Jared Lovell

October 23, 2019

The Problem with Nationalism as an Ideology

On December 17th, Ben Lewis shared a very helpful excerpt from Edmund Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America. Burke made his case against British military intervention in North America for the purpose of retaining the colonies based upon prudence rather than some grand idea of natural rights. The lofty Lockean rhetoric of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, asserting the right of the people to abolish any government hindering the individual's pursuit of happiness, is absent from Burke's argument. Instead, Burke counseled against a war with the colonies based on the uncertainty that such a war would bring about, the expense that such a war would incur, and the lack of experience Britain had in subduing such colonies by force. As Ben Lewis summarizes well "Burke's concern (to Richard Weaver's chagrin) is not whether or not the British should subdue the colonies, but whether or not it can. This is what Russell Kirk called 'the art of the possible.'"

Arguments from prudence in favor of tradition and precedent and against revolution and kinesis are hallmarks of a conservative approach to political controversies. It would do conservatives well to apply this same mentality in other hot-button issues of the day.

One such example would be the issue of nationalism. Since Trump's presidential campaign in 2016, there has been a resurgence of nationalism in the country manifesting itself in discussions about trade, foreign policy and immigration. The Deep State is very much committed to the cause of globalism and empire and predictably resists any political reform in favor of nationalist policies. Those who advocate nationalism are simply characterized as racists and bigots. American evangelicalism, which has never been very good at resisting whatever the political ideology of the day happens to be, likewise finds itself divided between the elite guardians of respectable opinion and the populists in the pews. The elites are doing their best to get nationalism added as the eight deadly sin and possibly even the second unforgivable sin to go along with the blaspheming of the Holy Spirit (see Mark 3).

In response, I see a lot of conservatives defending nationalism, not merely as a legitimate or prudential policy over against the pursuit of global empire, but as some kind of divinely inspired principle and God's sovereign will for the eschaton. While Scripture speaks of "nations" in Revelation, which would lead us to believe that people groups will remain distinctive until the end of time rather than one homogeneous mass, it does not follow that the nation-state is God's preferred political entity nor that the current borders of any country must remain as such for all time. There is no biblical defense for the border between the Mexico and Texas to be the Rio Grande. The fact that California was seized from Mexico as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 does not mean that it must forever remain under the United States' government. There is no biblical reason why the modern nation state of Iraq which was itself the result of arbitrary line drawing by Western powers after World War I must continue to consist of Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. Supporting Israel in the Middle East may or may not be of strategic interest to the United States, but the establishment of Israel as a nation-state in 1948 after World War II does mean that its borders are fixed (or must expand into the West Bank).

Conservative cases for nationalism can be made. We can go back to Thomas Aquinas and find justifications for the existence of nations, which are really extensions of the family relationships. Aquinas taught that a greater love is owed to those nearest to us by blood and by geography. Furthermore, a good student of European history would recognize that the outbreak of nationalist sentiment is a natural phenomenon that occurs over and over throughout the course of Western civilization as people groups sharing a particular culture, language, and heritage desire to be governed by people that look and sound like them and who share their interests. Given the choice, people will usually choose their relationships with their family and neighbors over against loyalty to an international organization, whether that be the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire, or Napoleon's international republic. However, the rise of the nation-state in the West in the 19th century is not exactly what we would characterize as a conservative movement. As Robert Nisbet has taught us well, the birth of nationalism as a kind of ideology begins with the French Revolution. Russell Kirk was right when he said that conservatism is a negation of ideology. It is rather a body of sentiments and a way of looking at the social order. We would do well as conservatives not to overreact to the Leftist attacks on the nation or nationalism by turning it into an ideology to be pursued for its own sake. At most, nationalism is a means or tool to serve the interests of localism and decentralization, not a divinely-inspired plan for geopolitics.

About the author

Jared Lovell lives in Northeast Pennsylvania with his wife and three children. He actively works to corrupt the youth as a history and economics teacher at Memoria Press Online Academy and as an ESL teacher to Chinese students.

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