Though it is forgotten today, there was a time when it was nations, not global organizations, that were regarded as an outsider, oppressive force undermining a community’s local life together. Indeed, the emergence of the nation-state in early modern Europe is the story of an impersonal bureaucratic administrative structure overwhelming the softer forces that linked people together in small places through commonly shared culture, dress, rituals, and so on. We still can detect something of this in parts of Europe today. Even now many Italians will still regard themselves as more primarily “Neapolitan” or “Calabrian” or “Roman” than “Italian.” This divide also shows up in Italian food, as Michael Wear noted in his essay for us.
Likewise, when the post-colonial African states were first emerging, they had to confront a hard reality: On the one hand, the national borders conferred on them by European colonizers were entirely fictitious. There was no rational basis for them, if by rational we mean some basis connected to the actual lives of the people and local communities living amongst one another in those places across sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, when he returned to London from Berlin, Lord Salisbury said as much, explaining to the press that the European delegates at Berlin had been dividing up rivers and mountains and savannas with the only impediment being they didn’t actually know where any of them were.
The boundaries of modern Africa are in many ways a synthetic grid laid atop the continent by white people, shattering traditional ways of living. During my time in Zambia I spoke with a man who lived in a village on the north side of the Zambezi River, the river from which the nation of Zambia takes its name. He explained to me that the arrival of the British had caused untold confusion for people who lived along the river because traditionally their closest friends and allies lived across the river. Yet when Britain colonized the region, they divided “North Rhodesia” from “South Rhodesia,” with the Zambezi as the dividing line. And so suddenly peoples who had lived in close relationship for generations were politically estranged.
Despite this dubious history, the early African founding fathers of the post-war independence period were nearly to a man “nationalists.” They wanted people to stop seeing themselves as "Bemba" or "Tonga" and to instead imagine themselves as "Zambian." Why was that? Because these leaders, whether they were in Ghana in western Africa or Kenya in eastern Africa or Zambia in southern Africa knew that their peoples would not be left alone to govern themselves, as they had been prior to the arrival of westerners. They would be absorbed into industrialized global economies and, in particular, into close economic relationships with either the United States or the Soviet Union.
These leaders knew that the only prayer these newly emerging nations had for anything even approximating just trade relations was to form large enough political communities sufficient to have real bargaining power on the global stage. And so preserving the colonial boundaries and the new “nations” that these boundaries now named was essential, even as it remained true that the boundaries were contrivances of the white man.
The "nation" then did not preserve anything like a common way of life, language, or culture; it simply created an economic bloc that might be able to survive in the Cold War-era world. Indeed, some African leaders, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah (pictured above) most notably pushed past nationalism and into something more ambitious still: pan-Africanism. He argued that even individual African nation-states were insufficient to the task of securing just trade relations with the two Cold War superpowers. The only true hope Africa had, Nkrumah felt, was the creation of a United States of Africa, perhaps even a United States of Africa able in some sense to include the African diaspora.
I say all of this by way of preamble to a basic point regarding the ongoing and interminable argument about so-called “Christian nationalism.” The most basic theoretical problem at the heart of the debate is precisely the ambiguous status of “nations” as I have described above. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, the relationship between "nations" as people groups and nation-states as administrative political organizations is virtually never simple and only occasionally is it symbiotic. And so it won’t do to simply assert, as some sloganeers sometimes do, that “China is for the Chinese” or “Nigeria is for Nigerians" or, when they eventually come to their point, "America is for Americans."
What, after all, is a Nigerian? Are Biafrans “Nigerians”? If so, what of their desire in the early years after Nigerian independence to possess their own nation independent of Nigeria? Why not “Biafra is for Biafrans?” Who gets to say? Similar questions can, of course, be raised with countless other independence movements that have arisen in recent years—was Sudan for the Dinka and Nuer? Clearly not—and so we ended up with South Sudan. Is Spain for the Catalonians? Many Catalans would say "no." So why not "Catalonia for the Catalans?"
More disturbing still, what of “China for the Chinese?" Well, who is Chinese? The Han? And what is “China”? The geographic region marked within the boundaries of the modern Chinese nation-state? Well, if you say “yes” to both of those questions, then on what basis can a nationalist condemn the ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs? If “China” is the geographical boundaries of modern-day China and the Han are “Chinese” and your political theory can be summarized as "China for the Chinese," than surely that would mean that China is not for the Uyghurs and that the Han are simply protecting their cultural and national identity by exterminating them? I pray and hope that no serious Christian could possibly say such a wicked and appalling thing. Yet on their principles I don't see why the purveyors of Christian nationalism shouldn't.
Turning toward home: What is an “American”? I am "white" and so if you put me in a room with a bunch of people descended from 17th century Puritan New Englanders, we'd look roughly similar. But my ancestors did not arrive in the country until about 1890.
Moreover, while most of family is from northern Europe, I’m also 25% Greek, so even my “whiteness” is somewhat relative; my great-grandparents would certainly not have been regarded as “white” on their arrival here; indeed they would have been one more bloc of people that was hated by groups like the Klan (who were relatively influential at the time) and who were regarded by many as decidedly un-American. (This persisted even into the 1950s—an old family story has my austere Swedish Lutheran great uncle referring to my Greek Orthodox great-grandfather as a "pagan.") What's more, given that my other ancestors include Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans, none of my European forebears are English or even English-speaking to my knowledge.
So if America is a "nation" defined by cultural, legal, and religious traditions dating back to the United Kingdom, am I an American even though my ancestors had no part or share in any of that, indeed in some cases were viewed as actively hostile to that? Were my Swedish Lutheran ancestors "American" upon their arrival here? And what of my Greek Orthodox "pagan" ancestors? Moreover, if it is historical rootedness that makes a person a member of a nation, then surely Afro-Americans have a far stronger claim to being "American" than I do? After all, they've been here longer than nearly anyone else and far longer than anyone in my family has been, indeed far longer than most homesteader-descended families that still reside across America's Great Plains.
I say all of this to make a relatively basic and yet oft neglected point: The emergence of this thing we now call a “nation” is virtually never simple. The interplay between the administrative structures we now call nation-states which have become so essential in the functioning of the global economy and between the various "nations" (more "people groups," really) that have existed throughout human history is complex and unhappy and often horrifying.
Certainly, we seem to be in an era where globalization is weakening, which is why people are now taking a renewed interest in the lives of nations, I suppose. We have a tense cold war between the US and China, and we have a large land war in eastern Europe. We have much economic uncertainty. The complex system that has brought about the relative peace of the past 80 years seems to be diminishing—and with that diminishment comes the possibilities of slower economic growth, weaker trade relationships, and even mass famine and de-industrialization.
That diminishment will quite naturally cause people to turn their eyes toward local places, relying less on the remarkably complex supply chains and economic norms of the globalization era and relying more on the bonds of local community. That all seems clear to me. And such changes will naturally raise questions about how to regard “nations” at the end of globalization. What we cannot coherently do is behave as if these questions are solved through sloganeering. Contemporary nation-states are, in reality, quite complicated and unable to bear the existential load that some on the new right expect them to carry.
But the point here is not simply that we need wisdom and nuance in adjudicating the rights of nations in our current moment, as important as that is. There is a greater danger before us as well. So far, many on the new right have tried to address this problem through an anachronistic attempt to pull older tacitly racialized notions of "the nation" forward into the present, as if those notions were not morally wrong or, in any case, hopelessly antiquated in the aftermath of globalization. Thus the many instances, for example, of Christian nationalists decrying interracial marriage. This attempt will not only revive those older racialized conceptions of "nations," but also bring back many of the old evils we associate with America's racial history. If Christians cannot model a better model for considering these complex questions, then our churches will continue to burn down in an inferno of hatred and prejudice, likely sharing the same fate as our nation.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).