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Most of the ruckus about Christian Nationalism has focused on the first term of the phrase. What makes a nation “Christian”? Was America a Christian nation once upon a time? Can nations be Christian at all, or should we reserve that modifier for individuals or, perhaps, churches?

Let me stipulate: Nations can be Christian and the United States was once, in many respects, a Christian nation. A nation is Christian when a significant portion of the population is made up of practicing Christians, when the beliefs, texts, symbols, and ethical standards of Christianity are woven into the fabric of common life, when the Christian God is invoked in public declaration and rituals (constitutions, coronations, hand-on-Bible oaths), when law and institutions are shaped by Torah and the teachings of Jesus. Imperfect as they inevitably have been, the nations of Europe have unquestionably been Christian for centuries. What else would we call Great Britain or Poland, unless we choose to be persnickety and call them “Anglican” and “Catholic” instead?

Far less energy has been expended upon clarifying “nation,” as if the term were self-evident. It’s not. Walker Connor puts the matter starkly: Central terms of political discourse—state, nation, nation-state, nationalism—“are often shrouded in ambiguity, due to their imprecise, inconsistent, and often totally erroneous usage.” The confusion is globally institutionalized. As many point out, neither the League of Nations nor its successor is made up of nations (Basques and Catalans aren’t welcome). Strictly, the U.N. should have been called the United States—if that name weren’t already taken.

I can hardly sort out the intricacies of nationhood in a few hundred words, but let me highlight a few recurring confusions.

“Nation” is often defined over-against “empire.” Polemically stated, nations are natural, organic social formations rooted in common ancestry, language, and culture, but empires are artificial, tyrannical orders that impose an alien order on conquered peoples. In reality, the two types of polities overlap and blur. Not all imperial expansion has happened through conquest. Some territories of the Roman Empire volunteered to submit to Rome, in exchange for Roman protection against more immediate enemies. Pompey entered Judea at the invitation of Hasmonean rivals. The Habsburgs left subject peoples more or less alone, content to rule a multicultural territory, so long as their subjects paid tax and tribute. 

Besides, what we call “nations” are often empires in disguise, empires whose imperial past we’ve forgotten and mystified. The westward expansion of the United States looks like an imperial conquest—some territories purchased, some seized. The United Kingdom is what its name says—a union of multiple peoples—yet most treat it as a single “nation.” Germany and Italy became nation-states relatively recently, and both united a jigsaw puzzle of principalities, duchies, and city-states through a combination of cajoling, deal-making, and force. Germany’s sense of nationhood goes back at least to the Reformation, but what we think of as the unification of Germany might, from another angle, be construed as Prussian conquest.

At least since Herder, language has been viewed as a defining feature of nationhood. But there’s no one-to-one match between nation and language. Today’s world is divided into large linguistic blocks, as former colonies adopted English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French as an official language. Internally, nations aren’t linguistically homogenous. Many recognize multiple official languages, and dozens or even hundreds of local languages and dialects flourish in small enclaves. Those enclaves might be seen as nations in their own right, but they’re part of larger political entities with an established administrative language or languages. Linguistic homogeneity is often not a “natural” phenomenon, but the result of conscious policy; the dialect of the court or state is adopted as the official form of a language, schools are required to teach in the state dialect, and schools teaching in other languages are shuttered. All of which circles back to the earlier point about the blurry edges between nation and empire.

Nationalism is typically viewed as a right-wing phenomenon, both by nationalists and their opponents. That’s deeply ahistorical. In his classic study of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson observes that every revolution in modern history has appealed to national sentiments to motivate resistance, beginning with the colonial revolutions in North and South America. Conservatives think nationalism is a form of resistance to an overweening state, but that too is an unhistorical fantasy. As Anderson points out, fading European dynasts tried to get ahead of the emerging nationalist trend by promoting nationhood through official channels, Russification being the best-known and among the most systematic of these efforts. Nationhood is often a product of Machiavellian manipulation, which makes it a fickle ally in struggles against the state.

Conservatives often present the nation as a throwback to pre-modern forms of political order, a restoration of natural, organic bonds in place of anemic cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism or the purely functional relations of the market. Nationalism promotes Gemeinschaft against the prevailing Gesellschaft. While nations existed in the pre-modern world, national-ism is arguably a product of post-Enlightenment political thought. Bernard Yack sees nationalism as the product of a fusion of the sentiments and loyalties that arise from a shared cultural heritage with the beliefs of popular sovereignty, a fusion that transforms national feelings into claims about self-determination.

Christian Nationalism has forced Christians to grapple with basic questions about the public form of Christianity. It will be a more productive and illuminating debate if everyone also grapples with the complexities of “nation.”

Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Raphael licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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