Religions and Nationalisms Beyond Nation-States

By: Slavica Jakelić

April 11, 2022

Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective

In her new book We God’s People, Jocelyne Cesari focuses on the encounters between “religious and national communities” that arise from the global “diffusion” of the Western-originated “God/Caesar divide.” The latter, the author contends, is translated into the “immanent/transcendent” and “secular/religious” distinctions as a defining feature of most modern societies, to then become the backdrop of what social scientists have traditionally considered as the “politicization of religion”—the processes through which religions came to compete with the nation-state. Reaffirming the old insight of religious studies scholars, including those interested in the religion-nationalism problematic, Cesari maintains that religion is not only a matter of beliefs and that both national and religious communities are organized around the threefold axis: belief, behavior, and belonging. Cesari then develops a comparative analysis of Syria, Turkey, India, and Russia, seeking to fill (what she sees as) a gap in the studies of religion in modernity—the transformation of religions into a political force in response to the rise of nation-states.

Cesari first situates her approach to nationalism within the scholarship that defines nationalism “as the sum of memories, emotions, and values that align the cultural and political identity of people with a certain territory and the institutions that control this territory” and then focuses on nationalism as it is manifested in “the technique of governmentality combining nation and state” to reorder both “religious and political legitimacy.” In doing so, Cesari in effect identifies nationalisms as nation-states. Such an understanding of nationalism points to the religio-national dynamics that constitute contemporary global politics in significant ways, and there is much to learn from Cesari’s project. 

While sustaining her important contributions, I want to propose here that we also expand the parameters of comparative analysis of the global religio-national phenomenology in two ways. First, I want to suggest that our inquiry also ought to center on religions as they possess agency of their own in configuring the range of collective identities, rather than seeing that agency as merely reflecting or responding to collective identities (national identities included). Second, I want to contend that our examination ought to consider nationalisms as the domain of contesting narratives and pluralism, not only as the site of power of nation-states. These two trajectories, I maintain at the end, are relevant analytically as well as normatively and politically.

The first proposed trajectory—recentering our lens on religion—requires situating the religio-national phenomena in the broader historical and sociological phenomenology of collectivistic religions. These are religions that constitute particular group identities together with, and next to, linguistic, cultural, regional, civilizational, or national identities, among others. To illustrate the possibilities of this conceptual and analytic intervention: a comparative and longue duree study of collectivistic Christianities on the European peripheries—societies as different as Poland, Ireland, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, or Greece—recognizes that group-oriented religions in these cases are irreducible to modern religio-national ties. Rather, they emerge as having a range of meanings prior to, during, and after the rise of modern nationalisms; they also emerge with regard to various and changing religious, territorial, linguistic, cultural, economic, and secular “others.” 

And, what is equally important, in some of these instances—such as the case of Bosnian Franciscans or the Christian-Muslim communities in the Bulgarian Rhodopes, among others—the narratives shaping particular collectivistic Christianities are not positioned against but rather affirm the centrality of “others” for one’s own sense of identity and for the shared social life. 

Here, then, collectivistic religions have been in existence long before the rise of modern nationalist ideologies, and they helped shape the ethics and practices of belonging that were open to others. 

During and in the aftermath of the rise of modern nationalisms, the mentioned collectivistic religions also provided powerful rejections of the exclusivist and homogenizing drive of nation-states. They did so by supplying and embodying different, more porous types of national identities.

Put differently, when the center of our analysis is not modern nationalism/nation-state as the impetus for politicization of religion but religions as continuous sources of collective belonging, we are compelled to leave behind the historically problematic view of group-oriented religions as either proto-, pro-, or anti-nationalist formations. Instead, we begin to see the rich phenomenology of collectivistic religions that, as Durkheim might have argued, predate modern nationalist movements, but which then continue to shape social experiences. Consequently, both religious and national intersubjectivities remain irreducible to either nationalisms or nation-states. The significant implication of this perspective is the notion of religion and religious actors as possessing the agency as well as the responsibility to affect, transform, and redirect narratives of collective identities, national narratives including.

The second conceptual and analytic trajectory that can help broaden and deepen our understanding of religio-national phenomena is the view of nationalisms as irreducible to nation-states. Social scientists and theologians alike developed this important insight: from Francis Fukuyama, who insists that state-building and nation-building are very different projects; to Walker Connor, who long ago stressed that nation is not the state; to Protestant theologian Karl Barth and Pope Leo XIII, who both, for quite different reasons, understood that “nation,” “nationalisms,” and “nation-states” cannot and ought not to be equated. Building on these propositions, the equating of nationalisms with nation-states might be probed as an iteration of methodological nationalisms—the social scientific understanding of nation-states as the most dominant formation and natural representation of modernity and modern politics. But even more importantly, the assumption that nationalisms are the backdrop, or are embodied in nation-states, needs to be unsettled because it precludes the appreciation of nationalism as the site of contestation and pluralism. 

Nationalisms, it is important to see, are more than political ideologies legitimizing modern-states; they also constitute the domain of civil society in which the range of actors come to define the cultural and political narratives of belonging to a nation. 

The multiplicity of such actors and narratives is the reality of contemporary U.S. nationalism—the reality shaped by the stark contrast between, on the one hand, the white Christian evangelical followers of Donald Trump who promote the rigid and exclusionary narratives of American identity and, on the other hand, the Americans of all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds who protest the inhuman treatment of immigrants while affirming a vision of an inclusive, ever-expanding American national identity. In the United States, just as elsewhere, we come out with the picture of nationalism in terms of pluralism and struggle, including the struggle against the ideologies of nation-states.

If our investigations are to capture the dynamic character of religious-national connections in a multiplicity of historical and sociological manifestations, we should certainly explore the political structures of modernity such as the nation-state, as is the case in Cesari’s book. But to see the complexity of religio-national phenomenology in a global perspective, our focus also ought to be on religion as the agentic force shaping collective identities—past, present, and future—and on national belonging as a local and localized experience, and as a cultural and social phenomenon that challenges the powers of nation-states. The proposed trajectories matter analytically, especially as they frame the comparative perspective on the phenomena at hand. But they also matter normatively and politically, as they disclose the powerful resources for challenging the nativist nationalist narratives of our populist moment—the resources that do not emerge from the rejection of religio-national connections, but from the ability to retrieve those religio-national configurations that help shape the more pluralistic and capacious forms of belonging.

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