary category. If all we mean is non-ecclesiastical jurisdictions, then fine. The government of the church does not extend over the jurisdictions of family or civil magistrates. I do not want bishops or elder boards deciding what math curriculum a family uses to educate their children or what the appropriate sentence for second degree murder is. The spheres of family and state may be said to be “secular” in that limited sense. But this does not imply that they are actually non-religious or that the church has nothing whatever to say to those jurisdictions. Who ordained the authority of the civil magistrate? Who gave the father his jurisdiction in the home? The almighty and living God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ gives that authority, and the Church has been authorized by God to say so, right out in public. The civil government is not non-religious. It is just as religious as the other institutions established by God. It simply has different duties, and the Church has no business micro-managing its functions.
Scruton continues and argues that secular/non-religious law codes are necessary because “religious” laws are unchangeable but human laws can adapt to new situations. He cites the problems with Sharia law, unbending and unflexing down to the present day, but this cuts both ways. Human law can adapt, and it can adapt right into tyranny. He claims that when “God makes the laws, the laws become as mysterious as God is. When we make the laws, and make them for our purposes, we can be certain what they mean” (35). To which I say, “Huh?” It hasn’t been 250 years, and we already don’t know what the Bill of Rights means in the United States. The same five Supreme Court justices voted to uphold the right of states to define marriage, and then a few years later the same five justice voted to insist that all the states recognize sodomite marriage. Again, with all due respect, I say, “Huh?”
All of this ultimately boils down to a fundamental distrust of God and His Word. We would rather trust the wisdom of man than the wisdom of God. But in order to trust God, you must side with Him, openly. You must admit that not all religions are created equal. You must be willing to face the mockery and jeers of the respectable crowd when you say that you’d rather be ruled by the laws of the Old Testament than anything man can come up with. It means you have to be willing to say that Jesus is Lord of these United States. And this is true whether we pass an amendment saying so or not. He is Lord because He rose from the dead. Period. Full stop.
I expect to find a fair bit of edifying content in Scruton’s work, and I have a great deal of respect for his reputation as a conservative, but this is a fundamental flaw that I expect will hamstring most of his work. It’s the fundamental flaw that generally hamstrings conservatives everywhere. And I suspect that we will continue to find ourselves on the losing end of most battles until we repent of this fundamental compromise with the left.