Language is powerful. Debates over the meaning of words inevitably come attached to deeper philosophical questions of what a society values and what it disdains.
Christian nationalism is one such example, where commentators would be more engaging if they began with deeper questions: what has the concept of nationhood meant, not just for Americans today but to uncountable peoples across history? And then, what has changed and stayed the same after Christ’s atoning sacrifice?
Plough Quarterly, a publication of the Anabaptist Bruderhof community, recently ran a series on these deep questions, the first of which was covered here. Hosted by Susannah Black and Peter Momsen, two editors of Plough, they spoke with a fascinating selection of guests including integralist extraordinaire Edmund Waldstein, historian Tom Holland, author Tara Isabella Burton, philosopher Dhananjay Jagannathan, Baptist and Anglican theologians Russell Moore and John Milbank.
In a previous Ploughcast episode, summarized here, Black, Momsen and Waldstein agreed there’s a tension in Christianity between affirming particular nations, cultures and traditions while also professing a universal and borderless Christian brotherhood of man. That paradox, between feeling a duty to love and serve our immediate communities while also believing in the transnational notion of Christendom, mirrors political questions about national identity. Should Christians feel any particular affinity for the country and culture they were born in, or should we be cosmopolitan and primarily think transnationally?
Burton and Jagannathan have interesting views on national identity because both grew up in a variety of nations before coming to identify as Americans. Burton, for example, recalled her mother remarking to her that “we’re not really Americans. We’re New Yorkers, and of course we can move all over.” Burton, in turn, said she “absorbed these ideas growing up and thought of myself [as] not really American… The idea that I was a global citizen, that I could just pick up and move anywhere, anytime, start a new life, anywhere, anytime was really attractive to me.”
But, later in life, Burton realized “there is also a need for good rootedness or a way of being together and living with one another where place isn’t just the background of our Instagram… [or] just a commodity… [to] consume as we want according to our desires.” Having a real sense of identity, then, is something essentially limiting.
Burton continued: “it’s about a community where we are known sufficiently that we’re not necessarily fully free to reinvent ourselves… And I’m thinking of community rather than a country here, but I think the model stands. Your friends who really know you and know your good qualities and your flaws, and the people who you can’t fool… I think the good of a rooted community is that it tethers us a little bit. It forces us to reckon with who we really are and the way in which that really is predicated on the whole web of social relations.”
Contrary to the 19th century romantic notion of “finding yourself,” free from the influences of your family, community and upbringing, there is no “you” to find without these influences.
Jagannathan, a philosopher at Columbia University, described how, having lived for years in India, Jamaica, England and the United States, he has trouble with national identity yet understands its necessity, at least instrumentally.
Thinking about his own history as an Indian, he noted that a problem for Hindu nationalists is that India is self-evidently a product of successive empires: first the Islamic Mughals and then the British. As a result, there is no appropriately nostalgic founding period for Indians to look back on as the “true” beginning of their culture.
Yet this way of thinking about national identity, as a matter of looking backward and imagining a return to something, is exemplary of what Jagannathan sees as the bad kind of nationalism. He calls this perspective “fossilized” because an overemphasis on the past can obscure the evolving nature of national identity. For example, African-Americans, Hispanic immigrants or Native Americans may not feel a positive connection to American history they have at times been excluded from.
In the face of these problems, Jagannathan looks to abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s approach. Similarly to our contemporary struggles, Douglass was grappling with the issue of slavery and how to hold together a nation of both former slaves and slavemasters. Douglass solution was to “analogize the slave’s resistance to the slavemaster… equating it to the Founding Fathers’ desire for freedom from tyranny. And… that project of accessing and understanding our shared values is going to be ongoing.”
Although Jagannathan considers himself “instinctively anti-nationalist,” he still recognizes that “people need shared stories and shared understandings,” even if this shared culture is only “instrumentally” necessary “to access shared values” which are themselves the real glue that holds a nation together.