Our global, neo-liberal order has unmade nations through the establishment of invisible (and highly exploitative) relationships between states, such that we somehow have lost both the ability to be self-consciously the member of a nation and the sense of owing something to members of other nations. We belong to states and states are, at this point, more market-states than nation-states. Both our own citizenship and the citizenship of our peers in other nations are relativized by the claims of the global market. So far as his assessment of the problem goes, I think Werntz is correct.
Yet what is unsatisfying about Werntz’s larger argument is that I am not sure, after reading it, that I have a clear idea of what he thinks political society actually is; I only know what it is not. The closest he seems to come is imagining a kind of global citizen, but this is not terribly satisfying as an answer. Werntz has demonstrated how market-states wound the common life of a people. So far so good. But this critique is incomplete if it doesn’t come with an account of what ought to define a people’s life together if not a market state. Werntz is concerned with the administrative structures that constitute the entities we call nations (and markets) and how those structures become tools for promoting injustice. He says before we can answer the question “can Christians be nationalists?” we need to first consider how these administrative structures complicate that question.
But to ask how a thing is to be done is to assume that we already know who will do the thing and what the thing being done actually is. My fear is that leaving these questions unaddressed means, within our current context, ceding these questions to the administrators, financiers, and bureaucrats who work in governments, at think tanks, and in large banks and financial institutions. These are the people who, at present, define what nations are, who is in, who is out, what the policies are to insiders and to outsiders, and so on. Werntz wants to address them first because he sees them as being the ones who possess power, thereby making them the object of central concern. “Common culture” and other such things cannot really be talked about apart from the power structures that make such culture more or less likely to endure. Presumably by getting better bureaucrats who walk back the market state regime and try to construct nations ordered to something other than the global market we can then find our way back to true political society.
This may well be true. But what is a true political society, if market states are not true political societies? In speaking of our political lives we must begin within where those lives actually happen. When we talk about ‘nations,’ we should not begin with administrative structures, be they nation-state structures or market-state structures. Start, instead, with ordinary human communities that are organized together around some shared good they pursue together. That is where the action is. Those are the things people live for, the things that occupy their thought and shape their decisions. Nations are merely the aggregated collection of these smaller communities who share a common place and common objects of love.
The talk about administration has to follow because administration, rightly utilized, is political architecture—it defines the structure in which those communities which already exist can continue to exist. But you cannot start talking about administrations and bureaucracies without first identifying the goods that those bodies are going to help conserve and even advance.
Thus I am arguing that ‘nation’ is an updated term for what Johannes Althusius meant by ‘cities.’ For Althusius, human beings are naturally gregarious and so naturally form communities in which they realize various goods collectively. The most natural of all is the family, which is called forth by the basic nature of human existence as a means of insuring the propagation of humanity.
There are other communities, however, also ‘natural’ in as much as they respond to the natural gregariousness of human beings. Two in particular are sanctioned in Scripture—the church and the magistrate (or the government). These communities are visible human institutions by which larger groups of people are able to organize their life together for their mutual flourishing. But, of course, as need arises and new goods become plausible within a society, other communities can arise as well, governed by prudence, that also add to the larger life of the nation.
So when I say, ‘yes, Christians can be nationalists,’ I do not mean that Christians should be enthusiastic supporters of all the policies and plans of a nation-state, let alone that they should support any sort of ethno-nationalism. One can and should have a filial love for one’s homeland while also deploring attempts to engage in any sort of injustice to preserve or advance the interests of their homeland. If this current moment shows us anything, it should be that homes made wealthy and comfortable through exploitation and injustice cannot themselves be authentically healthy and whole.
How do churches and governments operate within this understanding? They have particular roles existing within and, in some sense, under the nation. The church is not the most basic community; that’s the family. If God ordains family and church and magistrate in scripture that suggests that the church cannot be a complete community in itself anymore than can the family or the magistrate. These are incomplete political forms which, nonetheless, fulfill essential roles in the lives of people and of nations. But the complete community is the commonwealth, the city, the nation.
Werntz’s proposal seems to imply a fairly significant reorganization of various administrative bodies existing on both the national and trans-national level in order to unmake the current regime. I agree that this order needs to be reversed. The problem is that I’m not sure how we can reorganize these bodies healthily without first defining what it is those bodies, both national governments and trans-national NGOs and businesses, ought to do and be—and we cannot do that until we have first understood the lives that those bodies are called to protect and serve.
One thing that jumps out about books like Dignity by Chris Arnade, Heartland by Sarah Smarsh, God Land by Lyz Lenz, and Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, is that all of these books seem to assume that we can still know our home countries. These books are full of people who are proud patriots if we understand their patriotism as being indexed to their home place and not merely the artificial construct of the modern nation-state, such that one’s “patriotism” really ends up becoming loyalty to administrative structures. So I don’t think the question of whether or not Christians can be nationalists is as empty as Werntz seems to believe.
We are not able to realize our love of country fully because the trans-national capitalist class combined with the bureaucrats running the nation-states have made that very difficult to do. But fixing this regime will require more than just addressing the various bureaucrats that shape our world. We must recover a more basic wonder at the human person, at the societies each person belongs to, and a desire to love and revere those societies while also respecting the integrity of neighboring nations, as several others in this series have noted. Only once we have discerned the conditions necessary for health will we understand the conditions that our large-scale structures ought to protect and seek to advance.
We should dismantle the regime that Werntz rightly assailed in his essay. But what will be left behind after the regime falls will not be an indistinguishable mass of global citizens. It will be members of places, families, churches, and countries. And that is very good.