If you haven’t been living under a rock the past five years, you’ve probably heard at least something of the growing roar of debate around “nationalism.” Not many decades since, nationalism was close to an uncontroversial concept, but in the midst of our late modern revolt against borders, boundaries, and limits of any kind, “nationalism” has become a dirty word. As Americans, this is not a debate we can afford to avoid—for better or worse, we are still a nation, and we need to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. As Christians, the question is equally urgent. On the one hand, we know that we are “citizens of heaven,” sharing our identity in Christ with people from every nation and tribe and tongue. On the other hand, nationalism is the product of Christian—and specifically Protestant—civilization. Should we embrace it or disown it?
Over the next three essays, I hope to persuade you that nationalism—while certainly imperfect and open to abuse—remains the best political philosophy available to us, the most reliable way of organizing fallen humans in history to pursue their shared goals with meaning, purpose, justice, and freedom. In this first essay, we’ll look at the moral and theological basis for nationalism, and what light the Bible can shed on the subject. The latter two essays will look at the history of nationalism and its contemporary application.
Perversions of Nationalism
Before going any further, though, let me head off some possible misunderstandings.
Just because I think Christians should be nationalists does not mean I wish to endorse “Christian nationalism,” at any rate in the sense that term has been casually tossed around in recent months. This new term of abuse names a particular form of the old error of “American exceptionalism”—something that is actually at odds with a mature nationalism. Some Christians are apt to believe that America is God’s chosen nation, a nation that can only play its appointed glorious role in world history if it re-embraces its historic Christian identity. America has certainly played a crucial role in God’s providential government of the world, and hopefully may yet do so; and an America that owned its Christian identity would certainly be healthier than one that repudiated it. But we should not make an idol of America, or presume that it must play a starring role in the cosmic battle between Christ and anti-Christ.
More generally, nationalism is certainly always vulnerable to the threat of idolatry. Nationalism recognizes the nation as a good, but we should not allow it to become our highest good. Even if it were our highest temporal good, which I doubt, it is only temporal. Our hearts are restless until they rest in Christ, and if we allow them to rest prematurely in the nation, we are sure to be disappointed—and apt to work much mischief on behalf of this idol.
Nationalism can also err by defining the boundaries of the nation too narrowly—identifying a part of the nation with “the true nation,” and ostracizing the rest. This is one possible error of Christian nationalists, if they allow themselves to think their unbelieving neighbors are not really fellow Americans; it is also the error of “white nationalism,” which conflates national identity with race. National identities may involve race and religion—and indeed many nations have historically been quite racially or religiously homogenous—but American national identity is necessarily looser and more varied.
If nationalism shouldn’t be confused with these contemporary abuses, then, what is it? Well, most basically, nationalism is a way of organizing human life in community. Why is community so important?
One of the Bible’s very first statements about human nature is a rejection of all forms of individualism: “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). From Genesis 2 onward, mankind was designed to live in community—first in the family, to be sure, but Genesis soon traces the growth of these families into clans, tribes, and nations. God doesn’t merely tolerate the emergence of nations, but celebrates it and makes it part of his redemptive purpose; he calls Abram out of Ur with the promise, “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:1). From here on out, God’s dealings with his people are with them as a people—the singular form of this slippery English noun—as a covenant community, rather than as individuals. Throughout the Old Testament, they experience God’s blessings and curses, they experience victory and defeat, righteousness and unrighteousness, as a collective, a people, a nation.
It is worth pausing to reflect on how jarring this is, or should be, from our modern libertarian perspective, in which each of us expects to be able to do what is right in our own eyes, and to be judged purely on our own merits. With Cain, each of us is apt to exclaim, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s implicit answer to that question, throughout his dealings with Israel, is “yes.” The prophets rarely waste time bringing charges to bear against individual Israelites, unless they be the kings and rulers who represent the whole; they bring charges against the people as a whole for their failures. And the people as a whole suffer.
Although we might think that this changes in the New Covenant, in which salvation is tied much more clearly to individual faith and the national boundary of Israel is broken open to invite the Gentiles in, the Gentiles are still invited into a covenant community: the Church. While God regenerates us each as individuals, within history, he still relates to us—because we must relate to one another—as members of a corporate community, members of one another.
We might at first be tempted to imagine that this privileging of the corporate over the individual is something peculiar to Israel and the Church. But a quick look outside our windows, or through the pages of history, should be enough to dispel that illusion. When Paul says “When one member suffers, the whole body suffers” (1 Cor. 12:26), he is speaking of a nearly universal human experience—we all instinctively find our identities in something larger than ourselves, and experience its triumphs as our triumphs, its failures as our failures, its deeds as our own. Through most of history, these identities were largely an extension of family relations—the clan, tribe, or nation—but in modernity, as these have weakened, we cast about for other identities to fill the void: sports teams or political parties, classes or races—or, in the latest contemporary perversion, victim groups.
From the standpoint of politics, this human tendency is a very good thing. Without it, government would have to be much larger and more oppressive, as we have seen in the 20th century. If we see ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves, we are more apt to make sacrifices and to conform our behavior to the needs of the whole, without needing to be told by an explicit law or government agency. If, however, we see ourselves as so many independent individuals seeking our own personal fulfillment, there will be nothing to resolve our inevitable conflicts except the law, nothing to keep us in line but a surveillance state.
Just because human beings need community, though, it doesn’t automatically follow that the best such political community is that which we now call “the nation”—a community on such a large scale that it risks shading away into an abstraction. Through most of history, tribalism rather than nationalism has been the order of the day. This should hardly surprise us, for the tribe is built on the most basic human bonds of all, the bonds of birth and family loyalty. The tribe is an extended kinship network, and as such, naturally channels the individual wills of its members into a collective will, a conviction that what happens to one affects all, and that each must sacrifice for the welfare and honor of the whole.
Such tribal contexts can and do foster powerful human virtues, virtues apt to leave us flaccid moderns agog and ashamed. In his magnificent Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Adam Ferguson observed, “Affection operates with the greatest force, where it meets with the greatest difficulties: In the breast of the parent, it is most solicitous amidst the dangers and distresses of the child: In the breast of a man, its flame redoubles where the wrongs or sufferings of his friend, or his country, require his aid.” But tribalism also has many drawbacks.
For one, the bonds of kinship are so strong and all-encompassing, the pressures toward conformity and sacrifice so stifling, that the tribe rarely affords space for the development of individual personality and ideas. No wonder most tribal cultures have been prone to stagnate for centuries and millenia, while more individualist societies have leapt ahead. For another, the tribe feels its loves and hatreds very strongly, and is small enough that it finds itself in constant contact with rival neighboring tribes. The tribal order, in almost all times and places, has shown itself exceedingly violent, with feuds of honor and squabbles over limited resources consuming most of the tribe’s energies and many of its lives. Since tribes are small and decentralized, moreover, they are constantly vulnerable to destruction from determined powerful neighbors who succeed in temporarily upsetting the local balance of power.
These weaknesses are on full display throughout the Book of Judges, which depicts the nation of Israel stuck in a pre-national state. Although the Twelve Tribes had been forced to function as a coherent whole through the Exodus and Conquest by the leadership of Moses and Joshua, they have quickly reverted to an increasingly divided and impotent state, constantly vulnerable to foreign conquest and internal dissension, and unable to reliably administer justice. The book ends with the bleak narrative of a concubine raped and dismembered, and the tribe of Benjamin nearly exterminated by the others in vengeance. Whatever the ambivalences of Israel’s clamor for a king in 1 Samuel 8, Scripture seems clear that political unification was necessary; the Book of Judges ends with the words, “There was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Fitfully during the reign of Saul and then gloriously during the reigns of David and Solomon, Israel comes into her own as the “great nation” that God has promised Abraham, as the twelve tribes are—at least temporarily—forged into a strong national unit, capable of defeating foreign foes and securing domestic peace. This narrative prefigures the process, during late medieval and early modern Europe, in which the violent tribalistic politics of the feudal system were gradually subsumed into the durable nation-states of modern Europe. As the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel makes clear, this is a process shot through with ambiguity and peril, but one that can still bring very real benefits to peoples struggling with the limitations of tribalism.
By enlarging the boundaries of the polity, the nation banishes violence to the periphery. Wars must still be fought, but they cease to be the stuff of daily life, and they are more likely to be fought by professional soldiers on the frontiers than to invade every hearth and homestead. And since the nation is able to durably unite the strength of many tribes, it is less likely to be suddenly overwhelmed by powerful neighbors. Indeed, although Israel and Judah experienced plenty of foreign invasions during the Books of Kings and Chronicles, it’s worth noting that most of these just gradually chipped away at their boundaries, rather than reducing the people to complete servitude, as in the era of Judges. Moreover, by replacing the rough justice of honor codes, blood avengers, and kinsman-redeemers with established courts of law, the nation promises greater stability and justice to its members. Finally, by weakening the pressure of strict conformity that exists within the tribe, nations afford space for new ideas to develop, and the pursuit of new forms of excellence. It’s no coincidence that the reigns of David and Solomon were characterized by a flowering of music, architecture, and wisdom.
Of course, the nation does not seek to simply abolish the order of tribes and the bonds of blood, but to take these up into a higher unity. After all, our word nation comes from the same root as natal—the nation is above all a community of shared birth, although it may welcome strangers and immigrants willing to submit to its laws and, like Ruth, acknowledge its people as their own people, its God as theirs. Most effective nations have something of a federal structure, in which the constituent tribes retain some of their own identities while banding together into a greater whole; by this means, the nation is still able to draw on the strength of the bonds of loyalty and cohesion borne by the tribes, while softening somewhat the fierce particularism of these bonds that makes tribalism so prone to conflict and so stifling of diversity.
If the nation has all these benefits—reducing internal violence, deterring foreign threats, strengthening the administration of justice, and increasing individual freedom—then why not keep on enlarging the nation? If we can make brothers of twelve warring tribes or fifty states, why not try to make brothers of all mankind? Can there be too much of such a good thing? Well, as a matter of fact, there can. George Will once said, “The most important four words in politics are: ‘Up to a point.’” So it is with nationalism.
Up to a point, the boundaries of the community can be widened without the internal bonds being stretched to the breaking point. Up to a point, the very concrete loyalties of friendship and kinship can be replaced with the more abstract ties of law and shared ideals. Up to a point, the fractious identity politics of the tribes can be dissolved into a homogenous whole. But only up to a point.
At some point (which may be clear only in hindsight) a nation stretches itself into an empire. While empires have many strengths, and have certainly left indelible stamps on human civilization, their passing is more often celebrated than lamented. And for good reason.
If they are to govern effectively over a cornucopia of different peoples and cultures, imperial states generally have to weaken these internal centers of identity to the point where people no longer see themselves as citizens, but as subjects. Rather than finding their individual wills channeled into a common project, people are left to feel that there is no common project except perhaps the glory of the empire—a glory too vast and remote to have much meaning for them. Imperialism, in fact, often goes hand-in-hand with individualism; empires tend to dissolve all subsidiary institutions and communities that stand between the regime and the individual—the individual may now have more space for self-expression, but no opportunity for participation in self-government.
Moreover, to compensate for these weakened bonds of concrete loyalty, empires often resort to ideology as the glue to hold their vast populations together and mobilize them to action (which frequently takes the form of conquest). Whereas nations certainly encourage their members to take pride in the nation’s virtues, they do not pretend that all other nations should be identical. Empires, however, are liable to magnify their particular characteristics or institutions into universal ideals that every neighboring nation—or perhaps every nation on earth—must be brought to adopt. Catholicism, republicanism, socialism, capitalism, and liberalism have each served as powerful and destructive imperial ideologies over the past few centuries.
Instead, since the empire renounces any kind of commitment to shared birth as its foundation, there is no natural limit to the empire’s expansion. Why not annex this neighbor? And that one? Why not the whole continent? Why not the whole globe? Empires tend to be characterized by insatiable expansionism, which ends only when the empire’s reach exceeds its grasp, and the overstrained edifice crumbles.
Finally, empires, like tribes, are prone to stagnation. In tribes, this is because the pressure of conformity is so strong that there is no breathing room for new ideas. In empires, however, it is because there are no longer neighboring rivals to learn from. A national state finds itself surrounded by other national states, with different customs, laws, cultures, and religions. Because it has a strong sense of corporate identity, it has a thirst to excel them, and seeks to learn from their strengths and avoid their failures. The nationalist order of early modern Europe proved the most powerful spur toward innovation and cultural development that the world has ever seen. Empires, big sprawling behemoths that dominate all their neighbors, tend to stagnate and decay.
Although common sense and history teach these lessons, the Bible powerfully amplifies them. The first imperial project in Scripture was that of the Tower of Babel—an attempt to stifle the emerging cultural diversity of the human race by building a great imperial city: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’” (Gen. 11:4). The Lord was not impressed. Having intended mankind to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth,” he wanted to encourage, rather than retard, the formation of distinct nations. Genesis accordingly describes God as introducing a diversity of languages—still one of the fundamental determinants of national identity—to scatter these distinct people-groups across the earth. Crucially, in Acts 2, when the curse of Babel’s division is undone in the gift of the Spirit, it is not reversed—rather, the Spirit pours out the gift of tongues so that those of different languages may understand one another, but while remaining each distinct.
This unity-in-plurality remains, in fact, Scripture’s vision for the eschatological kingdom. Unlike the bestial empires of oppressive unity prophesied by the Book of Daniel, and consummated in the great Beast of the Roman Empire described in the Book of Revelation, the kingdom of heaven will be one in which the nations find their healing (Rev. 22:2), but not their abolition. By the light of God’s glory “will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it….They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:24, 26).
The biblical vision is one in which, while overcoming the hatred that makes national boundaries into sites of strife and violence, Christ will not do away with the distinctions that define each nation as the bearer of a particular form of shared human achievement, as the bearer of its own glory and honor.
Of course, history is messy, and so are nations. The nation of Israel certainly had a very checkered history in the Old Testament, and modern nations have not always fared better. And although national states are generally healthier, stronger, and longer-lasting than tribal or imperial ones, there are certainly exceptions. Nor is it always easy to say exactly where a tribe ends and a nation begins, or a nation ends and an empire begins. If “nationalism” names a commitment to the good of nations, and to a political order of national states, it must remain an appropriately humble commitment, rather than a dogmatic ideology. Even if we embrace nationalism in principle, that cannot tell us what the optimal size of a nation is, or how much cultural or religious diversity the nation can tolerate without dissolving into chaos. All this must be learned from history and a careful attention to our contemporary situation. To these, then, I will turn in future essays (Part II, Part III).
*Image Credit: Unsplash