Jocelyne Cesari Offers New View of Religion and Nationalism, World Affairs in Latest Book

By: Jocelyne Cesari

February 24, 2022

Jocelyne Cesari offers a new view of religion and nationalism in her latest book, We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations (Cambridge University Press, December 2021). The new book is among the first to combine historical and quantitative analysis to explore the relationship between religion and nationalism in global perspective, a critical dynamic impacting issues ranging from national governance to international relations. Cesari identifies major patterns in the politicization of religion based on five country case studies—China, India, Russia, Syria, and Turkey—and presents a framework for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to predict future conflicts at the intersection of religion and politics.

Why is the modern relationship between religion and politics often marked by conflict? Cesari points to the global export of the nation-state framework. “My work led me to think that in order to understand the politicization of religion in modern times, you cannot stay away from nation-building,” says Cesari, a Berkley Center senior fellow whose recent books include What is Political Islam? (2018) and Islam, Gender, and Democracy in Comparative Perspective (2017). “Political modernization went hand in hand with religious modernization, both triggered by the adoption of the national framework.” It is only by understanding the longer history of nation-state formation that researchers and policymakers can appreciate the complex relationship between religion and politics in the modern world.

Cover of "We God's People." Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
Cover of "We God's People." Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.

The rise of the nation-state in the international order also coincided with the global export of the Western understanding of religion. These two factors help to explain why interactions between religion and politics are often obscured in both research and policy circles. “The preconceived idea that modernity is based on the separation of religion and politics as distinct categories does prevent us from observing their inherent mutual influence,” says Cesari, who highlights how the sacred has far from disappeared in modern political culture. “Both political and religious symbols can nowadays be sacred: flags, national anthems, memorials, places of worship and shrines, rituals, time.” With modernity comes not the relegation of religion to the private sphere, but rather a new set of interactions between religion and politics.

Cesari takes on the mutual influence of religion and politics by arguing that religious and national communities are both defined by the three Bs: belief, behavior, and belonging. Focusing on the ways in which these three Bs intersect, overlap, or clash, Cesari identifies key trends in the politicization of religion. “By exploring institutional and ideational changes across time, this book offers original data that helps to anticipate future conflicts involving religion,” Cesari explains. “It offers a genealogy of religious and political ideas, actors, and institutions within a given national context which can be used for future research by scholars of politics and scholars of religion alike.” Crossing disciplinary boundaries, Cesari offers a critical look at local agency in response to the political and religious effects of Western colonialism. 

The new book is poised to make a significant contribution to scholarship and policymaking, especially with the rise of exclusionary forms of religious nationalism around the world. “What is at stake is the marginalization of the societal status of religion which is more encompassing than the civil activities of religious groups,” explains Cesari, highlighting the potential of religious communities to support social cohesion, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic has opened a window of opportunity for religious communities to be relevant at the global level when they adopt an agenda aimed at the improvement of humankind and are able to overcome the limits of nationalist policies.” The new book, a culmination of a career dedicated to promoting more inclusive societies through social science research on religion, is available for purchase from Cambridge University Press

Book Excerpt | Read the Introduction in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin

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