In the wake of the horrific slaughter of fifty innocent Muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand by a self-proclaimed “white nationalist,” many observers are asking if Christians can continue to support nationalist movements in Europe or, for that matter, Donald Trump’s America First economic policies.
The media are certainly asking this question.
In fact, some are placing much of the blame for the barbaric New Zealand atrocities at the feet of those who argue, like Donald Trump, for independent nation-states and against open borders and unrestricted free trade.
As the Amazon-owned Washington Post put it in an editorial, there “isn’t much daylight between the ‘garden-variety racism’ of [the New Zealand killer’s] manifesto and the ‘far-right nativism’ at times espoused by Trump and his advisers.”
However, other observers point out that the fact that a deranged killer justified his murderous rampage on a given political outlook does not, by itself, say anything about the legitimacy or soundness of that outlook.
After all, a deranged left-wing activist and Bernie Sanders supporter tried to murder two dozen Republican Congressmen during baseball practice in 2017 – yet no one in the media demanded to know if Bernie Sanders should therefore renounce his socialist beliefs.
What’s more, in his rambling 74-page manifesto, the New Zealand mass murderer insisted that he was not a conservative at all but an “eco-fascist,” and said that the country that expressed his values the most is the People’s Republic of China – a fact predictably left out of most media accounts.
Nevertheless, those who say that Catholic teaching has opposed nationalism do have a point. For at least a century, the Church has spoken out repeatedly against what it has termed “extreme” nationalist ideologies.
As Pius XI put in in his 1922 encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, “extreme nationalism” places love of one’s country above all other values and ”forgets that all men are our brothers and members of the same great human family.”
Pope Francis has frequently condemned “extreme nationalism” and xenophobia. Pope John Paul II also spoke out against “exaggerated nationalism” and “related forms of Totalitarianism.”
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church had to contend with extreme, anti-Christian nationalist movements – for example, in France, Italy and Germany – that attacked Church institutions and posed a direct threat to human rights. It was the “culture war” (Kulturkampf) of that era.
As a result, in Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, the pope warned against “divinizing the nation to an idolatrous level,” as in the case of National Socialism.
The courageous pope didn’t mince words:
“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community — however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things — whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God,” the pope declared. “He is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”
Yet while the Church has repeatedly condemned “extreme” nationalism, it has also clearly supported another form of legitimate nationalism – the aspirations of different peoples and groups for self-determination, independence and self-government.
It’s easy to forget that many people of good will, especially liberals, cheered nationalist movements that sought political independence and self-determination for different countries – for example, the United States in 1776, Greece in 1822, Ireland in 1922, India in 1947, Israel in 1948, and Algeria in 1962.
Much of the world cheered on “Lawrence of Arabia” when he fought for the independence of Arab nations in the 1920s.
The problem today is that “nationalism” is too imprecise and broad a category. It includes the “extreme” and racist “ethno-nationalism” of the New Zealand terrorist as well as the more mainstream nationalism of peaceful nation-builders such as Mahatma Gandhi, David Ben-Gurion and Nelson Mandela.
Historically, the Catholic Church has repeatedly condemned the first but cautiously praised the second.
It has condemned, as John Paul II told the United Nations in 1995, “a narrow and exclusive nationalism which denies any rights to ‘the other,’ [and] can lead to a true nightmare of violence and terror.”
Yet it has insisted, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church puts it, that “[a] nation has a ‘fundamental right to existence, to ‘its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes … its fundamental spiritual ‘sovereignty,’ to ‘shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities…(167)’”
Pope Leo XIII even declared that “the natural law enjoins us to love devotedly and to defend the country in which we were born, and in which we were brought up, so that every good citizen hesitates not to face death for his native land (Sapientiae Christianae).”
Finally, the debate over nationalism has to be seen in the wider context of the postwar global economy and the growing debate over globalization itself.
As Roger Eatwell and Matthew J. Goodwin show in their book National Populism, over the past 30 years hundreds of millions of voters in dozens of countries across the world have reached a startling conclusion.
They’ve come to believe that the new globalized economy – in which jobs are outsourced to sweatshop factories in China and low-wage workers from poor nations are actively encouraged to emigrate to First World nations – does not actually serve the interests of ordinary people.
These voters now believe that the true beneficiaries of globalization are not the citizens of various countries but multinational corporations and the political elites they support. Despite promises to the contrary, wages in many countries have remained stagnant or declined for decades – while the cost of living has skyrocketed and corporate profits have set new records.
This is why hundreds of thousands of French people have taken to rioting in the streets in recent months wearing “yellow vests,” a widely-recognized emergency symbol in France… and why nationalist (or more precisely “Euroskeptic”) parties are rapidly gaining support in Italy, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Finland.
Nationalist movements are also gaining strength outside of Europe, in Tibet, India and Taiwan.
As a result, the term “nationalism” today usually does not refer to the extreme anti-Christian ideologies of the past – that is, those condemned by the Church. Rather, it refers to those contemporary political movements actively opposing “globalism” and a certain type of elite corporate imperialism.
In fact, many of the so-called “nationalist” movements in Europe today are explicitly Christian, even Catholic in outlook, stressing the themes of solidarity and economic justice found in Catholic Social Teaching. Thus, the answer to the question of whether Christians in general and Catholics in particular can support nationalist movements is quite obviously: it depends.
If the nationalism is totalitarian in nature and opposed to basic human rights, like fascism or some forms of Islam, the answer is obviously no.
But if the nationalism is respectful of human rights and seeks to build a homeland for a specific people, as the Jewish people did with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, then the answer is obviously yes.
The Catholic Church has often belatedly praised this form of nationalism – as when Pope Francis spoke warmly of Nelson Mandela after his death, praising his “forging a new South Africa, built on the firm foundations of non–violence, reconciliation and the truth.”