Christianity, Patriotism and Nationalism
Rev. William Messenger

(editor's note: This article is condensed from a presentation given in Los Angeles, California, at a regional meeting of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement.)

In modern American life it is often difficult to distinguish between patriotism, nationalism and Christianity (at least as it is commonly perceived). I once was asked to speak about these three things. I showed an announcement of the workshop to a priest-friend of mine. His response was, "Why don't they ask someone who believes in these things?" In a sense, a critical sense, I do believe. What I chose to do was examine these three things trying to identify how patriotism and nationalism do or do not square with Christianity.

In fact, that statement of intent frames the discussion. I am not trying to find out how Christianity squares with patriotism or nationalism. For me, Christianity must be the starting point. More than just a foundation, it must encompass all other allegiances. In order to guarantee that we are "on the same page", I'd like to make a quick check in the dictionary:

-ism, is a noun-forming suffix, defined variously. Two definitions relate to our purpose:

  1. the action, conduct or qualities characteristic of, as in patriotism, or Americanism;
  2. the doctrine, theory or principle of, as in nationalism.

The definitions seem sufficiently innocuous until we specifically look at patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is defined as "love and loyal or zealous support of one's own country, esp. in all matters involving other countries; nationalism." Nationalism is defined as "devotion to one's nation; patriotism"; also defined as "excessive, narrow or jingoist patriotism; chauvinism." A more important definition reads: "The doctrine that national inter- ests, security, etc. are more important than international considerations; opposed to internationalism."

Patriotism runs strong in most people. All around the globe we find citizens who are proud of their countries. I can remember an incident as a child that made a lasting impression on me. In the vestibule of our parish church there was a religious goods store. It carried the common Catholic articles: medals, rosaries, books, bibles and statues. Then one Sunday morning after Mass a new item was available--a bumper sticker. It read: "AMERICANISM--the only ISM for me." As a child I'm not sure I knew what Americanism was. But this was during the McCarthy era and I knew enough to know that Communism and Communists were bad, and we Americans were good. A simplistic thought--but that was a simplistic time. One thing that troubled me though, even as a child, was that this sticker was being sold at Church. It didn't seem to have anything to do with Christianity. In fact, with an equally provincial attitude, I asked my parents about "Catholicism"--wasn't that our "ism"?

This blurring of religion and patriotism points the way to the first part of the problem. Besides tending toward an unholy self-righteousness to which I will return, it also raises a foundational question. What is primary in our lives? Our faith or our country? For most people, it is their country. They may claim otherwise, but a careful look at their actions and how they view the world betrays the truth. It is not a new problem.

An historical reality is that patriotism always precedes the Christian message. Christianity is not a natural or indigenous religion. It is a revealed religion essentially missionary in its scope, and so it has to be proclaimed in an existing and living culture wherever the message is taken. This was the experience of the Apostle Paul who, as he approached people of different lands with the message of Jesus, confronted just such existing and sometimes quite different peoples. Whatever else they had in common, they shared their land and their culture. Sometimes they didn't want to hear the challenge of Jesus, as indicated by the reaction to Paul's discourse at Athens. Although the Athenian rejection was based on religious and philosophical grounds, it demonstrates the basic Christian call to conversion--a call to change what has been.

I think that one of the great failures of Christianity over the years has been the inability to challenge the patriotic foundation into which Christianity was inserted. Historically, Christianity has always been subservient to the political power. We see this in the catastrophic events of the 16th century when Christianity was splintered by the Reformation. The inability of Jesus to transcend national boundaries meant that if the king changed Christian denominations, the whole country went with him. At least from that time onward a major change occured in the Christian proclamation. The message of Jesus was now modified and reshaped to fit snugly into the political form of the land. Being Christian became synonymous with being patriotic.

For the Catholic Church in the United States this has been a particularly complex issue. Having experienced persecution from our earliest days, even to necessitating the founding of a refugee colony, the Catholic Church had to demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt that we were loyal Americans--that we were patriotic. This led the Catholic Church as an institution to be one of the last major groups to oppose slavery. The Catholic Church raised no objection to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Catholic Church was very late to enter the struggle for civil rights. And the Catholic Church was one of the last major institutions to oppose involvement in Vietnam. But through it all we were patriotic. So no one seemed concerned that the message of Jesus Christ had become impotent.

This blending of Christianity and patriotism is epitomized for me in the bumper sticker statement of faith. But there were other things. Some Catholics still remember when we used to end Mass everyday by praying for the conversion of Russia. I must have been a teenager before I ever learned that most of the Russian people were also Christian and had been since long before the United States of America were even conceived. And I was probably a late teenager before I began to question for myself what we were praying for. If the Kremlin were to awaken one day and establish a capitalistic system in Russia, we would be allies by night fall. Never mind that the U.S. form of capitalism is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have already modified the gospel so that it does not prick our consciences.

As you can see, patriotism and nationalism are so closely linked, that what was a patriotic problem for early Christianity in a smaller world becomes a nationalistic problem for Christianity today. How nationalistic? How big a problem? Let us now return to the unholy self-righteousness which results from blending religion and patriotism.

A relatively recent phenomenon in America is euphemistically referred to as the "New Right", the "Christian Right" or the "Religious Right". Anyone who has listened to the preaching of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or any other representative of their movements reaches the conclusion that the United States of America is now synonymous with the Kingdom of God. We have become, apparently by divine fiat, the instrument for establishing God's reign throughout the world. Unlike early Christians, however, we do not accomplish this by preaching the Word and trusting its power. Today, the kingdom is established through military force and the foreign policy decisions of the U.S. Government. Who is and is not saved is no longer determined by God. It is determined by vote of the cabinet or in the oval office or from the podium of these so-called "religious" leaders. Jesus Christ is present and active in other countries only to the extent that those countries agree with us and serve our national interests. We will bring them the truth even if they possessed the truth long before we did. Christianity is not the foundation here, nationalism is.

Recall the definition of nationalism: The doctrine that national interests are more important than international considerations. Was it Christianity or national interest which en- abled these people to support the former South African regime and its establishment of apartheid? Was it Christianity or national interests which moved people to attempt the overthrow of the government of Nicaragua? Surely the U.S. Government and big business do not claim that they were motivated by Christian principles when they overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile and established a brutal dictatorship which guaranteed the security of American business concerns at the expense of freedom and the death of countless Chileans? It is my contention that what is being presented by the new religious right is not authentic Christianity. In fact, it has been so distorted by nationalism, that it is no longer recognizable as Christianity at all.

Where, then, do we find authentic Christianity? What sets Christianity apart from other world religions and religious traditions? Our first duty is to hear the Word of God and let it transform our lives. When we listen to the Word of God, we hear that Jesus is
first :

"He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creatures. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations, principalities or powers; all were created through him, and for him. He is before all else that is. In him everything continues in being. It is he who is head of the body, the church; he who is the beginning, the first-born of the dead, so that primacy may be his in everything. It pleased God to make absolute fullness reside in him, and by means of him, to reconcile everything in his person, both on earth and in the heavens, making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col 1:15-20).

Christians acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus. As such they are called to witness to the reality that all powers and principalities are subjected to him. In Matthew's Gospel when Jesus sent his disciples out to baptize, he does not say "Baptize in the name of capitalism or even democracy." He says:

"Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name 'of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'"(Mt 28:18b-19).

The universality of the Christian message can be seen in the earliest experiences of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read of the extraordinary effect of the Spirit on the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:4-11). The Apostles spoke of the marvelous works God had done. They did not speak of a great and powerful nation. It is not in a national policy or national concensus that the peoples of the world are brought together. We read in the Letter to the Ephesians:

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ. It is he who is our peace, and who made the two of us one by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart" (Eph 2:13-14).

How, then, do patriotism and nationalism fit in with Christianity? I don't think they do.

Patriotism as we know it today cannot be brought into harmony with Christianity. Nationalism is even worse. It seems to me that nationalism is the last great prejudice to be challenged by the Christian proclamation. Is nationalism really any different than racism? The same factors are at work and the same results achieved. One people sees itself as better than another. They place their own interests and concerns above the common good. Pursuit of one's own interest leads to oppression. Look at the record of our government to- ward developing nations. Equally ominous is the record of American business concerns in the Third World. Hitler and Franco are other good examples of nationalism. Both men believed in their own countries and each claimed to be a Christian--not authentic, to be sure, but that was their claim. Yet, not unlike the New "Christian" Right of modern America, Hitler and Franco had their own concept of Christianity--modified to fit into their pre-conceived ideas of the world. For Hitler and Franco, that world could only be viewed through the eyes of Germany or Spain. The fact that our nationalism is not as bad as theirs, does not make it good. It is common practice in American life today to view the world only through the eyes of the United States. All reality must relate back to us. Everything is measured by how it enhances American life, interests, security, concerns, etc. What, then, must Christians do?

In a pluralistic society such as ours, specifically Christian ideals cannot be the basis of our national policies. But they must be the basis for Christian participation in national policies. The first thing we Christians must do is stop the corruption of the Gospel. We must denounce as false those preachers of the "Christian" Right, and those from within our own communities, who would destroy the message of Jesus for the sake of personal or even national gain. Proclamation, however, is valueless without example. Therefore, we must be willing to submit our own lives to critical analysis according to the Gospel. We must be willing to transform our lives by the power of the Word in order to reflect the values and ideals of Jesus. There must remain no doubt that for us Jesus is Lord and all is measured by the advancement of his kingdom.

If we can do that, we can also present to our land a new concept of patriotism. I would call it "critical" patriotism. While the motivation is love of country, it is a true love not a blind one. This patriotism would challenge every aspect of American life which perpetuates injustice toward our own people or the peoples of other lands. The foundation of such an approach is not the greatness of our own country, but the potential greatness of our world. Such patriotism would not seek to advance our own country. Rather, it would seek to bring the unique gifts of our people into creative harmony with the gifts of other peoples. It would respect the traditions, insight and most importantly the freedom and self-determination of other peoples. The result would be the advancement of the whole human race.

Such a patriotism fits in with authentic Christianity because of its global or universal dimension, and because the Gospel is the source of our wisdom. As Christians we are motivated to such patriotism because of our commitment to the Gospel. Yet we do not ask that same commitment of those among us who are not Christian. What we demand from society at large is the securing of justice and peace for all people.

As the Lord Jesus Christ came to gather all nations into the peace of God's kingdom, so we, as Christians, work for the progress of all peoples and lovingly bring the work of justice to perfection. Only in this way can we look forward to the completion of God's plan "namely, to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ's headship" (Eph 1:10).

(Rev. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)