It was amazing to me to find out a few years ago that there is a difference between the nation and the state. Some people like Alvin Toffler say that the contemporary nation-state is new on the scene since the 1800s. In studying this concept regarding the Balkans Crisis of the mid-1990s, I was amazed to find out that in different places the nation is defined different ways. In the United States, the concept of what makes up the nation is not debated, nor something discussed much outside High School civics classes. Most people assume we know what a nation is and why we should be loyal to our nation. However, if someone is a native American living on a reservation, are you a citizen of the United States or are part of the Indian Nations? In reality, sometimes the Indian Nations are treated as sovereign and at other times that is concept that would just not be allow to even begin to raise its head. What are the different concepts of what the essence of a nation is?
Clan or Family - There are those who see a nation as mostly biological. The Old Testament defines nations in terms of family membership. Abraham is blessed by being the father of many nations. While there is a larger sense of fulfillment for the Abrahamic through the unity of many nations in the faith of Abraham, but there is also a fulfillment in the people who were the descendants of Ishmael and the one we usually think of the descendants of Isaac. This idea that nations are primarily biological has been taken to extremes in conflicts like the Balkans crisis of the 1990s. The Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina used biology to distinguish themselves from the Croatian and the Bosniacs. My understanding is that biologically and linguistically these three groups are actually pretty much the same. The real difference between these groups was their religious heritage, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim. However, a religious war was untenable and so they defined their nations by biology to make it more acceptable morally. Some of the wars in Africa in recent years have been clan based. In the United States we are not able to unit on one dominant biological connection. We are melting pot of many biological lines. Family linage is a strong force and many modern nations realize their connections based on those biological connections. There is no way for this to be true in the United States without some sort of terrible and appalling changes. That is not to say that nations like Japan or Greece which do use biology as a dominant national definition are wrong but it just will not, can not work for the United States.
Land - Our nation has been able to define ourself in times past based on our land. We sing songs about from sea to shining sea. Of course as we do so we leave out Alaska and Hawaii, but the don't complain. Or at least I have never heard them complain. Our borders are not in dispute generally speaking, however when people look back at the blood shed and wars that helped define our borders, many people are appalled. There was a whole philosophy of the time that a coast to coast nation was a manifest destiny. In our contemporary setting, do not have such things as uncharted territory and so the political situation is quite a bit different. And realizing that borders here were a matter of maps and surveyors, but there were many and conflicting maps, land grants and charters. In essence our borders were established through both legal means mentioned above but also by people going to explore and settle the land. Once people start to risk their lives and families, that is when border establishment gives way to wars and blood shed. In our contemporary times we could never imagine doing what our forefathers did in going to war over land with the Native Americans. However if we were living in their days, we would see a vast land that was relatively unsettled. The people who lived their were not using much of it and at least on some occasions had different concepts of land ownership. We now have a mess which we have created with the Native Americans living on reservations, living with many educational, medical and economic disadvantages that can not be easily fixed. To take an analogy from most people's heritage, when you go back we are often the product of some ungodly people. Our forefathers may have been less than good and less than noble. Our land is one dimension of what defines us, despite the bad things in how we came to get it, there is also a noble aspect of settling this land. What courage it took to leave Europe to start a new life in America. When African Americans traveled west to enlist in the Army as a Buffalo Soldier, they took risk and changed the geographic environment. As people struggled on the plains of Kansas to farm wheat, they established a bread basket for the world. As people connected one coast with the other with a rail system, they created a continental rail system. As we celebrate our nation, we must celebrate our diverse and beautiful land. I believe that is one of the functions of our National Park system.
State – I would like to say that in our concept of government lexus rexus, in other words law is king. I think for the most part that is our concept of government. But there are those that once they have power, they use it as they wish. As I understand it, many nations of the world have a constitution that mirrors the constitution of the United States. They have lifted phrases and ideas of our constitution. While they have the legal document, in reality the President and other officials do pretty much as they please. Dictators keep the nation defined by sealing the borders and keep everyone in check, whether they are an ethnic majority or an ethnic minority. And again, as I understand it, many people in their world respect a strong government, even if it is oppressive because power is respected. I would not equate our state as our nation in sense of enforcing their power over the people but in a sense of limiting their power over the people. The polar opposite of how power is often practiced. I do not want to be too broad in my statements, there are many fine countries in the world who also limit the power of the state. At the same time, it is an American distinctive that I celebrate.
Culture – At one time, we could think of our British heritage as the dominant cultural heritage. Other cultures that immigrated to the United States kept some features of their culture but often learned speak English. These people's children spoke English with no accent, and attended public schools. Their was a common American experience in our language and education. (There were many exceptions, however, this was the rule.) In times of national crisis, service in the military was also a common shaping experience. These ideal common experiences, due to the size and variety of our nation, have become less ideal and less common. Our movies, books, and television shows have become somewhat of a shared experience. But most of these are developed from a marketing point of view and artistic mediocrity abounds. The messages spoken are designed to sell well and not offend. Culturally, we do have some unity, but less so. Trying to hold on to some idealization of our culture in the past would just back fire. At one time, our nation could be define a great deal by a common culture, but less so today.
Religion – At the beginning of the United States as colonies, there was a religious identity that defined the nation. Some religious persuasions were allowed and others were endorsed. The religious identity by the middle of the 20th Century was that their was a gentleman's agreement that Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism formed the Judao-Christian heritage. Of course there has always been more than that in America. But these three agreed to disagree on certain issues and in matters of public discourse could unite to do things like hold commencements services for a graduating class. This seemed to be a safe ground to hold as a common point of reference, freedom with a dash of broad unity. However, those who were not religious or came from a minority religion felt that they were not being represented by this broad category. At this time in our nation, we do have dominant religious forces that define us. Some are good and some are bad. Mormonism is a part of the fabric of our religious heritage. I disagree with the Mormon doctrines on revelation and salvation and other key issues. I could not disagree more with them, however, they are a defining element in our nations identity. I am not saying that they are state supported, but they have mass of numbers, influence in our culture on a scale that they are a part of that American religious fabric. In the same way, due to numbers of people who adhere to Evangelical Protestantism, and influence on American thinking, Evangelical Protestantism is a part of our American religious fabric. There are other forces out there too. Religion does define our nation sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. We should celebrate our religious heritage, despite it not being state sponsored.
Ideas – In writing this little essay on what a nation is, I have already talked about some ideas we hold as common. But the idea of freedom is probably the most dominant idea that defines us as a nation. Freedom to pursue goals, or freedom to live a quiet life. Freedom to serve God or freedom to serve yourself. While many nations of the world are defined by a strong government or their ethnic heritage, the United States is defined by a set of ideas, the most dominant being freedom. This idea of freedom is not unique to the United States, but it is a defining feature we celebrate. I don't think the idea even originated with us. We can lament when we have unjustly taken other people's freedom, however, there is a day to lament and there is a day to rejoice, let us rejoice in the our heritage. Those of you who hail by other nations, we rejoice with you too in your days of celebration. We rejoice that there are some things that transcend national boundaries, such as our freedom from sin in Christ Jesus. You pray for us and we will pray for you.