Why do the nations so furiously rage together,
And why do the people imagine a vain thing? …
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn;
The Lord shall have them in derision.
—Psalm 2.1, 4
For Heathen Heart That Puts Her Trust
To begin with, I’ve said that Christian nationalism is wrong about what ethnicity and race are, and what importance they can have. What do I mean by this? What does any sort of nationalism even have to do with ethnicity or race, exactly? Nation, ethnicity, and race certainly all sound like different words.
They are, to a degree. But nation and nationality are often synonyms for ethnicity, especially historically speaking and especially outside the United States. Our approach to nationality is, in fact, rather exceptional; it’s akin in some ways to how the Roman Empire employed citizenship. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is an ethnicity?
This is yet another hard word to define! But for once, it’s hard to define because the concept itself is fuzzy at the edges, not because it means lots of different things. It’s not unlike the word family: the idea isn’t unclear, but how many cardinal numberings of cousins out does it stop being meaningful to talk about someone as “part of my family”?
Roughly speaking, an ethnicity means a group of people who share a common ancestry, language, and way of life. That way of life bit may seem rather open-ended, but the truth is, all of these are. Are the people of France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, and Spain all a single ethnicity because they share common ancestry from the Romans? Are we a single ethnicity with Australia, the British Isles, Canada, and South Africa because we all speak English? Food is an important aspect of our way of life, but does that mean people who live near a coast and therefore eat more seafood must be a different ethnicity from inlanders?
The lines between ethnicities are always a little arbitrary. And that’s fine! No ethnicity has ever existed on its own, and ethnicities don’t have to be either-or categories anyway. An ethnicity is more like what’s called a “centered set” than a “bounded set”—more defined by a point things aim at or revolve around than by a boundary which must not be passed.
In Reeking Tube and Iron Shard
Okay. What’s nationalism, then?
Roughly speaking, nationalism is the idea that every ethnicity should have some type of political autonomy (most often, their own state). In some contexts, that’s all it means. These contexts usually involve a stateless ethnicity fighting for a higher degree of independence from the state or states they are subject to—like the Basques in Spain, or the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.
In most European and American discourse, however, nationalism goes a good deal further. European and American nationalists tend to frame ethnicity as one of the main goods of human life—one that justifies disproportionate or even exclusive power for the given ethnic group in its realm, and also the subjugation or even removal of ethnic minorities in that realm. The phrase ethnic cleansing, coined as a euphemism, now rightly evokes images of armed brutality and mass death.
Very few nationalists will say this in so many words, though, especially not in public.1 Rather than speak about “race” or “ethnic purity” or what have you, will instead go on about “culture,” “identity,” “heritage,” and the like—qualities they find easy to link to ancestry. (The fact that at least half of any given ethnicity’s culture can be traced to some other, and usually unrelated, ethnicity rarely perturbs these people.) Some of them really will place more emphasis on the cultural aspect of ethnicity than the blood-relation aspect, but few if any nationalists will actually discard the latter.
In the US, nationalism overwhelmingly means white nationalism.2 The mental image this conjures for most people is that of the hood-wearing Klansman, and to an extent, this is correct. I say “to an extent” for two reasons: first, no Klansman is always wearing his hood, and we need to be able to recognize them without such obvious clues; and second, plenty of people will cooperate with white nationalist actions, or subscribe to white nationalist ideas, without fully realizing it—either because they’ve been (heh) hoodwinked or because they’re in denial.
All Valiant Dust That Builds on Dust
Wait wait wait. So if all that’s true, why is a Princeton professor and avowed Christian like Stephen Wolfe even talking about “Christian nationalism”? And where exactly do I get off saying that that phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms?
Remember: in certain contexts, nationalism is about self-determination, especially against a ruling and frequently hostile power. Since that can hardly be called inherently wrong, one can’t exactly say that nationalism as such is always wrong. That in turn means bad actors can use the word, leaving behind its all-important context (which most people won’t sit still for anyway)—and then, if someone condemns them on grounds of nationalism, trot out a reply to the effect of “Oh! So you don’t think such-and-such oppressed minority deserves the right to autonomy? And you call me racist?”
But in order to rationalize the authoritarian compulsion and, in the end, violence they actually want, “our” nationalists do still need to import some kind of oppression that they’re supposedly fighting against. This is where the culture war rhetoric comes in: the constant harping on how you “can’t” say or do this or that “any more” or “they” will punish you (generally in some unspecified way). Lots of people get caught up in this kind of rhetoric without being nationalists at all, but it is a constant feature of nationalism; it needs to feel itself embattled in order to justify its aims. And both the feeling and the rhetoric are great tools for recruiting, especially among young men who have a vague but real and powerful frustration with their lives.3
And Guarding Calls, Not Thee to Guard
This is also where the conspiracy theories come in. While vacuous slogans are being tossed hither and thither, the conspiracy theorist can come in and offer to let the audience in on the secret. “Woke” is a silly and obnoxious buzzword, and an obviously silly and obnoxious buzzword; would you like to know who’s really behind this? And then the culprits can be produced: Marxists, secularists, the mainstream media, Jews, homosexuals, whomever you please.
Whoever the villain of the piece is, they are virtually guaranteed to have one very curious trait: they are, simultaneously, utterly weak and negligible, while also being at the borders of omnipresence and omnipotence. The normal people, the majority, will be against them; yet it will be a silent majority, silent because silenced by the villains. The nationalists are thus both ordinary, companionable “just folks,” while also being bold heroes. Victory is guaranteed, yet also justifies the degradation and slaughter of the conquered, lest those treacherous lambs rise up and trample the brave lions beneath their little hooves.
You’ll note, however, that even if any of this grand edifice of conceited paranoia were true, none of it has anything to do with God. Like all individual human beings, all ethnicities are mortal; indeed, ethnicities are more fragile and temporary than the individual, since the individual has an immortal soul and ethnicities do not. There is exactly one ethnicity that the Bible takes any interest in as an ethnicity, that being the Jewish people. Nobody else is accorded any special status whatever: the rest of mankind are merely images of God, for whatever that’s worth. Nationalists will typically counter this by arguing that no ethnicity has to submit to its own destruction, which is strictly true. But this is only relevant if the ethnicity in question is, in fact, being destroyed. They will claim that it is (this is the “white genocide” conspiracy theory), but so far, literally all of the evidence I’ve found in favor of this thesis has been fabricated, sometimes from grossly distorted statistics and sometimes from thin air.
For Frantic Boast and Foolish Word
However, what makes this truly and deeply silly is the fact we touched on at the beginning. Ethnicity is inevitably a bit vague and arbitrary, and all ethnicities are irrevocably entwined with other ethnicities. No ethnicity in recorded history, or even in archæologically guessed-at prehistory, has lived in isolation. A political theory based on ethnicity, if you follow the facts honestly and consistently, will lead you to ethnic pluralism, not nationalism—your familial connections will assuredly see to that.
When we come to race, as white nationalists normally do, the idea gets even sillier. The problem here is, race isn’t even really a thing, biologically speaking. It’s not uncommon for the genetic variance between two individuals of the same race to be much wider than that between individuals of different races. The “races” (“red and yellow, black and white”) exist in a sociological sense: i.e., because people thought of them as real for so long, they were treated as important social categories, which in turn made them social categories, and there’s now enough history there that the effects of that can’t really be escaped or reversed.4 Thus, we can meaningfully talk about Black Americans: not because there is anything inherent to African descent that unites them, but because the ways Black people have been treated in our culture, and the ways they have responded to that treatment, have forged a real social subset within American culture more broadly. But the idea that any of this really was caused by a biological quality called race is simply and entirely false.
And when we come to whiteness, we reach a truly vacuous idea. Whiteness, in the racial sense, is completely meaningless. Even some people called white nationalists today would scorn whiteness (at least in private), preferring “Aryan-ness” or “Anglo-Saxon blood” or what have you. There is no “white” ethnicity; you can be German, or Scottish, or French, or Polish, etc., and you can be any sort of blend of two or more ethnicities that come roughly from Europe, but there is no ancestral group of “white people.”5
It’s a bit of a running joke that Italians and the Irish weren’t accepted as white until about the 1960s; this is of course ridiculous if we’re looking simply at skin tone—even the swarthiest of Italians are still visibly “white” in that sense. But if we went simply by skin tone in determining race, we’d have to recategorize a lot of Black people as white, and some ethnicities, like Latinos, would be completely scattershot in racial terms, sometimes even within the same family. More importantly, the fact that Italians and the Irish could be “accepted” into whiteness in the first place shows what the idea really was: not a visual or biological designator, but a club of who was allowed to be influential.
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
In short: ethnicity is sort of a thing, but one with blurry edges and entanglements; and race is barely a thing at all, and even what reality it possesses is there because we put it there. And these things are what the Christian nationalist would have us believe justify the domination and exclusion of other peoples from our ethnic safe space.
Personally, I don’t see the value of this exercise, or the point. Particularly since (to the best of my knowledge) I can go right on enjoying my culture, whether or not there happens to be an Omani woman in a niqāb sitting two tables from me. Her clothing does not in any way interfere with my t-shirt and jeans. Her language does not tie my tongue. Her dinner of lamb and stuffed grape leaves—okay, that one actually may replace my dinner, but frankly, I’m the winner in that scenario. Her enjoyment of Bollywood does not prevent me from rereading Death Comes for the Archbishop (though there’s no reason I couldn’t enjoy both). Her faithful recitation of salat does not sour my evensong. Why on earth would any of these things be the case?
But even all this nonsense is only the beginning of what’s wrong with Christian nationalism …
1At least, this used to be true! It has become less true in the last fifteen years, as the resurgence of far-right politics and the anonymity of the internet have created an atmosphere where people can often express blatantly racist ideas comfortably.
2Other nationalisms do exist here: there are a few forms of Black nationalism, for instance, or Native American nationalism, or Chicano nationalism. As a rule, however, these are far less numerous, both absolutely and in proportion to the ethnicities they correspond to. They also tend (with exceptions) to focus on nationalism in the sense of self-determination against the predominating power of white America, rather than on subjugating or expelling other ethnic groups.
3The canny reader may note that this describes virtually all young men, if you catch them at the right moment (which comes at different times and for different lengths, person to person). “A vague but real and powerful frustration” is not a complete description of puberty, but I flatly disbelieve any man over the age of 25 who claims never to have felt it.
4Conservatives are often fond of the saying “Ideas have consequences.” Those leftists who are like myself would certainly agree, and would point to systemic race issues in the US as a perfect example. Oddly, at this juncture, many conservatives will promptly turn around and argue that slavery was such a long time ago it can hardly be affecting things now—often as not, right after explaining why Aristotle or Cicero or Magna Carta are still relevant. Things have not changed in two thousand years, but they have changed in two hundred.
5Or rather, if there is, it can only be the Proto-Indo-Europeans, which fails to work on two counts. First, we have no idea what they looked like; and second, plenty of Indo-European speakers today (such as the various peoples of India) are not white by pretty much any measure, and many non-Indo-Europeans (like Turks and Arabs) are at least sometimes classified as white.