You’ve undoubtedly read the alarming news about the resurgence of nationalism across Europe. From the Brexit debacle to the emergence and growing popularity of many right-wing parties, Europe is certainly experiencing a tumultuous season. The tide seems to be turning in favor of the nationalists. For its attempted mutiny against the liberal elite, nationalism has been labeled as one of the central villains of our time. But nationalism is a vague term. What exactly is the changing sentiment in Europe? And what are we, as Christians and thoughtful citizens, to make of it all?
First and foremost, we all ought to heed the advice of one of the twentieth century’s most thoughtful citizens, George Orwell. In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell exhorts us to take great care in choosing our words such that we convey what we actually mean, and nothing more, lest we fall into foolish thinking. Orwell criticizes the use of words such as fascism—which had become meaningless “except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”—and democracy—for which the attempt to create a common definition “is resisted from all sides.” To Orwell, the political usage of such words seemed “consciously dishonest.”
In modern Europe, a common definition for the word nationalism has remained equally elusive. At the same time, however, the pejorative way in which politicians and journalists use nationalism has attached so much moral meaning to the word that its very mention conjures up dark and sinister imagery. We don’t know exactly what is being critiqued, but we know it is bad.
Feeling ties of loyalty to your nation isn’t inherently good or bad, however. It depends on its nature. One clear way to discern the morality of one’s national loyalty is to look at its motive. Orwell distinguishes between nationalism and patriotism on this basis, determining that “patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.”
I believe this description captures how most Europeans perceive the two words today, with nationalism viewed as patriotism’s evil cousin. When people denounce nationalism, they are standing against right-wing ideology, hatred, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, prejudice, violence, chauvinism, and the like. One’s love of country isn’t criticized, but rather the lack of concern, compassion, and goodwill toward other countries (and individuals from those countries). Last year when President Emmanuel Macron berated the “nationalist leprosy” that threatens to break Europe apart, it was these unpalatable traits that were brought to people’s minds.
But if we’re using “nationalism” to mean the desire for more power and prestige for one’s own nation, especially through these discriminatory and aggressive means, then in my opinion a lot of the sentiment in Europe does not fit this label. The defining characteristic of the current “nationalist leprosy” in Europe is being in opposition to the rate of globalization, especially with regard to increasing European integration. This being a culturally defensive stance, by Orwell’s definition, it would be more accurately classified as patriotism. Even better, in my view, is to think of it as “anti-globalism.”
Yet, like Orwell’s “democracy,” a single, agreed upon definition for nationalism has been resisted. Instead, politicians and journalists have taken advantage of the lack of a clear definition and the opportunity it affords them to discredit any sort of national loyalty (even the defensive, patriotic kind) by appealing to the worst form of it. But the reluctance to go along with globalization, the desire to reclaim national sovereignty, or even the wish to have some degree of border control should not be equated with power-hungry nationalism. The two are very distinct sentiments and deserve different treatment.
Whether it is a “consciously dishonest” slandering of political opponents or just convenient miscommunication, such misuse of nationalism is destructive for everyone.
Firstly, many get an exaggerated idea about the extent of malevolent nationalism rising across Europe, and increasingly make sure to disassociate themselves from sympathizers. A moral rift opens, as the anti-globalist “nationalists” are labeled as bad: bad for progress, bad for Europe, bad for everyone.
Secondly, the anti-globalists become alienated. Decent people who feel uneasy about the rate of globalization are understandably a little roused by being dismissed as racist xenophobes. Ironically, the name calling that was supposed to quench the anti-globalist movement has instead mobilized people against the establishment, much like throwing water on a grease fire.
Thirdly, the two sides continue to talk past each other, and the rift steadily widens. Globalists won’t stoop so low as to listen to the concerns of the “nationalist leprosy,” and anti-globalists feel like the competence of the political establishment disappeared when it gave up its common sense.
To return to Orwell, “If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.” The lack of a common definition for nationalism certainly didn’t cause the current polarization, but its pejorative misuse has corrupted thinking and established a false moral dichotomy that suggests you either don’t care about your own people, or you care only about your own people. Finding common ground will be very difficult until this idea is dismantled.
As Christians, we have an important role to play in dismantling this moral dichotomy by demonstrating that an inclusive, loving form of patriotism is possible. William Wilberforce wrote that Christianity should be “the most copious source” of this true patriotism because the Christian does not have to love sparingly—we therefore needn’t buy into the dichotomy of choosing to love one’s nation or love humanity. As Wilberforce suggests, both can be done:
[True Christian patriotism] resembles majestic rivers, which are poured from an unfailing and abundant source. Silent and peaceful in their outset, they begin with dispensing beauty and comfort to every cottage by which they pass. In their further progress they fertilise provinces and enrich kingdoms. At length they pour themselves into the ocean; where, changing their names but not their nature, they visit distant nations and other hemispheres, and spread throughout the world the expansive tide of their beneficence.
True patriotism is not about establishing the external borders of your love so much as the ordering of it, and for the Christian, who has access to an unending source of love in God, no one ought to be excluded from this love—neither your neighbor, nor fellow countrymen, nor other peoples around the globe.
Matthew Allen is originally from Plymouth, UK, but moved to the United States in 2014 for his undergraduate studies at Princeton University, where he conducted independent research on how national identity is changing in Europe. A former intern for Providence, he currently works for Christian Union New York where he oversees logistics and communications. Matthew will be returning to England later this year to enroll in a master’s program on Culture and Conflict in a Global Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Photo Credit: Marine Le Pen speaking at a Front National rally in Paris on May 1, 2012. By Blandine Le Cain, via Flickr.
 Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity