Peter Leithart, a conservative Presbyterian theologian, critiqued National Conservatism, specifically its recent Statement of Principles, in First Things, for stressing nations over Christianity’s universality:

As critics have pointed out, the NatCon statement ignores the universal ethical and political vision at the foundation of Western civilization. Specifically, it ignores the universal political vision of Christianity. It’s important to stress, though, that Christianity’s universalism is substantive and particular, not formal and generic. It’s a biblically-rooted universalism.

Leithart also criticizes National Conservatism for instrumentalizing the Bible as a tool for sustaining national traditions and ethics:

But the Bible isn’t simply a source of shared culture or a ground of national tradition. It judges traditions and calls nations to repent of long-standing customs. It’s difficult to shake the sense that National Conservatism instrumentalizes Scripture, appealing to it not as the word of the Creator God but as a wellspring of national values. Jeremiah counseled King Zedekiah to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus condemned the traditions of the elders and instructed his disciples to hate father and mother. Could either prophet get a keynote slot at a NatCon convention?

The Church of Jesus is not a nursemaid to nations, Leithart, stresses, but a global ecclesial body that unifies the saints and offers salvation to the world:

Christian universalism takes concrete political form in a global communion of saints. It’s an ecclesial universalism. The bonds that connect Christians across national boundaries are deeper and stronger than bonds of blood or culture; Christians are in solidarity as members of one multinational body, joined by one baptism and one Spirit, eating and drinking at the table of the one Lord. Churches exist within nations and impart many social goods, but the church isn’t a creature of the nation or the state, nor a “mediating institution,” nor an instrument of national greatness. However deeply the church, her teaching and her rituals may become embedded in a national culture, she remains essentially an outpost of an alien civilization, a heavenly one, and she exists to point the nation to ends beyond the end of the national interest. 

Leithart doesn’t like that National Conservatism, by stressing a revival of national sovereignty and tradition, offers a “national self-salvation” at odds with Christianity. After all, the Gospel insists nations, no less than individuals, cannot save themselves. Only the Lord saves. Leithart concludes:

The church, not the nation, is the telos of political life; without the universal truth to which the church bears witness and which she embodies, nations don’t know what they’re for. Nations flourish only as they join the peaceable pilgrimage of tribes, tongues, and peoples to Zion.

Leithart is correct that National Conservatism, in its hard stress on nations, ultimately clashes with Christian universality.  Nation states and distinct peoples play an important providential role, as Leithart would agree. Nation states generally have safeguarded liberty and order better than empires or tribalisms. In many ways, ancient Israel was a model for later nations, especially those touched by the Protestant Reformation. National Conservatism typically doesn’t like this point, but modern nation states birthed and nursed classical liberalism, with its individual rights, democracy, and capitalism, from which the whole world has benefitted.

But nations, no less than individuals, are sinful and prone to evil.  They by themselves offer no sure escape from human depravity and in many cases refine it.  The traditions and customs of particular nations cannot offer a final reality, each distinct from the rest.  Common grace and natural law point to universal truths that originate in the Creator, who presides over all nations.  Pragmatically, nations to survive and thrive must collaborate with other nations. Cold national interest is important but rarely suffices.  There must be appeals to loftier aspirations about the purpose and destiny of humanity that ultimately flow from our common heritage as creatures of God. Man is not just animal, but spirit.  Absent a vision of the universal human family, however incomplete, alternative dark spiritual narratives will arise that sacralize and absolutize particular nations, tribes, and races.  Woodrow Wilson is preferable to Alfred Rosenberg.

Presumably Leithart would agree about the need for some beneficent universality that constrains the nations and their intrinsic propensity for destructive perceived self-interest.  But Leithart implies only the church can be acknowledged as the superintending telos for this universality. In a cosmic sense, yes, Christians obviously agree.  In the here and now, not all political theory and practice, involving persons of different and no religion, must explicitly espouse Christian doctrine.  

Unlike the ancient Hebrews, Christians of this age are not called to construct a theocracy that mirrors and conforms to the church.  As Leithart notes, Christians are defused globally, present in every nation, usually as a small minority.  Even where a nominal majority, the truly devout are typically few.  Sanctified saints are even fewer.

With the influence they have, Christians are called to exemplify and advocate for political systems seeking to safeguard human dignity and divine justice, however unevenly. Christians believe each person bears God’s image but typically is in rebellion against God’s will.  So Christians don’t overly romanticize any political arrangement or group of people, all of which will be marred by sin and tragedy.  We advocate the best possible arrangements, where possible, and pray divine grace will protect us from our worst impulses. In some sense, against which Leithart warns, we do “instrumentalize” the Bible and Christian teaching to improve society, which itself is at least an indirect witness to the Gospel.

Leithart, as Presbyterian theologian, is right to critique National Conservatism for perhaps overly idealizing nations.  Presbyterians are especially noted for their justified skepticism about human projects. But he should not expect every political proposal specifically to affirm Christian cosmology.  Politics by definition must be both wider and spiritually vaguer. Christians can discern God’s hand even when He is not directly acknowledged.

And Christians can participate in political projects like National Conservatism, among many others, with wary hope that some spark of good might ignite, however briefly.  But the ultimate hope is always with another force whose work is often beyond human visibility.  Politics might improve and reform nations, for which we should labor.  But Christians believe only the Gospel, proclaimed by the church, can save and transform.