I’ve expended a good bit of intellectual energy recently trying to add nuance to the question of so-called Christian nationalism as it relates to the American republic. I’ve been reading Frédéric de Rougemont’s The Individualists in Church and State over the past few weeks and it occurred to me to ask the question of how much scale plays in to our fears over Christian nationalism. What if, for example, my country was a city? Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller talks regularly about reaching and transforming the city through the church and also through civic and political engagement. Is this, in some ways, a form of micronationalism? Rougemont would have certainly thought so.
Rougemont’s patriotism for the whole of his life lay with the monarchical city-state of Neuchatel. The Principality of Neuchatel was in northwestern Switzerland. Its Francophone population enjoyed the rather benevolent rule of a German-speaking Calvinist prince who also happened to be the King of Prussia. The Prince’s representatives ruled efficiently and justly in his stead. Neuchatel was the only monarchy in the post-Napoleonic Swiss confederation, and its unique constitution commanded a ferocious loyalty from its subjects.
Between 1814 and 1848 Switzerland existed as a loose confederation formed largely to keep foreign armies out of the mountainous cantons. Foreign policy, and little else, united the tiny city-states. Citizens’ chief allegiance—what in the Twenty-First Century we might call national allegiance—lay with their canton. Each of these small nation-republics held the adoration and loyalty of their people. Their commitments to their cantons were so fierce that in 1848 a civil war erupted between groups of city-states in the 1847 Sonderbund War. Parts of Switzerland experienced a social and political revolution. Neuchatel lost its prince and became a republican canton. It also lost its established state church. Rougemont worried about the effects of individualist liberalism the way modern Americans worry about the United States. “Our age,” lamented Rougemont, “has been carried away by its own abstractions.” Liberalism and individualism “cuts itself off from the past, demolishes all current institutions, and on completely novel foundations erects a new social structure for the future. It loves political revolutions.”
Western Christians in 2021 are quick to admit the validity of concern for cities; their moral, social, and religious lives are the topics of endless sermons. Cities matter, argued Keller, and he’s right. But nations do too. Rougemont’s nation was a city. The canton of Neuchatel covers 309 square miles. That’s less than Los Angeles (502 sq mi), Houston (640 sq mi) and New York City (468 sq mi including the water around the city). Neuchatel happens to be exactly the same size as my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Every one of us rightly cares for our cities with exuberance and passion. Rougemont shows us that we can also do that with our states, and even our nations. Does the United States matter less than our cities and towns? Keller argued in the first decade of the new century that cities’ cultural and economic energies meant they mattered. In the third decade of the Twenty-First Century nations are beginning to exert themselves as the liberal order shows signs of weakening. Rougemont would have thought it ridiculous to pray for city-states but not large nation-states, so why do we flinch at earnest prayer for the American republic? Debates over the American nation are sure to endure for some time in our time of significant political change. Like Rougemont, we are not foolish to fear revolutionary fervor. Surely the least we can do is care for and pray for our republic without constant handwringing over whether we are so-called Christian nationalists.