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On the new “nationalism”

Insights into nationalism and patriotism from Pope St. John Paul II.

Thanks to President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and the rise of populist-nationalist parties in Europe, there’s a lot of debate about “nationalism” these days. On that subject, as on so many others, it’s worth listening to Pope St. John Paul II, not least because last month marked the 40th anniversary of his epochal Nine Days in Poland in June 1979 — days on which the history of the 20th century pivoted in a more humane direction.

To revisit John Paul II’s homilies and addresses during the Nine Days, and especially his homily in Gniezno on June 3, is to learn important lessons for today about nation, nationalism, and patriotism. Karol Wojtyla was surely a Polish patriot; he had, after all, deliberately celebrated his first three Masses in the St. Leonard’s Crypt of Cracow’s Wawel Cathedral, surrounded by Polish heroes like King Jan III Sobieski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko. At the same time, Wojtyla’s Polish and Cracovian roots, experience, and loyalties led him to an appreciation of the spiritual unity of the Slavic peoples, and indeed of the cultural unity of Europe.

John Paul II was not a “European” in some theoretical sense. As he made clear at Gniezno on June 3, 1979, he had come to a vision of Europe — whole and free, breathing with both its lungs, East and West — through his Cracovian and Polish experience, not despite that experience. Thus his Polish patriotism was not chauvinistic or xenophobic; it was open to those who were “other.” Poland, sometimes betrayed and too often ignored by the West, was, he insisted, woven into the tapestry of Europe. So were many other national experiences and stories. In that sense, it’s not hard to imagine John Paul II being sympathetic to contemporary critiques of the European Union’s tendency to level out national and cultural differences.

Yet in his later musings on history, John Paul raised some important cautions about nationalism; here is what he wrote in his last published book, Memory and Identity:

…nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities…[Yet] one thing must be avoided at all costs [–]…an unhealthy nationalism. Of this, the twentieth century has supplied some all too eloquent examples, with disastrous consequences. How can we be delivered from such a danger? I think the right way is through patriotism. Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism….is a love of one’s own native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.

Can we find instances of a national patriotism that reaches out in support of others, for the sake of both national interest and a broad sense of national purpose? Two examples come immediately to mind; they should be pondered by today’s new nationalists, in America, Europe, and elsewhere.

The first involved U.S. recognition of the State of Israel, which declared its independence as of midnight, May 14, 1948. That very same day, President Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state, against the fierce opposition of a lot of the State Department and his own Secretary of State, the great George C. Marshall. Marshall, who believed that recognition of a Jewish state opposed by the Arabs of the Middle East was geopolitical madness, even told Truman that he wouldn’t vote for him later that year if Truman insisted on accepting an Israeli declaration of independence and recognizing the provisional government led by David Ben-Gurion. Yet Truman believed that recognition of Israel was the right thing to do, irrespective of the friction it would cause; so he did it, in an act of statesmanship that far transcended national interest.

The second example also involved Mr. Truman: the creation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On this, its 70th birthday, NATO is history’s most successful defensive alliance. When NATO was first bruited, however, the idea of the United States binding itself to defend European democracies was opposed by many who had gathered under the banner of “America First” in the 1930s and during the 1940 presidential campaign. No one doubts the patriotism of those men and women; but their concept of national interest was too narrow for the times.

A similar myopia should be avoided in 2019. John Paul II’s idea of patriotism might help point a way.


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About George Weigel 296 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

19 Comments

    • But what did Weigel actually write? He said: “Thanks to President Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric and the rise of populist-nationalist parties in Europe, there’s a lot of debate about ‘nationalism’ these days.” You seem to have completely missed his point.

  1. I understand your perspective and there are positives to it. However it is almost impossible to get consensus on key issues because of divergent interests. I leads to dangerous inaction on so many fronts. Don’t actions vs China, No. Korea and Iran qualify as ifor the general good in addition to being in America’s interest

  2. Every so often Mr. Weigel writes a column that has no clear conclusion; where he basically likes to tip-toe around a firm statement or position. Here is such an instance. First he “thanks” Trump for opening up the debate about nationalism, then he uses St. Pope John Paul II to declare: nationalism-bad and patriotism-good. Then he gives two examples of good nationalism – U.S. recognition of Israel and U.S. support of NATO. Finally, he says those who originally opposed NATO had an America First mentality, a too narrow national interest. Somehow Mr. Weigel could not find the courage though to say that Trump and his supporters hold too narrow a national interest. I don’t follow the news too much (too busy) but didn’t Trump recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a Truman-like action against popular opinion. Back in April 2019 didn’t NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thank Trump at the White House for his “strong commitment to NATO.” In fact, many a thesaurus will have nationalism as a synonym for patriotism. “America First” means that there is a second, third and so on; it does not mean America Only. It is true that Trump could be called a nationalist, but he is not Steve Bannon with whom he has broken ties. Patriotism and nationalism will always have varying degrees of piety to one’s polis. Mr. Weigel should consider that Truman did not have to face so many radical anarchists on one side and so many professional unionists on the other (even in his own country). In such an atmosphere just about any patriot could be called a nationalist.

  3. Anyone who thinks President Trump is dividing the country has been asleep for about 40 years. Deep moral and spiritual differences have come upon us. It happens to be coming to a head during this time and because he calls it what it is. Granted, crudely at times, but still courageously. The light is shining on it. It was so bad before him, that the government could barely operate or reach any conclusions or agreements or laws. I’m beyond politics, I think we have a short time to face reality.
    I don’t think any of us is putting America first to the point of not caring about anyone else. I don’t see that at all. We are still the most cariing of nations and people. When I was a young mother I had an insight, simplistic as you may think, that on an airliner when in trouble, a parent is instructed to use the oxygen first befor the children. Any thinking person knows why. If you are not operating, how are you helping anyone? I used that example through the years in many ways. It may look selfish at times but it works for the right end you want for all. America has been in trouble by not taking care of home, then others. President Trump is trying to fix that, not ignore others. If your home is in shambles, who wants to be like you anyway? I think we have a slim chance here.

  4. Is this the same Truman who favored the Dutch over Indonesian independence and the French over Vietnamese independence? Wouldn’t it be nice if to live in a fully internet world wher we could re-write history at “Will”.

  5. When CWR wants an opinion on nationalism, who better than the leading Catholic light of internationalist interventionism?

    The “new nationalism” is a direct consequence of the catastrophic and murderous foreign interventions championed by neoconservatives such as George Weigel in the name of “national interest”. The Trumps and Salvinis merely provided a voice for ordinary citizens weary of endless war.

    I note with amusement the incoherence of Mr. Weigel’s leading example of the recognition of the state of Israel. In one paragraph Weigel exhorts us to a “national patriotism that reaches out in support of others, for the sake of both national interest and a broad sense of national purpose”. In the next, he concedes that the recognition of Israel had nothing to do with either; that in fact, it “transcended national interest” to do something Mr. Weigel approves of. This is precisely the facile yet overbearing moralism from which the “new nationalism” recoils, and for excellent historical reasons.

    Speaking of Israel, since Mr. Weigel brought it up, doesn’t it exemplify precisely the “bad” sort of nationalism John Paul II decries, of “recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others”? It expands into territory held by others, it seeks to consign nearby nations to chaos by overthrowing their sovereign governments, and it spends immense amounts of money lobbying great powers to intervene on its behalf. As for “being open to those who are ‘other'”, perhaps Mr.. Weigel should scrutinize Israel’s refugee intake and immigration policies.

    But Mr. Weigel need not worry about the new nationalism, as it is almost entirely borne out of a natural desire for self-government in the peoples’ own interests; in other words, to free ourselves of the manifold policy failures wrought by the Weigelite mediocrities of the trans-national ruling class. It has no desire to rule or dominate others.

  6. @Lynda

    “Anyone who thinks President Trump is dividing the country has been asleep for about 40 years. Deep moral and spiritual differences have come upon us.”

    Do you have a specific date/event in mind? If one is making the contrast between God and Satan (kingdom of Heaven vs. slavery of sine), then the differences have been there since the Fall.

    “It happens to be coming to a head during this time and because he calls it what it is. Granted, crudely at times, but still courageously. The light is shining on it. It was so bad before him, that the government could barely operate or reach any conclusions or agreements or laws.”

    What is “it”?

    I’m beyond politics, I think we have a short time to face reality.

    Because of the TDoD?

    “I don’t think any of us is putting America first to the point of not caring about anyone else. I don’t see that at all. We are still the most cariing of nations and people.”

    Yes, we should care primarily about American’s first. That is, care foremost its spiritual welfare. I can’t agree with your second statement without some kind of evidence apart from your assertion.

    “When I was a young mother I had an insight, simplistic as you may think, that on an airliner when in trouble, a parent is instructed to use the oxygen first befor the children. Any thinking person knows why. If you are not operating, how are you helping anyone? I used that example through the years in many ways. It may look selfish at times but it works for the right end you want for all. America has been in trouble by not taking care of home, then others. President Trump is trying to fix that, not ignore others. If your home is in shambles, who wants to be like you anyway? I think we have a slim chance here.”

    Although, I support, and voted for President Trump, I can’t agree that he necessarily has the kind of agenda that you attribute to him. I don’t know enough to be certain. Certainly, a country should look first to remove the beam out of its own eye before trying to remove the splinter out of others’, but, again, I don’t think that the President consciously has this motive.

    • I cant fill you in in on everything but just food for thought, the serious legal joining in the assault on family, speech and our nearly lost freedom of religion.
      “the dogma lives loudly in you” and changing worship for religion” you have to be as wise as serpents Shawn. This country is worshipping false Gods our bodies, finances and comforts legally above God. JPII “a country that kills its children has no future” Mother Teresa “when a mother can kill her own child what else could be wrong?” Quietly thinkk aboout it. God Bless

      • Great Comments especially on Mother Theresa and her wisdom on the Sanctity of all life. Love our Neighbor as we love ourselves. Pro – Life is the Big answer to our Problems — What will it take?

  7. Another angle is worth mentioning. After WWII, to save our own skin, our political leaders convinced us that we had to save the world. The situation today is quite different. China clearly has dramatic imperialistic goals and other countries have followed that age-old tradition of “me first” which gave birth to the colonialism of the past. “My country first” is the normal mode of political thought for the whole world now and throughout history. When Trump says “America first” he is saying a kind of heresy to those who were brought up on the notion that America is unique and has to save the world with no attention given to our own decline and the dangers that holds.

  8. St. John Paul II, in one of his writings (probably: Memory and Identity), coined the term “non-exclusive solidarity.” Amen.

  9. Nationalism is a Concept. Concepts differ in accord with definition. G Weigel’s relevant to the times interesting commentary nevertheless remains locked into provincial conceptualization, “Nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others” (John Paul II). John Paul whom I have deep respect, even love speaks from a segmented experience of outrage inflicted on Poland by blood lust [historian William Shirer’s descript] Nazi [Nazional] German nationalism. Patriotism distinguished as loving and benevolent is sheer nonsense. Am ‘Patriots’ slaughtered Loyalists as well as Iroquois aligned with Britain during the War of Independence. John Paul sought to distinguish love of country, which in essence is love of a particular ethnic cultural community as specific to Polish Nationalism from the horrors of morally insane nationalism. Perhaps the better vision was that of former Wermacht combatant Josef Ratzinger. Ratzinger despised Nazism nonetheless fought. As Benedict XVI he argued in agreement with John Paul that minorities within a nation have no moral justification to seek independence. He certainly had in mind Sudetenland, the contemporary splintering of viable countries, the murderous Basque independence movement in Spain. It’s not nationalism itself rather what concept we add to it. Much of our understanding is conceptualization. Consequently it’s the strength of our values that correctly define our concepts.

  10. For the record: President Trump was FIRST to recognize the rightful President of Venezuela. He, like President Truman has been a great friend to Israel and made good on the promise of many presidents that came before him to recognize Jerusalem as the capitol. He has even stated that each country’s leaders ought to act in the best interest of their own nation. Clearly, President Trump’s “America first” rhetoric does not mean America only. It just means that America is no longer a chooch on the world stage.

    • You make some good points here, Father. I agree with you. Somehow, we have gotten away from a basic concept: that the President of the United States is just that – the President of THIS nation. And that is not a bad thing. I want a President who thinks of us first, what is best for us. That does not have to be in a terrible, “Hitlerian” style. Of course, the President should consider the impact of what we do on other countries. But I want him to be our greatest promoter, the one who chooses what is best for the American people. Instead, too many Americans expect the President to save the world, no matter how it affects us. Well, Trump is not the President of the world, and he understands that. We are much better off than we were four years ago, and despite the predictions, Trump did not get us into any wars. I think it is about time we had a bit of nationalism again. Trump isn’t Reagan, but I think he leans in that direction, and I am much happier and more secure with Trump in office than I ever was with Obama.

  11. Whenever reading George Weigel, every Catholic should first understand that he has held a cushy position at the neo-con funded and staffed “Ethics and Public Policy Center” for many years. His job has clearly been to coral as many Catholics as possible to fall in line with oligarch globalist rule, and I’m not sure he has gifted us with a better example than this column.

    Recognizing Israel was a good thing?? As Hillaire Belloc warned 11 years before this recognition, “Creating a Jewish state in Palestine would be a dagger in the flesh of the Arab word and a recipe for perpetual war.” He was clearly a right. And how did this serve anyone’s interests besides Israel? Massive bloodshed in the Middle East has been the result, including Israel’s devastating attack on the U.S.S. Liberty in 1967 (look it up … another matter shoved down the memory hole), the brutal military occupation and colonization of internationally recognized Palestinian territory, the $$trillions we have spent on wars for Israel’s regional interest, hundreds of thousands dead, including thousands of Americans, and …. wait for it, a completely suppressed truth … U.S. support of Israel was (according to the terrorists themselves) a primary motive of the 9/11 attack. This was good for America and the world? In my judgement, Weigel (who, it must always be remembered, defied St. John Paul II in the latter’s unequivocal opposition to the Iraq War) is clearly compromised by the company he keeps and the manna which flows from it. Yes, Mr. Weigel, we would all have done much better if we paid attention to St. John Paul II.

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