Friday, August 10, 2018

Book Review: The Construction of Nationhood - Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism by Adrian Hastings

The following 6000 word essay by A. Joseph Lynch is long. The book is complex but Hastings’ historical knowledge and insights are indispensable in understanding nationalism. Many will not read a book that grows out of an African scholar reflecting on European history, thus we have chosen a long review to be an intermediary to his work.

Henry Kissinger noted in his book On China that while Western Europeans fled the nation state after World War II, the Asian nations embraced the form. Western Europe developed an anti-national ideology, blaming their century of war on nationalism. Eastern Europeans spent a half century as captive nations and when they were set free they relished their identities as positive goods, not the source of their troubles. Nations as nations are a lot like men as men. They have had a lot of bad press lately, and yet their historical maturation is the story of Christian civilization. This story has been largely lost due to the wide acceptance of a revisionist history that has replaced Christian civilization with “Western” civilization.

The grand narrative of Western civilization is very different from that of Christian civilization. Its worldview is rooted in the radical autonomy of the individual rights bearer, not the communal covenants that have bound men together for centuries into nations and religion. It celebrates the Reason of the Enlightenment expelling tradition more than the Light of Christ illuminating the darkness. It celebrates the Greek philosophers and “Judaic-Christian values” over the Theology of a Living God creating nature and entering history through the Christian church and the Jewish nation. The history of the West culminates in political Darwinism, atheist Marxism, and the sexual revolution. Rather than taking responsibility for the suicidal destructiveness its ideology has spawned, its defenders insidiously blamed religion and the nations for the world’s historic woes. Anti-national Western modernist and especially Marxist commentators have thus criticized the nation as an “imagined community” that developed out of Enlightenment thinking very late in man’s history. According to this view, the nation and nationalism were created by powerful rulers as inspiration for its people to fight, conquer, and enrich the wealthy and the powerful. The nations, they argue, led man into both world wars and near nuclear annihilation. In a new era of global governance, the short-lived era of the nation is coming to a much-deserved end.

This anemic and cynical view of the nation remained dominant for many years with few scholars offering a defense of the nation against the globalist and Marxist worldview. Adrian Hastings’ (d. 2001) The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism, however, offers just such a defense by exploring the process through which a people develops from an ethnic group into a nation-state. Born of British parents in Kuala Lumpur, raised in England, and ordained a Catholic priest in Uganda, Fr. Adrian Hastings formed his arguments by encountering an array of peoples organized by tribe, ethnicity, nation, and nation states. As an African missionary, he witnessed the impact that biblical and liturgical translation had on national development. As a theologian and historian with deep English roots, he saw what today’s globalist, anti-national scholars miss: that Christianity from the time of the middle ages not only brought whole ethnic groups into the universal corporate body of Christ, but it also encouraged the transformation of those peoples into the territorial civic form of nationhood based on the prototype nation - biblical Israel.

Hastings' work is a monumental contribution to the recovery of Christian civilization, its history, and its impact on man’s political life. We hope the reader recognizes in the following summary the important threads that contribute to the re-emergence of Christian civilization and the potential for peaceful fraternity among nation-states under God.

The nations of the world. Hastings helps explain their rise and why so many of them have a significant Christian population (pink) or a Christian majority (purple)

From Ethnicity to Nationhood

As the title of the book suggests, ethnicity plays an important role in Hastings’ understanding of national development. This fact may lead the hasty critic to assume that he proposes an ethno-nationalist worldview – which, according to the critic, would be tantamount to racism. While it is true that many American ethno-nationalists hold a race-based form of nationalism, Hastings’ emphasis on ethnicity has little to do with race or skin color. Rather, he defines the ethnic group as a group of people with a shared cultural identity and spoken language: “By ethnicity, I mean the common culture whereby a group of people share the basics of life… how roles are divided between men and women… the rituals of birth, marriage, and death, the customs of courtship… history and myths… All this as shared through a spoken language.” An ethnic group could of course be comprised of members from one race, but race itself does not act as an ethnicity’s primary differentiating characteristic. Africa provides a good example of this. The peoples of Africa may share the same skin color, but ethnic groups vary greatly in language with dozens of linguistically distinct ethnic groups living within close proximity of each other.

Although Hastings defines ethnic groups primarily by their culture and shared language, he also emphasizes the role of language in dividing one ethnic group from another. Man is a creature of the spoken word and his unity is largely dependent on a common language. Language itself comes in three forms: oral, written, and universal languages. Oral languages – spoken only aloud and not in writing – are the languages of ethnic groups. These languages are highly fluid, subject to rapid changes which lead to new dialects and eventually new languages. Written language plays a vital role of fixing an oral language in a permanent form, thus reducing its inherent fluidity and its tendency to spawn new oral languages. He contrasts England with the written English bible and France with a language employed in international diplomacy but absent in large parts of the French countryside.

Universal languages, on the other hand, are employed across a vast territory so they can act as the language of international diplomacy (e.g. French) or religion (e.g. Latin). They are less likely to unify a local people within fixed national boundaries. Hastings argues that only written languages foster national development. He further observed that this particular form of written language fosters multi-ethnic nations precisely because it diminishes the bonds between language and ethnicity. It does this by gradually displacing other oral languages as the primary vehicle of communicating truth, especially religious truth. To return to the African example, the selection of a particular oral language for use of a biblical translation in turn led to the adoption of that language among neighboring ethnic groups who were evangelized with that translation. Here religion and the written word helped relieve the barriers that oral languages placed between the ethnic groups, giving multiple ethnic groups a new common identity open to an eventual national identity. As Hastings describes it:
“…ethnicities naturally turn into nations or integral elements within nations at the point when their specific vernacular moves from an oral to written usage to the extent that it is being regularly employed for the production of literature, and particularly for the translation of the Bible. Once an ethnicity’s vernacular becomes a language with an extensive living literature of its own, the Rubicon on the road to nationhood appears to have been crossed. If it fails to pass that point – and most spoken vernaculars do fail that hurdle – then transformation to nationhood is almost certain never to take place.”
Despite this important step in the construction of nationhood, the development and wide use of a written vernacular alone is not enough to forge a nation. A deeper civic identity is needed. This identity can be fostered slowly through the development of a people’s shared history, nurtured through a common faith, narrated by a common language, and defended by a shared military organization. It can be developed by a shared memory of communal humiliation answered by a communal assertion. (“France was humiliated by England and Germany by the French.”)  It can also develop rapidly as the result of an external threat. Hastings emphasizes the “deep horizontal comradeship” felt not merely between subjects of a sovereign, but between citizens of all social classes within a common nation standing above the state and to which the state is answerable. This experience of conscious national citizenship is the deeply unifying bond without which a nation cannot exist. In Hastings words: “A nation exists when a range of its representatives hold it to exist – clergy, farmers, lawyers, merchants, writers, as well as members of a court or cabinet. The more people of a variety of class and occupation share in such consciousness, the more it exists.” Hastings also recognizes the natural corollary to this: the less such civic consciousness exists, the less the nation itself exists. The dangers of narrowing our conception of citizenship to self-interested rights bearers should be apparent.

The broad experience of “deep horizontal comradeship” among citizens naturally leads to patriotism, the generation of social capital, and – most importantly – nationalism. A King can foster nationalism if his rule engenders common sensibilities and loves. Absolutism and a lack of territorial limits by the king are characteristics of despots that retard the development of national identity. Nationalism is essential to the final step in the construction of nationhood: the establishment of a nation-state. Hastings defines nationalism as a communal movement that a nation should have its own state (i.e. a government able to act with authority on behalf of its citizens within a fixed territory). Consider the Kurds of the Mideast. The Kurdish people are certainly ethnically distinct from neighboring Arabs, Turks, and Persians. They are religiously distinct from the nearby Shiites of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They have a storied history that includes the great Kurdish warrior, Saladin. Their population is geographically contiguous, stretching from northwest Iran, through northern Iraq, across eastern Syria, and into southeast Turkey. Despite this, the Kurdish nation does not have its own nation-state. The eventual fate of the Kurds is difficult to predict. One might think that as Kurdish nationalism continues to strengthen, the emergence of a Kurdish nation-state becomes more likely. Yet a nation-state cannot exist without both territory and borders – and it is highly unlikely that the Kurds alone would be able to defeat its region’s powers to win independence. It is much more likely that pressure will be put on a nation’s Kurds to identify with the larger nation to which that group of Kurds belong (i.e. the policy of Iran and Iraq) or face stricter penalties for failure to integrate (i.e. the policy of Turkey).

The path from ethnicity to nationhood is narrow, arduous, and often-times futile. While every ethnicity has the potential for nationhood, most will never achieve this status. Many of those that do – as demonstrated by the Kurds– will be unable to mount the kind of strength needed to transform their nationality into a self-governing nation-state. Yet even the few nations that are able to become nation-states are not guaranteed survival. Nation-states like Poland have disappeared from the map more than once while nations whose citizens no longer experience a “deep horizontal comradeship” are just as sure to fail.

The Nation is not a Modern Phenomena

Hastings accuses the modernists of being “weak on hard history.” His work, on the other hand, is laced with the particular interplays of ethnicity, language, military threats, and religion which forge national identities and then nation-states. His historical narrative begins with biblical Israel, takes shape during the middle ages, and culminates with the nation on a global level by the twentieth century. His powerful, learned medieval narrative of several nations starkly rebuts today’s globalist and Marxist theoriticians who claim the nation is of modern origin.

By locating the prototypical nation in biblical Israel – as does Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony (author of The Virtue of Nationalism) – the reality of the nation is rooted in ancient history and deeply tied to religion. Such a view also places the nation, with its territorial and cultural limits, in contrast with man’s tendency to form universalizing empires. The sheer number and scale of ancient empires is such that it is impossible to overstate the uniqueness of Israel’s national experience. From Israel’s formation out of twelve tribes, through its exodus from Egypt, to its conquest of the promised land, to its destruction and dispersal, and now in the reemergence of its religious-political organization, one cannot help but recognize divine providence at work. Even God’s hand was evident in the loss of Israel’s statehood. Israel failed to keep the covenant it made with the God and lost the territorial expression of its corporate existence. What is perhaps more miraculous is the fact that even as it lost its state, a remnant of Israel kept faith in God. This allowed it to survive, not as a mere ethnic group, but as a religious nation which lacked a state. 

As an oral language becomes a written language, its fluidity is limited and its vocabulary becomes fixed. Widespread vernacular literature, used particularly for religious and legal texts, diffuses the written language to a much wider, yet still limited, territory. Religion, law, and custom shape the culture of a people, helping to forge them into a nation.

Even in exile, Israel was a light to the nations as their national experience was recounted to the myriad of peoples to whom the Bible was proclaimed by Christian missionaries. What shape would the history of humanity have taken without the ecclesial body inaugurated in the New Testament proclaiming the narrative of the national body described in the Old? The nations of the world would have been swallowed by the warring empires – as happened to biblical Israel in its nadir. As providence would have it, the Christianizing peoples of western Europe needed to re-build civilization following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. They imitated the national model they had internalized while absorbing the drama of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. They found in biblical Israel a free unity of people, language, religion, territory, and government. Israel as a chosen nation, called and set apart by God, made it, in Hastings’ words, “an all too obvious exemplar for Bible readers of what every nation too might be.”

Given the fall of Christian north Africa to Islam and eastern Europe’s dominance by the Byzantine Empire, it is unsurprising that Hastings begins his national narrative with the far-flung nation of England. Physically separated from the continent in space yet linked to it by its Christian faith, England – and its medieval historical experience – was ideal for national development. Here Hastings begins by examining the English language and traces some etymological history of the word nation. The English word nation comes from the Latin word natio from which is also derived the English words nativity and natal. A nation in the Roman sense was thus a group of people born together. For the Roman, “nation” was a term best applied to tribal peoples – a family writ large – while words like “populus” and “civitas” were more appropriate for civilized peoples. As natio became nacion and nacioun in early English translations of the Bible dated to the 1300s, the conception of the nation was transformed with it. By the year 1140, an English bishop described the nation to the pope, not as the family writ large, but as a “people distinct by language, laws, habits, modes of judgement and customs.” Reference to “government” was added to the definition by 1755 as nation-states began to emerge, each with their own form of government asserting political authority throughout the nation’s territory.

The English nation emerged from the convergence of several ethnic groups – Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Normans – who met, fought, and converted in the old Romano-Celtic lands of southern Britain. Hasting’s narrative begins with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written for one of England’s small kingdoms yet encompassing the history of all peoples in what would become England. The distinct kingdoms of early medieval England brought political division, yet the unity of the Christian faith transcended political borders and established the nucleus of a national English identity. Hastings sees the emergence of an English nation state as the result of the Viking conquest of all but one kingdom and the rise of Alfred the Great (d 899A.D.). Defending against the threat of Viking conquest rapidly enhanced the felt horizontal loyalty among the English, Alfred’s codification of law, support of the Church, use of the political-military Witan, and expansion of coinage and commerce played a vital role in creating the institutions of the English state. By the early eleventh century, the horizontalist bonds were deepened by local political organizations – shires and boroughs – which could hold courts and establish local militia forces called fyrds. Insofar as the shires and boroughs were neither tribal (based on families) nor feudal (based on lord-vassal relationships), both were able to cultivate a civic sense of unity among unrelated citizens of every class. These territorial bonds became the developmental basis for parliament. The sense of citizenship within a territorial people rather than subjects to a common Lord lead to the spirt of the Magna Carta in which the authority of the English monarchy is limited by the laws and customs of the nation.

The story of the English nations begins with the migration and conversion of Germanic tribes (left) and their subsequent union under King Alfred the Great during Viking invasion. Depicted in the center is a picture of Alfred the peacemaker acting as godfather during the baptism of a vanquished Viking foe. The eleventh century Norman Conquest infused England with an aggressive form of nationalism and gave England its nationalizing weapon: the Longbow (right).

Crisis anew came with the Norman Conquest of 1066 – yet the Norman conquerors were themselves assimilated into the English nation. They gave the English their nationalizing weapon: the longbow. Through use of the longbow, common men with their king become a “band of brothers” who defeated noble armies of armored Knights on the continent during the Hundred Years War. The Normans also infused a new form of aggressive nationalism into the English nation. This late- or second-stage form of nationalism differs from the early- or first-form of nationalism (i.e. one that seeks to establish of a state for a nation or defend a nation state from threat) in that it seeks the expansion of the nation state and risks re-establishing the nation on an imperial basis. This second form of nationalism is open to conquest and destruction. It is often the stage of nationalism the critics of nationalism find so reprehensible. While it should be resisted, it often arises from the realization of one’s nation as chosen by God, set apart, and given a special purpose. Here religion plays a vital role in setting the nation’s course in keeping with divine providence. In the spirit of this second form of nationalism England’s formation of the Royal Navy overcame its natural territorial limits and forged the British Empire. Christianity spread through empire – but what really spread was the account of biblical Israel and the seeds of future nations.

While the story of England demonstrates how a group of ethnicities can be forged together into one nation, its narrative is incomplete without some reference to the Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Americans. The Welsh – whose name meant something like “the Compatriots” (a very horizontalist name if ever there was one) – were treated very differently by the English than were the Cornish of southwestern England. Where the imposition of the English language on the Cornish led to the eventual assimilation of the Cornish ethnicity into the English, the Welsh were allowed to maintain their own language in a written vernacular, govern with their own legal code, and pass on the memory of having been descended of the old Romano-Celts of the Roman Empire. Integrated into Great Britain, Wales would become a nation without having its own fully independent state. The early days of Scotland, on the other hand, witnessed a barely functioning state ruling over a people not yet identifying as a nation. Comprised of Gaelic-speaking Scots and Picts in the north and English-speaking British and Angles in the south, it took centuries for Scotland to forge itself into a nation state. Scotland’s war with England, while at the same time adopting many of its political institutions (like the borough), combined with the conversion to Calvinism, was pivotal to the construction of Scottish nationhood. The covenant of the new reformed churches without bishops here emerged as the civic covenant of citizens in a nation.

The story of Ireland is a religious ethnic tale as well. Although much more ethnically homogenous than Scotland, the Irish were more an ethnic group than a nation until external pressures from England began steadily forging Irish nationality. To Hastings account we may add the limits placed on nation formation due to the general lack of Irish urban life and the extensive use of Latin over Gaelic in both scripture and liturgy. Pope Hadrian IV (r. 1154-1159), the Church’s only English pope, gave rule of Ireland to the English – and with that rule came English settlers to Ireland. By the time of the Reformation, these bi-lingual English settlers had become too Irish for the English and still too English for the Irish. As post-Reformation “New English” came to Ireland to impose Protestantism, the “Old English” – who had remained Catholic – increasingly identified with the Irish. As the persecution continued, the “Old English” began to merge with the Irish, injecting the Irish with the spirit of nationalism they once held for England. Most importantly, the full integration of the “Old English” with the Irish forged a new national identity which Hastings calls the “New Irish.” Through its extensive use by Catholic priests, English soon replaced Gaelic as both the spoken and written word. Thus the pressures of English-Protestant persecution, combined with incorporating the “Old English” into the “New Irish” led to the forging of an Irish national identity and an eventual Irish nation-state.

Across the Atlantic, English settlers established the colonies that would become the United States. Hastings believes these proud English colonists viewed themselves as the “elect of the elect” who were set apart by God and called for a special purpose. They also thought of themselves as more English than the English, speaking the language better than those back home, reading from a common Bible found throughout the colonies, and educating themselves by use of the same dictionary. They certainly believed they were more Englishmen than the Welsh. That is why they were so angry that the Welsh were represented in Parliament while they were not. Hastings also notes the degree to which the Quebec Act – which granted religious tolerance to Catholics in the recently conquered French-Canada – alienated the staunchly Protestant and anti-Catholic colonists. Living far from England, with a more bellicose view of both Indian tribes across the Appalachian mountains and the Catholics of Quebec, a new set of loyalties and group consciousness arose among the Americans. It was only a matter of time before the Americans went their separate way.

The story of the nations then turns to the European continent. England’s success had proved “the superiority of a national over a dynastic state,” and France found itself by 1750 longing to become the final model of what a nation could become: the Grand Nation. Hastings finds the root of French nationalism in the French middle ages, where the French viewed themselves as a special and chosen people during the days of the Carolingian Empire. Language, however, hampered national development as neither Latin, the universal liturgical language, nor French, the international diplomatic language, fostered a common tongue among the masses. Hastings notes that French, even as late as the nineteenth century, was still not universally used as the national language. Ruled by an increasingly absolutist king and a knightly class open only to wealthy land owners, France also lacked the local political and military system of England. Nevertheless, Hastings notes that French identity was strong enough during the late middle ages for a peasant girl to rally Frenchmen to the nation’s defense. Like the Scots and the Irish, conflict with England – particularly after the loss of Quebec and India – helped fan the flames of nationalist France.

The national stories of both Germany and Italy were stunted by the Holy Roman Empire, which at times included all of what is today Germany and the northern part of Italy. Despite holding a German identity and speaking the German language, Hastings believed the Empire left Germany “trying to be more than a nation.” Sometimes if a nation is governed by too big a state, its own territorial development as a nation-state is stunted. Having no historic capital and nebulous borders, Germany turned increasingly to ethnic and language-based nationalism over territorial nationalism. German ethnic nationalism incorporated a strong racial component. Yiddish was a Germanic language and Lutheran Germany would make no sovereign covenant with the Jews. Racial purity became essential for excluding the Jews from the emerging nation unifying German speakers. Italy on the other hand was linguistically divided by a multiplicity of Italian dialects, and physical divided by an urban north, agrarian south, and a central core ruled by the Pope in Rome.

The Swiss and the Dutch owe much of their nationhood to the pike and the dike respectively. Isolated by the Alps, staunch adherents of Calvinism over Lutheranism, organized politically in local communities, and united as one man through the use of pike-phalanxes, the Swiss were the only German-speakers to opt out of the fledgling German nation. They had a territorial military identity that kept them free of the pan Germanic proposal. Like the Swiss, the Dutch Calvinists found themselves sandwiched between Catholic France and Lutheran Germany with a hostile ocean to their north. Beginning in the middle ages, Dutchmen began the labor-intensive yet horizontalizing efforts of building dikes to safeguard their lands from dangerous floodwaters. The adoption of Protestantism, combined with the publication of the Dutch New Testament in 1522, bolstered Holland into the ranks of nation status.

The Swiss pike (left) English longbow (right) and the were weapons that had a deeply horizontalizing effect, helping to create a common bond among a "band of brothers". 

Also included in The Construction of Nationhood is the troubling story of Yugoslavia and the South Slavs. Although much attention has been placed on the religious divisions impacting the region, Hastings sees the fighting more in terms of national identity. The peoples comprising the region are known as the South Slavs, a loose collection of varying ethnicities that entered the area around the same time. They spoke different languages and were what Hastings calls the “ethnographic raw material out of which nationalities could grow.” Had national unification occurred in the thirteenth century, it is possible the South Slavs could have become one nation in a way similar to what took place among the Angles, Saxons, Danes, and Jutes of England. At just this time, however civilizational fault lines between Catholicism and Orthodoxy brought the Croats into the Catholic fold while the Serbs became Orthodox. The arrival of Islam added a third religious layer to the divisions. Yet amidst the religious divisions an increasing sense of Slavic national identity developed. By 1920, as Yugoslavia was being created by Versailles, it was too late to form one nation from the emerging nations of the South Slavs. Bosnia, caught between Croatia and Serbia, suffered from the fracturing problem of the Christian schism. Its Christians worshipped either as Croats (if Catholic) or Serbs (if Orthodox). The future fate of Bosnia, according to Hastings, depends on forging a stronger Bosnian identity that transcends religious divides. 

Hastings concludes his case studies with a several different stories on the African continent. Ethiopia whose story is “un-African” was a minority tribe—the Amharic—converted to Christianity. They adopted a vernacular liturgy and a robust story of origins. Ethiopia was never conquered as a nation. The ethnic tribe and their cultivation of the King kept them unified though stratified through centuries of threats from more technologically advanced peoples. The Buganda kingdom in Uganda was a large subkingdom that developed a language of liturgy and religion but has remained a subkingdom (often oppressed). It has not formed the nucleus of the Ugandan political entity. Finally, the Yoruba of Nigeria are mostly Muslim but were heavily influenced by Christian native clergymen who translated the Bible into a common Yoruba language. This unified many ethnic towns in a common identity under that shared written language.  In Africa, says Hastings, the Muslims are always a universalizing force with Arabic an official shared liturgical prayer language becoming the shared public tongue to make larger groups. Paradoxically the Christian tendency to produce written texts for almost every ethnic group detracts from the ability of the written word to forge a larger entity. There is no Yoruba nation-sate. One exception is the most interesting story of Tanzania and the role of Swahili among both Muslims and Christians (who codified Swahili rather than ethnic dialects in the liturgy and their translated bible) as the binding element in the nation. That story includes too brief a profile of Julius Nyere the Catholic, Tanzanian “King Alfred for Africa”. Hastings leaves these case studies with a recitation that almost all state formation in post-colonial Africa was built on borders not defined by a dominant ethnic group. Thus organic national identities are still to be developed and the potential for larger states rests more with Muslims (and their emphasis on Arabic) than Christians. There could have been a serious conversation about the unifying possibilities of French and English but that was not his emphasis. In some ways thinking clearly about African ethnicities, languages, and mostly failed nations allowed Hastings to think most clearly about the European, Slavic and British nations. By observing the nascent stages of national development in Africa, he had the language and categories to more fruitfully describe the nations of Europe.

Christianity and the Construction of Nationhood

As if defending the nation and nationalism was not controversial enough, Hastings devoted an entire chapter to the positive role that religion, particularly Christianity, played in the construction of nationhood. Hastings proposes seven ways in which Christianity shaped nation formation. What’s more, he offers a contrast between the nation-building nature of Christianity with the flattening, anti-national tendencies of Islam and atheist globalism. Hastings insists: “The nation and nationalism are both, I wish to claim, characteristically Christian things which, in so far as they have appeared elsewhere, have done so [in] imitation of the Christian world…”  He adds “…the easy assumption that every religion is likely to have the same sort of political effect… is not so.” Hastings sees in Christianity seven ways the faith uniquely impacts the emergence of nation-states.

The first impact of Christianity on nation formation is Christianity’s sanctification of a nation’s origin. Be it the baptism and sanctification of a king, the role of a particular saint in a nation’s conversion, or the emergence of a nation as the result of religious warfare, Christianity bonds men in faith, communal memory  and civic fraternity. In commemoration of the baptism of St. Vladimir, Vladimir Putin spoke to the leading clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church in July 2018, speaking not merely of St. Vladimir’s baptism, but of the baptism of Russia itself: “Baptism was the starting point for the development of Russian statehood, the true spiritual birth of our ancestors, the definition of their identity, the heyday of national culture…” Words such as these demonstrate the continued power of Christianity's sanctification of a nation’s origins. (Chesterton said men did not make the original social contract to defend each other as individuals but they forged the original political compacts to defend some common place as sacred).   

The baptism of Clovis, St. Vladimir's conversion of the Kievan Rus, and the battle against invading Islam are examples of Christianity sanctifying the origins of France, Russia, and Serbia respectively.

A second impact of Christianity is the mythologizing and commemoration of great threats to national identity. Here we see remembered moments of national strife, where external or internal dangers threatened the nation’s existence. Hastings offers examples such as the Gunpowder Plot that threatened Protestant England, the threat of English armies that inspired St. Joan of Arc in medieval France, and the malevolent forces of Islam marching on Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Such national threats often involved a traitor, an existential danger, and an “us versus them” dichotomy that leads to strengthened fraternal and civic ties. Such remembrances – akin to the anamnesis of the liturgy – recall the past trauma, enhance patriotic fervor, and advance the spirit of nationalism. 

The socializing impact of clergy is a third Christian construct.  In segregating the discussion of clergy from their examination of political life, scholars, he argues, have often failed to recognize the deep impact the clergy had on bridging the divides between peasant and noble: “What a clergy with some education and status did in most medieval and early modern societies was to mediate identity between rulers and ruled.” While it is true the bishops of Church, tied to their brother bishops across national borders, tended towards promoting a universal social vision, we must recognize the work of the lower clergy at the local level. Hastings continues: “Linking the classes as the clergy did… they had an inevitable role, through their shared existence as well as through their ministry, in ensuring something of a collective consciousness between rich and poor, literate and illiterate, nobles and peasants. They were not in a narrow way simply teachers of religion, but also of history and much else… Village priests ensured that the articulation of a nation was shared by every class… the clergy simply by doing their job enhanced national consciousness through the widespread diffusion of vernacular literature…”

Christianity, fourthly, positively impacted the emergence of the nation by producing an extensive vernacular literature. Despite the Catholic Church’s long insistence on Latin, Christianity has never had a single sacred language. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, translated into the Greek Septuagint of the early Church, and later into the Latin Vulgate. The New Testament, written in Greek, was also translated into Latin. Yet the Bible has been translated into countless languages ever since. The early medieval pope, Nicholas the Great, supporter of the Slavic liturgy, decried the “Pilatist” notion that only Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were to be considered “sacred languages” useful for liturgy and scripture translation. The communication of the faith to people in their own languages, increasingly done via liturgical and scriptural translation, played a pivotal role in the emergence of national identity from one or more ethnicity.

Rejecting the "Pilatists" who limited the Church's sacred languages to Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, Pope Nicholas the Great blessed and affirmed the 9th century mission of brothers Sts. Cyril and Methodius and their Slavic liturgy. Hastings reminds us that in doing so, the Church not only promoted inculturation, but also nationalism.

The fifth impact, alluded to above, was the power of biblical Israel as a model of the nation-state that so fruitfully inspired the imaginations of a nation’s citizenry. To the extent that nations are “imagined communities” they are imagined on a biblical template—bordered territory, a written law, an established leadership, and a mutual widespread covenant of male blood shedding. The more nations accepted that template the more other peoples whose civilization were apart from the biblical tradition adopted the biblical form as their own. (Even China is no longer the Middle Kingdom with subjects but the Republic of China.) 

A sixth impact is the frequent emergence of a national autocephalous church. This was more characteristic of Christian nations in Protestant and Orthodox cultures than Catholic. It is deeply tied to the notion of a citizenry feeling they belong not only to a chosen civic people but also a chosen religious people. Ecclesial independence thus mirrored national liberty. 

A final impact of Christianity on the nation is the act of discovering a larger transcendental national purpose or destiny. In realizing itself as a chosen people, the nation discovers it has a role to play in the unfolding of divine providence and thus a reason for its being and a motive for all its activities, both at home and abroad. Tied closely to the Christian vision of divine economy and eschatology, the vocation of a Christian nation opens it to the plan of God and to fraternity with brother nations in peace or at war with evildoers. 

Religion Further Considered—Comparative Tendencies 

Hastings concludes his work with comparisons about nation building within the different forms of Christianity and Islam. He contrasts Christianity’s nation-building character with the anti-national tendencies of Islam and globalism. He sees Catholicism as particularly adept at maintaining the universal while fostering the national. He credits Protestants with not letting the national be swallowed in the larger forms. Thus Romans and Catholics bequeath the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Hapsburg era, and the European Union. Protestant state churches like Anglicanism and Lutheranism tend to set the particular nation state against the others. Calvinism and Protestant territorial covenants established the Dutch Republic, Cromwellian England, Knox’s Scotland, and the United States. 

Yoram Hazony notes that man tends much more readily to the establishing of universal empire than to the limited political bodies of nation-states. Failing to see and celebrate the various cultural expressions of the nations, man is too eager to impose upon his neighbors a political order he has arrived at on the local level. To be limited to the nation state is truly a gift and command from G-d. 

Hastings sees a perennial universalizing danger in Islam. In the case of Islam we find a religion based on a sacred language: Arabic. Yet the imposition of Arabic on the broader Muslim world is an implicit Arabicization of all Islamic peoples, regardless of their national backgrounds. Such moves have led to the revolts of pious Muslims, be they Persians, Turks, or others, against Arab elites. This is not to say that Islam cannot abide the nations, but that Islam itself does not tend towards nation creation. Indeed, the Salafism propagated by Saudi Arabia proposes the destruction of the nations and the return of the universal Islamic caliphate. Hastings does not deal with the interaction of nations with the other major ideology of our time—Western Globalism and secular atheism. Western critics of the nation-state come from this camp, “imagining” with John Lennon a world with no nations and no religions. For such moderns there is only the universal and the individual. The communal loyalties in between detracts from the universal and places unchosen obligations and restrictions on the individual. Hastings concludes his final reflections with Shakespeare’s wish that “a Roman and British ensign might wave friendly together”.  He thought there could be no “better conclusion to a study on nationalism” than that poetic desire for a mixing of the universal and national. 

Rather than "imagine" a world without nations or allow jihadists to re-establish the caliphate, let us celebrate the nation as the gift handed to us by biblical Israel and baptized by Christ. 

Continuing the Work of Adrian Hastings

This careful and complex work of a lifetime gives us a deeper understanding of the sinews that constitute nations. It teaches us to prepare for the emergence in Africa of functioning nation states—maybe many…  maybe not so many. We can best repay our debt to this great scholar by thinking more clearly about the interplay of ethnicity, language, war, and religion in the present identities and interplay of the nations. The capitalist-communist debate is exhausted. Let men seek the guidance of each nation’s guardian angel as we try to coordinate fraternity in a common destiny and reject the Darwinian lie that human beings are meant for perpetual war with one another. Living together as nations will leave us both blessed as peacemakers and worthy of being called the sons of God. Engaging this difficult and insightful book is one guide on our way.   

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