In his book Desiring the Kingdom (2009), Jamie Smith adds his voice to the familiar tradition of a deep skepticism of Christian patriotism. He suggests that many of our culture’s liturgies (especially those associated with sports, film, and education) are fundamentally nationalistic and compete with Christian liturgies (103ff). In Smith’s words, “…it’s tough for the weekly recital of the Creed to compete with daily utterance of the Pledge” (109). Smith’s skepticism of the state runs deep. He wonders: “…can there be a ‘natural’ affection for an artificial reality? If there ever was something like a ‘natural’ fatherland, (I’m not convinced there was), the modern nation-state is a long way from such a reality.” (111) Smith doesn’t develop these ideas very far in Desiring the Kingdom, but promises to in a planned third installment in the “Cultural Liturgies Trilogy.”
Smith’s warnings about the dangers of nationalism are–in many respects–quite salutary. Christians have a long and unfortunate history of erroneously conflating the political community and the Christian community in a wide variety of disastrous combinations.
But, borrowing David Koyzis’ language, nationalism is like any idolatry inasmuch as it takes a created good–that is actually good–and elevates it beyond its station. Oliver O’Donovan’s thinking may be helpful here. In an article titled “The Loss of a Sense of Place” (originally published in 1989 in the Irish Theological Quarterly and republished in Bonds of Imperfection (2004), O’Donovan suggests that “place” undergirds the the idea of a ‘natural fatherland’ of which Smith is skeptical. “To think of a place is simultaneously to think of a natural space on the one hand and the community that is defined in relation to it on the other. It is to grasp the reciprocal relation between nature and culture: geographical space mediating a possibility for human community…. A place is precisely a setting where a communication of some kind takes form.” (304). He continues, explicitly linking shared place to neighbor love–even for the itinerant pilgrim on his way to God. O’Donovan insists that while the call to Christian neighbor-love is universal, it must not be an abstract universalism but a concrete one: “Concrete universalism consists in seeing the particular place as an instance of the universal” (318).
Drawing on Simone Weil, O’Donovan applies this to the modern nation-state and calls for the “acceptance of the contingent” nature of the nation-state. “Contingent historical circumstances have thrown the nation together in this form, which is at once infinitely open to challenge and yet the only form available to us. Compassion for the nation-state is bred of the knowledge that it is neither necessary nor inevitable, yet it mediates good. Whether compassion is always safe, I strongly doubt. But it is certainly the case that if national patriotism is to have any moral claim on us, it will be based on this recognition: ‘The nation is a fact, and a fact is not an absolute value’ [Weil]. That there should be any form of solidarity is something for which we have to take moral responsibility; it requires our will to recover the particular out of the universal. Perhaps only compassion can draw the gifted and the able back from the great world capitals and universities to the regional and local communities from which they sprang, to put the gifts and skills which they possess at the service of their neighbors.” (319).
National and local communities may be contingent (though such contingency should by no means belie the fact that some of these communities are configured in better and worse ways!), but they are an essential context for neighbor love and are an important good. O’Donovan notes in closing: “Evil are the conflicts of nations, but many times more evil are the conflicts that oppose communities without the identities or disciplines of nations. …We may well shed tears for the nation-state and lament the fragility of its good” (320).
If O’Donovan is right–and in some important respects I suspect that he is–then American Christians may well be able to celebrate Independence Day as a humble and grateful acknowledgement of the goods of place and relationship into which they are called to live alongside and serve their neighbors.