Nations and Nationalism

Human fraternity demands political order



We’ve some sorting and distinguishing to do when it comes to the debate about nations and nationalism. If we shy away from the job, we’ll find ourselves dealing with nonsense and, to borrow from Bentham, nonsense on stilts.

A first distinction is between nation and state. For over a hundred years there was no Polish state. There remained, however, a Polish nation. “Nation” suggests a people with a shared cultural heritage. “State” refers to a political apparatus. At its best, the state serves as the “topmost” agency in the service of the people. There’s is a fittingness about each nation having its own state, but some successful states have served more than one nation.

This first distinction helps us distinguish among three virtues. Patriotism is showing respect for one’s nation. It’s a form of piety and linked with religious piety and filial piety. The former shows respect for God and the latter shows respect for one’s parents. Each of these virtues depends on our sharing, in a broadly analogous way, in the nature of our cultural heritage and of our Creator and of our parents.

A second distinction is between sovereignty and autonomy. There’s much talk about sovereignty, whether of the supposedly sovereign nation or the sovereign state. Often the talk shields the sovereign from external criticism or internal dissent or both. In fact, however, such sovereignty is subterfuge. Only God is truly sovereign. Nations and states have a measured autonomy. But in the light of eternity, as Scripture says, even nations are “as dust on the scales” (Isaiah 40:15).

A third distinction is between a self-sufficient and an interdependent nation or state. It’s an obvious distinction even if routinely ignored. No nation cognizant of its history has been culturally self-sufficient, nor is any state economically self-sufficient. (To be sure, no family is self-sufficient, and so it is that the political order is part of the natural order.)

Now how do our three distinctions help us to unite? Taken together they increasingly show us that we need a worldwide political order. Human fraternity demands as much, as does international justice. At one time, a good many thoughtful people, survivors of the war to end all wars and the global devastation of the next world war, proposed the United Nations in the hope that it might become this worldwide political order. Manifestly, the United Nations has failed to realize its mission.

Understandably there is a powerful temptation to rekindle the fires of nationalism, an unholy  nation-state triumphalism. Too often this rekindling turns patriotism into the last refuge of the scoundrel. Too often its cheerleaders wrap themselves in their respective national flags. One grotesquerie leads to another.

There is, however, an alternative to such nonsense. We can commit ourselves to the work of solidarity, economic democracy, and subsidiarity. It is the shared work of citizens, nations, and states. In doing so we recognize that the first test of justice is how we treat the most vulnerable. We realize that a necessary test of a democracy is whether it distributes its economic resources so that each one can pursue the enduring human goods. And lastly, since we achieve our potential in acting, we appreciate that the real test of social cooperation is whether daily acts of local civic friendship set the stage for the “topmost” political units to foster organic communities in a well-ordered way. The struggle continues. It calls for servants, not cheerleaders. It promises the carrying of crosses, not the flaunting of flags.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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