Nationalism and its leaders have something of a bad reputation. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of the last century, the reasons are obvious. Personality cults often lead to violence, one way or another, and when an idol commands an army, the scale of the violence can be staggering. The crimes committed in the name of nationalism still loom over the international order a century after the end of the First World War, and almost 80 years after the start of the Second.
So, it’s not without reason that the re-emergence of self-described “nationalists” around the globe – and especially in Europe – has been a cause for alarm. President Trump has recently taken to describing himself as a nationalist, joining Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, the Italian Five Star Movement, and even the Brexiteers as an object of anti-nationalist disdain.
French president Emmanuel Macron made news last week for remarks delivered in Paris to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” he declared. “By saying ‘our interests first, who cares about the others?’, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values.”
Macron was somewhat vague about which moral values he thinks are the essence of the French nation, but he’s a politician giving a speech in commemoration of the dead, so perhaps he can be granted a little leeway.
And yet, if we really wish to guard against the allure and excesses of nationalism, then the answer to blood-and-soil fetishism must be something more substantial than gnostic devotion to ideals. Here the Emmanuel Macrons of the world seem to have little to offer. No parsing of the differences between nationalism and patriotism can overcome the fact that we form bonds of love and loyalty on the basis of more than ideas. “Moral values”, especially when defined in the vaguest and most prosaic terms, are no more the essence of a nation than they are of a family.
That is not to denigrate moral values or national ideals, of course, but simply to insist that what we learn to value and love is itself a kind of inheritance. We all come from somewhere. We all belong to something. We all know that we’re not made for dislocation and alienation. The essence of any true community – a nation, a family, the Church – can never be fully abstracted from concrete realities of a shared life: food, language, religion, history, art, music and literature. Moral values and ideas are all part of this, of course, but no one dreams of honeymooning in Paris for the égalité.
After the Second World War, and again after the end of the Cold War, it was assumed (or at least hoped) that appeals to universal human rights, backed by the interdependence of a globalised economy, would act as a brake against the most pernicious forms of nationalism. This was especially true in Europe. Peace was the goal: peace at all costs.
But human rights that aren’t properly grounded quickly become a pretext for individualism, and a globalisation that bypasses and hollows out places where people live and to which people are loyal is profoundly alienating. And that’s before one mentions the challenges posed by massive immigration for both host countries and migrants. The resurgence in nationalism we see today is, in large part, a reaction against these various forms of alienation: an alienation which neither the promise of material prosperity nor appeals to “values” are likely to remedy.
The way to head off the worst strains of nationalism is to pre-empt or replace them with healthier, more humane appeals to legitimate concerns for national identity and wellbeing. Not that this is always easy to do well in practice, but the solidarity gap that has opened up between the alienating poles of hyper-individualism and the transnationalist/globalist/whatever is so enormous that even Donald Trump could find a way to stumble through.
And, thankfully, the Church has a lot to offer anyone looking for a vision of society that pays due attention to both the human person and the common good. Nowhere will you find a more complete telling of the importance of diverse structures of solidarity and their just and humane ordering according to the principle of subsidiarity. It turns out that the Church has a pretty well-founded idea of how people actually live and how people truly want to live.
The Church also has something else to offer: Christ, the light of the nations. There’s no greater remedy to idolatrous nationalism than proclaiming the universal kingship of Christ. So, more of that, please. But also let’s not forget: Christ isn’t lumen gentium without the gentes.
Stephen P White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.