By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
I despair of the United States. Its capacity to remain in any discernible way a liberal democracy has been so mightily imperilled by the Trump presidency—even in its post-presidential modality—that the planet has grounds for serious alarm.
I am not Cassandra-like by temperament—more of a Chestertonian optimist really—but I do despair of a country and a people for whom I have strong affection. I spent a decade in senior administration at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University in varying roles, taught annually at the Oblate School of Theology in Texas, contributed to Commonweal in New York City, provided weekly film reviews for a CT-based NPR station, and lectured widely throughout the land. I came during the Obama Administration and left at the end of the Trump Administration.
Irrespective of style and policy, Republican Party versus Democrat Party economic and legislative priorities—and there is legitimate ground for credible dissent and argument on both sides—on the matter of religious nationalism, however, the stakes are clear.
The Catholic Church is not technically an Erastian church. The international/global/catholic nature of the church assures its extraterritorial integrity. In theory, at least. The allure of casearopapism has never been entirely exorcised. And the church has found itself on several occasions, during the period of the dictators in early twentieth-century Europe for instance, forming alliances, concordats, that have subsequently tarnished its reputation. But by and large the Catholic Church has resisted the temptation to establish a blissful domestic relationship of shared dependency with the State. Although recent developments in Hungary and Slovakia—and Poland to some degree—might suggest otherwise.
The rise of a religious nationalism in American life is disturbing for various reasons, not the least of which is it will hold the church subject to political priorities and manipulation. Seasoned politicians are better at this than seminary-trained clerics, no matter how high ranking. The collusion—public and private—between moneyed lay leaders, eager prelates, and spinmeisters of the political world—Trumpian, specifically—will end badly.
I was reminded of this when I read a commentary by the respected Eastern European and Russian correspondent Jonathan Luxmoore chronicling the granting of Russia’s highest state honour to the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church. When Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current iteration of the Tsar, bestowed this honour on Patriarch Kirill he trumpeted the Patriarch’s perfervid nationalism, wisdom and his leadership of a revivified church that through its “tireless pastoral labours” is “respected by millions of believers.”
The Patriarch, in return, heralded Putin’s “wise direction” resulting in Russia now being “leader of the free world, an example to other countries.”
Is this any less risible and injurious to ecclesial and spiritual integrity than Trump’s calculated allegiance to a deeply conservative Christian substratum of American life?