Sunday Times columnist Alex Massie observes that the rise of Scottish nationalism tracks the decline of the Kirk, or Church of Scotland. Excerpts:

And then something happened. God began to die and so did his followers. The pews began to empty. At present, the Church of Scotland has a little over 300,000 active members. As recently as 2011, it had more than 400,000. Since the great majority of kirk congregants are over 60 it is no exaggeration to suggest that, absent some remarkable change in fortune, the Church of Scotland will soon cease to exist as any kind of vital going concern. It might not have more than 20 years left.

But belief, and the human need for belief, does not die; it merely moves elsewhere. In the old days, there was little need, and perhaps little room for, an overtly political expression of Scotland because the culture of Scotland was so distinctly, undoubtedly, Scottish. The Kirk was a large part of that. There was little need to ask who we were because we received that answer every Sunday.

Now we believe in Scotland more than we believe in God. The familiar story of British decline is part of this, of course, weakening ties once thought more or less unquestionable but other factors apply too. Just as American evangelicalism is really a lifestyle disguised as religion, so the SNP [Scottish National Party — RD] has elements of a religion disguised as a lifestyle. The party’s mission is, in large part, to convince us we have all the confidence necessary to make a decent fist of life as an independent state. It is a doctrine of self-realisation and almost nothing is too small to be part of this project.

Read the whole thing.

Massie’s recognition that humanity cannot live for long without something higher than itself to believe in brings to mind this well-known passage fromT.S. Eliot:

So long … as we consider finance, industry, trade, agriculture merely as competing interests to be reconciled from time to time as best they may, so long as we consider “education” as a good in itself of which everyone has a right to the utmost, without any ideal of the good life for society or for the individual, we shall move from one uneasy compromise to another. To the quick and simple organization of society for ends which, being only material and worldly, must be as ephemeral as worldly success, there is only one alternative. As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike—it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.

Well, there are no more Hitlers or Stalins, and in Scotland, no more God. Massie’s column suggests that it’s not so much “Scotland” that has become the telos of the Scots, but rather the Self. Massie writes:

The SNP is a party for all-comers: the barrier for entry is remarkably low. You do not need to believe in very much or have some overarching, organising theory of society. On the contrary, you need only put your identity first; you need only agree that someone should “stand up for Scotland” and then conclude that “Scotland’s party” (sic) is the best vehicle for doing so. Believe in yourself and everything else flows from that. The SNP was a party for millennials before millennials had ever existed.

… What you do is less important than who you are or how you perceive yourself. This too is the spirit of the age and one perfectly suited to a soft nationalist government that believes in itself and, perhaps, its people, but little else.

Believe in yourself and everything else flows from that. As longtime readers of this blog will instantly grasp, that is the basis of the pseudo-religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which presents itself in light Christian drag here in the US. If I’m reading Massie correctly, the Scots have apparently no use for the Deism anymore, and have taken up Moralistic Therapeutic Nationalism.

The philosopher Charles Taylor, in his thin but compelling 1991 book The Ethics of Authenticity,

In a flattened world, where the horizons of meaning become fainter, the ideal of self-determining freedom becomes a more powerful attraction. It seems that significance can be conferred by choice, by making my life an exercise in freedom, even when all other sources fail. Self-determining freedom is in part the default solution of the culture of authenticity, while at the same time it is its bane, since it further intensifies anthropocentrism. This sets up a vicious circle that heads us toward a point where our major remaining value is choice itself. But this, as we saw above, deeply subverts both the ideal of authenticity and the associated ethic of recognizing difference.

By “anthropocentrism,” Taylor means radical subjectivism and atomization that makes individuals the measure of all things, and therefore turns into nihilism. If there is no truth other than a proposition that an individual decides is true, then there is no truth, period.

I know very little about Scottish politics, and welcome correction. But on reading Massie (who is Scots, and who knows a great deal about Scottish politics) this morning, it seems to me that the SNP’s organizing principle is You Can’t Tell Us Scots What To Do. So, should Scotland acquire complete autonomy, what will it use that autonomy for? Charles Taylor says that democratic politics require the ability to organize meaningful political coalitions capable of making things happen. If everybody is a Scots nationalist, and the only thing required to be a Scots nationalist is to say you are one (“almost nothing is too small to be part of this project”), how do you define the common good?

To put it another way, if you have achieved the SNP’s goal of full separation from the United Kingdom, what does it mean, then, to be Scottish? Not membership in the Kirk — that’s dead. What, then? What prevents Scottish society from unwinding into radical individualism and consumerism? On what solid grounds can a politics of Scots patriotism, or nationalism, be built? To say, “We are all individualists and consumerists, but we are Scots individualists and consumerists” is pretty weak. It may be sufficient for a while; as Massie says, it’s reasonable to advocate for a localist-nationalist politics. But once you have achieved the goal of regaining power to the local government, what then? What do Trotskyite Scots nationalists have to say to Tory Scots nationalists?

Can a nationalism that is merely Moralistic Therapeutic Nationalism survive? Put another way, is a nationalism that amounts to little more than “shop locally” really viable? Eliot’s line about God, Hitler and Stalin was a way of expressing the idea that people need strong belief in something higher than themselves. If the ancestral God of Christian peoples has been thrown aside, said Eliot, then they should prepare to be conquered by those who have made gods of Nazism and Communism.

So: if you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Groundskeeper Willie? Is that it?  A two-dimensional cartoon character of Scots nationalism? (See here for Willie’s appeal to be president of an independent Scotland.)

I’m joking, but not really. Remember, Eliot’s point was that “democracy” alone is not strong enough to stand up to outside forces, and will either be conquered by them, or transformed by them. Massie’s column posits Scottish nationalism as a sentiment that’s wide enough to cover the nation’s borders, but only an inch deep. It would appear that Scottish nationalism is along the lines of Lesbian Until Graduation — a shallow experimentation with identity that’s not strong enough to last cross-pressures in the real world.

To be fair to Scotland, all Western liberal democracies in post-Christianity will ultimately face some version of this dilemma. “America first!” is the kind of assertion that can draw people to a leader or a party, but once you start asking “what is America?”, things fall apart. Remember First Lady Barbara Bush’s line (at 9:36) in her 1992 GOP convention speech: “However you define family, that’s what we mean by ‘family values.'”? That right there was a “tell” that the Republican Party was cynical about social conservatism. It will be interesting to observe what happens to the Christian nationalism of so many conservative Evangelicals (especially Southern Baptists) as America passes over the next two or three decades into an undeniably post-Christian country.