The United Kingdom is now in the final stages of an election campaign in which two avowedly nationalist political parties – the Scottish National Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party – seem set to re-configure the map of British politics. They will attract numerous Christian votes, but nationalism and Christian principle are uneasy bedfellows.
The Bible ends (Rev. 21) with a vision of a new multi-ethnic people of God in which all peoples bring their distinctive cultural treasures into the single community of the new Jerusalem. Christians are called to live now in the light of where they are headed. Patriotism – love of one’s country – is compatible with such a vision, but nationalism – the elevation of one’s own nation over all others – is not. Yet nationalism is arguably the illegitimate child of Christianity.
There are examples in the modern world of Hindu nationalism or Buddhist nationalism (Islam generates, not nationalism, but ideas of a supra-national Islamic state), but they learned their trade from examples drawn from Western Christendom. The most influential prototype of nationalism, as the late Adrian Hastings powerfully argued in his The Construction of Nationhood (1997)1 was medieval and early modern England. The vocabulary of nationalism was borrowed from the term natio sometimes used in the Vulgate to translate the Greek ethnos (a group of people sharing common customs and often language), and then from the much wider usage of ‘nacion/nation’ in the early English Bibles from the Wycliffite translations of the late fourteenth century through to the uniquely influential King James version of 1611.
England pioneered the idea of the sovereign nation state, modelled on the godly commonwealth of ancient Israel. The idea has proved extraordinarily fruitful, not least in motivating resistance to colonialism in the name of national freedom. Hence in African history, ‘African nationalism’ has become almost a synonym for anti-colonial resistance. Christian history is full of examples of nations that imagined themselves to be redeemer nations, supposedly called by God to discharge a distinctive commission of service or witness to the world.
Most such examples are Protestant (e.g. Victorian Britain, the modern United States). There are also Catholic examples, such as Poland, where extreme devotion to the Virgin Mary as ‘the Queen of Poland’ combined with the sense of a people repeatedly dismembered by the vagaries of European history to generate resistance to the successive tyrannies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet bloc.
So the track-record of nationalism is by no means an entirely negative one. But concepts of being uniquely called or privileged by God have led nations again and again to embark on imperial adventures or adopt racist policies (think of Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa). The sovereign nation state can be defended theologically as a less bad option than an empire (it is smaller, so its rulers are less prone to the follies of pride, and more democratically accountable). But it is high time that Christians woke up to the uncomfortable truth that nationalism is an illegitimate offspring of the Christian tradition. It will have no place in the coming kingdom of God, so why do they persist in giving it a place here and now?
Postscript (27 April 2015)
On further reflection, a definition of nationalism as the elevation of one’s own nation over all others, though it applies to many nationalisms, does not fit them all. A more inclusive and softer definition of nationalism might be: “nationalism is not simply love for one’s country but a strong commitment to its distinctive identity and values, combined with an insistence on its right to political sovereignty”. On that softer definition, a combination of Christian faith and nationalist allegiance appears less problematic, and we might conclude that nationalism should be termed an unruly child of Christianity rather than necessarily an illegitimate one. Nevertheless, I stand by the essential point of my post, which is to emphasize that Christian eschatology should render all national allegiances to a decidedly secondary place in Christian loyalties. Nationalism always teeters on the brink of absolutising the nation, and that is the problem.
- Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). ↩