Religion and Nationalism Research Paper

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Nationalism and religion share the ambiguous status of being the most potent and inspiring sources of collective identity, but also the most destructive forces for mobilizing large numbers of people and generating social conflict and change. The conventional view of their relationship is conflictual and evolutionary: the nation is opposed to the religious community, as nationalism is to religion, and national identities must, and will, in time supersede obsolete religious allegiances.

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For ‘modernists’ like Ernest Gellner, Tom Nairn and John Breuilly, nationalism is a purely modern, secular ideology; it appears only when the age of tradition and religion gives way to that of modernity and the nation-state. This was very much the view of Elie Kedourie, for whom nationalism was a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As a secular ideology of collective Will and as a fruitless quest for unattainable perfection on earth, nationalism embodies a godless, antinomian chiliasm which ultimately can be traced back to medieval Christian millennial doctrines. Its effect is to subvert duly constituted authority and destroy the normal barriers between the public and private domains in the interests of a pure, acosmic brotherly love—in Africa and Asia, as well as in its European seedbeds. With equal regret and ire, but from the other end of the ideological spectrum, Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm can only see in nationalism, particularly of the ‘divisive’ post-1870 ethnolinguistic variety, a new set of ‘invented traditions’ in the hands of ruling capitalist elites and a despairing popular reaction, like fundamentalist religion, to the massive forces of social change and the failure to realize the project of socialist internationalism. Nationalism, in short, like religion, is increasingly a diversion and obstruction to the great globalizing ‘movement of history.’

This view has not gone unchallenged. Impressed by the evidence of ‘religious nationalisms’ in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe, scholars like Mark Juergensmeyer have argued that ‘nationalism’ and ‘religion’ are often natural allies, and that religious movements like Shi’ism are seeking to reclaim the nation from the embrace of the secular state. For others such as Conor Cruse O’Brien, this affinity of religion and nationalism, or ‘holy nationalism,’ can be traced back to the Old Testament. It is also possible to argue that such well-known cases of secular nationalism as Jacobin France, Kemalist Turkey, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China did not attack religion as such, and were in any cases transient phases of revolutionary politics which always sees the return of a society’s ‘central values.’ From the standpoint of collective identity, religion and nationalism can often be mutually reinforcing, and hence classic ‘weapons of the bourgeoisie,’ in Leninist parlance.

A third view sees in nationalism a species of religion in its own right, competing with traditional world or local religions for mass allegiance. Already in the 1960s, functionalists like David Apter had shown how nationalism performed the functions of a massmobilizing ‘political religion,’ a characterization recently developed by George Mosse in his penetrating studies of the liturgies of the civic religion of European, mainly German, nationalisms, and by Bruce Kapferer who, in an illuminating comparative study of Sri Lankan and Australian ideological politics, has demonstrated the ways in which a nationalist religion copes with problems of ontological insecurity and ethnic conflict. Benedict Anderson, too, though he fails to develop the point, sees nationalism more closely aligned to religion than political ideology, and the imagined community of the nation as emerging out of, and against, the earlier world religious communities.

Each of these views has much to commend it, and can point to considerable supporting evidence. Equally, it is not difficult to find counterexamples. For every ‘secular’ nationalism drawing on ancient classical or pagan motifs and myths such as the Finnish Kalevala or the Homeric Iliad, we can find equally fervent religious nationalisms inspired by their respective religious ideals and appropriating their ethnoreligious heritages, as the modern Hindu Indian movement has drawn on the Ramayana and Mexican nationalism on the cult of the Virgin of Gaudeloupe. The influence of traditional religions may prove equally ambivalent. If Buddhism underpins and is reinforced by Burman and Sinhalese national identities, the conflict between Protestant and Catholic Christianities only served to undermine the growing sense of German or Swiss national identities. As for Islam, it can buttress an all-Arab nationalism, but can equally undermine the Arab circle of allegiance in favor of the wider Muslim umma, or, in the hands of radical populist regimes like the Ba’ath Party, support the narrower circle of the Syrian or Iraqui nationstate.

This suggests that there can be no simple characterization of the relationship between the two modes of culture, identity, and belief. We have only to recall the contradictions that bedeviled the French revolution, often regarded as the first full-blown case of secular nationalism. From the very first oath sworn by the deputies on the tennis court in June 1789 to the last Jacobin journee, the Fete de l’Etre Supreme in June 1794, classically-inspired secular and Christian religious motifs and rituals were combined, inspiring in the multitudes a powerful emotional blend of patriotic, fraternal political activism. Thus, as Simon Schama points out, at the Fete de la Federation held on the Champs de Mars on July 14, 1790, Lafayette administered the oath to country and king and Talleyrand provided the mass and benediction, intoning: ‘Sing and weep tears of joy, for on this day France has been made anew’; while over at Notre Dame, they performed a half sacred, half profane cantata entitled Prise de la Bastille, set to passages from the apocryphal, patriotic Book of Judith.

Similar religious motifs pervaded other nationalist celebrations; for example, the patriotic German festivals of the Wartburg in 1817 and at Hambach in 1834, described by Mosse, as well as the six-hundredth anniversary of the Swiss Confederation and the Oath of the Rutli, held in Schwyz and on the Rutli meadow in 189l. In the twentieth century, nationalist celebrations continued to employ religious imagery, most notably in the cult of ‘fallen soldiers’ and patriotic sacrifice, whether in the two world wars or the many more regional wars fought in the name of the nation, or the nation-to-be.

These considerations point to a more complex interplay and layering of religious and national identities and experience. Much of the confusion surrounding this problem stems from divergent definitions of both ‘religion’ and ‘nationalism.’ The evolutionary modernist ‘secular replacement’ perspective employs a traditional definition of ‘religion’ in which our everyday world is believed to be controlled by a supraempirical order (and/or beings) which is the source of salvation—a theocentric and cosmic belief-system; while its definition of nationalism as the aspiration of a people and culture to be autonomous and united in its homeland emphasizes its secular, linear, and anthropocentric character. It is easy to see how, on this schema, nationalism and religion become opposed: the nation replaces the deity, the nationalist movement the church, and posterity the after-life. For the alternative view which sees nationalism and religion as ‘natural allies,’ or even conflated as ‘holy nationalisms,’ nationalisms can take as many forms as there are peoples and nations; similarly with religions. So nationalism and religion are really continuous and mutually reinforcing, or superimposed; nationalisms are expressions of belief, or ‘faith-communities,’ just as churches or religious communities are really ‘nations.’ As John Armstrong suggests, religious communities easily slide into ethnic groups, and vice versa. But this is, once again, to muddy the waters, and preclude the possibility of a more discriminating analysis. After all, are all nationalisms equally ‘holy’? Does religion always reinforce national identities? Isn’t the ‘faith’ of nationalists quite different to that of a traditional believer in a local or world religion? That, at least, is how it has often appeared to many participants who faced difficult choices about the claims of God and state, religion and nation, particularly where the religion was transterritorial, even universal in its claims. Hence also the vital differences between secularizing nationalisms like the republicans in France or the Westernizers in Tsarist Russia, and the religio-monarchical nationalists in France and the religious narodniks in Russia.

This is where the third, or ‘political religion,’ perspective may help. We do not have to subscribe to its belief in the substitution of ‘religion’ by ‘nationalism,’ but we can with profit employ its wider, Durkheimian approach to religion—as a system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things—to understand how and why modern nationalisms, defined as ideological movements for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity, and identity for populations deemed to constitute ‘nations,’ can fulfill many of the identity-creating functions of traditional religions. This makes nationalism both a competitor to, and an ally of, traditional religions, depending on historical and social circumstances.

In practice, this tension and symbiosis between ‘religion,’ so defined, and ‘nationalism,’ produces a series of familiar mass phenomena. These include:

(a) The politicization of religion, in which traditional religious motifs are transmuted into secular nationalist features. Thus prophets, saints, and religious lawgivers like Moses, Muhammad, and Confucius are metamorphosed into national heroes, religious revelations are turned into national shrines such as Yasna Gora and Guadeloupe, scriptures like the Bible and Bhagavad-Gita are re-read as national epics, and miracles like the eight-day lamp of Chanukah become national feats of the Maccabees. Even commemorations like the death of Hussein at Karbala, or the Exodus across the Red Sea, are re-enacted as nationalist festivals in Iran and Israel.

(b) The messianization of politics, whereby the nation-state is sanctified and exalted, and its leaders are endowed with religious charisma. This was how their followers came to regard nationalist leaders like Nkrumah, Nasser, Herzl, and Soekarno, investing them with superhuman qualities as messianic deliverers and saviors. But the messianization of politics and the sanctification of the nation-state does not stop with the leaders; it includes the sacralization of ethnohistory, such as the Gaelic history of Ireland, the Christian mission of Poland, and the Hinduization of ancient India; the belief in millennial destiny such as we find in the United States or communist Russia; and the ‘invention of traditions’ such as the rites and ceremonies of Bastille Day, Independence Day, the Rutli Oath, and Armistice Day at the British Cenotaph.

(c) Religious populism, or the exaltation, even deification, of the ‘people,’ the ordinary people, as opposed to the elites. This may include the quest for purification of the people and their culture, in the tradition of Herder’s cultural populism, sought by so many Central and East European nationalists, or by Indian, Arab, and West African nationalists like Edward Blyden; the return to ‘authentic’ folk traditions and their elevation to national status, as with the Finnish regard for the Kalevala and the Estonian for the Kalevipoeg, the Gaelic revival in Ireland, and the Mexican and Peruvian return to pre-Columbian Indian culture; and the glorification of the simple or, common people,’ a political tradition that can be traced back to St. Joan, through the narodniks and Mussourgsky’s depiction of the Simpleton-Prophet in Boris Godunov and Levin’s discovery of truth among the peasants in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, to Peronism, Poujadism, and the modern Russian nationalists.

Each of these mass phenomena mixes sacred and secular elements, or more accurately, sanctifies the worldly in unexpected, yet, given the background, quite logical ways. On this reading, nationalism is, as Kedourie affirmed, a secular, this-worldly, ideological movement, with clear terrestrial and anthropocentric goals. It does not seek a world beyond this earth, nor does it posit an unseen world guiding and making sense of the world of our senses. At the same time, nationalisms draw, in varying degrees, on the religious background and tradition of the populations whom they deem to constitute nations. This is not, or not usually, a case of manipulation of ‘atavistic mass emotion,’ as Kedourie claims, nor of a need to control and channel the unleashed energies of the newly mobilized and enfranchised masses, as Hobsbawm argues. It is quite simply that most nationalists are steeped in the religious traditions of their forbears, even where they have rejected them, and that to make sense of their new political message, they have no alternative but to couch it in language and images that are familiar and comforting to their audience. Rarely do nationalists seek to destroy an old, religious identity, in order to build up a totally new national one, although they may attack the guardians of religious tradition who refuse to reinterpret the tenets of the faith in a ‘politically relevant,’ i.e., nationalist, manner. Hence, of any nationalism we must ask, not whether it is ‘religious’ or ‘secular,’ but how and to what extent it mingles sacred and worldly elements, and with what consequences. Similarly, we should enquire not whether the nation in question is seen as an ‘ethnic’ or ‘civic’ unit, and a religious or secular community, but how and to what degree its national identity is infused with sacred motifs and religious images, and with what kind of effects.

It may be useful to grasp the complexity of this relationship by distinguishing three ‘levels of analysis.’ The first is phenomenal: it describes and analyzes the kind of nationalism that is in the public domain, the official version proposed by the elites. Thus, we may use a shorthand to describe French nationalism during the Revolution, or Turkish nationalism under Ataturk, as avowedly ‘secular,’ even irreligious. And we may range official nationalisms and their political symbolism along a continuum of religious to secular poles. Here, of course, we are using the traditional definition of ‘religion’ as a faith that looks beyond this world for salvation.

A second level of analysis seeks to determine the content of unofficial and more popular kinds of nationalism and national identity. Here we can expect to find considerable variations in the extent and kind of religious motifs and sacred imagery and symbolism in different national identities and nationalisms, and in different religious traditions. On the one hand, are cases where classical, secular myths and imagery predominate; this was the case in France and the United States during and after their Revolutions, and in Italy from the Risorgimento to fascism. On the other hand, we find examples where religious images and motifs pervade the sense of national identity; this was the case among the Greek peasantry in 182l, the Russian peasantry under Tsarism, or the Ethiopian peasantry under the Emperors, as it is in Pakistan and Sri Lanka to this day. In all these cases, the respective traditional religions had played a large part in molding the sense of ethnic identity prior to the modern epoch; and each of these traditional world religions contained a large repertoire of sacred elements—scriptures, liturgies, symbols, rituals, scripts, ceremonies, and the like. Some religions, indeed, like Christianity and Judaism, as Adrian Hastings argues, have provided particularly fertile terrain for the reproduction and proliferation of vernacular nations based on the Biblical prototype of the ancient Jews in their land.

Moreover, even in more advanced industrial societies, sacred imagery and religious symbolism may persist and underpin a sense of national identity, even where the majority of the population are, by conventional measurements, no longer practicing believers. In the United States, for example, for all its official civic secularism, large numbers of citizens espouse religious forms, images and rituals of the American nation, and continue to envisage its destiny in providential terms. The same is true, though in quite different ways, in France and Israel, despite the avowed secularism of the majority of their populations; the historic rationale and destiny of the nation remains part of the sacred realm, and the various religious symbols, images and motifs have done their work of forging the raison d’etre of the French and Israeli nations.

This brings us to the third level of analysis. It requires us to adopt a wider, Durkheimian approach to and definition of religion, and a different perspective on the significance of the nation. On this general level, the nation can be considered as a ‘sacred communion’ that unites the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. This is not just a matter of imagination, as Benedict Anderson claims; it is even more a matter of will and feeling. The nation is, in the first place, a willed and a felt community, a moral community of collective purpose whose members are bound by powerful sentiments arising from a sense of presumptive ancestral affinity. (Presumptive, because myths of origin rarely correspond to the historical record of origins, let alone actual biological descent.)

This points to the dual origin of the nation: on the one hand, as a community based on presumed ethnic origins and descent, tracing their genealogy back to a specific place, time, and ancestor, and on the other hand, as a union of all those espousing common moral purposes and assumptions, a community of destiny who trace their ideological and moral lineage to the sacred properties of beliefs and practices of a community of the faithful. The fusion of these two kinds of community over the longue duree creates the basis for the modern nation.

What are the sacred properties of the beliefs and practices of the faithful? And how are they transformed into the national ‘religion of the people’? Four kinds of sacred property form the main ‘pillars’ of the nation: belief in the chosen people; attachments to a sacred territory; memories of the golden age; and rituals of commemoration of the glorious dead.

(a) By the concept of the chosen people, I mean not simply any community that exalts itself and carries ethnocentric sentiments of superiority and exclusiveness, such as we find throughout history. The meaning here is more specific. On the one hand, there is a broader sense in which elites of nations feel that they are entrusted with a sacred mission by the deity—to convert the heathen, protect the church, or defeat the infidel. By this divine trust and mission, they are sanctified and, by extension, their people become the elect; they derive their rationale as a community from this trust; and they feel exalted by the sense of their divine calling and the success of their leaders. It is not always clear what the effects of failure are, or indeed what constitutes failure; one has the sense that this kind of chosenness is flexible and capable of considerable reinterpretation.

So indeed is the second, more precise ‘covenantal’ meaning. Here chosenness is conditional and popular. The whole community is chosen by the deity for a specific purpose, but only for so long as it fulfills its task and mission. Failure to do so leads to the loss of its status as the elect. This is the essence of the ‘covenant.’ Its purpose is to sanctify the community and to separate its members from their profane surroundings. In the Old Testament model, the Israelites were set apart in order that they might fulfill God’s commandments and hasten his universal salvation. They were to become a ‘holy people’ and a ‘nation of priests.’ In their footsteps followed Armenians and/orthodox Greeks, Amharic Ethiopians and orthodox Russians, Afrikaners and Ulster-Scots, and many others in the monotheistic traditions.

The sense of ethnic election has been widespread in all ages and continents, particularly in the looser, missionary form. Its origins are obscure, and it takes many forms, from the conquering zeal of Muslim Arab nomads and Catalan or Hungarian knights to the Celtic-Christian monasticism of the Catholic Irish and the pioneering providential faith of Protestant settlers in America. In each case, chosenness crystallizes the emergent sense of community and confirms its sense of special destiny. As much as any rule of endogamy, it helps to keep the community intact and guard its borders. And, more than any birth rate or territory or conquest, it ensures the long-term survival and persistence of the ethnic community that espouses it. This is especially true of the stricter, more popular, covenantal forms of ethnic election.

The sense of chosenness has carried into the modern world, albeit often in more secular versions. De Gaulle’s vision of France’s cultural and political mission, the Great Society proclaimed by Johnson for the United States, even the ‘New Britain’ of Blair and New Labour, echo the missionary kind of election myth. Communist ideals, pared down to ‘socialism in one country,’ embodied the old myths more shrilly, as did various radical nationalisms in Asia and Africa, from the Meiji reformers in Japan to U Nu’s Burma and Nkrumah’s African Christianity in Ghana, drawing as they did on Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian imagery, but ultimately attempting to fuse the genealogy of ethnic community with the sacred properties of a moral union, into the sacred communion of the nation.

(b) The origins of ideas of sacred territory are equally obscure, but we may attempt a sociological reconstruction. Territory has been valued not only for security and, of course, as ‘hearth and home,’ but also as the arena in which the members of a community live, work, and die. And are buried. Reverence for, and protection of, the last resting places of our forefathers and foremothers is one of the main ways in which stretches of territory are invested with special feelings and meaning.

Allied to this is the special collective reverence felt for the tombs and the sites of miracles and exploits of holy men, sages and heroes or heroines. Pilgrimages to shrines like Yasna Gora, Jerusalem, Qom, or Mecca endow these locations with reiterated, and so more lasting, veneration and awe. By extension, any site where heroes or saints displayed the qualities and values central to the traditions of the community is invested with significance and helps to bind the community to its sacred land.

Once again, we are dealing with the confluence of two processes. On the one hand, the sacralization of territory, sketched above; on the other hand, the territorialization of memory. The latter implies two subprocesses: on the one hand, the naturalization of history, turning the community’s history into an integral part of its environment and treating it as ‘natural,’ part of the landscape which it inhabits; on the other hand, the historicization of nature, transforming the community’s habitat and landscape into an essential component of its historical development. The effect of these two subprocesses is to bind together community and land into what we may term an ‘ethnoscape’—in which the ethnie (ethnic community) belongs to, and is an intrinsic part of its landscape, and the landscape belongs to, and becomes an integral part of, its community.

Once ethnoscapes develop, binding together ethnies and their poetic landscapes, it is a short step to attaching special sacred qualities to the land. The land is not only ‘ours,’ it is sanctified as the place of ‘our’ providential history and the chosen arena for the unfolding of the divine plan through the exploits of His, and our, saints, warriors, and sages. That, of course, is how the Old Testament concept transformed the ‘promised’ into the ‘holy’ land of Israel, and how the Swiss shepherds and herdsmen began to interpret the reasons for their remarkable victories over superior Habsburg oppressors, as if the purity of their Alpine mountain fastnesses reflected their simple virtues and steadfast faith in God. Today, ethnoscapes and sanctified nature have often become flashpoints of bitter conflict—in Ulster, Kosovo, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), Amritsar, and Tamilnad.

(c) The concept of a golden age can only be grasped in the context of the broader ‘ethno-history’ of the community. This is the set of traditional, often sacred, histories recounted by the members of the ethnic community, as opposed to the more dispassionate attempts by professional historians to reconstruct the history of the community. The line between ethnohistory and ethnic mythology is often blurred, if we interpret ‘myth’ not as fiction, but simply as a widely believed tale told about the heroic or sacred past to serve present needs and goals. This is particularly true of those periods and episodes which later generations of the community have come to remember as high or canonical epochs in the unfolding story of the community. These we may call the ‘golden ages,’ because the memory of these periods is invested with a specific nostalgia and reverence, because they come to serve as models or guides to future action.

There are various kinds of golden age—religious, political, economic, military, artistic—and there may be several in the shared memories of those ethnohistories that are rich in events and relics and are amply documented. Modern Greeks, for example, can look back to the golden age of Athens or to that of imperial Byzantium, Indians to the epoch of the classical post-Vedic states or of the Maurya or Gupta empires, and the English to the kingdom of Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons or to the Elisabethan age. Each of the ages forms part of a wider ethnohistory and its memory can act as the point of reference for a salvation drama of the nation. In such cases, the epoch in question becomes a model, an exemplification of ‘our true nature’ and a repository of ‘our virtues,’ spurring the community to emulation. Shared memories of golden ages create a sense of the extraordinary, exalt the community, and confer on their members a sense of collective dignity and the promise of national regeneration.

(d) Among the shrines of the sacred territory, the Tombs of Unknown Soldiers and the monuments to the fallen soldiers and individual warrior-heroes occupy a special place. These are the memorials to the glorious dead. In all ages, from the fallen at Thermopylae or Avarayr to the mass war graves of the two World Wars, the exploits and self-sacrifice of fallen patriot-soldiers and heroes have always evoked a special sombre reverence, and elicited a special determination not to forget their heroism and live up to their example.

In the modern age, the commemoration of the glorious dead has become central to the celebration of the nation. In this respect, the French Revolution with its cult of martyrs like Le Peletier, Bara, and Marat and its commemoration of famous patriots in the Pantheon, Aux Grands Hommes, La Patrie Reconnaissante, set the tone; while Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe collectivised the memory of the triumphant heroism of La Grande Armee. As George Mosse has documented so vividly, this idea became central to the emergent German nation, with its memorials to ancient heroes like Arminius and to modern heroes like the Volkerschlachtdenkmal commemorating the fallen at the battle of Leipzig in 1813. In Britain, Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall embodied the grief and pride of the nation; the annual Armistice Day ceremonies there and across the land, to the strains of Elgar and Chopin and the reveille bugle calls, evoke the terrible sacrifices in two World Wars and the collective resolve of the British in an atmosphere of sombre reverence.

There are few modern nations that do not have their memorials to the glorious dead, their ceremonies of commemoration, and their shrines, icons, and symbols of martyrdom and heroism. In this respect, as in the other sacred ‘pillars,’ nations and their artistic representations have taken over so much of the symbolism and emotion of earlier religious traditions, and infused their this-worldly beliefs in posterity and the judgement of history with earlier sacred longings for collective immortality.

In these ways, nations and their nationalisms have emerged on a religious foundation and are infused with many of their sacred motifs and properties—‘religion’ being understood here in its wider Durkheimian sense as a collective bond of obligation in respect of sacred things, continually rehearsed in ceremonies and rituals. At the same time, individual historical expressions of a nation’s identity may cleave closer to this religious base, or depart from it to embrace a more secular ideal and formulation. However, even in these latter cases, the nation continues to draw upon some of the sacred properties of earlier beliefs and practices and so remains fundamentally a form of sacred communion, uniting its members in a moral and ideological community of intimate belonging and collective moral destiny.


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