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Nationalism is the ideological component of loyalty to the entity known as nation. Each nation thus has its own "ism" or as one scholar has put it, "Nationalism is what nationalists have made it." A comprehensive notion of nationalism will be based on the study of how it is expressed in each individual national movement and how this doctrine changes in the course of time.

In the past nationalism was often seen as a cultural and psychological phenomenon. Hans Kohn called it "first and foremost a state of mind, an act of consciousness ... the individual's identification of himself with the 'we-group' to which he gives supreme loyalty." More recently scholars, e.g., John Breuilly, emphasize that "nationalism should be seen as a political movement seeking or exercising state power and justifying such actions with nationalist arguments."

Whether French, Canadian, Brazilian, Kenyan, Indian, Russian, or American, the national idea includes a number of common components. There is first of all the notion that humanity is divided into nations, that each nation has its own peculiar character, that the source of political power is this collectivity, that its interests and values take priority over all other interests and values, and that nations find fulfillment in their own state organization. Nationalism is the ideology of the "nation as state."

Not all nations become states. There is such a phenomenon as cultural nationalism which may or may not include a home territory. There will surely be common cultural characteristics. Nationalism is not the product of nature but of history. At most we can talk about nationalism since the 15th century. There is some evidence that "its day has largely passed" given the increasing global character of contemporary politics and culture.

Nationalism as defined here emerged clearly in 17th and 18th century Europe. This set of beliefs developed as governments assumed a more dynamic relationship with the peoples within the borders of the state. Monarchs cultivated the support of the people. People within a given area began to think of themselves in political terms, as participatory citizens. Modern technology made possible more rapid forms of communication and transportation, making larger political entities possible. The church, which was in many ways the primary institution for most Europeans, lost its prestige during the course of the religious conflicts and in the face of the growing attraction of scientific and secular ideas. The nation rather than the church increasingly became "a collective personality, a true mystical body" which supplied the emotion to complement the abstractions of Enlightenment political ideas. The American and French Revolutions were important movements when nationality and nationalism were harnessed in the formation of new or renewed political units.

In the course of time nationalism has changed its character. From the 17th to the 20th century nationalism moved from being essentially an aristocratic and elite concept to one involving the entire public. Local and regional loyalties tended to diminish in favor of larger entities as the Germanism became one state, Italy was united, and, after World War I, the Eastern European nations arose out of fallen Austrian and Turkish empires.

Nationalism can be categorized as "liberal" (from liberal in its 19th century meaning: free) or constitutional in contrast to "integral" or authoritarian. The tendencies are present in all nationalisms and that which prevails is determined to a great degree by historical experience. The nationalism which strongly espouses personal freedoms, an open political structure, and representative government, has predominated in Western Europe and North America. But the cult of the nation which is belligerent, expansive, intolerant, racist, and militaristic prevailed in the Axis powers of World War II. Groups driven with similar values exist in almost every national state and become the essential ingredients of Fascism and what Latin Americans call the "National Security State."

A significant change in the history of nationalism has been the movement of this ideology from Europe to the world. Instead of 10 or 20 nationalisms, in the late 20th century there are 160 or more. Sometimes this post-World-War-II phenomenon is called the "new" nationalism. What is new is primarily the location of these movements outside Europe and North America.

This nationalism has been intrinsically anti-imperial, anticolonial, and, to a considerable degree, anti-Western. Egyptian President Nasser in 1965 stated it sharply. "Whenever we look behind, we do so to destroy the traces of the past, the traces of slavery, exploitation, and domination." These nationalisms are not necessarily spontaneous or self-generating movements. Rather, they focus on getting rid of the alien intruder and asserting a rediscovered or newly created identity.

A second essential of the new nationalism is its revolutionary character. The older nationalism grew slowly along with and frequently after a unified state was created. The new nationalism, an idea largely picked up under imperial tutelage, has to develop the very stuff of nationhood itself and assume power quickly. A whole new set of relationships needs to be established and older ones diminished or destroyed. The loyalties of a traditional society (modernity), which are religious, racial, familial, tribal, or caste, now have to be reoriented to follow territorial boundaries. But the first priority is to develop a sense of nationality and the structures of nationhood.

The impact of the West on the new nationalism has been enormous. This has included the idea of the nation and more than that the territorial entities themselves. It was the imperialists who created an Algeria where there was once the Barbary Coast. As recently as 1947, Chief Awolowo pled with the British to abandon their idea of unitary state. "Nigeria," he said, "is not a nation. It is a mere political expression. There are no 'Nigerians' in the same sense that there are 'English,' 'Welsh' or 'French'."

It is worth noting that much of the hostility to the West expressed by the new nationalism resulted from a revulsion at Europe's failure to live up to its own ideals. The notion of human equality was crushed in the racism of the conquerors. The notion of political freedom was drowned in the repression of the freedom movements. The notion of humanity and fraternity were overwhelmed by the brutality of war.

Nationalism in the Two-Thirds World has had to deal in a special way with the plural or communal quality of many societies. Linguistic and religious differences have been especially difficult obstacles in the way of establishing a national state. While the anticolonial movement was led by liberal nationalists, increasingly a more narrow, intolerant mentality has emerged. The drive for religious states -- Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian -- reflects a push for a strong national identity but has also given rise to profound internal and external tensions. Wherever one explores the religious situation today one important ingredient will be the power and style of the nationalism present.

Nationalism has to be an important concern for the Christian church which is committed to a world created by God and a redeemed humanity which transcends national, racial, and cultural divisions. A beginning place for exploring the Christian task in a nationalistic world is to recognize the Christian source of many nationalistic ideas -- certain beliefs about humans, the chosen people, equality, justice, freedom and the vision of a brighter future. In addition, the importance Christians placed on history is the root of much national historical consciousness. Many of these ideas, particularly in the Third World, were nurtured in Christian schools, as any roll call of nationalist leaders can attest.

Nationalism is not merely an interpretation of reality, or an explanation of nationality, or even a lust for power. It represents a deeply felt need on the part of modern men and women to belong, to be affiliated. It offers hope of a meaningful life and relief from frustration and fear.

More than this it is also necessary to recognize the interesting role of nations in the biblical record. Nations appear to be part of the natural order (Genesis 10) as well as a punishment for human pride and self-sufficiency (Genesis 11). The nations are judged but they are also pictured as bringing their glory and honor into the city of God (Revelation 21:24-26). There are legitimate aspirations for a people to control their own lives in freedom, with justice and equality. The church in Canada, Tanzania, and India among other places, is properly concerned for national wellbeing. Indian Christians in 1960 said that "Christians, if loyal to their faith, should be fully involved in the nation's concern to be truly a nation, exercising its vocation as a nation among nations, and safeguarding its integrity against disruptive forces from within or without." Others feel a certain national consciousness is necessary for the church to be aware of its local identity in order to be responsibly missionary.

Mennonites have experienced nationalism and its effects wherever they have lived in the modern world. Americanization, Prussianism, Russiafication have helped to stimulate outward migrations and a thorough evaluation of how a self-conscious church relates to nationalizing forces. Missionaries and service workers in China, India, Zaire, and Tanzania, among other places, have had to cope with nationalist movements.

Nationalism has many of the characteristics of a religion. In many cases traditional faiths merge with national faiths in what has been called in recent times a "civil religion." Then the tension with the political order becomes conflict over the essentials of the faith itself.

Nationalism as a political phenomenon needs to be constantly evaluated and critiqued first by its own standards but also by the values of the Christian church. Does it promote peace, harmony, justice, mutual respect, fraternity, and well-being, or does it contribute to alienation, discrimination, conflict, and violence? Within the universal church itself every effort must be made to build connections to overcome the boundaries of national identities.


Breuilly, John. Nationalism and the State. 1985.

Epp, Frank H. Mennonite Peoplehood. Waterloo, 1977.

Forman, Charles W. The Nation and the Kingdom. 1964.

Isaacs, Harold R. The Idols of the Tribe. 1975.

Shafer, Boyd C. Faces of Nationalism. 1972.

Smith, Anthony D. Theories of Nationalism. 1971.

Author(s) John A Lapp
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Lapp, John A. "Nationalism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 May 2024.

APA style

Lapp, John A. (1989). Nationalism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 619-620. All rights reserved.

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