God, America, and Nationalism

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There is a lot of controversy lately about “nationalism,” “Christian nationalism,” and “national conservatism.” 

Often “nationalism” is condemned as a growing reactionary force of populism in America and Europe. “Christian nationalism” is commonly attached to religious conservatives supposedly conflating America with Christianity. “National conservatism” was articulated by a recent Washington, D.C., confab where prominent thinkers of the right touted a new politics stressing cultural renewal and national identity over free markets and high immigration.

Responding to this controversy is a conversation we hosted at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 8 about “God, America, & Nationalism.” The “we” is Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, which helps religious people and others think seriously about America’s identity and global duties. 

“The American people are not a tribe bound by blood, but neither are they simply a group of people who share a common ideology,” noted Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead, who keynoted our conference. America is both a creed and a real people, bound together by history and customs, vices and virtues.

And contrary to many Christians and others who only want to apologize for America, it is, in fact, okay to like and even love America, Mead noted. It is the community where God placed us to serve Him. We as the American people have a common destiny, fraught with possibilities, both good and bad, in our fallen and also grace-filled world. 

Our perspective at Providence is Christian Realism, often tied to the great 20th century Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr. He advocated skepticism, infused by hope, stressing humanity is fallen, precluding utopia, but confident in God’s redemptive plans.  

Central to our purpose is understanding that God cares not just for individuals or religious groups but also for nations, including America. Many critics are conflating any claims about spiritual purpose for our country with “Christian nationalism.” No doubt some religious people idolatrously revere America. Some Christians think a true American must be Christian. Fortunately, they are in the minority.

“Christian nationalists” are highlighted as sinister. But most patriotic religious people are not idolaters. They just love their country. Yet they often have not received proper counsel on how to do so within the careful parameters of their faith. 

Getting less publicity is a growing segment of religious people indifferent or disdainful of America. Some conservative Christians think America has become so decadent, especially on sexuality issues, that it no longer merits support. They despondently prefer an inward focus on church and local community. 

Some liberal Christians also believe America is bad and always has been, citing racism, economic inequality, and unjust wars. For them, any kind of patriotism contravenes genuine faith. Christians shouldn’t support the nation, since the church has no borders.

We at Providence reject these extremes. Christians who conflate America with Christianity are mistaken. Central to America’s greatness is that our laws equally regard all persons regardless of faith. And for Christians, the cross stands above the flag.

Christians who have abandoned hope for America are also wrong. Our country is sinful, as all countries are. Conservatives are rightly concerned about moral confusion and hyper individualism. But our nation remains undeservedly blessed, with a resilient capacity to overcome our failures. Christians everywhere are always called to be good citizens and seek the common good, not to despair and retreat.

We at Providence disagree with Christians and others who reject America and nation states. The church, and other faiths, are universal. But Christianity, like other faiths, teaches that God has purposes for nations as communities nurturing the common good. Alternatives to nations are empires or tribes, neither of which offer peace, prosperity, and justice more than nations. America, despite many failures, has offered unprecedented freedom, prosperity, and equality. We should be grateful while always striving to improve.  

Supporters of the new “national conservatism” share our commitment to national improvement. Their voices are diverse. But some among them reject the classical liberalism of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the wider Anglo-American political tradition traceable to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Some believe America’s Founders, or many of them, were simply wrong. These critics usually don’t articulate a political alternative for America.

We at Providence affirm the best of America’s political traditions, including our founding charters of liberty. Christian Realism knows there never was a golden era. Humanity, since the Garden of Eden, has always been sinful. But God is mercifully working in the world and among nations, even in America. 

The Declaration’s affirmation that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” comes from the Hebrew prophets and Christian apostles. The Declaration’s affirmation is America’s sacred gift to the world, as Hong Kong’s American flag-waving demonstrators understand. 

Not all of us at Providence agree about “nationalism” as a word or as a comprehensive political philosophy that Christianity can fully embrace. Catholic teaching affirms the “rights of nations” without endorsing nationalism per se. 

Some of us at Providence believe patriotism is an adequate descriptor without the historical baggage of nationalism. Others of us think nationalism is the only adequate available term to describe belief in the utility of nation states in providing for the common good.

Providence hopes our October 8 “God, America, & Nationalism” event, which included Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish thinkers, will help generate a deeper understanding of America’s spiritual self-understanding for the uplift of America and the world. 

If people of faith can’t offer helpful spiritual and moral counsel about how to think about nationalism, then who can?

Mark Tooley is the president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy and the co-editor of Providence Journal.

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