Nationalism exists in two major strains: ethnic-religious and civic. Anabaptists should embrace the civic version, reject the ethnic-religious variety and subject Christian nationalism to a theological critique that makes resistance possible.
U.S. Christian nationalism has been shaped by both the civic and ethnic-religious strains. These two notions of national identity have long been in a battle.
For many years, the Democratic Party called itself the party of white people, and southern Democrats seceded from the Union and fought to protect slavery. After the Civil War, the Republican Party embraced, though timidly, multiethnic democracy and racial equality.
Today the parties have flip-flopped. Democrats have embraced and intensified the former Republican ideals, while a Trump-led Republican Party has largely become the party of white grievance, ready to condone armed attacks against the Union, as seen in the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
(The United States is not the only nation convulsed by a battle between ethnic-religious and civic nationalism. India, Russia, Indonesia and Israel are other examples, with civic nationalism on the defensive.)
Ethnic nationalists say the state belongs to or should be guided by one dominant ethnic group and its religion and language. Anyone else is suspect at worst, tolerated at best.
Civic nationalists affirm that governing institutions, not race or religion, form the basis of the state. They affirm that a commitment to overarching ideals — freedom, civil rights, equality before the law — makes a multiethnic democracy possible, even necessary.
Ethnic nationalism often blends with religious nationalism, raising a nation-state to an exalted status. In the case of a very powerful nation, such as the United States, it also often claims a mandate to dominate as much of the world as it can.
A British official once declared his nation’s empire “under Providence, the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen.” Proponents of U.S. exceptionalism today make claims with a similar religious resonance.
Why should Anabaptists in the United States embrace civic nationalism and reject ethnic-religious nationalism?
First, the civic nationalist ideal is closer to an inclusive Galatians 3:28 vision (“There is no longer Jew or Greek . . .”) than is an ethnic-religious ideal that would grant special privileges and status to white Christians. Religious-ethnic white nationalism can only further divide a country of increasing ethnic and religious diversity.
Second, Mennonites have aimed, over the past century, to overcome, through mission and service outreach, the confines of a Germanic ethnic identity. Rekindling and spreading Anabaptist ideals as the root of our Christian identity has been a big part of that. Anabaptist identity should be rooted in convictions and ideals, not any ethnic requirement. Why not the same for citizens of the country?
Third, Mennonites have a long experience as a religious minority, sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated. This should make us attentive to the harm of subjecting non-Christian minorities — excluded by Christian nationalism — to similar treatment. The language of civil rights and equal protection under the law (the 14th Amendment) should inform our commitments to all our fellow citizens.
So, if civic nationalism is preferable to ethnic-religious nationalism, how shall we resist U.S. Christian nationalism?
First, we must challenge the self- congratulatory idea of American exceptionalism. Every nation thinks itself exceptional in its own way, but no nation gets to choose only the most flattering aspects of its own self-image. The U.S. version includes rampant mass shootings and gun suicides, made possible by high levels of gun ownership; high numbers of prisoners working essentially as slaves; high levels of military spending — $877 billion in 2022, more than the next 10 countries of the world combined; and a lack of national health coverage. These are but a few of the regrettable dimensions of our exceptionalism that call out for redress, not pride.
Second, Anabaptists and Mennonites should continue to resist the temptation to view any state — including the United States, with “under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” as its national motto — as the primary vehicle for God’s work in the world. As Scripture makes clear, God is able to use any state or ruler for the exalting or humbling of nations. No state, nation or ruler has a corner on God’s favor.
Third, we must not confine the church within the boundaries of a nation. Just as the United Nations attempts to promote cooperation among states, so, too, should our international fellowship — of which Mennonite World Conference is perhaps the best expression — expand our horizons, spiritual belonging and moral duty beyond national boundaries.
J Robert Charles of Brooklyn, N.Y., is a member of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship. He teaches history and politics at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.