When Pope John Paul II would arrive in a new country, his first action was always to drop to his knees and kiss the ground. This gesture of reverence was usually portrayed in the media as a sign of respect and of love for the people of that country—and it was that. But for the Polish-born pontiff, it was more an expression of his deep understanding of patriotism, a recognition that there can be no people without a place, a soil from which that people has sprung.
The idea of a nation (natio) that is rootless—not tied to a particular land (patria)—is an absurdity. It is the flip side of the idea of a “nation of immigrants,” which arose in the late 19th century and took hold on the American imagination between the two world wars. White nationalists who find, say, Texas, Montana, and Northern Virginia equally interchangeable and open-borders “nation of immigrants” dreamers both elevate the centralized state above any actual nation, political citizenship above true familial and cultural ties (much less ties to the land). Neither type of nationalism is compatible with the patriotism of a John Paul II, who noted in his final book, Memory and Identity, that “Catholic social doctrine holds that the family and the nation are both natural societies, not the product of mere convention,” and warned that, therefore, “they cannot be replaced by anything else”:
[T]he nation cannot be replaced by the State, even though the nation tends naturally to establish itself as a State. . . . Still less is it possible to identify the nation with so-called democratic society. . . . Democratic society is closer to the State than is the nation. Yet the nation is the ground on which the State is born. The issue of democracy comes later, in the arena of internal politics.
The replacement of the nation by the state, of the destruction of natural society by some form of nationalism, whether ethnic or civic, is both a product and a cause of political and cultural centralization. Patriotism, on the other hand, tends in the opposite direction. Since a true patriot understands that the nation is an extension of his family, and, like his family, is tied by its very nature to a particular place, he is more likely to keep his horizons limited, to concentrate his imagination and his efforts on the place in which he lives and the people with whom he shares that place in a way that both types of nationalist find not only unacceptable but threatening to their overarching political vision.
Robert Nisbet, as I mentioned last month, believed that centralization—political and economic—is both a cause and a result of the increasing alienation from which modern man suffers. Psychiatrists and psychologists refer to the effects of alienation as “depersonalization” or “loss of identity,” and both phrases are telling. A person, unlike an individual, is defined not with reference to himself but in his relationship to others—family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. Just as importantly, he is not defined by his relationship to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or to the masses of white or black or yellow or red people within the boundaries of the United States or across the globe, because he has no real relationship—or even the possibility of a real relationship—with any of them.
Whether I know my neighbor or not is a matter of greater importance to who I am as a person than whether I voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (or, as I did, wrote in Pat Buchanan). It is more important than physical traits over which I have no control, like my left-handedness or my extreme nearsightedness or my skin color. I may have over a thousand “friends” on Facebook, but if I have no friends in my hometown, with whom I share a common place and experience, then my identity will largely revolve around my alienation from others. I may try to overcome that alienation through online “communities” or the adoption of a political ideology, but those who know me only through the Internet or within the context of political activity can never be adequate substitutes for the family and friends and neighbors and coworkers who anchor one in real life, in a real place.
I moved to Huntington, Indiana, last June; my family joined me a month later. Our new friends and acquaintances here frequently remark that they are surprised by how quickly we have become a part of this community. We eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores. We’ve joined the parish of Saints Peter and Paul; I sing in the choir, and the children belong to the youth group. The older girls have thrown themselves into swimming and track and Academic Super Bowl and the winter musical at the Catholic high school; the younger ones have added to the life of Huntington Catholic, on whose board I now sit. I’m a member of the local council of the Knights of Columbus, and Amy has joined the ladies’ auxiliary. I belong to the board of Junior Achievement and am part of a working group, organized by the mayor and other civic and business leaders, planning Huntington’s Constitution Day celebration in September. Our family knows our neighbors, and we have invited a few dozen of my coworkers over to our house to celebrate Epiphany.
But what was the alternative? Evenings spent surfing Netflix and Facebook? Nonstop viewing of CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News? Endless arguments online about Trump and guns and immigration and trade?
I’ll leave those activities to the nationalists of both stripes. Our 12-year-old daughter, Cordelia, is trying to decide which part of the backyard we should dig up for our garden, and together we’re going to get down on our knees and plant our hands in the soil of our new native land.
First published in the May 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.