Is Nationalism the Same as Patriotism?

I was asked this question at a recent Q & R session.

I responded that when people lose meaning in their personal lives, they may seek to find meaning in their national/political identity. In other words, when their personal identities are devastated due to unemployment and economic hardship, prejudice, insult and injury, or other real or perceived suffering, they may seek meaning and significance in a national (or racial, ethnic, or partisan) identity.

When people seek ultimate meaning or identity from a created thing, theologians call it idolatry. That’s why nationalism is, as I see it, idolatrous.

And it’s dangerous, because what people consider ultimate, they will die for – and often kill for.

After that Q & R session, someone came up to me and said, “That was interesting, but you didn’t define patriotism.” In our conversation, this definition emerged: Patriotism is the love for what is good, wise, and beautiful in a country, along with a corresponding desire to improve the parts of that country that aren’t good, wise, or beautiful.

The next day, I was chatting with another person who had been in the Q & R session. He mentioned a history teacher who asked students to name 10 incidents in American history where America got it wrong. The teacher seldom had a student who could name even one incident, and almost never could a student name more than four.

The conclusion: we teach our children that America is historically inerrant or very close to it.

This circled me back to the understanding of nationalism as idolatrous. When we treat a nation as quasi-inerrant, and therefore God-like, we tip from patriotism to nationalism. We lose our ability to name and identify what is not good, wise, or beautiful about our country. The result is statements like, “America: Love It or Leave It,” instead of “If you love America, seek to make it more beautiful, good, and wise.”

In that light, as we notice a resurgence of white Christian nationalism, it’s important to realize that nationalism is inherently idolatrous, and therefore, unChristian.

Sadly, when “Christian” is used as an adjective to modify nationalism, it is the Christianity that is modified.

Similarly, when “white” is used to modify Christian, that bleached “Christianity” is no longer Christian.