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An Ethic of the Nation

An Ethic of the Nation

Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation Nigel Biggar James Clarke & Co., 2015

In 1986, a younger and more impressionable Nigel Biggar was told by a senior Anglican clergyman that the nation-state was “passé”. Being young and impressionable, Biggar was impressed and believed him. He was wrong, and this book explains why.

It does rather more than that, however. Awareness of and loyalty to the nation – both one’s own and the concept – has grown through the intervening globalising decades, leaving us in need of an ethic of the nation. If nations exist (which they do), and if they persist (which they will), they will do so not simply as demographic entities but as moral ones. We need to think ethically about nationhood and this book does just that.

Comprising four chapters, Between Kin and Cosmopolis is a short book, most of which has some form of pre-existence in academic papers, chapters and lectures, but it coheres well. The first chapter makes a powerful case for the moral reality of the nation, arguing against fashionable liberal cosmopolitanism which seems to think that the only legitimate moral attachment is to all humanity. Drawing on biblical and theological sources, Biggar argues that “the argument from God’s [indiscriminate, universal] agape to Christian cosmopolitanism does not work.” Love and loyalty are local, embodied and embedded in human form and limits. Our responsibility is that “of creatures, not of Gods”. This does not mean we have no responsibility for those on the other side of the proverbial globe, but rather that human families, communities, people groups, and nations are real phenomena, reflecting real human goods. The goods of the nation – “its political constitutions, institutions, customs, received wisdoms and outlook” (10) – accordingly deserve recognition and respect, although Biggar is under no illusion that nations are “contingent, evolving and transitory phenomena”, and as liable to become infected by sin as any other human good.

The following chapter looks more closely at the English case, focusing in particular on the fact that “if a national community does not actively commit itself to a view of reality that includes a high estimation of human dignity and freedom, then an alternative, non-humanist view will come to prevail, first in popular assumptions and then in law and policy.” This is an extremely important point which liberal secularists fail to grasp. States cannot be neutral, and they certainly cannot afford to be neutral, with regard to visions of the good. Without some ‘humanist framework’ – a term which Biggar rightly uses to mean a framework that recognises and insists on fundamental human dignity, rather than simply meaning ‘non-religious’ which is unfortunately how it is often used today – the liberty we cherish degenerates either into dehumanising libertarianism, in which my choice is more important than the consequences of my choice, or it volte faces into violent and totalising ideologies such as the radical Islamism behind 7/7. The rest of the chapter argues that while the passive deism of the US Constitution or the secularised humanism of France might offer such a framework (although the second option is questionable), in England the Anglican establishment offers the best grounding for a generous, inclusive public humanism. Whether that demands the wholesale maintenance of establishment in its current form, which Biggar seems to think it does, is a more contentious point.

Chapter three takes a more international turn, and poses the question of the responsibility of sovereign states. This is a painful topic and Biggar does not shy away from that pain. Going back to Grotius, he recognises that international law – and its enforcement – is the ideal. National vigilantism, even when “well-intentioned” can “pave the road to anarchy”. However, law can be undermined not only by states taking it into their own hands, but “by the failure of public authorities to enforce [it] against law-breakers.” This, he reasons, was the ultimate and legitimate reason for British involvement in the Iraq war of 2003. On that basis, the chapter makes the case for what he calls “moral illegality”, the right of states, under the right circumstances, and with all due practical, prudential and political circumstances taken into account, to intervene militarily in other sovereign nations, without international authorisation. To this argument I shall return.

The book’s final chapter takes on another unfashionable cause, that of empire. The argument here is straightforward: the default position, particularly visible in the recent interest of biblical theologians in empire, that empire is always and necessarily an evil, is wrong. Moreover, Biggar contends, it is a view that as often as not is rooted in the socio-political context of scholars writing in the shadow of a new American empire, as it is in the biblical text itself. Engaging in detail with the essays in Richard Horsley’s edited volume In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, Biggar argues that the authors either impose personal commitments on the text or draw illegitimate conclusions from it. He is clear that he is not defending empire tout court, still less “imperialism”, but rather making the case that empires, like nations, are deeply morally ambiguous, and that while they are capable of great evil, so are nations (and nationalist movements), and that empires can, sometimes, maintain peace, even if at some cost to justice, whilst nations and nationalisms strive for justice as the cost of peace (and often of justice too). A comparison between the Middle East, under the Ottoman Empire, a century ago, and the Middle East today may well be a choice between different evils, but few, I think, would question which was the better evil to live under.

Concluding praise first: for a short book, Between Kin and Cosmopolis is a hugely impressive achievement. It combines biblical exegesis, theological reflection, political theory, and historical and contemporary geopolitical analysis with great sophistication, thoughtfulness and – joy of joys – accessibility. If I can be excused climbing back onto one of my knackered, old hobby horses: there appears to be a school of political theology that confuses complexity with perceptivity and inaccessibility with intelligence. Biggar does not. Between Kin and Cosmopolis is a textbook example of how to do public theology in way that should engage even those with who dismiss the concept altogether.

Concluding criticism to follow: for all Biggar’s reasoning, a number of his conclusions don’t convince (at least, not this reviewer). He is eloquent and cogent on the moral significance of nationhood, how nations are (or can be) distinctive examples of a collective good by means of which the diversity of creation is appreciated, fostered and turned into a blessing. Yet, he appears to see little merit or good in Scottish nationalism, which appears to be set a rather high bar of self-justification. To be clear, this reviewer holds no secret brief for the SNP and was quietly pleased at the referendum result, but Biggar seems to accord to the Scottish nationalists overwhelmingly negative motives – “victimhood… a modern and adolescent faith in the fetish of independence… a mixture of self-pity, resentment, and recklessness” – that is uncharitable and rather undermines the generally judicious tone of the book.

Similarly, unfamiliar as I am with intelligent attempts to justify the invasion of Iraq, I was pleased to read Biggar’s in chapter 3. They did not persuade me at all, however. He is right that failure to enforce international law may make as much a mockery of it as when states bypass it. But that does not satisfy the case of Iraq, where, in 2002/03, there were still plenty of options on the table before the West’s military hand was forced. There is a vague sense in his reasoning that ‘military intervention’ is treated like politics by other means, which it isn’t, as subsequent events have shown. Analogising it to interfering with child-killing neighbours down your street, as he does at one point, obscures more than it illustrates.

These will be deemed pretty big objections but reviewers should always be wary of books with which they wholeheartedly agree, and it is to Biggar’s credit that he takes on so much liberal and cosmopolitan received wisdom with such intellectual rigour. Agree or disagree with Between Kin and Cosmopolis you cannot fail to benefit from it.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation is published by James Clarke & Co.

Image by Kaz from under the Creative Commons Licence


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