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In Today’s World, Is Nationalism a Sin?

Was St. John Paul II a nationalist — and if so, was he a racist or perhaps even a Nazi?

That absurd and shocking question is meant to highlight the illogical and inflammatory links established by many today if the answer to the first question is, yes, he was a nationalist.

Karol Wojtyla — St. John Paul the Great — was a proud son of Poland. He certainly lived the positive definition of nationalism as being "loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness." As a loyal and devoted son of his native space, he also exhibited "vigorous support" for his country; in other words, he was a patriot.

He loved his fatherland, the history and culture of his country, all that was good about the nation of his birth and patrimony. He wrote that "patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land." That is a broad brush stroke that could certainly be called nationalism and today possibly something more unpleasant.

There is much talk about nationalism — economic, cultural, and the whole question of national boundaries or borders. For many on the Left, the very idea of national boundaries and culture is an ugly concept, reeking of racism and "Western" cultural imperialism.

But it's not just the Left. It's perhaps even more the global elites who now control business, academia, and much of the media, and enjoy the promotion of the false narrative of being "citizens of the world." They are unencumbered by the tired concepts of nationality, common culture, and history — and, even worse, the very idea of "loyalty and devotion" to the nation of their birth.

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This is what underpins the vitriol that has been extended toward those in the United Kingdom who voted to leave the artificial and undemocratic "Euro State" known as the EU. It is also the same anger and prejudice that has been directed at the Trump administration, and in particular the ideological underpinning of the "America First" doctrine expounded principally by Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist.

It is curious to hear an American being called a racist or a neo-Nazi for being a patriot. I remember how, not long after I arrived in the U.S. in 1999, I was asked to conduct the funeral of a veteran. As is common practice at such a burial, full military honors were given, and the American flag was presented to the wife of the deceased. That's nothing to comment on, American readers might think. However, as an Englishman brought up in the prevailing culture of the 1970s, the very display of the flag of St. George marked one out as, at the very least, a right-wing thug or a soccer hooligan — at the worst, a member of the neo-Nazi "National Front."

To see the reverence and devotion to the flag — the almost sacramental treatment involved in the ceremony — was quite stunning. The "front-porch patriotism" of small-town America, is still, thank God, so prevalent. And yet it is so despised by those who talk of folks who "cling to their guns and their religion" and speak of anywhere other than Manhattan or Los Angeles as a "flyover state" — that simple, reverent, devotional love for country that is quite unashamed and which I still find so moving and unusual.

The "strange things," said G.K. Chesterton, are "cosmopolitan, the common things are national and peculiar." That is the reason people travel — to see the shops, the clothes, the "peculiar" things of another culture. To love all those things of one's native space is not sinful, but necessary.

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The things that bind a people together, including the shared national memory that we call a nation's history — and to take pride and pleasure in them, and to seek to preserve them — is not "Alt-Right" or racist. It is beautiful and inspiring. That pride in native space includes national boundaries and borders, without which democracy is imperiled, as Sir Roger Scruton has written: "Democracy needs boundaries, and boundaries need the nation state."

The right of a nation to have borders and to enforce them, and to require those who wish to enter to do so legally, is neither contrary to the Christian faith nor uncharitable or inhuman. If nationalism includes a sense of "national consciousness" — which engenders both loyalty and devotion, as it did in the case of St. John Paul — it might be worth asking both to whom, or to what, are those who have no national consciousness.

Nationalism can never be "my country, right or wrong" — that invariably leads to despotism.

Where nationalism can go wrong, Saint John Paul said, is if "the good of one's own nation alone" is pursued, without "regard for the rights of others." Roger Scruton would also argue that nationalism as an ideology is dangerous, if it "occupies the space vacated by religion," when the nation is worshipped as a thing in itself.

Those two distinctions or gentle warnings about extreme nationalism — typified of course by Nazi Germany, where the nation was indeed deified — in no way characterize the nationalism of the United States, or the desire of the British people who, in voting for Brexit, voted for national sovereignty. The desire to secure employment for one's citizens, to prioritize the goods and the needs of the native people, and to defend the nation from foreign aggression, can hardly be said to be occupying the "space vacated by religion."

Even populism, invariably linked today with nationalism, can be seen if properly understood to be an entirely righteous corollary of patriotism and national loyalty. To believe in the virtues of the common people or one's own people, and to seek to promote their rights, is not, as Pope Francis told the German newspaper, Die Zeit, "evil" — or even, as he told the heads of the European Union, the "fruit of an egotism that hems people in."

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Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute has asked the question of whether the current pontiff sees populism as good if it has a "left-wing flavor," but "essentially wicked" if it has a "right-wing flavor."

Nationalism can never be "my country right or wrong" — that invariably leads to despotism. Perhaps, once again as he so often did, Chesterton gives us both the definition of a true nationalist and a patriot: "That essential madness is the idea that the good patriot is the man who feels at ease about his country." That, he said, is not a patriot but a "courtier, an upholder of present conditions."

A patriot, Chesterton said, is a "discontented man." By that definition, Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage in England, and yes, President Donald Trump, are discontented men — or patriots.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.