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Opinion | Why Liberalism Needs Nationalism and Religion

For example, a writer who seemed overly hopeful about the liberal-revival scenario in the first days of the war, Francis Fukuyama, has now written a searching essay for Foreign Affairs on why “liberalism needs the nation” arguing that the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians should teach liberals a lesson about the virtues of national identity.

“With their bravery,” he writes, the Ukrainians “have made clear that citizens are willing to die for liberal ideals, but only when those ideals are embedded in a country they can call their own.” The war has thus been a partial rebuke to the fantasy of a pure cosmopolitanism, of a liberalism that transcends borders, languages and specific histories. And it’s offered a case study in how the nation-state, its loves and loyalties, can unite a disparate population around a common cause in a way that no supranational institution has ever been able to achieve.

The challenge, though, is that the “sense of national purpose” Fukuyama is praising in Ukraine conspicuously depends on an external enemy, a wolf at the door, and you cannot simply will such an enemy into being. (Nor should you wish to!) Whereas most of the peacetime sources of national solidarity he cites, from food and sports to literary traditions, are somewhat thinner things. And one of the potentially thicker forces, a sense of religious unity within a liberal order, Fukuyama rules out: In a pluralist society, “the idea of restoring a shared moral tradition defined by religious belief is a nonstarter,” leading only to sectarianism and violence if applied.

But that might be too simplistic. Certainly you cannot impose strict religious uniformity upon a pluralist democracy. But the liberal order in America, at least, long relied for solidarity and purpose on a softer religious consensus, a flexible religious center, based on Protestant Christianity and then expanding to a more ecumenical but still biblically rooted vision. From the 19th century through the civil rights era, this shared worldview supplied not just a generic unity but a constant moral touchstone for would-be reformers, a metaphysical horizon for the entire American project.

Here Fukuyama’s essay might be usefully supplemented by my colleague Ezra Klein’s recent meditation on how Western liberalism appears when seen through the eyes of its enemies — meaning not just Putinism, with its spurious Christian justifications for aggressive war, but certain radical-right philosophers who have rejected liberalism and Christianity together, seeing the latter as the original source of liberalism’s egalitarianism, its attention to the poor and marginalized, and its restless quest for universal dignity (all of which they reject and despise).

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