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Racism vs. Nationalism – The American Difference


Like the life of individual plants, the meaning of a word never entirely loses touch with its roots. The words “nation” and “nationalism”, for example. Since Donald Trump’s rise to be President of the United States, they have been much in evidence in American political discourse. Now we find ourselves embroiled in a furor over “race” and “racism”, plainly manufactured by President Trump’s more rabid opponents to damage, and if they have their way, bring down, his presidency. Is this just a coincidence?

As is often the case, the likely etymology of the word “nation” gives us a clue to ponder.

NATION c.1300, from O.Fr. nacion, from L. nationem (nom. natio) “nation, stock, race,” lit. “that which has been born,” from natus, pp. of nasci “be born” (Old L. gnasci; see genus). Political sense has gradually taken over from racial meaning “large group of people with common ancestry.” Older sense preserved in application to N.Amer. Indian peoples (1640s). Nation-building first attested 1907 (implied in nation-builder).

The fact that, in terms of its original meaning, the term “race” is included as a synonym for nation should give one pause. We immediately feel on more familiar ground when the text alludes to the “political sense” of the term. We’re used to that. It’s the sense the corresponds to our presumption. Of course, we immediately recognize that the original import of the word echoes through our history with reference to Native American peoples. But we are still feel reassured because in our present usage nationalism and racism are not synonymous.

If they were, we would hear an ominous undertone in one of the words most frequently used, throughout our history, to refer to the community we form together as a united people. Before the civil war, our representatives in politics commonly used the Constitution’s word “union” to refer to that community. In our collective guise, we were “the people of the United States”. It is a phrase that evokes the whole people, but not without also evoking the distinct States in which they live. Prior to the Civil War, most Americans thought of themselves in terms of those states—as Virginians, Pennsylvanians, Kentuckians, Texans and Californians.

It was no coincidence that, in the oft remembered first sentence of his most famous speech, President Lincoln departed from this usage: “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In the midst of a war that pitted brother against brother; and standing upon the scene of one of its most deadly battles, Lincoln spoke as if the people of the United States were of common descent, involved in a family quarrel. What sense did this make?

When Lincoln spoke, it made factual sense because the European population of the United States still largely consisted of descendants of people of English, African, Scottish, Dutch, French and German ancestry significantly present in the British colonies at the time of the Revolution. By the time of the Civil war, a smattering of Scandinavian, Spanish and some Chinese immigrants added to the mix. So, America was not yet the all-inclusive “people of many peoples” it has now become. Lincoln’s reference to common forebears thus made more literal sense than it would today.

Yet, in his speech about Afghanistan this week, President Trump said: “…all service members are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family; It’s called the American family.” And at the Democratic Convention Hillary Clinton extensively evoked emotional imagery of family love before she brought it home: “We lost my mother a few years ago. I miss her every day. And I still hear her voice urging me to keep working, keep fighting for right no matter what. That’s what we need to do together as a nation.”

It seems that the “political sense” of the word nation still rings with the overtones of family bonds relations—relations confirmed by recognizable traits and characteristics that reflect a common ancestry. Nationalism is the term we use to refer to this sense of common origins in a positive sense, meant to convey the bonds of love that are supposed to unite family members. Racism is the term we use to refer to it in a negative sense, which reflects the strange commingling of pride, ignorance and fear that unites family members against strangers whom they see as an existential threat.

These days even educated and thoughtful people like to pretend that this is as simple as the difference between hate and love. Families are bound and motivated by love. Races are bound and motivated by hate. But then the question intrudes itself: So, what of the human race? Why is it that the first globally all-encompassing political movement toward common action as human beings came, in the twentieth century, as people everywhere reacted, first against the devastation of global war; and then against the threat of universal annihilation from nuclear weapons? These threats seemed hateful to all because they threatened the existence of all. Doesn’t this reflect the core substance of hatred. What is hateful is what threatens our existence. We come together in the will to annihilate what will otherwise annihilate us. In this sense, we are moved by hate to annihilate what is hateful.

This seems problematic when the existential threat arises in other people. But what of disease, starvation and the death-dealing violence of nature? If someone offered to remove such threats from existence, would we refuse to aid and abet the extreme hatred thus displayed? In fact, that hatred fuels enormous efforts to eliminate these threats, efforts people of good will approve and support in whatever ways they can. We all understand what it means to hate such evils. We see nothing amiss in the implacable will that results from hating them. Oftentimes that hatred seems to offer a shortcut to unity among people who are otherwise reluctant to band together.

In the course of my lifetime the attraction of this shortcut has frequently been in evidence: As a nation, we have declared war on Poverty, Crime, Cancer, Hunger and other such foes of peace and life. We are loath to admit it, but focusing on what we fear and hate in common often seems the easier way to get us to set aside what we fear, and therefrom learn to hate, in one another.

In the decades since WWII, we Americans have all too often focused on the metaphor of war. This belies the fact that, as President Lincoln said, our nation was not conceived war, but in liberty. These days we mistake this as a reference to freedom, but liberty and freedom differ in this most important respect—freedom takes account of our will; liberty is the right use of freedom that takes account of the benevolent will of our Creator, God. Looking upon ourselves as beings of His Creation, we find the meaning of justice in His provisions for our good. We find our motives for action in the objects and objectives those provisions incline us to seek and choose. And we find the reasons for our self-government in the mutual regard without which we could not preserve and perpetuate ourselves.

Isn’t this mutual self-regard the well-spring of family life? Doesn’t it give rise to the paradigm of community amongst us, which begins in each individual’s responsibility to care for the life God has entrusted to us, the one that represents our responsibility to the whole of His Creation? Though, as a nation, we were born in strife, we were conceived in liberty, which is to say, in the self-conscious choice of right. Let the metaphor of birth remind us that this conception was never of ourselves alone, but of all who share in our humanity, together with whom we answer for the world God has entrusted to our care.

Thanks to the nature of our conception, we are a nation in a sense that looks beyond the circumstances of our birth, toward God’s hope inspiring intention for the good nature we share in common. Therefore, no human is simply a stranger to us; no threat or occasion of war tempts us to self-annihilation. Though we war against terror, we live beyond the fear of terrorism, secure in the knowledge that our vocation is for good. It implies the defeat of evil, but it is not defined by our opposition to evil.

For our call is to live up to the common heritage of humankind: To represent, as best we can, God’s good intention for the whole of His Creation. Our awareness of this vocation is what makes us human. But our free choice to follow it—which is true liberty—makes us something more, something fully understood by God alone. He will someday confide it to us, along with the secret name by which He calls us; and has called to us since the moment when He first conceived and invited us, to dwell in the inmost sanctuary of His Love.


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