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Modern nationalism's ancient foundations

God Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism, by Conor Cruise O'Brien. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 81 pp. $15.95. BRIGHT ideas are like young St. Bernards. It takes a certain audacity to own one. They get into everything. Their size and energy are spectacular. And they often run off with their handlers. Here in 81 pages Conor Cruise O'Brien, former Irish legislator and United Nations troubleshooter, sifts through great and small moments of history to discover that beneath all nationalism, communist or capitalist, Asian or Latin, lies religious conviction.

With the low-key amusement of a Sherlock Holmes, O'Brien deftly ties together pieces of the Old Testament, imperial Rome, medieval Europe, the German Reformation, revolutionary France, New England puritanism, and even the rantings of Joe McCarthy and the foreign policy of President John Kennedy. His prose is so graceful and his intellect so acrobatic, it's hard to tell when he has stopped performing and has started tumbling along behind a runaway thesis.

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O'Brien excavates three ancient building blocks of modern nationalism. The Old Testament infused Western history with the belief that God promises land to his chosen people. The second foundation was the Roman fatherland, or patria, prophesied in Virgil's Aeneid and explained in his Fourth Eclogue as the newborn ``order of the ages.'' Patria became the worldly vessel into which the promised heavenly city of Christianity descended, finding its first full expression in Dante's Italy and Philip IV's France, where the court priest could proclaim, ``There is no doubt that those who die for the justice of the King and realm of France shall be crowned by God as martyrs.''

The discovery of the Americas gave Europeans new promised lands. The development of colonial thought and the ensuing revolutions drew heavily on both Roman and biblical ideas. Even the Russian Revolution anointed itself. ``What is important about Marxism within this system is not that it is believed to be universally valid, but that it is the national religion of the Soviet Union.... We do not think of ourselves as believing in English, if it's the language we speak; we just speak it. I suspect that Soviet citizens speak Marxism in very much the same way. If that is the way you have to speak, you'd better believe it.''

This sophisticated writer only suspects how Marxism pervades Soviet thought while he is cocksure about America. Midway through the book O'Brien confesses that despite the evil done in its name, nationalism in some form is the glue that holds nations together. To distinguish the acceptable from the unacceptable, he defines three levels of intensity. The chosen people have some humility, because they know they can be unchosen. The holy nation is permanently favored but still under God's guidance. The deified nation is a god unto itself, and like Hitler's Third Reich, it idolizes itself.

O'Brien, who has never been very fond of American policy, applies his categories somewhat arbitrarily. He can say that the Soviet Union and Marxists in general see themselves as chosen people even though ``the god who chose them is called History, and his covenant with them is set out in Das Kapital. Their promised land is the entire world.''

Nicaragua's Sandinistas, who have set aside the national anthem and flag for the worship of party substitutes, and who have anointed themselves as the ``vanguard of the people,'' rank only at the level of a ``form of holy nationalism comparable to that of the early Puritans.'' (O'Brien misses or chooses to overlook the ironic parallel in which President Reagan describes the contras as the ``moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.'') The United States, he says, verges on becoming a deified nation, worshiping itself.

To support his judgment of the US, he offers two very subjective experiences.

In the first he attends the Annual National Prayer Breakfast, presided over by President Reagan and attended by members of Congress, governors, mayors, Supreme Court justices, generals and colonels, and a few thousand citizens. After interpreting great documents of history and scripture with careful attention to metaphor, symbol, and nuance, O'Brien suddenly seizes on a single prayer to epitomize America's hubris. When a general asks divine help in defending freedom and remarks that it is never free and ``must be paid for in installments,'' O'Brien believes this is a prayer for the Pentagon budget.

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His second experience comes one evening when he wanders alone through the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. ``I seemed to be in a huge, coldly cavernous cathedral dedicated to the glory of the United States, coextensive with the cosmos.... The only God in that cosmogony is the United States.''

Like other brilliant foreign observers, O'Brien displays a sensitivity to small detail that can be refreshing and insightful. That he doesn't always understand the nuances of what he sees and hears is understandable.

His bias, if not exactly forgivable in a professional statesman-scholar, is worth overlooking in a book otherwise well crafted and ripe with challenging ideas. He suggests that Gandhi, once an admirer of the British Empire, ended up an ardent Indian nationalist.

The debate about creation of the Great Seal of the United States becomes a debate between Old Testament and Roman concepts of nationhood. Sen. Joe McCarthy's virulent anticommunism, O'Brien says, helped make Roman Catholics acceptable in mainstream politics, and ``without Joe McCarthy's crusade in the 1950s, John F. Kennedy could not have been elected in 1960.''

This is a small book with big ideas. Its biggest failing is that O'Brien did not see that his warning about nationalism applies also to new ideas: ``The stuff is like fire; you need it to warm you, but it can destroy you if it gets out of control.''

Wallace Kaufman writes about third-world culture and politics.

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