Werntz’s ‘markets-first’ account of how nations and peoples are formed is commendable for the way it moves economics into the foreground. There is (still) considerable need to reflect on the ways our economy here within the United States makes us neighbors to those who are far away, rather than only to those who are near.

It is doubtlessly true that our current international economic order has flattened out regional and cultural differences, even if it has not outright destroyed them. And, by and large, the injustices present within that economic order remains invisible to us—though, to be fair, the justice within it would be so as well. Our current economy is structured around veiling the origins of the products we buy from us. While I have sometimes argued that sacred things happen in darkness, I have no such confidence the maxim applies here.

Still, one is left with the sense that Werntz’s correction to the current discussion about nationalism is an over-correction. One wonders, in fact, whether it is of far more importance to the residents of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo that they both subsist because of Walmart’s supply chain. Mankind does not live by Walmart alone, we might say, whether he be in Mexico or the United States.

If nothing else, the Texan can freely go north, where he may encounter an Okie or two with a grudge against his state—but need never think about whether the road he travels will lead to his beheading. Not so in Mexico, as Paul Theroux recently learned he’d escaped when driving through the country. Yes, that is perhaps a ludicrous example—though, candidly, I doubt I would myself drive the route Theroux took, given his candor about its dangers. But it signifies the wildly diverse opportunities that persist within our respective countries.

Indeed, Werntz critiques the United States’ for being a bad actor within the international order, and unjustly depriving our trading partners and the people who live in those nations of their goods. At least in our current arrangement, tainted by sin as it might be, markets have not nullified the intense importance of national identity. If anything, they have magnified it.

One might say that the real problem with our current markets is that they have made nations more important while simultaneously diminishing the distinctive differences between cultures. Within such a milieu, any ‘nationalism’ risks becoming an empty and deracinated form of affiliation, albeit one that becomes that much more important as it weakens more proximate bonds and undermines more diverse societies. Despite all the necessary caveats about the possibility of misreadings and the like, though, I’m not quite sure Werntz’s economic focus captures these subtleties.

Worthwhile as Werntz’s attempt is to shift our focus to the common economic markets that bind all nations together, it also eclipses that it is just such a critique that has animated so much of the contemporary conservative interest in nationalism. Werntz is doubtlessly right that we owe justice to our Vietnamese neighbor—but so also do we to the Ohioan steelworker, whose livelihood has also been eviscerated by the very transnational corporations Werntz suggests have taken advantage of the poor. The exploitation Werntz worries about is not distributed exclusively outside the American geographical borders: it goes on within, as well.

The economic nationalist purports to solve both injustices concurrently, by returning the job to the United States that a localist might have it. Yet suppose, theoretically, doing so would undermine the economies around the world that the United States is intertwined within, and thereby further diminish the quality of life of those who are economically impoverished. There is a reasonable case to be made that America would be gravely unjust were it to do so.

That such a scenario seems like it could plausibly occur were the US to attempt to move every job it has outsourced back to America itself indicates that the relationship of nations has not been zero-sum: what constitutes ‘advantages’ are relative, not absolute, and if our economy is exploitative it may also be keeping worse forms of injustice at bay.

Still, Werntz is right that to tell the story of a nation without accounting for its history of relations with both other peoples and itself is to attempt to forge something from nothing. And here there is a real caution to those conservatives who might turn to nationalism as an antidote against the globalist hegemon of neoliberal capitalism—acknowledging the litany of descriptors might either not signify at all or name the very devil himself.

For my own part, I am entirely comfortable with the thought that the Christian might be a nationalist. But there may be a serious and substantive difference between nationalism as a fruit or outgrowth of a pre-existing love for a people, and a nationalism that would attempt to form a rearguard defense against darker forces.

In economic terms, nationalism should be a lagging indicator, a celebration of a genuine sense of accomplishment, a kind of vicarious pride in the achievements of one’s people—rather than a remedy for a flagging and weary populace.

Such a reflective pride need not be competitive with other nations, nor diminish other societies. Nor need it (or can it!) whitewash its past, or diminish its wickedness. It need only issue forth in a gladness for what goods it has brought into the world, while reminding itself of the many more goods it could do. In that way, nationalism must be aspirational—it must lift a people up. But it must do so not out of resentment or despair, which saturate our current ethos, but out of the happy appreciation for the goods we have received and might do. Only then will nationalism ward off its demons.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Great point here:

    But there may be a serious and substantive difference between nationalism as a fruit or outgrowth of a pre-existing love for a people, and a nationalism that would attempt to form a rearguard defense against darker forces.

    In economic terms, nationalism should be a lagging indicator, a celebration of a genuine sense of accomplishment, a kind of vicarious pride in the achievements of one’s people—rather than a remedy for a flagging and weary populace.