"The intuition is that loyalty, not prosperity, is the foundation of a healthy society. To my mind, it’s a sound intuition."
The editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, wrote these words the day before just over half of the 72% eligible to vote in the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU. The "intuition" mentioned belongs to those who campaigned to leave. In Reno's own words, "the vote to 'Leave' opens up the possibility of a different future, one in which national identities are renewed rather than 'fused.'" This renewal of national identities is, for Reno, a self-evident good, with the vote to leave representing a collective, British middle finger to the "global technocratic empire" whose face in this instance is the European Union.
This is all socially, historically, economically and politically dubious. It becomes theologically dubious when Reno connects the United Kingdom post-Brexit with Augustine's City of God. According to Reno, had the UK remained in the EU then it would be a polity ruled by fear of poverty and the rapacious desire for prosperity. These are the characteristics of the city of man. By contrast, a UK outside of the EU would model the city of God by participating "in the ennobling power of love". The basis of this participation is "national loyalty." The object of this love is one's British neighbour.
If what Reno is describing were true, it would be disconcerting at best and diabolical at worst. A theologically justified nationalism is a collective middle finger to the Christ attested in Scripture. But what Reno is describing isn't even true. It's false. And that's the real problem. What is happening in Britain is not nationalism per se (if there is even such a thing). It is racism. There have been an enormous amount of reports from people who have either experienced or witnessed abuse and hatred in the wake of the UK's vote to leave the EU. What is worth noting is that a significant number of these people are British. But being British is simply not enough. They may be "officially" British, they may have British passports, they may even have been born in Britain, but they don't look like a British person should look, or they don't talk like a British person should talk. or they don't worship the god that a British person should worship. All of this is by way of saying that nationalism is inherently racist. To be British is to be white, not black. To be British is to be Christian, not Muslim. The "national loyalty" that Reno gets so misty eyed about is poisonous to its very core. It is a loyalty that Jesus came quite explicitly to defeat. It is a loyalty that nailed him to the cross, but which was in fact nailed to the cross with him.
We live in troubling times. We always do. That is why theological work needs to be done. Indeed. Karl Barth's justification for theology is a simple one: sin. The sin of Christians, the sin of non-Christians, the most especially sin of theologians, means that the work of theology must continue. Church's who sing the songs of national loyalty, and theologians who write its propaganda, cannot go uncriticised. Woe to those who call the city of God the city of man, and the city of man the city of God.