Catholics Must Resist Ethno-Nationalism

Brandon McGinley, First Things, July 28, 2016

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The social exclusion of Catholics in America, on both religious and class grounds, was often tied up with ethnic prejudices. The vast majority of American Catholics belonged to one of the long list of ethnic or national backgrounds that were, at some point or other, considered “non-white”: Irish, Italian, Polish, Lebanese, and so on. And of course today the fastest-growing segment of American Catholics is Latinos, whose historic and present relationship with white racial identity is complicated, to say the least.

It is not too much to say that the history of Catholicism in America until very recently has been one of suspicion, marginalization, and exclusion. It is easy to forget this now that Catholics, especially white Catholics, are securely ensconced in the mainstream of American life. But the full admittance of white Catholics not just to equal social and economic opportunity but to whiteness and Americanness is only a few generations old, at most.

Whatever else is said about the election of 2016, we will remember this campaign for the reemergence of explicit ethno-nationalism as a force in American politics. Rather than listing and litigating the well-publicized instances of pandering to white identity politics that have marked this campaign, let me make some personal observations that I believe are widely shared: I have seen and heard–in public, in private, and online–more unambiguous racism in the past year than I can remember from the rest of my (admittedly rather short) life, combined. I have been exposed to terms of racial abuse that I had not known existed. I have communicated with non-white Americans who are frightened by our politics in a way they never were before.

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This neo-nativism is based on the myth of “white heritage” (about which Congressman Steve King of Iowa stupidly held forth during the Republican National Convention). It is, on the one hand, an understandable (if not excusable) reaction to the solidarity-starved society of secular liberalism. It is also, however, a peculiarly dangerous American tradition–the modern descendant of the laws and social codes once used to exclude everyone but northern European Protestants from full participation in American life.

It is a scandal for any Catholic to support such ideas and the political movements animated by them–not just because they violate Church teaching, but because they betray our history in this country. These Catholics would be exchanging the only social force that can provide a foundation for a healthy and humane solidarity–the Faith–for the emotional affirmation of a mythical cultural identity. They would become what they claim to hate: relativists who cling to a politically-useful identity rather than to enduring truth.

The rightful place of the Catholic is always alongside the poor, the marginalized, the excluded–all the more so because Catholics have traditionally been overrepresented among the poor, the marginalized, and the excluded in American society. This means more than rejecting ethno-nationalist politics, however. It means giving special warrant to the witness and experience of those who continue to be where we used to be.

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