In Part 1 of this series, I made the case for how and why Christians should love their home and country (what I call patriotism) while citing C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller. Below I explain why I chose the word country instead of nation or nation-state in that article.

Beware Conflating the Nation, Country, and State

Notice my word choice thus far: I’ve mentioned country, not nation. When Mark Tooley, Providence’s co-editor, first initiated this series, he specifically asked how we felt about the nation-state. Some probably interpret the words nation-state and country, nationalism and patriotism as synonymous and interchangeable. True, nation can have different meanings in different contexts. But from literally my first day in an International Relations 101 class onward, I’ve been taught that nation, state, and country are three very different entities. Conflating them can be dangerous.

I’ve written elsewhere about the differences between nations, states, and countries. There I explain why I consider states like the United Kingdom to be countries but not nation-states (as C.S. Lewis said, at perhaps the peak of British national identity, only foreigners and politicians talk about “Britain”). But as a quick review, broadly speaking a nation refers to a people with a strong common identity in a territory; a state is the government; a country is a sovereign entity with its own government and defined territory; a nation-state is a country with a single nation and state. When considering what is and is not a nation, I emphasize “strong common identity” (i.e., they voluntarily call themselves by that label first); I’ve seen other definitions that don’t make this emphasis, which can then allow Europe to be seen as a nation, which no one sanely believes. (In his review of The Virtue of Nationalism for Providence in our Fall 2018 issue, Joseph Capizzi says Yoram Hazony’s definition could inadvertently make Europe a nation.)

Consider this case: someone in Iraq who loves the country of Iraq (whom I’d call patriotic), would probably support the government in Baghdad; someone else in Iraq who is nationalist may instead support Kurdish independence and fight against the central government.

Those who advocate for nation-states generally want political and cultural boundaries to match. If they don’t match, there are different options to make them match, including assimilation, migration, education, liberation, and extermination.

This process hasn’t always been benevolent toward Christians and religious minorities, depending on the nationalism’s exact nature. If Christians are a minority and the national identity seeks to create cultural uniformity in a state’s territory, persecution may be inevitable. So ironically, American Christians who insist all countries become nation-states may unintentionally create an environment for religious persecution against their brethren abroad.

Now, there are some types of nationalisms that permit pluralism and guard against persecution of minorities, and the US Constitution helps develop such protections. Therefore, I’m all for America as a nation-state with sovereignty and an e pluribus unum-style national identity, meaning we call ourselves Americans first despite our racial, ethnic, regional, religious, and other differences. But expecting or wanting all other countries to develop a similar type of national identity that allows pluralism on America’s scale is naïve; a sober Christian realism should reject such exuberant optimism. (America has this unity for now, at least. Since the Great Recession, I’ve seen national unity fraying, and it’s not too unrealistic to think someday Americans may revert to again identifying themselves as something else first, such as by region; if this happens, I’m not sure we could say the American nation exists much.)

If we insist all other countries be nation-states too, thorny questions will lead to geopolitical disorder and perhaps mass violence that goes against American interests. For instance, what exactly constitutes a nation, and how is it different from an ethnic group or minority? Do places like Scotland and Catalan count, and if not, why? If Scotland gets independence, should the Orkney and Shetland Islands be able to secede from Scotland and rejoin the UK, bringing their oil? What about the Basque, Bavarians, Kosovo Serbs, Chechens, Kurds, Assyrians, Uighurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers—should they all have independent nation-states, whether they want it or not? In some places that may be prudent; in others it won’t. If we use referenda to decide if a nation wants independence, is 50.1 percent voting “yes” a sufficient threshold, or would the other 49.9 percent be so discontent that civil strife ensues, ravaging the new country? Affinity to a national identity can increase, decrease, or change over a generation or two, as happened to British identity in Scotland after the British Empire’s collapse, so should nation-states change borders every 30 or so years to match new cultural boundaries? Logic and moral arguments may not settle these questions easily, and probably won’t in many places. Coercion and bloodshed are more effective and too tempting in some countries.

So here is my biggest concern when I hear that we should use nation-states and nationalisms to build global order: we’re creating an environment where ethnic cleansing and genocide thrive.

A Prudent Choice, Not Mandated by God

Nation-states can be good, and at times they can be a prudent choice. But I don’t think this is true for all times in all places. For Christians, while our scriptures say nations exist, they don’t say we must live in nation-states. Israel was a nation within the multi-national Roman Empire, but Jesus and the early church didn’t support national independence movements. And while nations are mentioned in Revelation 7, nation-states are not.

In places like the United States, a nation-state makes sense because our history and geography permit it. And as already mentioned, our current form of nationalism allows pluralism and protects minorities reasonably well, though racism persists and should be extinguished. But in the same way we shouldn’t expect every country to develop a democratic government that looks like ours, we shouldn’t expect every country to develop a nationalism or nation-state that looks like ours, either. If a multi-national country, confederation of nations, federation of states, state with numerous autonomous regions, or some other non-nation-state option rules more justly and effectively than a nation-state, then Christians should support these other types of government, especially if creating and maintaining a nation-state in a particular country requires unnecessary mass violence.

For instance, some have suggested that Iraq should create autonomous provinces or regions where peoples like the Assyrians can rule and govern themselves. These could be viewed as micro-nation-states within Iraq, but if other minorities (or nations) including Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis, and others live alongside the Assyrians in the same towns or areas, then it may be more accurate to see these entities as multi-national provinces or regions. In some countries, different peoples and nations may be so marbled together in a mosaic of cultures and peoples that separating them inherently means ethnic cleansing, so autonomous multi-national territories may sometimes be the more prudent option. But this likely means we stop pretending countries like Iraq are coherent nation-states.

So, I find the criticism that if we don’t have nation-states we must therefore have either some kind of single global government or some totalitarian entity as absurd, unimaginative, or based on a straw-man fallacy—or maybe these critics are (I’d say wrongly) conflating nations, countries, and states. Though it may be different from what we have today, I foresee how different nations can live peacefully alongside each other in the same country or neighborhood, whether they be Scots and English in a union, Kurds and Assyrians in a province, Russians and Chechens in a federation, and so on.

Conclusion

If asked whether Christians can and should be patriotic and love their country, I say yes, as Part 1 in this series explains. Even though the country isn’t perfect and never will be due to humanity’s depravity, participating in the political process can be an act of love toward neighbors, both down the street and a thousand miles away. Others may call this something different, but I call it patriotism. But if love of neighbor and country roots patriotism, we should focus more energy toward local politics than we normally do: we should probably care more about our city’s education policy than Donald Trump’s latest tweet because our local schools will affect our neighbors more.

But when asked how I feel about the nation-state, as Tooley’s original question did, I’m more cautious. While sometimes in some places it may be prudent to have nation-states, I don’t see the Bible mandating them. In fact, if Christians insist all other countries become nation-states, in some places Christian minorities who don’t adhere to the nation’s cultural norms may endure persecution. And unnecessary violence, including ethnic cleansing and genocide, will become much more likely. Instead, I see room for Christians to support non-nation-state countries in some places.

Mark Melton is Providence’s deputy editor. He earned his master’s degree in international relations from the University of St. Andrews and his bachelor’s degree in foreign language and international trade from Mississippi College.

Photo Credit: Flags during a march and rally for Scottish national independence at Calton Hill in Edinburgh. By Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill, via Flickr (edited).