Religion, Politics, and Nationalisms

By: Scott W. Hibbard

March 30, 2022

Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective

The relationship between religion and politics—and between political authority and religious authority—has always been close, and often problematic. In Sunni Islam, for example, a system of dual authority emerged by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While the relationship was often defined by a high degree of cooperation—political leaders needed moral legitimacy and the ulama (religious scholars) relied upon temporal authority to uphold Islamic law—it was also contentious. Political rulers sought to dominate religious leaders, as well as the doctrines of Islam, and they were not above using force to attain compliance. The ulama, on the other hand, struggled to maintain their independence—and integrity—with many recognizing the corrupting influence of political power on themselves and religious thought. This situation changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as modernizing elites in countries such as Egypt gained the upper hand and introduced Western-style education and legal codes, effectively taking control of realms traditionally under the purview of religious elites.

A similar story played out in the West. Church and state evolved separately in pre-modern Europe but found mutual benefit in their close affiliation. Established churches had the protection of the crown, while religion “consecrated” the state. As was argued at the time, “power and law [together] serve God’s moral design.” The relationship was a tenuous one, however, and often corrupt. As John Locke argued, intrusions of the state into the realm of religion were “much rather Marks of Men striving for Power and Empire over one another than of the Church of Christ.” It is not surprising, then, that established religion was one of the forms of tyranny that both the French and American revolutions sought to end. In the American case, separating church and state was essential for protecting individual freedom, particularly the freedom of conscience. The result was a “Godless Constitution” that formalized the separation of church and state.

This historical context informed modernization theory, and its corollary, the secularization thesis. These theories assumed that religion would diminish in importance as states and societies developed economically and politically. As states and markets became more influential, it was argued, formal religious organizations would no longer retain their dominant position in public life. It was also assumed that personal belief would decline as science and reason challenged literalist readings of faith traditions and undermined the hold of religious myth upon the popular imagination. The political trends of the early to mid-twentieth century seemed to affirm this view.

While modernization theory accurately predicted the loss of influence of religious bodies vis-a-vis the state, the theory did not account for the continuing salience of religion to the construction of collective, and particularly nationalist, identities. 

More to the point, modernization theory did not anticipate ostensibly secular elites working to co-opt religion into the service of the state. 

While there were instances where modernizing elites sought to eradicate religion from public life–Ataturk’s Turkey or Mao’s China, for example–more often, state actors sought to use religion to sanction state power and legitimize their claim to rule. Even in the United States, religion was never absent from the construction of nationalist myths, whether that was the ecumenical vision of American civil religion or the more assertive religious nationalism which sees the country as a Christian nation guided by divine purpose.

The example of the United States highlights the way in which different interpretations of religion—modernist/conservative, liberal/illiberal—inform competing visions of social life. As I argue in Religious Politics and Secular States, these differences are central to the political disputes over the nature of social order and how to define the nation. While civic forms of nationalism are defined by an inclusive conception of political community—and informed by Enlightenment norms—ethnic variants are characterized by exclusive or illiberal conceptions. Different interpretations of religion, moreover, inform each. Liberal or modernist interpretations of religion have historically provided the basis for an inclusive form of civic nationalism, while illiberal or fundamentalist interpretations of religion are typically associated with ethnic nationalism and closed conceptions of society. 

The struggle to define the nation, then, involves both a political conflict over the nature of social order, as well as a religious dispute over how to interpret a shared tradition. 

Whether this is the culture wars of American politics, the secular-integralist debate of Egypt, or the long-standing question of how to define the Indian nation, these ideological debates are all informed by competing views of both religion and society.

Seen in this light, one can recognize the religious roots of the secular consensus that defined the early post-WWII period. In countries as diverse as Egypt, India, and the United States, modernist (or inclusive) interpretations of religion informed a civic nationalism defined by ecumenical tolerance. Modernist religion, in short, provided the basis for an institutionalized form of secularism as religious neutrality. During this same period, illiberal or fundamentalist forms of religion (and the organizations which espoused them) were politically marginal and—in places such as Egypt—actively repressed. The marginalization of conservative religious ideologies was perceived as a harbinger of religion’s future.

These trends changed, however, in the 1970s and 1980s. During this latter period, mainstream political actors came to see religious fundamentalisms as a bulwark against socialism and a vehicle for promoting a patriotic majoritarianism. Conservative religious activists were, in short, a constituency to be courted, not repressed. In the United States, this corresponded with the rise of the religious right, while in India, the trend was evident in Indira Gandhi’s efforts to co-opt Hindu nationalism. Similarly, conservative Islam was used by state actors throughout the Middle East and South Asia to marginalize the political left, sanction authoritarian rule, and create a religious obligation to obey political authority.

This pattern of using conservative religion to “consecrate” state power is a throwback to an earlier era. While a formal separation of church and state remains in many countries, the use of religious discourse to sacralize nationalist symbols and sanction state power is ubiquitous. And though contemporary religious revivalism is often seen as rejection of modernity, the reality is that these exclusive religious ideologies do not represent a return to some timeless notion of tradition, but rather embody a modern vision of political rule that promotes the interests of one community at the expense of all others.

The fundamental conflict in modern politics today, then, is not between religion and secularism, per se, but, rather, between open and closed visions of society, with competing interpretations of religion informing each. 

How societies interpret a shared faith tradition, then, is central to matters of conflict and stability. Appealing to a more virtuous reading of religion—one that unifies diverse communities instead of dividing them—will be more conducive to inter-communal harmony than promoting an exclusive vision of religious nationalism.

If religion has helped to reshape modern politics, the converse is also true: its politicization has changed religion. By invoking not just religion, but an illiberal variant of their respective faith traditions, mainstream political actors have influenced popular perceptions about which interpretation of religion is the more culturally authentic. This marks a sharp break with the mid-twentieth century when state actors tended to eschew exclusive religious ideologies. Ironically, the ability to resurrect a vision of inclusive civic nationalism and ecumenical tolerance may be found in religion itself. The issue, though, is whether the modern institutions of political life—and the political actors who shape them—are willing to embrace a faith defined by religious tolerance and political inclusion and avoid succumbing to the siren song of religious majoritarianism.

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