Nationalism is Idolatry

About 10 years ago, I used to work with a woman named Callie, who was from New Zealand. She was about as apolitical as they come – I don’t think she’d ever voted in her life, in either New Zealand or the US.

We were sitting around the office one evening with a couple of beers, shooting the breeze after a long, hectic day taking care of the last of the seasonal inventory, and I asked her, “What was the first thing you noticed about America when you arrived here?”

She sort of paused, as if to judge my possible reactions to what she was about to say, and then said, “Well…everywhere you go here, you’re swimming in propaganda.”

I was surprised, and asked her what she meant, and she said, “I always hear people on the news and in the government saying that ‘America is the most powerful nation on earth.’ ”

“Well…I guess it’s true, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Sure, of course. But have you ever asked yourself why that is said on a regular basis?”

I guess I looked even more confused, because she said, “Let me ask you to try something for me. The next time you go to the city, just drive around randomly and stop every 5 minutes. Get out of the car, and look around for an American flag. I would bet you good money that there will never be an occasion where an American flag is not visible.”

So, the next weekend, my girlfriend and I drove over the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco, and tried this. I drove, she kept time, and every 5 minutes she would say, “Stop!” and I would pull over at the next safe spot.

Callie, my coworker, was right: there was never a place where an American flag was not visible. We made 20 stops, and most of the time we did not even have to get out of the car to find one. This was  not the 4th of July or Memorial Day (and well before 9/11/2001).

Nationalism saturates American life – it is just the ever-present, ambient sound coming from every form of corporate media, 24/7/365, so ever-present that it has become, in an odd way, invisible. I have come to understand that it is idolatry – subtler, arguably, than building a golden calf, but no less idolatrous. And it disturbs me a great deal.

I wish Catholic priests and laity would stand up more often against this sort of thing. We Catholics, at every level of our society and in every vocation, me included, have failed to do our jobs of providing clear witness against this spiritually destructive idol.

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  • Aegis

    Good post, Mr. Talbot.

    Too often we allow patriotism to develop into nationalism. Patriotism is as inimical to justice as love of one’s family. Love of one’s family becomes contrary to the common good when one ignores or tramples over other families for the sake of one’s own. Likewise with nations: it is perfectly fine to love one’s nation, but is not okay to only love one’s nation and not all nations.

  • alex martin

    Patriotism isn’t, however. Quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Patriotism requires that the citizen should have a reasonable esteem and love for his country.”

  • http://www.opnionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    So Catholic Laity and Priest should stand against American Flags?

    • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

      We definitely should not have them in our churches, or flying outside of our churches.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    Exactly right. Great post.

    The propaganda becomes even more obvious when you live outside of the u.s. for a few years and then come back.

  • Navy Vet

    The unexplained question is, “Why is the American flag by definition idolatrous?”

    Maybe the issue should be what other form of power would you like to see if not American power? Granted that any power can be abusive, but among the current contenders, I would have less faith in most other nations than the US to wield such incredible power to do both good or ill throughout the world.

    A simple glance around the UN makes me truly thankful that very few knuckleheads can injure those outside their immediate borders, because they do enough harm to their own people that they are supposed to be helping.

    I am thankful to live in a world where people face so little danger that they can hop out of the car every few minutes to see if they can find a flag that any knucklehead with a match and lighter fluid can flame up in the middle of the Town Square. What a gulag we live in!

    • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

      The unexplained question is, “Why is the American flag by definition idolatrous?”

      It isn’t by definition. It is idolatrous because of the mythology that surrounds it and the way it is treated as a sacred object.

      Maybe the issue should be what other form of power would you like to see if not American power?

      Power that is Christlike.

      Granted that any power can be abusive, but among the current contenders, I would have less faith in most other nations than the US to wield such incredible power to do both good or ill throughout the world.

      On what basis? Group bias? You would trust a nation like Canada less than the united states, the latter of which has an ideological mythology that has resulted in countless deaths domestically and around the world, and the ONLY nation to have used a nuclear weapon?

  • Kurt

    I wish Catholic priests and laity would stand up more often against this sort of thing.

    I really have better things to do that stand up against the fact I could drive around in a densely populated urban area and see my country’s flag every five minutes.

    I think this is one of the weaker posts here on VN.

  • Pingback: Fun with the U.S. Flag Code « Vox Nova()

  • phosphorious

    Maybe the issue should be what other form of power would you like to see if not American power?

    Will all due respect for a veteran, doesn’t this response exactly illustrate the point in question?

    This post was anti-nationalism, period. But it was interpreted as being anti-American. “If not the American flag, then whose flag?”

    The ideal is for no flag at all to command such fetishistic respect.

  • phosphorious

    So Catholic Laity and Priest should stand against American Flags?

    Yes.

  • Navy Vet

    The issue cuts right to the heart of anarchy. The US has been quite benevolent with the power that it acquired. I am quite glad that we did not have the pleasure of living under Stalin or Mao, the other strong men to emerge from WWII. Anarchy is wonderful if no evil people aspire to power, but the wicked have a long track record of brutalizing others.

    When one looks at the use of atomic weapons, would you use them to stop the Holocaust? Would you have used them to stop Mao from coming to power and save generations of Chinese from auto-genecide? You cannot unring the bell for nuclear technology, so all mankind can do is attempt to minimize the damage caused by rampant socialism and it’s aggressive nature.

    A crystal clear example of the dual nature of nuclear weapons is whether you trust the North Koreans or the Iranians armed with nukes more than the US. Some folks should not be allowed to have access to that kind of destructive power.

    Overall, the US has clearly been a force for good throughout the world. The list of wonderful things that US citizens have done is staggering, but of course the downside of freedom is the ability to fail and do bad things. Fortunately the flag doesn’t just stand for the government, but for the people as well.

    The ability to see only the bad things that the US flag represents is just as ignorant as the ability to see only good. Knee jerk anti-Americanism is the sign of a weak mind, and probably bad breath.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    I’m afraid you’re proving Phosphorious’ point, Navy Vet.

    How did this become a discussion about nuclear weapons, anyway?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova Morning’s Minion

    When one looks at the use of atomic weapons, would you use them to stop the Holocaust? Would you have used them to stop Mao from coming to power and save generations of Chinese from auto-genecide?
    A Catholic cannot seriously ask this question. An answer inthe affirmative is an expression of the worst kind of consequentialism. Supporting the use of nuclear weapons is akin to supporting abortion – and I mean believing abortion is a positive good, not merely saying it should be legal.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    One other thing, Navy Vet – I realize you feel passionately about this, but let’s try and keep the discussion away from name-calling.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova Morning’s Minion

    I think this is a very good post. I came to the US during the Bush senior presidency. I could not then, and still cannot now, understand how pride in one’s country is somehow translated into a belief that the US sits onm top of the world. Just look at the helathcare debate – how many reasonable people think that thatv the US has the best system in the world, when it is quite awful (I think it ranks 32).

    Sadly, American exceptionalism is pervasive, the notion that America is somehow different, and that God treats it as he treated Israel of old. OF course, this nonsense is a direct outcome of the really bad derivative Calvinism that underpins the American civil religion. Stop climate change? No way, Americans have the the God-given right to consume whatever they wish!

  • digbydolben

    The Germans are much less nationalistic than the Americans, but every other sentence out of one of their mouths seems to include the word “Deutsch.”

    I’m sorry, but I think cultural chauvinism, xenophobia and, often, politicized nationalism are baser but natural human instincts–like racism–that people have to be “educated” OUT OF. Religious training should be effective in doing this, but it mostly is not, almost everywhere in the world, and is, instead, compounding the problem, as with Islamism and Zionism.

    The situation with Roman Catholics in the United States is truly ironic, because America was largely FOUNDED upon anti-Catholicism; the “Enlightenment” principles enshrined in her Constitution and Declaration of Independence represent a philosophic rebellion against traditional Catholic anthropology and social thinking (in favour of radical individualism and against “personalism” and “community”) and Catholics have always, until quite recently, been discriminated against in America. In the last 40 or 50 years, however, American Catholics have made a strenuous effort to appear to be “more American than the Americans.”

    It’s really a quite ridiculous effort by religiously unsophisticated people who fail to understand that the theology they officially subscribe to will ALWAYS conflict with American cultural and political values, as well as with the so-called “American dream.”

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    How strange that most americans fall back on the “But patriotism is not bad” defense. Why can they not admit that nationalism exists in the united states, that it is a pervasive problem?

  • David Nickol

    Sadly, American exceptionalism is pervasive, the notion that America is somehow different, and that God treats it as he treated Israel of old.

    MM,

    It’s certainly what I was taught in Catholic school back in the 1950s. The “Faith and Freedom” series readers from Ginn and Co. — which I remember rather fondly — was all about being Catholic and American.

  • digbydolben

    David, I remember those readers quite well, too, but now realize that they were a farrago of lies and half-truths.

  • http://www.opnionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    “The situation with Roman Catholics in the United States is truly ironic, because America was largely FOUNDED upon anti-Catholicism; the “Enlightenment” principles enshrined in her Constitution and Declaration of Independence represent a philosophic rebellion against traditional Catholic anthropology and social thinking”

    Actually not. A huge moment in American Catholic history was then Washington condemmed Guy Fawkles day.

    The laws against Catholics in the colonies were horrific. But despite the religious thinking of some founders that was anti Catholic they gave us our freedom. It was not easy sailing from then on but pretty amazing that mostpeople were with us.

    An example of this was before the Civil war that some of major leaders of the Union(lincoln and Johnson) and of the South (Jefferson Davis) were quite vocal leaders against he Know Nothing Movement. A movement that affected my Great(3) grandfather.

  • Jason F

    Personally, I think we’re assuming a bit much why the american flag is such a persuasive symbol.

    Also, while I have some read some parts of the flag code may be a bit over the top (such as “treating the flag as a person” IIRC); there is no wrong in treating an American flag with some respect. It is a symbol of our country after all.

    Personally, when it comes to feelings of national pride, wether to excess or not, flying the banner is the most benign aspect of showing love for one’s country. It is IMHO, above any excesses of such feelings and targeting the flag seems to me to be needless.

    It would be best to argue against definitive statements and actions (and they do exist) that show an excess of nationalism rather than guess why a person has decided to fly a flag in his yard or business. There is no sin in that.

  • Gabriel Austin

    “Breathes a man with soul so dead
    Who never to himself hath said
    This is my own, my native land”.

  • David Nickol

    Isn’t there a quite natural, and not necessarily harmful, tendency to favor the group you are in, whether it is your school (school spirit!), your city (and it’s professional sports teams), or your country?

    I thought Obama handled the subject very well when asked about it:

    Ed Luce, Financial Times–
    “Could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?”

    Obama’s answer–
    “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

    And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

    Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

    And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent–and depends on–our ability to create partnerships We create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”

  • Gabriel Austin

    Belloc made the point that nationalism was the replacement for religion.

    He thought of it as a bastard patriotism.

  • ES

    There are several things about this post that bother me.

    1.) There is the argument from out-group bias. This is a cognitive bias that is possessed by those looking at a group from the outside, and the most common distinguishing elements (such as the display of a flag) are understood from the outsider’s perspective. To someone who comes from a different country, where a national symbol is used differently, common American usage can stand out. That this is so does not justify a conclusion of nationalism or idolatry.

    2.) Confusion of message-received with message-intended. The flag is a sign. The flying of the flag is also a sign, but what is signified need not always be the same. To reduce every instance of flag-flying to a display of excessive pride, or nationalism, or idolatry, is unjustified. Don’t commit the fallacy of textual agency: that a sign means all by itself whatever you say it means. That you can read your city-scape as your friend suggested, after alerting you to out-group bias, does not mean that your friend’s interpretation of the city-scape is accurately reflects what each flag-flier intends.

    That being said, I think that the differences between a recently established country, like the US, with so many disparate groups gathered here, in comparison to a country like Italy or like Spain (where I’ve lived), where ethnic and hereditary homogeneity are not only higher, but history goes much deeper but one was unified more recently, shows up some interesting results. I remember seeing the flags displayed in both countries, but more often in Italy. I never got to the south of Spain, and so maybe I could be wrong, but my hunch is that where there is more diversity, there will be more displays of a symbol that marks unity. In this context, flag-flying could be a way of providing a reminder to your neighbor (who just moved from another country and doesn’t want to assimilate, or who lives in Rome and for some reason really hates the risorgimento, or who lives in Turino and calls all those south of Pisa “Africans”) where he is.

    I think we could also look at how many groups of Americans (as many African-Americans were attesting after Obama’s election) feel like they have been on the outside of the trajectory of the American story, a lot of which has been a struggle of dissolving the barriers erected by those (who claim to love freedom) against the others who simply want the same opportunities but have been defined by the majority as not qualifying (be they black, female, Asian, gay, or something else). Flag-flying could be saying that we deserve equal treatment, and this flag means that we are not to be targeted for what you see as making us different.

    Conversely, for those who miss the “good old days” when Uhmeruhkah was Uhmeruhkah, flag-flying could be a way of trying to remind everyone what’s been lost.

  • digbydolben

    JH, I wonder if you know that the biggest disturbances in Boston at the time of the agitation that preceded the American Revolution weren’t over tea or stamps, but over Parliament’s official “toleration” of the Roman Catholic religion in the Quebec Province of newly-conquered Canada. Almost all Canadians know this, but it NEVER makes it into the American history books.

    Do you know why? So that Roman Catholics like you will continue to give unquestioning allegiance to a social and political system that is inimical to the values of the faith you THINK you subscribe to.

  • Dan

    “How did this become a discussion about nuclear weapons, anyway?”

    Well, Mr. Iafrate wrote:

    “and the ONLY nation to have used a nuclear weapon?”

    Thank you FDR and Harry Truman!

    MM wrote:
    “Sadly, American exceptionalism is pervasive, the notion that America is somehow different,”

    My experience is that America is different. Look at the large number of people who continue to come to this country (perhaps yourself MM?). Why do they and, for some, making a huge sacrifice to do so? Living in a large community made up of over 50% immigrants (including immediate family members), one hears amazing and exceptional stories of lifes that have improved by coming to the US. I have heard this from immigrants who have come here in the past 10 years from the likes of China, Malaysia, Afghanistan, etc. I realize the same can be said for immigrants arriving in Canada and parts of Europe, though the US has long offered a special, dare I say exceptional, attraction for immigrants. (Which begs the question why some are so hostile to immigrants from south of the border).

    ES:
    “To reduce every instance of flag-flying to a display of excessive pride, or nationalism, or idolatry, is unjustified.”

    Amen. Any blanket commendation of idolatry based on flying the US flag can be simplistic and judgmental.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Symbols are things that stand for something else.

    Idols are things that are worshipped as gods.

    That the author of this post equates them shows either ignorance or a bias to promote his point of view.

    The comment boxes, especially ES and Dan, are quite good.

  • LV

    Is it just my imagination, or am I hearing in this equating of nationalism and idolatry an echo of the old Protestant trope that Catholics worship the saints instead of God?

    Well, regardless. There is something to the idea that American exceptionalism plays a role in our culture not similarly shared elsewhere by, to use the President’s misguided example, “Greek exceptionalism.”

    The United States is a “self-made” nation, in a way that virtually no other country on earth can claim. So much of its national “mythology,” so to speak, is invested not simply in the people and events that created it, as is seen elsewhere, but in how it is governed–in its identity as the first real constitutional republic since the fall of Rome.

    It was different from the rest of the world. It was *designed* to be different from the rest of the world–to be, the Founders hoped, superior to how other countries did things. (Seeing as much of the world has since followed suit, to a greater or lesser degree, they might have been on to something there, but that’s another debate.)

    That view of America, not simply as “the place where we live” but as “the nation we made”–and more, “the nation we made the best in the world”–has been at the core of the United States’ self-concept, almost from the beginning. It was only amplified by the country’s rise to superpower status in the 20th century.

    If the US seems to be “swimming in propaganda,” that’s probably the biggest reason why. It’s a key part of what binds the country together.

    (It’s probably worth noting that if there was ever anything akin to American exceptionalism, it was *Soviet* exceptionalism. The Soviet Union, like the US, was a “self-made nation,” one where its identity was almost completely wrapped up in how it did things. For the purposes of this post’s discussion, the main difference is that the USSR explicitly tried to impose its “mythology” as the religion of its people, whereas the United States’ policy was to explicitly stay out of its people’s religions…which itself became a part of America’s own “mythology.”)

  • TheOldCrusader

    What makes it idolatry is simple:

    The Government is not the Country. The Government is not the population.

    The Government maintains military forces in 120-140 countries around the world. The government is bankrupting the country and destroying the currency doing so.

    Mr. Obama was expected (at least by the niave) to end the wars in the mid-east. Instead he has shown himself a reliable tool of the status quo. His policy is indistinguishable from that of GWB. The fraud of Democracy where people are allowed to choose between two sock puppet parties that do not differ in essentials is becoming clear. If it is not clear yet, it will be just as Anthropogenic Global Warming is being revealed for the fraud it is.

    Joe Sobran quoted Chesterton on the nationalist failings of Kipling. Something like “Kipling loves England because she is Great, not because she is English.”

    After this government collapses due to overextension (as every empire does sooner or later) will today’s “Patriots” still love America when she is a “second rate” power? I don’t know. But true patriots – who view the government of today as profoundly un-American in fundamental principles – will. And they will be the ones to restore an America true to the founders principles.

    Catholics have an important part to play in this. A true catholic by definition has a loyalty that lies outside and above the government. That is why they may be persecuted at some time in the future. The State (the modern Baal) will brook no divided loyalty.

  • http://disputations.blogspot.com Tom

    The national flag certainly plays a different role in New Zealand than it does in the United States.

    The Act that makes it a crime in New Zealand to deface their national flag with intent to dishonor it also says anyone who wants to can use it in advertising (as long as they don’t put any words or symbols on the flag itself). And it appears that, for the past thirty years, there have been various efforts — including some led by government ministers — to change the flag.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    I cannot remember an Austrian flying the Austrian flag at his house. Now, for an expatriate it’d be another story, I think. But, when you’re in “your own” country, it’s a bit odd to fly it at your house. Not to mention the 50 foot flags at car dealerships 😉 Or politicians wearing flag lapel pins…standing infront of 500 flags. I guess in the US, patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel.

    What really reminds me of totalitarian states is the Pledge of Allegiance in school – every freaking day. My wife tells me it continued throughout her entire time in a Catholic high school. Not to mention the anthem when San Francisco plays San Diego. Why ?

    Of course it makes sense that the most dangerous system on the planet would brainwash its citizens from childhood on, the things government/business gets away with here are simply astounding.

    Why some parishes have a flag in the sanctuary beats me. What happened to “neither Jew nor Greek” ?

    National pride has to be one of the dumber follies of humankind – it’s not an achievement to be born somewhere. Speaking of dumb – what’s with this song, “And I’m proud to be an American, WHERE at least I know I’m free” ?

    Personally, I find my affinity tends towards regions these days, the Pacific Northwest, the Champagne, the Toscana, Normandie etc.

    Lastly, the most awful trick people fall for is to identify territory with nation/political system…you know, when one is told to leave the country if one doesn’t subscribe to pillaging at home and abroad.

  • Rachel

    I agree with the above poster who said that equating the appearance of American flags with idolatry is equivalent with the Protestant notion that our many statues means we worship the saints. An appearance of flags could mean either idolatry OR healthy repspect, and to assume either one is unfair. I think you need a different kind of evidence.

    From where I’m sitting, I don’t see that many flags (granted I live in a more rural area.) I hear the young people singing “I don’t want to be an American Idiot,” and I hear more globalization propaganda than American idealization.

    I also think that your opening sentence is interesting. Your friend was “apolitical”. Does that make her unbiased? That she was apolitical doesn’t mean she is a neutral party. Apolitical is a statement by itself, though of what in this case, I do not know. I sense a slight implication that you were impressed by her apoliticism, otherwise I don’t know why it would be mentioned.

    We are not Mennonites – we are not called to be apolitical. Catholics are called to work both within the systems of government and without, with healthy respect for what is good and unyielding opposition to what is evil.

    If your point had merely been that national flags do not belong at the Eucharistic table, then I would agree with you. If your point is “[America’s Current] Nationalism [As evidenced by a proliferation of flags] is Idolatry”, then I think your article is unfinished.