There is a recurrent discourse about nationalism and patriotism that I generally find stultifying. In general, many have (following C.S. Lewis) declared that patriotism is a good love of one’s country and people, while nationalism is the bad belief that your country is superior to all others and that this justifies some policy that others object to. The opposite side, sometimes following Yoram Hazony (and here I think Brad Littlejohn is the best articulator of this position), see a virtue in nationalism itself or is simply unapologetic about considering the modern borders of a nation-state more or less inviolable.
On the one hand, I do think that we need language to distinguish between the inherently good affection for one’s homeland and kinship and the idolatrous idea that one’s own nation-state is the best and is justified in whatever it does to protect or provide for the good of its own citizens. Setting up “nationalism” vs “patriotism” doesn’t really get us there for a lot of reasons, mostly because it tries to flatten all difference, nuance, history, or realpolitik considerations so that it can identify a villain and condemn it.
Here are a few of the differences, nuances, historical realities, and realpolitik considerations that ought to be taken into consideration when we are weighing questions of national identity and patriotic fervor:
Nationalism is only what you make of it. Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead’s work has been very prominent in casting “Christian Nationalism” as the toxic mixture of vague adherence to Christian values with nationalist fervor, but if you look at the 6 questions that they use to define Christian Nationalism, you get a set of statements that many Christians would assent to in some form irrespective of their affirmation of other political or ideological beliefs. While Perry and Whitehead have shown that hewing to these 6 statements is associated with a wide variety of stances that many Christians reject, I’m not convinced that nationalism is the core issue here. If you can show me someone who read their book or a summary thereof and was convinced that their ideology was sub-Christian and did a 180, I’d be more inclined to think that their analysis was meaningful. As of right now, I think people are denouncing the “nationalist” label in the same way that others might call Joe Biden a “socialist”.
Most Christians who want to denounce nationalism simply believe that a different set of Christian ideas ought to govern our practices and policies as a nation. If your objection is primarily to the idea that the federal government shouldn’t be promoting “Christian values” as those awful Christian Nationalists over there, don’t go around quoting Matthew 25 whenever there’s a political debate over refugees or welfare. If you’ve read any of my other political thoughts over the years, you know that I’m very much in favor of Christian ethical principles guiding state policy to the end of state-funded healthcare, food, shelter, etc. where necessary, a generous policy towards refugees, and serious opposition to war. But when the complaints about nationalism or Christian Nationalism start rolling in, it often feels like the two sides have the same political theology with different glued-on prooftexts. Get yourself a real political theology and argue on those principles. (Some objectors are straight-up Christian Anarchists and that’s cool if that’s your thing but real Dorothy Day-style Christian Anarchism objects to voting and welfare. If you think that a Christian ethic of love should guide state actions, congratulations, you’re more or less a Christian Nationalist by the Perry/Whitehead definition.)
The United States of America is far closer to an empire than a nation by any meaningful standard. Americans have always been a diverse collection of peoples united by some political ideas, and in the past century American domestic and international policy has involved taking, giving, inflicting, and attracting in a way that is coherent only on imperial terms. Jonathan Chaplin does a very good job of taking Hazony’s slipperiness on this to task and observing that that ” ‘nation-building’ in the modern world has been as much top-down (state-led) as bottom-up (tribe-led), and was as often violently coercive as it was consensual.” Americans are quite used to enjoying the fruits of non-Americans’ labor (whether it is highly skilled labor within national borders or unskilled labor outside of said borders) and has repeatedly insisted in recent years that it is well within its rights to kill people in other nations without declaring war on said nations. These are the actions of an empire, not a nation, and a state cannot act like an empire while expecting to be treated like a nation.
Nations and states rarely overlap perfectly; fixed ethnicities or borders are convenient fictions. The USA is a glaring example (see above), but if nation is an extension of kinship (as Hazony et. al would argue), then there’s a whole lot of states with different nations inside of them (or straddling them) and plenty of nations without a state. For all practical purposes, when someone starts waxing rosily about the virtues of nationalism they are talking about the sort of virtues that at best can apply to a tri-county area. From time immemorial borders have been fluid, tribes have intermarried or migrated, and the self-conception of different peoples has changed in response to various political and social realities. An incomprehensibly popular (on Twitter, anyway) dude once tried to claim that the bordered nation-state was part of God’s creation order and I would find it hilarious except that it seems way too many people think that’s exactly the way it works.
The people who are most enthused about nationalism are often the least interested in including all Americans. If one believes that nationalism is good and that the American nation coheres on the basis of its commitment to a liberal-democratic ideology, then there’s a big ugly discrepancy at the heart of America: what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the promissory note that was defaulted upon. The fact of the matter is that some Americans were deliberately excluded de jure from the rights and privileges of full citizenship for centuries and then when the de jure corrections were made (kicking and screaming and blasting fire hoses at the protestors, if you’ll recall) there was virtually no correction for the de facto segregation and exclusion. Thus, the legacy effects of America’s failure to deal with that promissory note endure in disparate wealth, education, and health outcomes for Americans. If one tries to suggest that perhaps we ought to equalize these outcomes, the sense of national identity we call upon to defend our borders rapidly dissipates as people fall back on a defense of their neighborhood property values or local schools. If national identity is that worth defending, then all the nations’ citizens deserve to be included and sharp disparities like those we see in rural areas and certain urban neighborhoods are a threat to national cohesion that must be eliminated. And if American national identity is based on values and not ethnicity, then there shouldn’t be any concern with becoming a “majority-minority” nation because any member of any ethnic group can adhere to those values.
There’s an inherent and unavoidable tension when it comes to nationalism. We are simultaneously born into a world where we are all human, with equal dignity before God and others regardless of our place of birth, and born into particular families in particular places that indelibly shape us and demand a certain degree of healthy natural loyalty. One often finds that people who consider themselves “citizens of the world” are those who love humanity in general and nobody in particular, enjoying a variety of cuisines and keeping anyone in need at arm’s length. Within Christianity, we find ourselves grounded in a pattern of family life and neighbor-love that puts the greatest responsibility to care for those in need upon those who are most proximate to those needs. (The problem, of course, is that it is now easier than ever to make oneself un-proximate to anyone in any sort of need. Many Western cultures, including America, prize one’s ability to do so!) Simultaneously, Christ calls us out from our particularities to love the entire world and take the Gospel to all peoples, with the Imago Dei taking priority in our ethical actions towards another person over and against the color of their passport. Gilbert Meilaender calls this tension “ineradicable in this life, for it is grounded in the two-sidedness of our humanity.”
I feel this tension quite a bit. I’m an expatriate born in the American empire-cum-nation-state, living with my family (only my wife and kids, no siblings or other relations) in a country which is more or less a state without a nation (or it contains multiple conflicting nations). My job is to teach students from a variety of nation-states with the aim that they will either return to their ancestral homes to help people of their kinship, or else strike out to find a place that is not their home or kinship to that is in need of Gospel proclamation, better medical care, or both. Most of the patients I take care of on a day-to-day basis might travel to the capital city a handful of times in their life but otherwise spend their lives working the land that their grandparents are buried under. I feel a great deal of affection for my home place, but that home place is a suburb that was designed for automotive convenience rather than human flourishing.
All of this is to say that I think we could have a better conversation about the love of one’s own nation and people as well as how God expects us to treat people of other nations. I hope the above is helpful in pursuing that better conversation.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org