In his 1882 lecture “What is a nation?” French historian Ernest Renan examines a number of essentialist theories offered in explanation of the “right of nations” – unity of race, common language, religious affinity, natural geographical frontiers – and he rejects them all. These, he thinks, are mere “metaphysical and theological abstractions.” Yet, even though Renan may count as the first of the great constructivists – those, that is, who see the nation as an invented or imagined cultural unit rather than one given by nature – his empirical view of national identity still has a certain mystical ring to it. “A nation is a soul,” he says, “a spiritual principle.” This soul has two constitutive elements, the first concerning the past, that is, having “common glories,” or “a rich legacy of memories,” and the other concerning the present, namely the desire to continue investing in this heritage. The nation survives, therefore, only by virtue of the express will of the people to continue a common life; but the validation of that common life, Renan thinks, relies on an understanding that is more mythic than historical. Mythic above all because it is built on an act of forgetting. National unity, he believes, is always “brutally established.” Violence – war, vengeance, terror, maybe even extermination – has gone into its making. This must all be forgotten. “Forgetting, I would even say historical error,” Renan writes, “is an essential factor in the creation of a nation, and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality.”
There is clearly much in Renan’s view that needs to be revised or rejected, especially in the light of the atrocious crimes committed in the name of nations in the 20th century. Is it really acceptable to build our sense of national identity on a mythology or on a forgotten past? With the terrible lesson of German Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”) nationalism before us, it seems imperative, as many contemporary theorists aver, to configure our national self-understanding in accordance with a remembered and continuously interrogated past. Also to think of the nation less sentimentally – less in terms of national pride or a glorious past, and more, as with Jürgen Habermas, as a project to be realized through adherence to democratic norms, a “politics of memory,” and a commitment to public reason.
All well and good. Habermas’s “constitutional patriotism” helpfully provides grounds for political unity without relying on nationalist forms that are easily weaponized against ethnic, ideological, cultural, or religious out-groups. But is it full-bodied enough to sustain a sense of common identity and belonging? Can it feed the imagination and inspire enthusiasm? It is strong on the cognitive, of course; but Habermas appears to underplay precisely those affective, even mystical, elements in national identity which may, rightly directed, enhance the civilizing effects of culture. Nationalism, after all, is not strictly an ideology, at least not in the sense of liberalism, conservatism, or socialism. It tends, rather, to set the stage for these ideologies, on the left or the right, to perform. As Benedict Anderson observes in his influential Imagined Communities, a cenotaph for the Unknown Soldier is a meaningful emblem of the culture of nationalism, but how absurd it would be to have a “Tomb of the Unknown Marxist” or “a cenotaph for fallen Liberals.” And the reason, Anderson notes, is that “nationalist imagining” has a “strong affinity with religious imaginings.” Both nationalist and religious thought, in their distinct ways, involve themselves with apprehensions of life’s contingency, the “links between the dead and the yet unborn,” and the kinds of connectedness and continuity which inform our sense of who we are. Ideologies remain silent on these questions.
Things can go terribly wrong with nationalism, of course, as they can with religion; but worst of all is when nationalism and religion go terribly wrong together. Nationalism has shown it has the power to wrest religion away from its own essence and reconstitute it as the very thing it exists to stand against. In other words, instead of witnessing to transcendence, to a vision of human dignity and solidarity under the providential attention of God, religion has not infrequently found itself in service to one or other form of vicious pagan immanence. The transcendent God becomes the god of the household, the god of the homeland, the god of the tribe or the race or the nation-state. This god favors us over our enemies; desires our victory, not theirs; answers our prayers, not theirs; supports us in our misfortunes but doesn’t much care about theirs; speaks our language, likes things just the way we like them, approves of our desire for bourgeois comfort, and shares our disapproval of migrants or gay people or the homeless or the poor or anyone else who might make us uncomfortable.
It is closed nationalism of this kind that Pope Francis opposes fiercely. The leitmotif of his entire papacy has been the Christian call to fraternity and solidarity which, because it is modeled on the mercy of God, refuses to make the mean-spirited distinctions that are now commonplace even among people who strongly self-identify as Catholic. Over and over, the Pope has denounced this “age of walls and barbed wire” which, in the United States and in many European countries, refuses to welcome the stranger – though only if the stranger is Not Like Us. This is a sign of what Francis calls “the shipwreck of civilization.” He acknowledges the innate tension between the local and the global, and he is not opposed to strong identification with one’s own nation or culture. Far from it. In Evangelii Gaudium he writes: “We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God.” But we should do so from within a “larger perspective.” Francis then sets this vision of human culture within a much wider theological frame:
The Gospel has an intrinsic principle of totality: it will always remain good news until it has been proclaimed to all people, until it has healed and strengthened every aspect of humanity, until it has brought all men and women together at table in God’s kingdom. The whole is greater than the part.
The whole is greater than the part; our belonging to common humanity is greater than any of our kinship or national affinities. Yet the ordinary way for us to be immersed in the greater reality is to have firm roots in the lesser, the local, the concrete cultural realities of our immediate world. Anderson, writing Imagined Communities in 1983, when the murderous ethnic nationalism of the mid-century still cast a dark shadow over expressions of national pride, noted the error of those who thought that the day of nations was over. He wrote:
In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism – poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts – show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.
The challenge, though, is to cultivate narratives of national identity while eschewing the exclusionary posturing of populist nativism. Critical thinking, a commitment to remembering, openness to change, and a sense of responsibility to the world outside: it is dispositions such as these that ensure that a sense of national identity carries with it a sense of belonging to the greater world of humankind.
 Ernest Renan, “What is a nation?” The translation used in this essay is by Ethan Rundell, accessed at https://www.academia.edu/33769892/What_is_a_Nation. A more established translation might be that of MFN Giglioli in Ernest Renan, What is a Nation? and Other Political Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 247-263.
 See especially Jurgen Habermas, “The Postnational constellation and the future of democracy” in The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001), p. 74, in which he says: “For nation-states with their own national histories, a politics that seeks the coexistence of different ethnic communities, language groups, religious faiths, etc. under equal rights naturally entails a process as precarious as it is painful. The majority culture, supposing itself to be identical with the national culture as such, has to free itself from its historical identification with a general political culture, if all citizens are to be able to identify on equal terms with the political culture of their own country. To the degree that this decoupling of political culture from majority culture succeeds, the solidarity of citizens is shifted onto the more abstract foundation of a ‘constitutional patriotism.’” Also see Habermas, “The European nation-state: On the past and future of sovereignty and citizenship,” Chapter 4 in The Inclusion of the Other (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 105-128.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (London: Verso, 2006).
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 10.
 See https://www.politico.eu/article/pope-francis-europe-migrant-crisis-shipwreck-of-civilization/
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation (2013), art. 235.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, art. 237.
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 141.
Image: Adobe Stock. By By Michael Flippo.
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Dermot Roantree works for the Irish Jesuit province and is editor of the cultural journal Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review.