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Neuhaus and Nationalism

June 15, 2007

The presider of First Things, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is a fan of nationalism, so it seems. In attacking Cardinal Mahony’s staunch defense of immigrants, he writes:

“But most striking and, I believe, unfortunate is the cardinal’s conceptually confused but unmistakable attack on the nation-state, both in its domestic responsibilities and in the international order. Such an attack has no warrant in Catholic social doctrine.”

Clearly, Neuhaus needs to invest some quality time reading Vox Nova! He is also mistaken. From its onset around the time of the reformation, the Church vigorously opposed nationalism because it sets limits and conditions on who is considered our neighbor, thus violating the Catholic principle. There is a reason why the Vatican is a staunch supporter of the United Nations in the international arena.

And in the immigration debate, Catholic social teaching recognizes the role of the state as strictly limited. In this, Katerina posted an apt quote from Pius XII recently: “Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.” Borders serve a purely administrative function, and are not endowed by any pseudo-mystical quality.

But the opponents of immigration are not concerned with allowing workers to migrate from deprived regions to wealthier ones in an orderly manner, meeting their material needs as well as a legitimate demand for labor on the other side. No, the issue for them is almost entirely cultural, and reflects an antipathy to Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. This is the defining issue.

Here’s the funny thing: most of the harshest languages emanates from the evangelical right. A while back, Eduardo Peñalver at Commonweal discussed a poll of the Family Research Council’s (FRC) members showed that 90 percent of them favored deportation of the 12 million or so undocumented workers. Moreover, according to a Pew poll, 63% of white evangelicals view immigrants as a “threat to U.S. customs and values,” compared to 48% of the population as a whole. So, while Jesus threatens those who do not welcome strangers with damnation, much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric derives from the evangelical right. And as we’ve discussed frequently in these pages, there is a strong tendency within some elements of that group to fuse Christianity with American nationalism. In this vein, it is the height of irony for Neuhaus to mock Mahony for quoting scripture like a protestant.

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