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Nationalism must reject racism

It’s a dangerous mistake to build politics on any form of racial ideology

Children wave American flags during a Veterans Day parade in Sacramento, Calif., on Nov. 11. Associated Press/Photo by Rich Pedroncelli

Nationalism must reject racism
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There’s been a great deal of buzz lately about “Christian nationalism.” Initially largely a term of abuse defined by its critics, the term has increasingly been adopted by a growing tribe of Christian conservatives as a badge of honor. Even among these, however, there are several competing agendas jostling for leadership, some of them representing a recovery of what are just good old-fashioned Protestant political principles, but others serving as a Trojan horse for ugly agendas antithetical to Christian witness.

To understand “Christian nationalism,” though, we must first understand “nationalism,” a word that’s made a comeback lately after decades of unpopularity. For some, it is little more than a synonym for “patriotism,” but for some, it means something more; it means love not merely of a political entity, but of a place, a people, a shared way of life—what Roger Scruton has called oikophilia, or “love of home.” Oikophilia need not lead to xenophobia (fear of the foreigner), but it certainly can do so, and this is where Christians need to be very careful, especially if “my people” and “outsiders” start to be defined in racial categories.

A healthy nationalism should not pretend that all peoples are the same, because they are not. Nations form their identities around shared language, shared stories, shared rituals, remembrances, and religious commitments. They develop, as it were, a corporate personality, much as a mature individual develops his or her own distinctive way-of-being in the world. This is not a bad thing; indeed, it’s a good thing, because it can teach us to recognize that we are not self-made individuals but dependent members of communities with norms that are given to us, rather than chosen by us.

Historically, of course, such cultural differences have sometimes taken on a racial component. After all, if people with similar forms of life intermarry over a long period of time, they will establish a distinctive genetic heritage. Such differences need not always develop into the destructive cancer of racism. But they certainly can do so, and the subject deserves our utmost vigilance.

The fact is that “race” is largely a constructed category, with infinite variations of genetic difference across the whole glorious spectrum of the one human race. Whatever differences that millennia of in-marriage might have produced between South Koreans and West Africans, they can be dissolved in just one generation by the loving marital union of a Korean man and a Liberian woman.

If a Christian seeks to be a cultural nationalist, he certainly can be—but only if he is resolute in rejecting race-consciousness and racism.

Indeed, most modern Americans are a dizzying amalgam of what might once have been considered different “races.” Modern attempts to cultivate racial consciousness are largely a response to a crisis of a healthy cultural consciousness. No longer able to have religion or language or moral customs in common, desperate moderns both right and left fall back upon the only possibility that seems left to them, some kind of racial identity.

On the left, of course, we see this in “critical race theory,” and its effort to sort people out into “privileged” and “underprivileged” racial groups, demanding that people subsume their individuality into racial stereotypes. On the right, a toxic brand of white identity politics known as “Kinism” has gained steam in response, insisting that different racial groups should remain separate and avoid intermarriage in order to preserve the integrity of their cultures. Both claim that they are merely segregating based on race, not claiming that one race is inferior to another. Both, however, quickly reveal the truth by their rhetoric and actions.

In any case, any politics built on race realism is a disastrous mistake. The existence of difference among humanity—even genetic difference—is not a result of the Fall. But alienation and hostility based upon such differences is, and it results from the active cultivation of race-consciousness.

In Christ, such alienation is set aside: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility,” writes Paul in the context of racial and ethnic tensions in the early church. It is a tragedy that the sin of racism is so deeply engrained in fallen humanity that even two millennia of leavening Christian witness have not succeeded in purging it. Nevertheless, those failures are no reason for simply resigning ourselves to racism.

If a Christian seeks to be a cultural nationalist, he certainly can be—but only if he is resolute in rejecting race-consciousness and racism. Moreover, he must continue to cultivate the wider gospel view that Christianity has always fostered, recognizing that although cultural differences are real, they are in the end only very small barriers, easily overleapt, within the shared humanity we have by virtue of both creation and redemption.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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