A Review of
Why Do the Nations Rage? The Demonic Origin of Nationalism
David A Ritchie
Reviewed by J. Madrox, PhD
The claim that nationalism meets the criteria required to function as a religion is neither a novel nor a provocative claim. For many folks, such a claim is obvious. Nationalism functions as a discourse that shapes our minds, our bodies, and our imaginations. The very manner by which many of us see the world, how we envision it should be and what we see as ultimate good is shaped by such an ideology. Some of us even read our holy texts through the lens of the ‘sacred’ discourse produced by the nation-state (and the philosophical tradition that produced it) that continues to make nationalism such a dominant force with which to reckon.
I teach courses in World Religions, and I make sure that I include, along with Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, the religion that is nationalism. I feel quite confident that author David Ritchie would approve of this pedagogical decision as he stresses throughout his book that nationalism is not only a religion but a religion that rivals, particularly for his purposes, Christianity. (6) Nationalism is nothing if not all-encompassing. It moves us, shapes us, gives us something to kill and die for. It provides a theological rationale for the sacrificial logic that is ‘redemptive violence’ which actively encourages us to offer our children as perpetual sacrifices for its ongoing existence. Ritchie points out that, due to this reality, many Christians in the United States read and interpret the Bible through the lens of nationalism—making it the hermeneutical authority by which scripture is understood. Scripture, as well as various accounts of the sacraments, the manner by which the church gathers, and even the person and work of Jesus, is interpreted and understood through the lens of nationalistic discourse. Under this paradigm, Ritchie argues, idolatry cannot help but follow.
As stated above, the claim that nationalism is a religion is neither new nor even that interesting. What is interesting, however (outside of the fact that the author is a pastor from Texas—certainly this is proof that God does, indeed, work in mysterious ways) is how Ritchie understands what is at root in nationalism: demonic possession. His understanding of nationalism as a result of demonic origin distances his work from those within the field of sociology who wish to simply better understand what drives nationalistic impulses. While this is an important task of sociologists, Ritchie intends for his book to “function as a biblical-theological critique of the broad phenomenon of nationalism and the spiritual foundations that lie at its core.” (5) In this regard, he does an excellent job. He meticulously discusses the origins of nationalism while also providing a biblical account (ranging from the Hebrew Bible to Paul and the Gospels) as to how Christians should think about nationalism. This is nothing if not timely as Christian nationalism runs rampant in the United States (with some politicians even unapologetically adopting the language of Christian nationalism as a platform to attract voters).
Underwriting Ritchie’s claims throughout his book is his adamance in showing us that there is something very real at work in the principalities and powers. While noting that biblical realism does not mean biblical literalism, Ritchie does demand that we not underestimate the driving forces behind the nations. Demonic forces, he contends, are shown in the Bible to be quite real. For Ritchie, this means we must not be surprised to find that nationalism, as a rival force to the Kingdom of God, has its own “constellation of beliefs that both mirror and oppose the Christian gospel.” (93) For this reason, Ritchie exposes what he refers to as a systematic theology of nationalism that, he cleverly suggests, mirrors the Apostle’s Creed (93-121). I found this section to be of particular importance as it highlights how easy it is to, unknowingly or not, fall prey to something far more dangerous than secularism: Christian syncretism. Christian nationalism, Ritchie argues, is a syncretistic religion that attempts to merge opposing theological doctrines found in both Christianity and nationalism in order to create a religion that is no longer Christian (27). This is quite like what Soren Kierkegaard pointed out in his Attack Upon Christendom. Kierkegaard argued that when Christians’ understanding of Christianity is narrated through the lens of Christendom (and, here, we might extend that to nationalism), Christians create a bastardized form of Christianity that is more dangerous than secularism; for it dupes people into thinking that what they are practicing is Christianity when in fact they are practicing a religion starkly at odds with Christianity.
Why Do the Nations Rage? is a much-needed corrective against those forces co-opting the gospels to further various political agendas in the United States. Christian nationalism is an anti-gospel presently being wielded against other humans (and the earth and all her inhabitants) in order to, in some cases, simply keep politicians and clergy in positions of power. For some, it is a driving force enabling the creation of laws that neither extend hospitality to the stranger nor exercise any kind of witness that reveals God’s peaceable kingdom. Any person, politician or not (and I am reminded of Jesus’s rather harsh rebuke of rulers in Matthew 20) who claims the mantle of ‘Christian’ needs to contend with this brief yet packed book. Whether or not Satan spoke truth to Jesus (Mt. 4) when he intimated that only those who worship him are in positions of power (I’m inclined to believe Ol’ Horny), one thing is for sure: the battle over our bodies, minds, and souls is as real today as it was in the early church.
J. Madrox, PhD is a professor, farmer, and recovering misanthrope.