There is a wide spread antagonism towards nationalism in the modern Western world today. We see this especially present in the mainstream media. Often those who describe themselves as nationalists are spoken about as though they are racists or at the very least xenophobic. To be fair some who call themselves nationalists are also racists and xenophobic, but nationalism and racism are not synonyms. Even in the Church, whether Protestant or non-Protestant, nationalism is often spoken about in suspicious tones. The accepted biblical stance is that nationalistic pride is antithetical to the Christian faith, and therefore many pastors and theologians will steer their people away from thinking in nationalistic terms. But nationalism isn’t antithetical to Christian faith, and it definitely is not in opposition to Biblical teaching.
Biblically, nationalism is something that God gave the world as a gift to protect it from globalism, which is really just imperialism dressed up in modern clothing. Those who know their Bible well will know I am referring to the Tower of Babel. In this biblical account God is concerned about the evil that humanity can fulfil while they are unified as one people. “And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is on the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language, so that they might not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7). In his mercy God dispersed the people into nations, different groups of people, to limit their ability to commit evil.
We tend to think of humanity uniting together to be a base line good thing, a united humanity brings to mind for many the world of Star Trek, a utopian war free almost heaven like existence. But really everything depends on why humanity unites.
The scriptures teach that humanity is sinful, and that people want power; no one, atheist, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist, or whatever, will disagree with these two facts: that humanity is sinful (imperfect) and desires after power. The tower of Babel is an episode where all of humanity united together to seek to lift themselves up as great as the gods. This is what it means when it says they wanted to make a name for themselves. Think of every conquering emperor, or would be emperor, in history, what was his goal? To increase power and to make a name for himself. From Nebuchadnezzar, to Alexander the Great, to Napoleon to Hitler, all of these men and more sought to subject multiple nations into their empires, to extend their power over people, and in doing so they all did great evil.
So what did God do to limit empire? He confused the language of the peoples and split them up into nations. On our own, humans can achieve evil. Together we can achieve much evil. We can at times achieve some good things, but if you look across the history of empire, you will see many evils committed in its name.
Let’s look at this another way, what is the opposite of nationalism? Imperialism or globalism, both of these are movements towards centralized power, in the hands of fewer and fewer people. We have been conditioned to see globalism as a good thing in the wake of World War 2, partly because many who called themselves nationalists did evil things. But what is nationalism?
Nationalism is simply identifying yourself with the people of your nation. It can be identifying with the nation state, but this is better described as statism, the idea that the state is supreme and all should bow to it. The people of the nation do not exist to serve their state, the state exists to serve the people of their nation. Too many politicians forget this truth, and look out for their own interests. Nationalism in many ways is just neutral: it’s the idea that you find an affinity with or identify with your given people or nation of people (the Greek word for nation, ethnos, can also mean just mean people group).
This can be stirred up by evil people with evil purposes. For example, when Hitler stirred up hatred for those in Germany and Europe whose nationality was not German. But Hitler was not really a nationalist. He couched some of his arguments in nationalist terms. But he was really an ethnic imperialist. He believed the Germans were the superior race and should rule over all other peoples: this is the definition of imperialism, not nationalism. He was a German supremacist (some people will respond here that he was Austrian, but Austrians are ethnically Germanic, in this broad sense Hitler was German). Obviously, this idea is crazy and dangerous, everyone knows the Japanese build better cars than the Germans. But we should not confuse nationalism with ethnic supremacy. Ethnic supremacy is an evil blight on this world. Nationalism is God’s means of limiting the imperial pretensions of powerful world leaders, like Hitler. Who rose up against Hitler to limit his imperial goals and eventually stop him? Other nations.
Nationalism can also be stirred up for good. For example: we are Australians and we believe that no Australian child should grow up in poverty. Bob Hawke used this slogan to try and stir up support for his policies that were presented as seeking to help the Aussie battler. This is positive nationalism. Another example is the National Disability Investment Scheme. This is a scheme which has been implemented because of an Australian value that we don’t want to leave anyone in our society behind, we want every Aussie to be able to have a fair shake at living and functioning in society. A scheme like this, if implemented properly, is in the national interest of Australians.
Notice how in both of these examples you can refer to national pride. In the first instance you have national pride in the sense of haughtiness or arrogance, which will always lead to evil. Whereas in the second instance you have pride in the sense of being pleased with your accomplishments or pleased with what you can accomplish as a nation. Galatians 6:4 (NIV) uses the word pride in this positive sense, which is not sinful: “4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else…”. I would argue that it if you want to describe yourself as a nationalist, you should be someone who is contributing to the good of your nation, and who is going to leave your country a better place, in your sphere of influence, than it was when you found it. This can be done in many ways.
It is neither wrong, nor sinful to identify with your nation, or your people. Where it becomes wrong is when you exclude others or see yourself as superior to others. This is racism. As nations develop across time, the people you will identify yourself with will change. The English are a mix of Celt, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Danish, but they all identify themselves as English, and in a broader sense, the English, Welsh and Scottish identify as British. Someone may identify themselves as African, but also as Sudanese, others may describe themselves as European and Italian, or Swedish, etc.
The groups we identify with are not strictly fixed, or even strictly genetically separate. The Anglo-Saxon is not all that different to the Frank. So racial purity is again pointless, and sinful and harmful. In fact you can watch videos of Europeans online who thought they were one ethnicity and when they received their DNA tests it showed their ancestors were not who they thought they were. Being obsessed with racial purity will only ever lead to evil, every human being is created in God’s image. In fact often when God criticizes nations in the Bible it is because they oppressed those who were of a different nationality who were living amongst them. This is wrong and we are right to reject all forms of racial bigotry.
But the most significant reason that nationalism is important for our world is encapsulated in letter written by the Arminian Philippus Van Limborch to the English Philosopher John Locke in 1689. He says, “I hope, however, that all obstacles are eventually to be overcome by the strength of the kingdom of England that so at last the excessive power of the Frenchman, or so to say more truly of his outrageousness, may be restrained by united forces” (pg. 607). He is referring to the unification of England under William and Mary, the new Monarchs. The English had crowned William as king, and Van Limborch is hoping that the Scot’s and the Irish will do the same (the Scot’s had, but he didn’t know that yet).
Why is he hoping they will be unified? So that “the excessive power of the Frenchman…may be restrained by united forces…” In other words so that the powerful Catholic Kingdom of France, which had been faithfully (in the eyes of the Pope) persecuting French Protestants, and who had their eyes on potentially taking back England, could be opposed in their goals. Protestant England, which was on the verge of allowing toleration for dissenting Christians in a large measure, would better be able to counter the influence and power of France, if the Kingdom was untied. A united British Kingdom stood a better chance of opposing the powerful French imperialist goals. Which would influence a lot of Europe, to move towards tolerance of religion.
In other words nationalism is important for the world, because it protects us from the evils of centralized power, which both globalism and imperialism seek to increase. It’s allows there to be powers to counteract other powers, and it means that the powerful, and the especially the powerful who have evil goals, cannot unite to enforce their evil on the whole world. To put it another way, nationalism, defined as identifying with your nation, and competing with other nations, allows a counterbalance of powers in the world, to prevent one form of evil taking hold everywhere.
So to describe nationalism as intrinsically evil or anti-Christian, is to miss the gift that nationalism is. God has given it to us to protect us from our own human desire for complete power. Given the chance to work together, do you really think our world will only do good?
Yes people can use nationalism, or a corrupted form of it, to do evil. But this is true of many other things. The important point is this: the opposite of nationalism is imperialism, and we see how the centralization of power can lead to the oppression of people throughout history. The globalism we see today which is seeking to usurp the sovereignty of nations and infringe global power on all peoples is the same Imperialism we see condemned at Babel, and in Egypt, and in the Persian empire, and in Rome.
God is not against people identifying with their nation, the nations are there at the end of time in Revelation 22 (look it up, God wants to heal them not destroy them), what he cares about is how the nations treat each other, and how they treat the weak amongst their borders. In fact consistently in the Bible when God condemns nations it is because they have committed a combinations of three sins; 1) rejecting him as God, so idolatry, 2) oppressing the powerless within their realm, and 3) unlawfully or unrighteously seeking to conquer other nations, so imperialism (cf Amos, and Isaiah for example). Nationalism is not wrong. Globalism and by that I mean the centralization of power into the hands of fewer and fewer individuals and the nullification of the sovereignty of nations, is the evil we need to avoid.
List of References:
The Correspondance of John Locke, edited by ES de Beer, The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke, Volume 3, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1978.