Do you think of yourself as a patriot? A nationalist? What is the difference?

Is there any tension between being a nationalist or a patriot and seeking God’s kingdom?

As seen in Europe this summer

After his Tuesday speech at the UN, President Trump was again hit hard and often for being a nationalist. Why are so many so critical? Is it the same as love of country? As believing that America, among the nations of the world, is exceptional? Even superior? Is that so bad?

What is patriotism?

Webster’s defines “patriot” as “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.” We sing that America is beautiful for “patriot dreams” which evokes the ideals of our founders woven into our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. They dreamed of a nation where all of us who have been created with equal value and worth in God’s image will receive equal justice under the law. Where we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Where our elected representatives will govern with the consent of “we the people.”

from the July 4th Gilbert, SC Peach Festival

A patriot loves her country and wants to honor it. She realizes that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God” (Acts 17:26-27). Nations with their own boundaries provide dwelling places where we may flourish and nurture community so that we might find relationship with God and thank him for all his good gifts, including our nation.

We live in a fallen world of nations where men go in search of “many schemes.” America too is fallen. We have committed great sins of slavery, abortion and the pursuit of personal peace and affluence to the utter disregard of love for God and neighbors. But we can turn from these and other sins and still give thanks for the good things about America, especially that we are a country founded on God-honoring ideals, including freedom of conscience, speech and worship, and dedicate ourselves to living them out.

Patriotism is a pride of place anchored in humility and gratitude. Just like we can be proud of our children, yet humbled that God has given them to us and grateful for such eternal gifts. Or proud of a job well-done, yet humbled that God has given us the gifts and grateful for the opportunities to express them. So we Americans can be proud of our nation with humility and gratitude that God appointed us to be born here or enabled us to come here and seek to be good stewards of all the opportunities it affords.

But there is another kind of pride bereft of gratitude or any shred of humility. C.S. Lewis describes it as a pride that “is essentially competitive…Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”

What is nationalism?

from the Gilbert, SC July 4th Peach Festival

This gets to the heart of nationalism. Webster’s defines “nationalism” as “a person with strong patriotic feelings, especially one who believes in the superiority of their country over others.” George Orwell famously added that, “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation… [he] thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige…his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.” The nationalism of Nazi Germany and Japan inflamed the world in a massive war as they sought to force their power and prestige on others. Stalin’s nationalism inspired him to murder millions of his countrymen and send millions more to the Gulag.

To reject this kind of nationalism is not to fall into the multicultural trap that claims that all cultures are equal. Granted, all cultures/nations have their virtues and vices, but some lead to more human flourishing and others to more human suffering.

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12) When a nation seeks to align itself with the character of God it will be more blessed with more human flourishing than others who don’t. In How Shall We Then Live? Francis Schaeffer makes the case that historically the Northern European countries and their colonies have engendered more human flourishing, more freedom and prosperity than other nations because they have generally aspired to align their ideals, laws and institutions that way. Very imperfectly, especially considering their selfish bent toward colonization and slavery, but that has been a shared vision for Western Civilization. We should all be concerned that increasingly that is no longer the case.

A few weeks ago I posted an edited version of Trumps Poland speech which, like his UN speech, was much criticized for its nationalist bent. I asked readers if they agreed with the criticism. One friend wrote that he did see nationalist elements in the speech. I’ve pondered his words since then, and those of C.S. Lewis and can see possibly where he’s coming from.

What does “Make America Great Again” mean?

If “Make America Great Again” means restoring our commitment to “patriot’s dreams” of rights, freedoms and responsibilities anchored in God’s gifts to us, then I would disagree with my friend. In his Poland speech Trump talked about how “We (Western Civilization) treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives…And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” This sounds like patriotism.

But if “MAGA” means essentially an appeal to competitive pride to accumulate more wealth and power so we can selfishly have our way with other nations, then it would indeed be a banner of nationalism.

Is Trump hinting at that when he said in his Poland speech, “We are the fastest and the greatest community.  There is nothing like our community of nations.  The world has never known anything like our community of nations”?

If we think back to President Trump’s campaign he was very comparative, focused like a laser on “winning:”

[His language was] about defeating opponents, being better than the other guy—win, beat, kill, huge, rich, big league. His sense of national greatness seems largely transferred from his views of what makes a business or an individual (namely himself) great: wealth, power, status, deal-making. Greatness is achieved, most fundamentally, by winning a long streak of zero-sum competitions. To lose such competitions makes you weak. What is America’s true problem, according to the president? He answered time and again on the campaign trail: “We don’t win anymore.” And what, if anything, was his central promise as a candidate for the highest office? “We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning.”

Restoring American greatness, by this reasoning, means that we need to start winning against someone again. Generally speaking, that someone is foreigners, primarily illegal immigrants at home and various trade partners abroad….” (Daniel Krauthammer, The Weekly Standard). While the younger Krauthammer raises a good point here, you can see his bias. It’s not primarily immigrants. It’s also those nationalist entities that oppose us: Islamic terrorists, North Korea, Iran, Russia, China etc.

So is a commitment to winning a good thing?
As with so many questions of morality, it depends on our motivations. If our winning is dedicated to the service of our God-honoring ideals, then that aligns with repeated Biblical commands to fight for the poor and needy, those who are oppressed and perishing. Using our wealth and power to lift others up. Contending for that which honors God and his commands, including managing our debt, counting our costs and living within our means so we can be generous to others.

But if our winning is for the sake of our own proud aggrandizement, our own comfort and ease without regard for the well-being of others, the needs around us, then how can it be good? Isn’t that why God condemned the nation of Israel and sent her into exile?

God sees the motivations of our hearts. He knows whether our pride in America is anchored in humility and gratitude, or arrogantly bent on winning and amassing more wealth and power than others, or some muddled mixture of the two.

As I think deeply on this issue, I’m left with many unanswered questions:
Would others define nationalism differently? Is it really so unpatriotic to believe your nation is comparatively the best? The way the difference between patriotism and nationalism is framed can bias the entire discussion. I’m open to better definitions, especially ones that encompass a love and pride of nation that compares it to God’s character and commands. But unfortunately that is not the way the discussion is unfolding in public discourse.

At the UN Trump championed the ideals of sovereignty and self-interest for all nations. But if that is not tempered by a desire for mutual respect for our ideals and a “You win and I win” approach, how is it not exactly what North Korea, Iran and the rest are indeed pursuing? Can a zero-sum “I win; you lose” approach really be a pathway to peace?

Using these definitions I would count myself a patriot, not a nationalist. But I am open to better definitions. What about you…what do you think?




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2 thoughts on “Do you think of yourself as a patriot? A nationalist? What is the difference?

  1. As I read this post, so many thoughts come to mind that I am concerned that my response will be more chaotic than clear. I feel like I am trying to pick up a large portion of wet spaghetti noodles and put them into another container. Just as I go for the center a lot of noodles slide away and I just make a big mess. I can’t respond to everything so I will just try to engage with a few points.

    You set out to define and distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. I agree in principle that that can be helpful, as long as we understand that there is a difference between words and ideas. The point is that there are different ways of expressing attachment to one’s country and that some ways can be helpful, and others harmful.

    Part of my concern is that your idea of patriotism is extremely abstract. I see no room for nuance, context, or history. You make certain qualifications by saying that “America too is fallen,” but that qualification seems to have no effect on your view of the country. This abstraction I think leads us to say wrong things about the United States. For instance, after Charlottesville, many people were discouraged and had different opinions about what had happened, who was right, who was wrong. But everyone was disturbed. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, people observed the way that many in the community here helped one another. More than once I heard people say that Houston is the real America, not Charlottesville. Well, that is all nice and good, but the last time I checked, both cities are located in the United States, and everyone in both circumstances are primarily American citizens. When we start defining “America” in terms of certain ideals, instead of in terms of ideals, history, culture (of which in America from the beginning there has been more than one), current socio-economic and political context, then we are eliminating and ignoring large parts of this country’s history and population simply by definition. The we ask questions about how certain people in this country can say what they do. We cannot understand them and we have no desire to acknowledge or relate to them, no matter how often we talk about the equal value of every human life.

    I worry when we say that patriotism should be expressed in the idea that the United States is the best country in the world. If Jack were to say to me, “I have the best wife in the world!”, how should I respond? I could argue with him and say that I, in fact, have the best wife in the world. We could then begin comparing facts, different qualities and attributes. But I think we both would say that that line of thinking is the wrong way to go. I am trying to teach Ukrainians to love their country. There is no way in the world it could be objectively stated that Ukraine is the best country in the world. We are consistently in the bottom half of most lists of international progress and situation. So, what is the basis of my message? I tell Ukrainians they should love their country because it is their home. It can be objectively stated that in many categories the United States is not the greatest country in the world. Economic freedom is something that most Americans value, and the conservative Heritage Institute says that the United States is currently #17 in the world in that area ( In an issue we care about, we are #17. So, should Jack revise his statement? No! I am glad to hear him say that and I want to encourage him in it. But not because either he or I occasionally reevaluate and do measurements to objectively determine how our wives are doing compared to other women. My concern is that when people say that the US is the greatest country in the world, that they mean it literally and objectively. But that can easily be shown to be not true. But why should it matter? Are we shopping around? We should love the US because it is our home. I love it because it is my country. And that allows me to be humble and rejoice in the love that other people have for their country. But I can tell you that the reputation Americans have overseas is not humility.

    I think that Americans, including President Trump need to be very careful about how we speak to and about other countries in the world. We have a large population, a very large army, and a large and influential economy. I think it is rude and inappropriate for us to go the UN or overseas and talk about our greatness. Many countries in the world are simultaneously frustrated and afraid of the US. We have bombed and invaded so many countries in the last 30 years, many people know that if the US gets upset at their country, they can expect to be bombed. I am saddened that to many in the world we come across as bullies. I know that you cannot reduce world opinion to only one view. But too often, Americans have the idea that everyone overseas also believes that the US is the greatest country in the world and that everyone wants to be like us and live here. Well, after 19 years of living overseas, I can tell you that world opinion is much more complicated than that. Even when foreign people talk about the US, realize that their words are qualified by their politeness and courtesy, and by what they might gain or lose in expressing their view. When Trump tells the world that the US is going to look out for ourselves first, it’s like a strong, powerful, rich person going into a large and diverse crowd, some weak, some strong, some wealthy, some poor, and saying “I’m am the best, the most wonderful, and I am going to start focusing more on my own interests.” Well, wahoo for you. Isn’t that rich powerful people usually do anyway? Thank you for sharing that with us. Even if that is what you are going to do, it sounds arrogant, presumptuous, selfish, and pompous to say so. We are honestly going to walk over to Haiti, Indonesia, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, and Sudan, that we are going to start focusing more on ourselves? To me that is rude, oblivious, arrogant, and heartless. It will always be true that to whom much is given, much will be required. In all the talk about patriotism, I have not seen any serious discussion of humility that actually effects the way we talk and behave. We have serious problems, but instead of talking about those problems, too many Americans seem to want to be coddled and told that they are wonderful and that anyone who says bad things is wrong and not American. I think it’s rather pathetic. Are we really this fragile? Trump’s railing against North Korea, the New York Times, the press in general, Democrats, Antifa, Germany, England, (for some reason not Russia), different movie stars and celebrities, the NFL, basketball players, . . . this is childish and truly pathetic. And the fact that many people believe that by doing so Trump is actually defending the honor and dignity of our country is both mind-boggling and depressing. We are this immature and pathetic that we somehow feel like we need this. Unbelievable. This is way bullies and abusers talk, not mature people. Now don’t get me wrong. It is thoroughly American. This is us. But it is still wrong.

    To return to an earlier point, when we start talking about the “true America,” it effects the way we see people, and that way of relating will have real consequences in terms of political, economic, and social access and power. The idea of the “True America” was a big part of the rhetoric of the last few Republican presidential campaign slogans. They were speaking to the real America, the true America. In Trump’s campaign, Trump railed against foreign enemies. But what was really concerning was that he railed against Americans by saying that they are not “true Americans.” That is bad and dangerous. That is the language of fascism. The nationalism that Hitler and the others had was not simply expressed in their views of other countries, it was expressed in how he manipulated some citizens to feel about other citizens. There were true Germans and false ones. Jews were not, gypsies were not, homosexuals were not, communists were not. The list was long. I hear many conservatives saying similar things. It is chilling. Where is the “value of every human life” now? The United States is not the church. All of these people are Americans, even if we do not agree with them. The football protesters, they are Americans, they are human, they have rights too. Yesterday there was a parade in New York City. It was a parade celebrating Islam and many Muslims participated. A Jewish rabbi was the grand martial ( Are these people Americans? For many of Trump’s supporters, they are not. Many Sikh people in the US have been yelled at and accosted because as part of their religion they wear a turban. They have been told, “Muslims, go back to where you came from.” ( They are told this by people who cannot tell the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh. Some Sikhs have deliberately remained silent about this and do not protest, because they feel like they are bearing the brunt of abuse that Muslims would be feeling ( They are taking it in the Muslim’s place. All I can say is that more than likely if Christians were being accosted for any reason, but especially because of someone else, we would be screaming so all the world could hear us. We would demand our rights. Franklin Graham would demand that Christians get justice.

    Racism and tribalism is real in modern America. Your repeated appeals to “who we are and what we stand for,” followed by a recitation of certain ideals, just makes you sound very out of touch. I am glad that in your America things look the way they do. But in talking to black Americans in different states, in listening to various minority groups, Charlottesville is not an aberration or anything unusual. The fact that it appears so to many white people is very telling. We need to get out more.

    I was reading comments to Christianity Today’s reporting about the football kneeling protests. Many, many, people were saying that it was wrong of those black people to protest. One woman literally told me that racism was ended back with Martin Luther King. The only reason black people are complaining is because they are just making it up, they see money in protests, and are lying and being lied to. I have too many close, dear Christian black friends to accept what she is saying. At the very least, the situation is much more complicated than that woman says. Are some people taking advantage of things for money? With people involved, what are the chances. But how many pastors in America have become pretty rich? That is a common complaint to me by unbelieving friends and relatives. There is some truth to that. But I have no intention of turning against God, the church, or the pastorate that he created.

    Al of these things is the America we love in. America is not the greatest country in the world. But I love it, and it is the best to me. I often feel most comfortable here. Although after 19 years, I actually probably feel most at home in Ukraine. I love Ukraine. Ukraine frustrates me, angers, me, delights me, I love it when I am there. Like that John legend song, “I love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections.”

    Until I hear you synthesize, adjust, and make more complete your descriptions of America, patriotism, and western civilization, I will continue to see many of your statements as an abstract idealism that has glossed over both history and the current situation, and which can have dangerous implications regarding who will ultimately be considered American and human, and thus who will be actually given the full rights your ideals say they should have.

    • Mark, your comment is longer than most, but you offer a good challenge so I’ll let it stand. Three things: Trump’s speech in Poland championed Western Civilization, not just America. Our “community of nations,” in agreement with Schaeffer, as I pointed out in my previous post. Although I also pointed out that comparative pride misses the mark and, as you said, sounds rude in international speeches.

      Second: America does not simply bomb countries we are upset at. This, to me, is your simplistic bias shining through. Yes, I think our own interests figure in significantly, but Kuwait (an ally) was invaded and we moved. We moved against genocidal massacres in the Balkans. And when we didn’t in Rwanda, look what happened. If our enemies were not using the civilian populations of multiple countries as a shield we would not be bombing so many countries. Communism, as you’ve noted on your Facebook page, is a monstrous force for evil and needed to be stopped. The reasons America has wielded it’s force around the world are complicated and not maybe not always completely just. But, as I wrote in this post, I would never say, “My country right or wrong.”

      Thirdly, I hope I made my disgust of racism more clear in the next post. It grieves the heart of God and it grieves me.

      Appreciate your thoughtful engagement.