Monday, July 3, 2017

Carlton Hayes: Nationalism as a Religion

With the July 4 holiday near at hand, it's a time to reflect on love of country in all its forms, including variations on patriotism and nationalism. Earlier today I offered some thoughts from George Orwell on these topics. The once-prominent historian Carlton Hayes reflected on the topic of "Nationalism as a Religion" in a provocative 1926 essay, writing in the shadow cast by of World War I. He wrote:
“My country, right or wrong, my country!” Thus responds the faithful nationalist to the magisterial call of his religion, and thereby he intends nothing dubious or immoral. He is merely making a subtle distinction between governmental officials who may go wrong and a nation which, from the inherent nature of things, must ever be right. It would sound pedantic for him to say, “my nation, indicatively right or subjunctively wrong (contrary to fact), my nation!” Indeed, to the national state are now popularly ascribed infallibility and impeccability. We moderns are prepared to grant that all our fellow countrymen may individually err in conduct and judgement, but we are loath to admit that our nation as a whole can make mistakes. We are willing to assail the policies and even the characters of some of our politicians, but we are stopped by the faith that is in us from doubting the Providential guidance of our national state. This is the final mark of the religious nature of modern nationalism.
"The most impressive fact about the present age is the universality of the religious aspects of nationalism. Not only in the United States does the religious sense of the whole people find expression in nationalism, but also, in slightly different form but perhaps to an even greater degree, in France, England, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Russia, the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, the Balkans, Greece, and the Latin-American republics. Nor does the religion of nationalism thrive only on traditionally Christian soil; it now flourishes in Japan, Turkey, Egypt, India, Korea, and is rearing its altars in China. Nationalism has a large number of particularly quarrelsome sects, but as a whole it is the latest and nearest approach to a world-religion. ...
"I would not have anyone gather from what I have said that I condemn nationalism because it is an expression of man's “religious sense.” I am too convinced a believer in the inherently religious character of man to make light of religion; and to condemn nationalism because it depends on religious emotion would seem to me as futile as to condemn vegetation because it thrives on sunlight. I would suggest, however, that there are many, many ways in which man may express his religious sense, and that religious emotion, like any other instinctive emotion, is always susceptible and often needful of conscious direction and control. Some forms of religion are superior to others, and when we recognise the religious nature of modern nationalism we have still to ask ourselves whether it is the form or religion most conducive to human betterment.
"Most great religious systems of the past have been unifying, rather than disintegrating, forces in the history of the human race. ... Modern nationalism, while evolving customs and ceremonies which externally are very reminiscent of rites and practices of Christianity, has developed quite a different spirit, and set itself quite a different goal. Despite the universality of the general concept of nationalism, its cult is based on a tribal idea and is, therefore, in its practical manifestations, peculiar to circumscribed areas and to persons of the same language. The good at which it aims is a good for one's own nation only, not for all mankind. The desires which it inspires in an Englishman or a German or a Japanese are not the same as the desires which it inspires in a Frenchman, a Pole, or an American. ...
"Nationalism as a religion inculcates neither charity nor justice; it is proud, not humble; and it signally fails to universalise human aims. It repudiates the revolutionary message of St. Paul and proclaims anew the primitive doctrine that there shall be Jew and Greek, only that now there shall be Jew and Greek more quintessentially than ever. Nationalism's kingdom is frankly of this world, and its attainment involves tribal selfishness and vainglory, a particularly ignorant and tyrannical intolerance, - and war."