One is good. One is bad, very bad.

In the hours following the emergence of violence among protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday, I posted some comments on Facebook, in which I attempted to encourage conservative friends to find their voice. I know that they (my Facebook friends, people I know) are not white supremacists, unlike the Charlottesville protestors. But those protestors ARE ardent supporters of Donald Trump and claim to be members of the political right. I urged my conservative friends, many of whom also support Donald Trump and all of whom consider themselves part of the political right, to distance themselves from the hatred and bigotry on display by the awful protestors and the protestors’ disgusting views.

As part of that discussion, it became clear that some of you simply use the word “nationalism” in a way that falls outside widely held norms. I had one conversation with a thoughtful old friend, a good guy, who thinks that the word “nationalism” means something different than the way most people use the word. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered that particular confusion, so over time I’ve learned that there is a small minority of people who are misusing that word and creating miscommunication. For example, in the wake of 9/11, I moderated a series of public forums outside Washington, DC in which I spoke about the need for ethical people, especially Christians, to embrace our sense of moral duty and our commitment to building community, but I also encouraged the crowd to keep in check our very human impulses toward nationalism. In response, some well-meaning folks decided that I was the anti-Christ and undertook efforts to ensure that I departed the building. No kidding.

So maybe this confusion is worth talking about. Perhaps we should all get on the same page about the meaning of “nationalism.” I’m therefore re-posting parts of yesterday’s conversation (cleaned up a little) with my friend, and I encourage you to think about it. We should be patriots, but not nationalists.

When some of you use the word “nationalism,” I suspect you are meaning the same thing I call “patriotism.” The word “patriotism” comes from the Latin “patria,” which means “land” or “country.” Literally, patriotism is love of one’s land. Of course, over time, the word’s meaning has expanded a bit, until it has come to refer to love of both the tangibles, like our beautiful mountain landscapes, and the intangibles, like our distinct musical styles. Patriotism, as I understand it, is the abiding appreciation and love for the bounties and blessing we enjoy by virtue of being citizens in this great country. When we think and act patriotically, we are mindful of the blessings inherent in being fellow Americans, and we are motivated to be good stewards of those blessings.

For example, most of us appreciate that freedom of speech is vital to our democracy. Our free speech rights are indeed a blessing. We know that free speech can’t be taken for granted, so we will zealously defend the right of those white supremacists in Charlottesville to hold a march and declare their beliefs, even though we think they are wrong-headed. We know that, if we don’t protect their rights, we might erode free speech rights for everyone. Even though THEIR bigoted beliefs are contrary to the principles that define America, our defense of their speech rights is a patriotic defense, because WE are appreciating and supporting those principles that define America. America is, after all, a nation defined by principles, not by blood or color or heritage. We aren’t the nation of people who look the same or pray the same. We are the community that lives under the framework established by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Our core principles include free speech, though of course they also include freedoms against discrimination based on race, nationality, religion, or gender.

When you use the word “nationalism,” if you are actually saying that we should embrace a sense of patriotism, I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment, but not your word choice. Nationalism means something else.

When I use the word “nationalism,” I am referring to a particular kind of tribalism, one where loyalty to fellow tribe members overrides every other consideration. Nationalism permits nationalists to justify all kinds of things that most of us consider unethical, because, in their minds, it isn’t unethical if the purpose of their actions is to support the tribe. Nationalists, for instance, don’t care whether innocent North Korean citizens die in a nuclear preemptive strike, so long as the tribe is protected. (North Koreans aren’t members of the tribe.)  By contrast, patriotic non-nationalists would 1) agree that we have a duty to protect our fellow countrymen, but 2) we would also want to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties – even among people who aren’t tribe members. American patriots, who love the principles that define America, believe that all people are inherently valuable, even if they aren’t American. True, we acknowledge and fully support the notion that we have certain duties to our fellow citizens, and those duties aren’t always the same as the duties we owe others outside the bounds of our nation, but that acknowledgment doesn’t mean we think others are worthless or unworthy of our respect and concern. American patriots, who think that all persons are endowed by their Creator with certain “unalienable rights,” don’t apply our principles selectively. We hold the principles or we don’t. Nationalists don’t.

The way I’m using the term “nationalism” is, I think, more consistent with how most political scientists would use the term. When the term is used in this way, nationalism refers to something very closely akin to racism. It views all outsiders as inferior human beings, but, where racism draws the line by race, nationalism draws the line by national identity. The catch, of course, is that some people define national identity by race, so for them nationalism and racism are the same thing. In Charlottesville yesterday, protestors voiced their desire to “take America back.” What they meant was this: Only white people (white men?) should enjoy all the rights and privileges of America, and they’re tired to sharing rights and benefits that they believe are theirs alone to give. Full American citizenship, to them, belongs only to a subset of all Americans. They define “nation” more narrowly, by race (and sometimes by gender or religion, too), so yesterday’s nationalists were no different than racists. They just used fancy words to dress up their bigotry as some kind of patriotism. Don’t be fooled. It was just hate.

In America, it’s actually impossible to be patriotic and nationalist simultaneously. To be patriotic in America, you have to love the things we stand for – the values identified in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. Patriotic Americans believe that it is “self-evident” that all people are “created equal.” To be a nationalist (using the term as I’ve described), one cannot believe all people are equal. That’s the very nature of “nationalism”—it’s inherently a form of bigotry.

Enough of the civics lesson. Can we quickly take a detour into Christian ethics, specifically? Much like the American commitment to the notion of “unalienable rights,” Christians are, or should be, committed to the core idea that all persons are created in God’s image – the imago dei. Both the American constitution and the Old Testament express a simple, powerful idea that every human being has inherent worth. Much of Christian ethics, since the earliest days of the Church (as reflected in the writings of Paul), through the Middle Ages to modern ethicists, build upon the imago dei as a foundation for ethical human interaction. When we see our neighbor as someone built in God’s image, as someone having inherent worth, we are acknowledging that, in God’s eyes, that person is beloved and is to be loved. Viewing the world through that lens, we know that we should respect our neighbor, and should care for his or her well-being. It is a worldview that completely and utterly excludes the remotest possibility of hating our neighbors. Hate is not Christ-like. Hate is never Christian.

Against the backdrop of the discussion above, it should be easy to understand the following, though I recognize that many will fail to see it: Nationalism (as I’ve defined it above) is incompatible with Christian ethics. Any Christian can be, and should be, grateful for the blessings in his or her life, which is why we American Christians can be, and should be, patriots. But nationalism is not patriotism, and nationalists’ misguided attempts to justify their hatred by claiming that they are merely expressing love of country is, nevertheless, still hatred. Failing to see the inherent value in every neighbor is a mark of our sin-sick failure to follow Christ’s lead in how we view the world, and hatred is always incompatible with Christian ethics. At best nationalism is an embodiment of this failure, and at worst (and more commonly) it is nothing more or less than another ugly form of bigotry.

Patriotism is good and laudable.  But nationalism is not the same thing, and patriotic Americans, who embrace our core American principles, cannot be nationalists. Christians, who see their neighbors as Christ taught them to see, cannot be nationalists.

I encourage you to take care in how you use these words and these concepts, and think again about the way we express our patriotism. As Charlottesville demonstrated, it matters.


Leave a Reply