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Nationalism and its many faces

Law enforcement officers participate in the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2022.
Law enforcement officers participate in the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2022. | STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

“Nationalism” and “national” are words embraced by some on the American Right recently. But what do they mean and are they compatible with Christianity? 

As political action is both practical and moral, it must follow from practical moral reasoning, the sort of reasoning we engage in when deciding whether our actions contribute to human flourishing. We must, then, ask just what sorts of reasoning lies behind “nationalism” and the newly fashionable “national” conservatism. 

I want to suggest that there are three general ways of incorporating issues of national identity into our thinking. Two of them are consistent with sound political morality and probably should not be called “nationalism” at all. Only the third notion should be called “nationalism,” and it should be rejected from the perspectives of both reason and faith. 

First, there is what I will call the Principle of Nationality. This principle refers to the value of national identity or national solidarity in political life and can be reasonably applied to political choices. National identity and national solidarity, for example, can reflect the basic human good of society or friendship. The sort of friendship I have in mind here is what the Greeks called “political friendship,” the mutual commitment of fellow citizens. Such a bond can be valuable in itself. It is based on shared history, cultural, and political institutions and practices. It cannot be based on race — such as “White Christian Nationalism” — since racial identity is a mere biological fact of no independent value or moral significance.  

Beyond this, however, national identity and solidarity can support and encourage citizens to make sacrifices for one another — for example, by paying the cost of a social safety net and contributing to national defense. Many social scientists and historians have discussed the role that national identity has played in the development of modern countries and in the modernization process itself: it may be a crucial element in what allows large and diverse political communities to function.

This Principle of Nationality can also be reasonable, namely as a justification for policies that preserve and encourage national value — for example, awareness of the culture and history of a people through promotion of the arts, the preservation of historical artifacts and places, education, and national rituals or celebrations.

And, perhaps most historically important, is the claim of national groups to political recognition and self-government. There is no hard and fast rule for judging when and to what extent such claims should be recognized. But they often carry the day when national groups make a case that their national identity entitles them to control their own political destiny — for example, when their identity and culture are threatened with extinction.

None of these applications of the Principle of Nationality is a political trump card. Crucially, they cannot outweigh basic moral principles. Acts that are morally wrong cannot be made right by national identity or solidarity.

The second broader meaning of nationalism is what I will call the Principle of National Preference. This principle justifies political choices that prioritize the good of one’s own nation over that of others. It is often salient in questions of economic policy, especially those concerned with international trade and the environment. There are, after all, circumstances in which we are justified in preferring our own good and that of those dearest to us. If that is reasonable, then why not the self-preference of nations?  

But again, as in the case of the Principle of Nationality, there are crucial qualifications and limitations. The right to own private property, for example, is not unlimited. We cannot do whatever we like with our property: its use must be consistent with the common good. Moreover, sometimes we are obliged to use our own property to meet the needs of others. In the same way, national wealth or power can be subject to a claim by those outside the national community — and this can actually help us. The outsized role that the United States has played since the end of the Second World War in supplying global public goods — for example, the maintenance of international trade or the costly defense of open sea lanes — has actually greatly benefited our country.  

We can call the third large meaning of nationalism the Principle of National Superiority. Under this principle, the good of the nation or national group is seen as the supreme good or the supreme reason for choice. This meaning of nationalism takes the good of the nation to be a trump and justification — all by itself — for political actions. It subordinates other goods to “national greatness.” It has often been used as justification for actions that strike reasonable people as deeply immoral. For example, ethnic cleansing, attempts at economic coercion, or military aggression. We can see this kind of nationalism today in the actions of both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation.  

This third kind of nationalism often embraces abstract political goals such as a “Thousand-Year Reich” or “the China Dream.” It treats the destinies of some nations as intrinsically far more important than those of others; indeed, it often serves as an ideological cover for the ambitions of a small elite who benefit from its injustices.

To sum up, national identity and national solidarity can and often have contributed to the success of modern democratic political communities, and those communities are justified in looking first and foremost to the well-being of their own citizens — largely because they are more likely to succeed in enabling their flourishing, although there are obligations of justice that go beyond national borders, especially for nations that are blessed with plentiful resources.  

The Christian faith has never aimed to deny the value of national identity or national solidarity so long as those values are consistent with the principles of sound morality, the dignity of human persons, and, most of all, with the knowledge that ultimately Christians have a homeland beyond all terrestrial nations.

But there is a line we must not cross, into a world where whole peoples are judged inferior to others. The Principle of National Superiority treats human persons as the mere materials for the construction of ideologies, even if it disguises its purposes with romantic or compelling rhetoric. It is worrying to see some Christians attracted to such thinking, because in doing so they are — whether they realize it or not — rejecting their brotherhood with all other human beings under the one sovereignty of the Triune God.

Dr. V. Bradley Lewis is an associate professor of philosophy and Scholar with the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

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