Enthusiasm for the American project and the nation state is increasingly in ill-odor with many Evangelical elites especially Millennials, to which the Trump candidacy has contributed. This trend undermines the professed desire by this same cohort for a just social order. Here’s one example of this trend from a young Evangelical blogger:
I remember arguing with a dear Christian friend of mine in college over whether or not he should vote. At the time, I was the student body vice president and we were on a mission to register every student to vote for the coming election (2008). Most students didn’t think much of it, except for one student who really pushed back at the notion of voting. I pulled out my best lines, my most passionate pleas, until he hit me with a one-liner I will never forget: “I am not voting right now because I’m trying to figure out if a Christian can also be a nationalist.”
I remember turning his words over in my mind. It was a very good question to grapple with, and yet one I had never considered. Since leaving college, I find that many (if not most) millennial Christians have answered the question with a resounding “no.” Now, don’t mistake me: most of us, to my knowledge, do not believe that voting and nationalism go hand-in-hand as my college friend once did. But you will be hard pressed to find a millennial nationalist outside of the Republican intern pool. Perhaps it is that international travel is more available to our generation, or that we are living in more diverse communities that celebrate that diversity, but we don’t think America is the only great country, and we certainly don’t think that America is a Christian country.
Evangelical leaders are not just supporting nationalism, but are elevating nationalism to a Christian virtue. Many point back to the founding fathers as Christian leaders in our nation and impress upon us that we must support the constitution and protect our country because it is a Christian thing to do. We have deeply muddied the language between serving our God and serving our country. Forget the martyrs of the faith around the world, posters show us that soldiers make the “ultimate sacrifice.” As Christian millennials, we just can’t buy this. We look over our shoulders at our nation’s history and wince a little. We don’t have a lot of national pride because we are waking up to the immense on-going racism that exists in our nation’s systems, the horrors of early American history, and the tragedies around the world that happen because every country has nationalists. So when you equate nationalism with Christian virtue, we’re out.
This young Christian, whose longer blog is mostly a critique of Evangelical support for Trump, explains why her generation of Christians is disengaging from traditional conservative patriotic politics. She is correct about the trend while possibly unaware of its likely negative consequences.
Recently a liberal Methodist blogger instructed me via Twitter that Evangelicals support Trump because of American Exceptionalism, which he derided. I responded that the caricature or perversion of an ideal doesn’t discredit the ideal. But I should have pointed out that while many of his supporters are Exceptionalists, Trump himself does not evince any appreciable support for American Exceptionalism. Touting national greatness and strength, which is common at some point to every nation, tribe and culture, is hardly exceptional. American Exceptionalism in contrast exalts the American creed of human equality from the Declaration of Independence and declares that this principle has universal application. Trump almost never mentions this creed or America’s founding principles. Although his supporters are mostly unaware or don’t notice, he’s likely the least Exceptionalist of any major American presidential candidate.
This American creed, rooted in Christian anthropology, is unique, sacred and should be cherished by Christians and all believers in human equality and dignity. What are the unsavory political alternatives? Authoritarianism, totalitarianism, theocracy, autarky? Many Christian critics of American Exceptionalism miss this point, instead caricaturing it as national braggadocio, which it’s not.
Nationalism, American or otherwise, is similarly often mischaracterized or maligned as a form of idolatry intrinsically at odds with the Gospel. It can be, of course, but is not necessarily. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were nationalists. So were Mandela, Gandhi and Washington. Nationalism can be a malignant and even murderous form of chauvinistic dictatorship. Or it can be a unifying alternative to tribalism and bigotry.
Nationalism need not worship the nation or the state nor deny or minimize national sins. The Mandela-Gandhi-Washington form of nationalism heeds transcendent authority, affirms human equality, and readily admits national failures while pursuing national ideals. This form of nationalism, or patriotism, fosters unity while protecting dissent and self-critique. Such nationalism is a noble alternative to parochialism and narrow self-interest, sustaining a wider community in which persons otherwise uninterested in mutual welfare find common purpose and fraternal bonds.
Here’s where sustaining the nation state is especially important to Christians and other persons of good will in America or any nation. It’s typically preferable to narrow tribalism and wider empire. Nation states provide manageable communities that offer accountability and familial loyalty. Modern nation states have facilitated democracy, human rights, technological advance, increased health and wealth and standards of living with decreasing poverty. They also, in contrast with tribalism or empire, are less prone to conflict and more prone to trade and treaties.
What are the preferable political replacements for nation states? What alternatives should social justice minded Christians pursue? Rarely if ever do the critics answer this question. Instead they usually assume all the benefits of the nation state, especially the American one, while boasting of their indifference if not contempt for it. This approach is neither Christian nor coherent. The pursuit of a just social order protecting human dignity requires a sustainable community that merits the love and loyalty of its citizens.