C.S. Lewis knew a thing or two about the dangers of nationalistic thinking. Although he was extremely proud of both England and his own Irish heritage, Lewis lived in the context of two world wars, having fought in the first one and having lived through his nation's struggle to survive in the other. In talking about the dangers of nationalism in his (far under-read) book The Four Loves, Lewis gives us this story (26):
I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, "But, sir, aren't we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?" He replied with total gravity--he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the alter--"Yes, but in England it's true." To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.
It is unquestionably true that America is a place of deep and inspiring national pride and has been since its very founding. The slogan "proud to be an American" is one that rolls of the lips of most of us with ease as we think about the revolutions, dreams, and movements that have shaped us over the past several centuries. It's hard not to see the beauty in what the forefathers dreamed of when they wrote our Declaration of Independence and its not a matter of coincidence that many nations throughout the world have sought to clone in the American project, either in whole or in part.
But pride is not a virtue without consequent. On its best days, it can lead to patriotism and a love for one's country. On it's worst, it can lead to nationalism and a devilish form of ideological thinking that propels morally destructive powers into leadership and it gives rise to movements made up of revolutionary purists. As Lewis also states (in referencing Rougemont), "love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god."
We have, probably, never been without both of these sentiments in our nation. This is why phrases like "Make America Great Again" as well as the sentiment of "progress" taste like insipid coffee (did I mention coffee?!...shameless self promotion). To think that there was ever a time when we were without some deep moral plague is to fail to look at our history objectively and to think that there will ever be a time where our country does not carry with it some force of mass injustice is, equally, illusory. I have often wondered, how will people two hundred years from now look at the very things we assume are just and moral now. Certainly not with eyes that say "Ah, this was when they finally got it!"
If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century the English became very conscious of such duties: the "whit man's burden." What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians...our habit of talking as if England's motives for acquiring an empire...had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world. And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best. Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights not the duties. To them, some foreigners were so bad that one had the right to exterminate them. Others, fitted only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the chosen people, had better be made to get on with their hewing and drawing...And both [sentiments] have about them this sure mark of evil: only by being terrible do they avoid being comic (TFL, 27).
Nationalism, in its demonic form, leads to a false illusion of self and illusionary reflection always leads to an us. vs them. mentality that seeks to "purify" both the individual and the society and it accomplishes this through a false narrative of altruism. We could take, of course, the Jewish scapegoating by the Nazi regime, but I'm going to save that for later when I talk about lessons Bonhoeffer has given us on nationalism.
But another example might fit: if one goes back to the second movement of the KKK (started by Methodist circuit rider, W. J. Simmons), one realizes that the premise between the Nazis and Americans were the same: national purity, greatness, and safety can only be achieved by the oppression of a particular group. In the 1920s, millions of Americans bought into the lie that our nation's safety was in jeopardy because of the insatiable and animalistic lusts of the black man. The movie The Birth of a Nation, which even found a screening the White House, drove men from all across the country into an even deeper sense of racial segregation and helped create the atmosphere for 60 million Americans to join with the KKK under a purist ideology: anti-catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Jew. The effects of this sort of thinking, of course, still exist today.
A love of nation can be a wonderful thing and I am one of those who deeply respects the beautiful foundations of our nation. Our Declaration of Independence, frankly, stands for me as only the second greatest document of all time (the first, naturally, being Scripture--and the third being The Lord of the Rings!). At the same time, I know that a love of nation when placed into the hands of powerful men can be an extremely oppressive tool: we merely need to create an illusion of our own superiority and then utilize fear to propel people into movement against others that don't conform to that image.
So the question is, where are we doing this today? And how can we be aware enough to recognize it as such?