In his 1882 lecture “What is a Nation? » French historian Ernest Renan examines a number of essentialist theories put forward to explain the “droit des gens” – racial unity, common language, religious affinity, natural geographical boundaries – and he rejects them all. These, he thinks, are mere “metaphysical and theological abstractions”. Yet even though Renan can be counted as the first of the great constructivists – those, that is, who see the nation as a cultural unit invented or imagined rather than given by nature – his empirical vision of national identity always has a certain mystical resonance. to that. “A nation is a soul,” he says, “a spiritual principle.” This soul has two constituent elements, the first concerning the past, i.e. having “common glories”, or “a rich heritage of memories”, and the other concerning the present, namely the desire to continue to invest in this heritage. The nation therefore only survives by virtue of the express will of the people to continue a common life; but the validation of this common life, thinks Renan, rests on an understanding that is more mythical than historical. Mythical above all because it is built on an act of forgetting. National unity, he believes, is still “brutally established”. Violence – war, revenge, terror, perhaps even extermination – went into its making. All this must be forgotten. “Oblivion, I would even say historical error, writes Renan, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation, and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality.
There is clearly much in Renan’s opinion that needs to be revised or rejected, especially in light of the atrocious crimes committed in the name of nations in the 20e century. Is it really acceptable to build our sense of national identity on a mythology or on a forgotten past? With the terrible German lesson Blut and Boden nationalism (“of blood and soil”) before us, it seems imperative, as many contemporary theorists assert, to configure our national self-understanding in terms of a remembered and continually questioned past. Also to think of the nation less sentimentally – less in terms of national pride or a glorious past, and more, as with Jürgen Habermas, as a project to be realized through respect for democratic norms, a “politics of memory”, and a commitment to public reason.
Everything is fine. Habermas’ “constitutional patriotism” usefully provides bases for political unity without relying on nationalist forms that are easily weaponized against ethnic, ideological, cultural or religious groups. But is it strong enough to maintain a sense of common identity and belonging? Can it feed the imagination and arouse enthusiasm? It’s strong on the cognitive, of course; but Habermas seems to downplay precisely those affective, even mystical, elements of national identity which, properly directed, can enhance the civilizing effects of culture. Nationalism, after all, is not strictly speaking an ideology, at least not in the sense of liberalism, conservatism or socialism. Rather, it tends to prepare the ground for these ideologies, left or right, to occur. As Benedict Anderson observes in his influential Imagined communities, a cenotaph for the unknown soldier is a significant emblem of the culture of nationalism, but how absurd it would be to have a “tomb of the unknown Marxist” or “a cenotaph for fallen liberals”. And the reason, Anderson notes, is that the “nationalist imagination” has a “strong affinity with religious imaginations”. Nationalist thought and religious thought, in their own distinct ways, are concerned with apprehensions of the contingency of life, the “ties between the dead and the unborn”, and the kinds of connection and continuity that inform our sense of who we are. Ideologies remain silent on these questions.
Things can go very wrong with nationalism, of course, as they can with religion; but worst of all is when nationalism and religion go terribly wrong together. Nationalism has shown that it has the power to tear religion from its very essence and reconstitute it as the very thing against which it exists. In other words, instead of witnessing to transcendence, to a vision of human dignity and to solidarity under the providential care of God, religion has often found itself in the service of one or the another form of vicious pagan immanence. The transcendent God becomes the god of the house, the god of the fatherland, the god of the tribe or of the race or of the nation-state. This god favors us over our enemies; desires our victory, not theirs; answers our prayers, not theirs; supports us in our misfortunes but does not care about theirs; speaks our language, likes things the way we like them, approves of our desire for bourgeois comfort, and shares our disapproval of migrants or homosexuals or the homeless or the poor or anyone else who might make us uncomfortable.
It is this type of closed nationalism that Pope Francis fiercely opposes. The leitmotif of his entire pontificate has been the Christian call to brotherhood and solidarity which, because it is modeled on the mercy of God, refuses to make the petty distinctions which are now commonplace even among people who strongly identify as Catholic. The pope has repeatedly denounced this “age of walls and barbed wire” which, in the United States and in many European countries, refuses to welcome the foreigner – but only if the foreigner is not like us . It is a sign of what Francis calls “the sinking of civilization”. He recognizes the innate tension between the local and the global, and he is not opposed to a strong identification with his own nation or his own culture. Far from there. In Evangelii Gaudium he writes, “We must sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our place of origin, which is a gift from God. But we should do it from a “broader perspective”. Francis then situates this vision of human culture in a much broader theological framework:
The gospel has an intrinsic principle of totality: it will always remain good news until it has been proclaimed to all men, until it has healed and strengthened all aspects of humanity, until he has gathered all men and women around one table in the kingdom of God. The whole is greater than the part.
The whole is greater than the part; our belonging to the common humanity is greater than any of our kinships or national affinities. Yet the ordinary way for us to be immersed in the greater reality is to have strong roots in the lesser, local, concrete cultural realities of our immediate world. Anderson, writing Imagined communities in 1983, as murderous mid-century ethnic nationalism still clouded expressions of national pride, saw the error of those who thought the time of nations was over. He wrote:
At a time when it is so common for progressive and cosmopolitan intellectuals (especially in Europe?) to insist on the quasi-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with the racism, it is useful to remember that nations inspire love, and often self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism – poetry, romantic prose, music, plastic arts – show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.
The challenge, however, is to cultivate narratives of national identity while avoiding the exclusionary posture of populist nativism. Critical thinking, commitment to remembering, openness to change and a sense of responsibility to the outside world: it is dispositions such as these that ensure that a sense of national identity is accompanied by a sense of belonging to the larger world of humanity.
 Ernest Renan, “What is a nation? The translation used in this essay is that of Ethan Rundell, accessible at https://www.academia.edu/33769892/What_is_a_Nation. A more established translation might be that of MFN Giglioli in Ernest Renan, What is a Nation? and other political writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), p. 247-263.
 See in particular Jurgen Habermas, “The Postnational constellation and the future of Democratic” in The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 74, in which he says: “For nation-states with their own national history, a policy that seeks the coexistence of different ethnic communities, linguistic groups, religious denominations, etc. under conditions of equal rights naturally entails a process that is as precarious as it is painful. . The majority culture, assuming itself to be identical to the national culture as such, must free itself from its historical identification with a general political culture, if we want all citizens to be able to identify themselves on an equal footing with the political culture of their own country. . To the extent that this decoupling of political culture from majority culture is successful, citizen solidarity is displaced onto the more abstract foundation of ‘constitutional patriotism’. See also Habermas, “The European Nation-State: On the Past and Future of Sovereignty and Citizenship”, Chapter 4 in The inclusion of the other (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 105-128.
 Benoit Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalismrevised edition (London: Verso, 2006).
 Anderson, Imagined communities, p. ten.
 See https://www.politico.eu/article/pope-francis-europe-migrant-crisis-shipwreck-of-civilization/
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation (2013), art. 235.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, art. 237.
 Anderson, Imagined communities, p. 141.
Image: Adobe Stock. By By Michael Flippo.