The (Religious) Problem with Nationalism

by
January 25, 2016

We began this series of posts by examining the underpinnings of political liberalism, arguing that most Americans—Republican as well as Democrat—fall under this broad heading. As a nation, we are particularly susceptible to letting our passion for liberty crowd out a passion for godly governance. But liberalism may not be the most deep-seated political ideology in our country. That honor might have to go to nationalism.

Nationalism assumes a nation, which might seem obvious enough. But defining “nation” proves to be a slippery business. Answers to the question of what constitutes a nation are almost as numerous as commentators. Different criteria are trotted out as the key, unifying feature of a nation—language, culture, race, homeland, or constitutional order. None of these criteria, however, serve universally to make sense of all nations. Thus for the sake of this post we limit ourselves to self-identification. A nation is a group of people who claim to be a nation (and have some plausible claim to do so), and who both include and exclude people by their own standards.

This type of definition allows for various “nations” that are not officially a part of the United Nations General Assembly. Westerners may find this difficult to grasp. But there are many nations that transcend the boundaries of contemporary nation-states. The Kurds, for example, scattered across Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, consider themselves one nation—rather than Iraqi, Iranian, etc. And in our own country, many of the Native American tribes, such as the Cherokee Indians, identify primarily with their Native American tribe rather than their United States affiliation. So modern “nation-states,” such as the United States, are not the only “nations.”

Nationalism, on the other hand, is easier to define. David Koyzis, for instance, offers a theological definition of nationalism as a political arrangement in which the people deify the nation, viewing their nation as the Savior that will protect them from the evil of being ruled by those who are different from them.[1] Sometimes this rhetoric of salvation is overt, as was the case in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. At other times (e.g. the United States), it manifests in more subtle ways. Regardless of the subtlety, the road of political nationalism is a perilous and idolatrous one.

Varieties of Nationalism

In the modern West, nationalism generally refers to the inordinate allegiance one gives a modern nation-state. The nation-state attains a status that is grander than merely the aggregate of its citizens. Usually, the nation is seen as superior to other nation-states in its ability to exemplify some transcendent value. For Americans, this value is usually freedom. Because our nation possesses the highest virtue, we think, our nation must therefore be God’s “favorite.” This sort of thinking goes beyond patriotism (which can be healthy and good), becoming the sort of nationalism that is an idolatrous ideology.

Our state-based form of nationalism is relatively novel, at least historically speaking. Tribal-based nationalism predominated in earlier eras in Western history, and still does in many parts of the globe today. For these nations, allegiance is given first to a particular ethnic group. This people group shares a common ethnicity, language, culture, and religion, and generally sees its way of life as superior to other ways of life. They may or may not place much pride in their style of government (as in the state-based variety), but the end result of tribal nationalism is similar: our gang is better than your gang.

The Nazis were a hybrid of state and tribal nationalism, with their volk ideology. Undeniably centered in a particular nation-state, the Weimar Republic or German Reich, the Nazis’ privileged “German race” included not only the German people, but also the Scandinavians, the English, and the Dutch. Nazi nationalism was especially pernicious because it made the Nazi community itself the source of value. All manner of evil became possible as a means toward their end of promoting the perfect Germanic race at the expense of other peoples and races.

Ideological Nationalism as False Religion

As fallen beings, we might find it easy to spot the idolatry in nationalism, provided the nation under consideration is not our own. We pick the speck out of our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own. However, the more difficult and more important thing to do is recognize the idolatry operative in our own nation. We must be on guard, therefore, against any sort of national loyalty that elevates the nation—which is an aspect of God’s broader creation—to a level of ultimacy that God alone deserves.

Nationalism tends to seek justice for its own tribe or citizenry, which is reasonable. But it does so while neglecting to value or protect others—either outsiders within the nation or outsiders in neighboring nations. A Christian view of politics, while recognizing that we have a unique responsibility to love and care for our immediate neighbors, will not therefore consider others to be enemies. We may and must love our nation, but it is hardly loving to place divine expectations on something or someone that is not divine.

Most American Christians would not, of course, self-identify as ideological nationalists who consider the United States to be literally god. However, it seems that more than a few American Christians have unconsciously participated in some version of ideological nationalism. From the time of our nation’s founding, many American Christians have viewed the United States as a chosen nation—or perhaps, to borrow President Lincoln’s phrase, an “almost chosen nation.” This sense of “chosenness” has led to all sorts of theological and political mischief.

The worst theological mischief is the tendency of politicians and political candidates to take God’s promises to the nation of Israel and apply them to the United States. Ronald Reagan, for example, was prone to take the Puritan imagery of a “City on a Hill” (which the Puritans applied to the church) and apply it to the United States (a modern nation-state).

Any number of contemporary political candidates like to quote the promise made to Israel in 2 Chronicles 7:14. In this verse, God says to Solomon, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” After quoting this verse, many politicians apply it to the United States rather than to the church.

Latent in that Scripture verse is a universal truth. God will, in fact, respond mercifully to all who turn to him with repentance and humility. But those quoting it often intend much more than this modest profession. They intend to communicate that the United States is the contemporary people of God, the inheritors of Israel’s divine promises. This assumption is unfounded. The people of God, those “called by [his] name,” are those who gather around the throne of Christ—not those with American citizenship.

Theological mischief like this provides a lush environment for the growth of political mischiefs. It tends to give “divine backing” for whatever political programs or foreign policy agendas that a particular “God and country” proponent favors. It tramples on the legitimate and protective division between church and state. It gives one nation-state a higher ontological and moral status than all other nation-states, thereby making it easier to justify evils as the means toward the end of propping up “God’s” nation. Finally, and most significantly, it tends to undermine politics and public life by undermining the church. Once the church yields its identity as God’s people to the nation, its unique and indispensable role as salt and light begins to fade.

Conclusion

We Americans are a patriotic people. None of what is said here should make us ashamed to look on our country with affection, devotion, and even a measure of pride. Still, we must prevent our natural and admirable patriotism from becoming an idolatrous type of nationalism. To effectively counter nationalism, we need not love our own nation less; we need only to love, honor, and obey God more.

The United States is, as our Pledge of Allegiance puts it, “one nation, under God.” As Richard John Neuhaus noted, calling ourselves “one nation, under God” is not a statement of patriotic pride, but of patriotic humility.[2] Our nation stands under the watchful eye of God, and we will be held accountable for whether we were faithful to Christ in the political realm—or whether we elevated our country to the level of idolatry. “One nation, under God” is also a statement of hope and aspiration. For all of our failings as a country, we still have the opportunity to shape politics through the lens of the gospel. For that, we turn to our final post.

[Editor’s note: this is the sixth installment of a seven-part series exposing the idolatrous nature of modern political ideologies. For a constructive alternative to modern political ideologies, see the author’s recently released One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (co-authored with Chris Pappalardo).]

This post is indebted to David Koyzis’ fine critique of nationalism in David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2003), 97-123.

[1] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2003), 105.

[2] Richard John Neuhaus, “Political Blasphemy,” in First Things (October 2002), 92.


Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.