“What does your husband do?” our school principal asked. My friend kindly responded she was married to a Christian pastor. “But I thought you said he’s Turkish?” the principal queried. “He is,” my friend confirmed. “Ah, okay. So, he used to be Turkish.”
Living in Turkey for nearly a decade, our family found this principal’s assumptions weren’t unique. Once, my wife spent hours proclaiming the gospel to her Turkish friend. “I believe what you’re telling me about Jesus is true,” the friend explained. “And if I wasn’t a Turk, I think I’d become a Christian.” Similarly, a young man I discipled walked away from his faith after deciding he couldn’t reconcile being both Christian and Turkish.
For most Turkish Muslims—as for many people groups—religious identity is inseparable from ethnic and national identity. Historical encounters with Western Christians stretching back a thousand years shape this assumption. Media, public education, and other national institutions catechize the Turkish people to remember these events as part of their ongoing struggle with Christendom.
Because Turkish nationalism makes opposition to Christianity a central feature of its ideology, it exemplifies an especially strident challenge to the church’s mission. But the same is true for nearly every form of nationalism. Therefore, missionaries who want to understand and address the religious commitments of those they’re trying to reach will need to take nationalism into account.
Nationalism isn’t a neutral ideology, a benign cultural stump around which the missionaries must plow. Nationalism is an idolatrous ideology presenting itself as a religious surrogate and a competitor to the Christian gospel. This competition may manifest overtly, as in the case of Turkish nationalism. Or it can reside subtly, almost invisibly, within a culture—or even within an American missionary.
Nationalism isn’t a neutral ideology.
In 1926, American historian and diplomat Carlton J. H. Hayes penned an essay titled “Nationalism as a Religion.” As a secular ideology, nationalism is inherently this-worldly. But Hayes observed how the secular “religion” of nationalism mimics the forms of traditional religion through its texts, ceremonies, anthems, symbols, and rituals.
Beyond these forms, Hayes noted how nationalism aspires to transcendence by appealing to humans’ “religious sense,” their desire to worship something beyond themselves. This aspiration shows up in nationalism’s call to forsake this world in willingness to die for the glory of the nation.
Gospel of Nationalism
In Nazi Germany, nationalism not only mimicked but even co-opted traditional religion as the “German Christian” movement sought to fuse Christianity with blood-and-soil Aryan ethnic identity. Analyzing the German example as well as post-WWII Soviet Communism, theologians and political philosophers began to speak of “Political Religion.” They noted how modern secular political ideologies function as “religious surrogates” (Ersatzreligion), replacing the role of traditional religion in people’s lives and inviting them into a rival metanarrative.
The story of nationalism imagines an innocent past where the people are free from oppression. The fall occurs as they’re oppressed by an alien power. Salvation entails rising to overthrow that power, usually through a messianic figure who leads the nation into its glorious future. The parallels with the contours of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration are not incidental, according to Lesslie Newbigin, but arise from the residue of an encounter with the Christian gospel. Nationalism becomes, then, a competing offer of salvation.
In addition to providing rival narratives, political ideologies, as David T. Koyzis argues, become idolatrous by elevating one aspect of creation above all else, including the Creator. In the case of nationalism, the nation becomes the all-consuming end of the citizen’s devotion. Where we lived in Turkey, elementary school children were taught to pledge their “existence as a gift to the existence of the Turkish nation.” In school programs on national holidays, children weep as they recite original poetry venerating the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
When I visited the school principal with my friend, a large portrait of Atatürk hung prominently behind her desk. Several similar pieces of decor signaled this educated, professional woman’s deep commitment to the nationalist narrative. She didn’t conform to our expectations of the typical Sunni Muslim we prepared to encounter when we moved to Turkey. What we needed to consider was how we might proclaim the gospel faithfully to someone like her, whose allegiance is as much to the nation as it is to Islam.
It’s common for missionaries to study world religions to prepare for ministry. Volumes considering how to engage with Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus could fill libraries. But missionaries rarely consider how to dialogue with people who are deeply—even religiously—committed to political ideologies.
Missionaries rarely consider how to dialogue with people who are deeply—even religiously—committed to political ideologies.
In highly nationalistic contexts, devotion to nation can be far more culturally important than traditional religion—and far more complicated. When a Hindu repents and believes the gospel, she may burn her idols and relinquish her religious identity. Yet when a Russian nationalist believes the gospel, he usually retains his Russian identity. The task then is to disciple him—or any new follower of Jesus—to count his national identity as loss because of the surpassing worth of Christ (Phil. 3:8). For new disciples of Christ, idolatrous devotion to the nation must be transformed into a modest love of country and an appropriate gratitude for national kin.
But the problem of nationalism doesn’t only touch those from other nations. American Christians and missionaries must also recognize we’re not immune to creeping syncretism. Sadly, I recall instances where God revealed my own attitude of superiority toward nationals, judgment of neutral cultural differences, and anger toward criticism of my country. I once walked out of a school play because it was critical of one of the policies of my country—even though I agreed with the criticism!
Missionaries making disciples in nationalistic contexts must first model rooting out these impulses from our own hearts. Only then will we be able to clearly understand the extent to which nationalism amounts to the local religion and help disciples expose and forsake the idol of the nation.