A version of this essay was originally published on January 9 2018.
Speaking on the first black-owned radio station in the US in 1953, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on “The False God of Nationalism.” In the sermon, preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church and broadcast on Atlanta-based WERD radio station, King framed nationalism as a “new religion” that once had German and Italian preachers in Hitler and Mussolini, and identified the preachers of America’s “My country right or wrong” nationalism as “the McCarthy’s and the Jenners, the advocators of white supremacy, and the America first movements.” Because of the popularity of these nationalistic preachers, King lamented, “We live in an age when it is almost heresy to affirm the brotherhood of man.” As a mainline black Protestant church minister in the early years of the Cold War, King’s concern was that he lived in an age where people had “turned away from the eternal God of the universe, and decided to worship at the shrine of the god of nationalism.”
Six years after this nation dedicated a monument to King in its Capitol in 2011, Americans faced a new nationalism. The proponents of this nationalism, who occasionally speak of a concept of “economic nationalism,” imitate a populism that claims a concern for all those “left out” by the new economy. They claim a priority for bringing “the forgotten” rural voters employment opportunities. They promise to disentangle our nation from violent foreign military affairs that have caused the displacement of millions.
But domestically, these new nationalists appoint economic advisors and cabinet members who prioritize corporate profit and efficient labor practices over the protections of a labor force that many mega-businesses ultimately wish to reduce and automate. Internationally, they have expressed romantic admiration for practices of “enhanced interrogation” considered torture. They have aligned with strongmen leaders in Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines, all nations with governments that practice little regard for human rights and show that they are more than willing to be militaristic, even if that means violence against their own citizens. Rhetorically, they claim that the millions more who voted against nationalism were comprised mainly of black and brown illegal voters, promote longstanding policy efforts of voter disenfranchisement, and dismiss protest and policy efforts to reform policing and criminal punishment in America. The new nationalism shows no evidence of concern to thwart what King identified as the triple evils of poverty, militarism, and racism. Rather, it appears ready to benefit from all three.
While it may feel peculiar in this present moment to experience the successful, rapid spread of new nationalistic ideas in the United States, these movements have been gaining visibility throughout the Western world. The displacement of peoples into and within predominantly white Western countries from Latin America, for reasons of lack of economic opportunity and safety, as well as the influx of refugees into Western European nations and the United States from parts of Africa and the Middle East, have bolstered arguments, political movements, and enterprising politicians who believe these migrations signal existential threats to their country’s national security. In response to the people of color whose presence threatens ideals of civilization and ethnic purity, there are more extremist and visible forms of these arguments that advocate explicit ethno-nationalism. In the case of longstanding white nationalist movements in Europe and the United States, these arguments also maintain and extend familiar anti-Semitic discourses of an impending “replacement” of whites with Anglo-Saxon heritage by non-white, non-Christian others.
Migrants and refugees of color in the United States pose these threats because, unlike in King’s time, there is no enforced legal and de facto system of Jim Crow segregation to police minority travel and interracial intimacy. No longer are there explicit racial codes to create and maintain strong cultural divisions and, most importantly, to prevent white people from falling in love and reproducing with people of color. Gatherings like the Unite the Right rally on 11 and 12 August, 2017, in Charlottesville, VA, journalistic profiles of the newest generation of prominent white supremacists, and vibrant nationalist online communities that organized hashtags like #whitegenocide to trend during the 2016 election cycle, reflect pervasive contentions that these global movements of people pose threats to the stability and supremacy of nationalist (cultural, religious, and racial) identities.
For King, the fear was that nationalism was once again leading to war — this time, plunging the world into “the abyss of atomic destruction.” Believing that “[n]ationalism must give way to internationalism,” King preached further, “it is nationalism perverted into chauvinism and isolationism that I am condemning. One cannot worship this false god of nationalism and the God of Christianity at the same time.” For King, Americans must choose whom they serve, and he asked of his audience a series of questions about their ultimate commitments: “Will we continue to serve the false god that places absolute national sovereignty first or will we serve the false god of imperialistic greed or will we serve the God who makes love the key which unlocks the door of peace and security? Will we continue to serve the false god of racial prejudice or will we serve the God who made of one blood all men to dwell upon the face of the earth?”
King called for the presence of “prophetic voices to cry out against the false god of nationalism.” Such voices may have to fight legal, political, social, and cultural battles that those in the Reconstruction era, in the early twentieth century, in mid-century, and in the post-civil rights eras believed they had won for posterity. As a liberal minister, King emerged from a generation of preachers who practiced a novel form of social activism from their pulpits while also developing interracial and interreligious networks. He was one of many inheritors of activist traditions who knew that progress required both sophistication and endurance, because oppressive governance is both sophisticated and more than ready to endure political pushback to secure social dominance for generations.
How will we contend with this new nationalism, in the memory and spirit of King and other nonviolent activist women and men? What is it about our own professional passions, or professional calling, that will lend to making our nation and our world less unfair, less violent, and more loving?
Vaughn A. Booker is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion in African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College. His specialization is the historical study of African American religions in the twentieth century.