Secular Nationalism: Received Wisdom

Over the past several decades the idea that religion and nationalism can and do mix has been obvious to anyone who reads the newspaper. Around the world a series of powerful movements have sought to redefine societies and rework international boundaries in ways that emphasize the importance of religion within the political logic of nationalism and nation-states. Examples are abundant: the agenda of Hindu nationalists in India; the increasing centrality of Buddhism in the political discourse of the Sri Lankan government; the demands of “fundamentalist” Jewish groups that the Israeli government and society adhere strictly to Jewish law and the boundaries of the ancient Israelite kingdom; the powerful dovetailing of religious and ethnic identity that helped fuel the carnage in the former Yugoslavia; and drives across the Muslim world to bring governments into greater accord with the teachings of Islamic law. Such developments inspired the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer to write a widely read study in which he argues that the encounter between older “secular” nationalisms and newer “religious” nationalisms has emerged as the most troubling source of conflict in our time. In its early incarnation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, he argues, nationalism was secular in nature, “based on the idea that the legitimacy of the state was rooted in the will of the people, divorced from any religious sanction.” The secular nationalist ideology became hegemonic in the West and eventually spread around the globe, particularly during the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. Religious nationalism, in which religious identity is integral to the concept of nation, is a more recent phenomenon, he asserts, typically developing in the non-Western world as a conscious reaction to the perceived failures of secular nationalism to deliver on its promise of modernization and prosperity.

In building his argument, Juergensmeyer draws upon the received wisdom of scholars engaged in the study of nationalism. Although evaluations of the subject are many and diverse, most scholars have articulated versions of the “modernist” argument. According to this argument, nationalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon, originating in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stimulated by the powerful forces that were transforming European society at that time…. While differing over primary causes, adherents of the modernist view tend to view nationalism–at least in its early phase–as indelibly linked to the liberal values associated with the modern era. Premodern European society was rigidly hierarchical, and its highest echelons claimed as their birthright a preponderant share of wealth and political influence. Nationalism represented a new and more egalitarian understanding of community. Its proponents championed the view that national heritage trumped all other forms of social identity. The status of one’s parents, be they noble, bourgeois, or peasant, paled in comparison to one’s nationality, and the boundaries of nation included all who exhibited its telltale characteristics. Nationalism thus served as a powerful tool for challenging the privileges of the elite establishment and pushing for more democratic forms of government. Summing up the predominant view of early nationalism, Anthony D. Smith writes: “At the outset, nationalism was an inclusive and liberating force. It broke down the various localisms of region, dialect, custom and clan, and helped to create large and powerful nation-states, with centralized markets and systems of administration, taxation and education. Its appeal was popular and democratic. It attacked feudal practices and oppressive imperial tyrannies and proclaimed the sovereignty of the people and the right of all peoples to determine their own destinies.”

A great many scholars also include secularism among the modern values associated with early European nationalism. Under the ancien regime, the argument often runs, Europe’s ruling dynasties allied themselves with the dominant church or churches of their realms in order to enhance their power. The churches were granted numerous privileges, and in exchange church officials encouraged followers to believe that the political elite ruled according to God’s all-wise design. In their struggle against the social and political order of the ancien regime, early nationalists also took on organized religion, dismissing its political theology as so much superstition, unsuited for the progressive new era that was thought to be unfolding. Scholars often have portrayed early nationalists as secular-minded urban sophisticates, disenchanted with the religious worldview with which they had been raised….

At the same time scholars have sought to explain the striking affinities between early nationalist practices and traditional religious piety. The sacred aura surrounding nationalist symbols and their capacity to evoke devotion and self-sacrifice from adherents have led many observers to identify nationalism as a kind of ersatz religion…. According to this view, the typical early nationalist may have been estranged from traditional religion, but he or she still experienced spiritual needs long associated with religion, such as a sense of moral purpose and a comprehensive worldview. Nationalism helped fill the void created by the loss of traditional religious faith.

SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xvi

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