The nation-state is a modern concept that arose with the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire. I contributed an article on this topic to the New World Encyclopedia a couple of years ago because it is a concept that is related to much of the war and oppression in the world.
A “nation” refers to a national group of people, and national groups are connected by language, culture, and ethnicity. A “state” is a politically unified territory. When a national group controls a state, any minorities living in that state tend to be oppressed and treated as second-class citizens. The Holocaust in Germany is an example of the idea taken to the extreme, with Hitler’s attempt to create a pure nation-state.
While most people declare they are for equality and justice, they still want their national group to control a state. The Jews, who suffered the brunt of the Holocaust, wanted their nation-state in Israel. The breakup of the Soviet Union led to a frantic attempt by minorities like the Estonians, Moldavians, and Uzbeks to reclaim states for their national groups.
Official State Values and Truth
At the root of the idea of the nation-state is the notion that the state is unified by a set of values, truths, and shared goals that make society homogenous. This is most commonly expressed by the adoption of an official state religion, the strategy the Emperor Constantine employed to unify the Roman Empire, which is reflected today in official state churches in Europe and Islamic states in the Mideast and Asia. King Louis XIV in France imposed his own particular values to unify the French national state under his absolute power.
In states where official truths are enforced by the sword, deviations from official truth are often met with swift and harsh punishment. Intimidation, fear, torture, and death are used to keep social order under some set of absolute values. New ideas are often considered blasphemy when they challenge conventional orthodoxy.
Official Religious Values and Truths
While state leaders attempt to coopt and use religion to prop up government power, religious leaders tend to conform the temporal world to official religious power and doctrine. In the Roman Empire, the Pope attempted to force the Kings to do his bidding, and the contests between sacred and temporal power were ongoing. Religious leaders are not seriously concerned about state boundaries, and the idea of official religion preceded the development of the modern nation-state.
When Augustine wrote the City of God, he spoke of “Abel-type” religious pilgrims that would use the “Cain-type” temporal world in whatever way was deemed useful to God’s providence. The “Kingdom of God” became synonymous with anywhere the Christian Church had established an orthodox religious culture and had made political rulers its servants.
Later, Islam, despite its formation in reaction the Christianity, developed a similar concept in the dar al-Islam, which is literally translated as the “house of Islam.” Its goal is to spread peace throughout the world based on the Koran. Practically it meant the territories where Islam was officially practiced by the rulers. The areas not under the peace of Islam were considered part of the dar al-harb, or the abode of war.
When religions or cultures are based on a literal interpretation of specific sacred texts as the absolute and only truth, “progress” only means the individual progress of adherents to more purely incarnate these fixed truths, or the spread of a fixed system of truth over a wider territory. There is no room for progress in the sense of cultural adaptation and transformation based on new truth.
The black-and-white division of “true” and “false” culture leads to the idea that “if you are not with us, you are against us.” This black-and-white thought is typical of clan and group psychology, and leads to intellectual stagnation and war. In Christianity it led to a period we now call the “Dark Ages.” It was accompanied by religious Crusades to retake Jerusalem, a sacred city, from the “infidels.” But the “infidels” against whom they fought believed they were defending their dar al-Islam, and that the Christians were really the infidels and warlike aggressors.
Fortunately for those of us living today, Christian Orthodoxy and Islamic Orthodoxy did not totally destroy the writings of philosophers and historians of antiquity. Had the orthodoxy of Dark Ages of Christianity and the Islamic Fundamentalism of Ibn Taymiyya (and his descendants in the Wahhabis and the Taliban) coexisted over the entire territories currently occupied Christianity and Islam, the foundations of Western Civilization would not exist. No doubt, those promoting such orthodoxies would be pleased to see that development, but it would have little to do with the history of liberty.
Based on the idea of religious orthodoxy, only certain people are entrusted to read and interpret scripture. They are the official priests approved by official guardians of truth. The Institute of Marxism-Leninism performed a similar task in the Soviet Union, and the US Supreme Court does this for the US Constitution, which is the sacred scripture of the United States.We can call such orthodoxies “living orthodoxies” after the Supreme Court’s understanding of a “living Constitution.”
Unlike societies with fixed orthodoxies that foster dark ages, societies based on interpreted orthodoxies tend to change and adapt to new environmental circumstances, but changes are slow and inefficient. Such societies are likely to fail for reasons that F.A. Hayek saw the Soviet Union would fail. Centralized knowledge is never able to adequately grasp the spontaneous nature of society. It is like isolating one cell in your immune system and expecting it to develop the defense for a disease ravaging your body. Rather, it is when millions of cells freely encounter the virus cells, one of them will stumble upon a solution and the others will quickly learn how to fight off the disease.
Freedom and the Nation-State
Therefore we are forced to ask whether freedom is possible in a Nation-State, where a state promotes official values and knowledge. The answer lies in developing the concept of ordered liberty. Ordered liberty is not absolute freedom, but freedom with a set of constraints. It is freedom to act within a set of parameters, like the immune system cells are only free to flow in the bloodstream and they will survive only when they have the proper nutrition, etc.
A human being is free to walk in an ordered environment, but there are natural laws that must be understood. If you try to walk in a fire you will burn. If you walk off a cliff, you will die. If you try to walk in outer space, your lungs will burst and you will have no traction. If you constantly walk but don’t eat, you will eventually fall down. Freedom to walk is contingent to walking within the environment that walking can be sustained.
Freedom in a nation-state is similar. Can a nation-state create ordered liberty that is in accordance to natural law? This was the radical notion of the Enlightenment and the US Founding Fathers. Their idea of natural law was that it came from a Creator that transcends the human world. If rain falls from a cloud, it lands on both the Christians and Jews below the cloud.
While culture is essential in creating an environment of social laws and customs that enable us to freely live with one another in society, its knowledge is imperfect. The changing nature of our environment also means that social laws and customs must adapt to new circumstances.
The problem, of course, is that many cultures prevent freedom by putting an iron band around truth. You have a certain amount of freedom within the Taliban society if you obey all the Taliban rules, but those rules can terribly restrictive (for example denying women education) and there is no proof that they reflect natural laws. Rather they may be the arbitrary laws of a leader with ulterior motives.
The Separation of Church and State
One solution to this problem is to decouple “nation” and “state.” The US Founders attempted a noble experiment in which Church and State would be separated so that the power of the state could not be used to impose the particular set of values of a single religion. The First Amendment to the US Constitution reads,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The founders, however, did not believe that a state could stand without the moral compass of religion that provides people with voluntary knowledge of the social constraints necessary for freedom. For example, Benjamin Franklin told his daughter he didn’t care which church she joined, as long as she attending some service on Sunday. Madison argued that without a strong religious sphere the political experiment would collapse.
Did they believe in absolute separation of church and state? No. The founders believed in “general religion.” General religion was that which recognized and accepted the laws of the natural universe and the presuppositions of the Declaration of Independence–“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, and human laws that reflected these transcendent laws as perfectly as possible.
The “Nation” of the United States, i.e., those general elements to which all citizens must assent, thus exists in a culture that corresponds to a general religion. It is a “religion” that recognizes some general principles of society that must be implemented for “life, liberty, and happiness” to be freely pursued. This religion is enshrined in the Constitution and the first ten amendments. Individuals and particular religions were free to operate within these bounds.
This general religion, while being inadequate as a positive guide for individual accomplishment, served as a guide for a much wider freedom of people than heretofore known in a nation-state. Except for the glaring contradiction of the acceptance of slavery, its laws and rules were only intended to protect people from harming one another. As such, it fostered “negative rights.”
Throughout the two hundred and twenty years since the adoption of the Constitution, the Americans have systematically lost their liberties by, for example:
- Imposing positive and particular values that restrict the realm of freedom, both by special interest legislation and through culturally influenced Supreme Court decisions.
- Attempting to use freedom in ways that transgress natural laws. For example, the adoption of lifestyles that are the social equivalent of trying to walk off a cliff, or walk in outer space.
- Transforming public education by imposing restrictive values, frequently disparaged as “political correctness.”
- Failing to teach the general principles of self-governance required by a free society in the public schools, churches and homes.
Americans proved incapable of retaining their full liberties by adhering to the general religion of the Constitution. Rather, they created and imposed new orthodoxies that undermined the legitimacy of the government. But this does not mean that a genuine nation-state is impossible.
The United States was once a model of liberty in a nation-state. It had numerous particular religions coexisting with one another within the rubric of the general religion. The “culture wars” that erupted in recent decades were a result of the failure to honor the spirit First Amendment: “Thou shall not enact any legislation that favors one particular interest over others.” “Thou shalt only enact legislation that reflects the impartiality of a transcendent Creator.”
It is often said that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” And, “a people get the government they deserve.” To reclaim the liberties we seek in order to pursue our happiness and throw off the shackles of the governments we have created to put ourselves in bondage, we must once again become students of history and the principles of good governance.
James Madison once said that there are two things we must know about government:
- What is its purpose? (The happiness of the people)
- How to achieve that purpose.
The American Founders did not believe they had created a perfect government, only a “more perfect government.” And, as Ben Franklin is reputed to have told a lady who asked as he walked out of the Convention. “We have created a Republic, Ma’am, if you can keep it.”
Keeping such a Republic means understanding the principles by which it stands and enacting legislation that weeds out viruses and worms, and passes legislation that applies the principles of good governance to new situations as they arise. The job of Congress, is like the job of the computer programmer who has to write new code for new hardware that is developed, and to create defenses that prevent hackers from planting virues in that code. That is the way to run a government so that people can continually pursue life, liberty, and happiness.