“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality…
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.”
Now, while that sounds like it could have been written about people in particular political movements in modern day America, it was actually written in 1945 about Nazism by George Orwell. I’ve included it here because I believe it is a helpful distinction between patriotism and nationalism. I also believe his understanding of nationalism is helpful in understanding the damage that it is causing to spirituality and society. And, finally, I can’t help but believe it is somewhat helpful to recognize that this kind of thinking is nothing new. It is not just a modern American problem. It is a problem with humanity. A problem we tend to repeat on a consistent basis through history. A problem that frequently wraps itself in religion and stomps on spirituality in the process.
And that makes me realize that I need to define how I’m using the words “religion” and “spirituality.” The way I use “spirituality” is to describe beliefs and practices that give us a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves and possibly points toward a fuller understanding of the meaning of life. It helps us recognize our connectedness and encourages us to be our better selves. “Religion” is the formalization of spirituality. It tends to include ritual, obedience, and dogma.
Understood that way, spirituality is an experience that is very freeing and very connecting at the same time. It frees us from what can be a sometimes mundane existence and opens us up to possibilities. It also connects us with something larger than ourselves and, through that, connects us with others who are practicing a similar spirituality.
Religion, on the other hand, tends to narrow our perspective and frequently invites us to trust the spiritual leaders to the point of blind following. As you might imagine, that makes religion a powerful tool for those seeking power through the support of the masses.
In the U.S. we have drifted slowly from patriotism to nationalism. You have to look no further than Colin Kaepernick to see it. Kaepernick is the NFL player who started a protest movement among other NFL players and sports figures by taking a knee during the National Anthem. The idea is to bring attention to racism and police violence towards African-Americans.
As you might expect, there’s a whole group of folks who are very upset about it. The most vocal among them speak of his “disrespecting the flag” and disrespecting the troops who fought under that flag. Many of those same people choose to fly the Confederate Battle Flag rather than the Stars and Stripes at their own houses and in the back windows of their trucks. In yet another act of oblivious irony, when Kaepernick takes a knee during the National Anthem, they can probably be found sitting in front of the TV, sipping on a beer with “America” emblazoned on the can which is actually a product of a Belgium company. Doubling down on the irony, printed across the top of the can is the first four bars of… any guesses? The National Anthem.
Let me go back and quote Orwell again, “Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also… unshakeably certain of being in the right.” Part of the “flagrant dishonesty” that Orwell is talking about is cognitive dissonance or the ability to criticize Kaepernick for not respecting the flag and the anthem while you, yourself, aren’t measuring your “patriotism” based on your own disrespect of it.
The Kaepernick case also points to an even more dangerous side of the nationalism we are currently experiencing in the U.S. In a lot of ways, the nationalism that is being practiced is a response to the changing demographics of the U.S. Folks who have long held power in the U.S. are seeing a revolutionary shift. America is looking less and less like them. Worse yet, at least for those who have traditionally held power, this new America wants leadership that looks more like them. In other words, not old, white men.
The election of our first black President made this reality clearer than ever. The old, white men are losing their stronghold on power. As Orwell says, “Nationalism… is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige…”.
Not surprisingly, the white-male-nationalist movement of America was carefully and calculatingly revved up by those who were seeing their power threatened.
It’s important to not too easily overlook the “white” part of that statement. In a nation that has struggled with racism, in a nation where leaders like Dr. King have helped draw us in more closely to each other as we recognized that we all truly are created equally, in a nation where we elected a black man as President, we are finding the racial divide growing once again. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter continue to try to bring attention to the issue, but are met with responses grown out of white privilege like “#AllLivesMatter” and even the burning down of outspoken black churches.
To make matters worse, this white-male-nationalist movement of America is co-opting religion. You only need to look at the past Presidential election to see it. One candidate conveniently became a Christian and the other was a lifetime Methodist. Which one was most frequently being touted as the “Christian” choice? Well, while logic would dictate that it is more likely to be the lifetime Christian, Nationalism dictates otherwise. Not only was the long time Christian candidate female, but the other candidate is towing the Nationalist party line and if there’s one thing Nationalist excel in it’s cognitive dissonance. So, the candidate who recently discovered religion became the “candidate of God.”
If, as I said earlier, spirituality is beliefs and practices that give us a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, if it opens us up to possibilities and connects us with others (and I believe that it does), then Nationality is it’s enemy. Nationality (much like institutionalized religion) presents a very narrow world perspective. Rather than opening us up to possibilities, it prefers to close us off with fear (after all, fear is great for controlling people). Rather than connecting us with all of humanity, it prefers to segregate us, separate us, and elevate those who are the most similar to us a place of privilege.
Nationalism is a spirituality killer.
But it’s more than that. It’s a society killer as well. This isn’t simply true from a moralistic point of view which recognizes that it promotes violence, bullying, and marginalizing, but it also is true in a more pragmatic way when you play out Nationalism to its natural consequences.
As I’ve alluded to already, one of the most effective tools of Nationalism is fear. “They” are coming for your guns. “They” are coming for your jobs. “They” are coming for the women and children. And, so on.
For Nationalism to work there must always be a “they.” “They” aren’t like us. “They” are jealous of how great we are and want to hurt us. It’s all well and good when “they” are a distant somebody in another country, but SOME of “them” need to be here, close by. Nationalist need to be able to worry that one of “them” might do something deplorable in a public bathroom or in their own bedroom or maybe even at a public forum. Better yet, at least in terms of how Nationalism works, they need YOU to worry about it. They can then use that fear to motivate you to feel superior to others.
That kind of a divided nation, that kind of divided society, is unstable and self-sabotaging. It will ultimately live a short life in terms of the long history of the rise and fall of nations.
One of the biggest misconceptions of U.S. politics is that the system works from the top down. From trickle down economics to third-parties putting so much effort into Presidential candidates, we have bought heavily into the idea that we live in a society that starts at the top and filters its way down. The reality is that if we want real change, if we want significant change, it has to start at the bottom. We have to provided a wide and stable foundation from which to grow.
If we are talking economics, it means making sure everyone makes a livable wage. If we want more than a two-party system, we need to focus on getting the candidates we support elected to local and state positions. If we are talking spirituality, we need to become more active in movements like #BlackLivesMatter; we need to more actively participate in diverse communities and to celebrate the diversity of our own.
And finally, we need to stand up and speak out every time we see someone being marginalized or bullied. We need to, at every turn, proclaim the value and equality of every life… even those with whom we disagree – yes, even the Nationalist.