In today’s political climate, the notion of nationalism has risen back to the forefront. While facets of nationalism have manifested themselves since ancient times, this concept first became common in the 18th century and is usually associated with the French Revolution. Today, the term is primarily associated with the various populist movements in Europe and in the United States. As a result, Christians are faced with an important question: what is nationalism and is it compatible with Christianity.
To find the answer to this question, one should first discover the definition of nationalism, which is no easy task. There are various definitions of this term each with their own implications for Christianity. Nenad Miscevic gives the basic philosophical definition of nationalism as the following:
The term “nationalism” is generally used to describe two phenomena: (1) the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination.
This basic definition has given rise to more specific attempts to narrow the focus on what nationalism encompasses. This attempt involves two questions. First, what exactly is this attitude concerning national identity? Second, what does achieving national self-determination entail?
The first question is sometimes answered in terms of loyalty and devotion to a nation. In this sense, nationalism is scarcely different from patriotism; however, nationalism can be considered as an extreme form of patriotism with an excessive love of country where the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpasses other individual or group interests. In this case, one sacrifices everything else in one’s life to the good of the nation-state. Another more expanded and common definition of nationalism is a consciousidentification with one’s own nation, support for its interests, and an exaltation of that nation over others, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations or supranational groups. Such a definition paints nationalism in a pejorative light, but the detriment of another nation’s interest might sometimes be necessary depending on the hostility or immorality of that nation (i.e. Nazi Germany). In fact, seeking the detriment of other nations and their interests is not essential to this definition. The interests of two or more nations may align.
The second question is often answered as advocacy for the political independence and sovereignty of a particular nation or people. In this case, nationalism is simply the desire and push for self-governance. Examples of this nationalism would be what the Founding Fathers desired for the United States or what the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 desired for Scotland. Such nationalism can be an escape from tyranny.
A good combination of these definitions can be stated in the following manner. Nationalism is a political, social, and economic philosophy that promotes the interests of a particular nation or people especially with the purpose of gaining and maintaining the nation’s independence and sovereignty over its territory free of outside interference. Nationalism further aims to promote a single national identity based on shared social characteristics, such as culture, language, religion, politics, or shared history, as well as promoting national unity, traditional culture, and pride in national achievements. This definition appears to be the most comprehensive way of understanding nationalism.
The question now is whether or not nationalism is compatible with Christianity. If nationalism is to be understood as an extreme from of patriotism, then nationalism is not compatible with Christianity. Christians cannot sacrifice their loyalty to God, the Church, or even their family to that of the state. These things are more important and obligatory. The same must be said if nationalism implies the intentional, unjustified harming of other nations. Christians are not called to seek other’s harm intentionally without justification. Further, the nations that Christians intentionally and unjustifiably harm could have brothers and sisters in Christ living within them. Christians would be harming the Body of Christ which is to harm themselves. Thankfully, nationalism does not imply either of these facets.
If nationalism is defined as seeking political independence and self-government, then there is nothing incompatible with nationalism and Christianity. There is nothing wrong with supporting a group’s quest for political independence and self-governance, and Christians have long supported this quest for others and themselves. This claim is not to say that all such movements are compatible with Christianity. Some nationalist movements are incompatible with Christian teaching, such as white nationalism with its emphasis on white supremacy and white separatism. Christianity claims that one’s place in the Kingdom of God is not determined by one’s ethnicity or skin color but by being united with Christ (Gal 3:26-29). Just as Cornelius the Centurion was an example that the Kingdom is open to non-Jews, the Ethiopian eunuch is an example that the Kingdom is open to all who accept Christ, not just to Caucasians (Acts 8:26-40, Acts 10).
The Christian, therefore, must be discerning as to which nationalist movement he supports if any. In fact, Christianity itself could be seen as a nationalist movement. It is a Kingdom seeking to separate and govern itself apart from the secular nations (Philippians 2:9-11, Revelation 20-22). Further, Christianity promotes its interests over the interests of other groups, seeks unity among its members, and promotes an identity of belonging to Christ using shared social characteristics. Even ancient Israel could be seen as a nationalist movement led by God to establish an independent, self-governed nation.
Christianity, therefore, is compatible with nationalism−depending on how one defines the concept, and there are acceptable definitions. Like with many concepts, activities, and objects, nationalism can be abused, but this abuse does not make nationalism inherently wrong any more than gluttony makes eating food inherently wrong. There is nothing wrong with Christians promoting nationalism as long as it does not conflict with one’s obligations to God and family or seeks to harm others intentionally and unjustifiably. As long as Christians remain discerning about what they support, Christians can be nationalists.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationalism; accessed January 16, 2019.
Nenad Miscevic, “Nationalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/nationalism/; accessed January 16, 2019.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism; accessed January 16, 2019.
https://www.britannica.com/topic/nationalism; https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/nationalism; accessed January 16, 2019.
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nationalism; https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism; accessed January 16, 2019.
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nationalism; https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/nationalism; accessed January 16, 2019.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationalism; accessed January 16, 2019.
One could argue that Christianity expresses both of these possible nationalist facets in its own theology. Christians are called to sacrifice everything else in their lives to God and to seek the interests of the Kingdom and the Church over those of any other nation or group−even to those group’s possible detriment (Matt 6:33; Matt 10:37, Luke 9:57-62, Luke 14: 26). While this detriment is not intentional, it is a consequence of obeying God. In fact, one could argue that the Kingdom of God is a nation exemplified by the Church here on earth and is a form of nationalism in the sense outlined in the paragraph. It would be the supreme instance of nationalism that trumps all other instances.