Nationalism and Religion

Yoav Peled's picture

Nationalism and Religion

In this post Yoav Peled, Tel Aviv University, discusses the relations between nationalism and religion.

In this post I would like to raise questions, rather than offer answers, regarding the relations of nationalism and religion. This is a salient issue at the moment with what may be termed religious nationalism playing a prominent role in, inter alia, India, Turkey, Poland, Israel, and the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

According to Mark Juergensmeyer, both nationalism and religion are ideologies of order.[1] Both involve faith in an external power, feelings of awe and reverence, and ceremonial rites focused on a sacred object, such as the national flag (which in many European countries displays a cross). Both nationalism and religion unite their adherents in an imagined moral community, sharing a common good, and both are concerned to maintain the boundaries and purity of their community. Both nationalism and religion claim utmost loyalty to a transcendental cause, to kill or die for. Therefore, a person can have only one nationality and one religion (but can have multiple citizenships). Both nationalism and religion seek to regulate human reproduction (marriage, divorce, celibacy, abortion, natalist policies) and death.


Broadly speaking, then, the relations between these two ideologies of order can be of two kinds:


1. Analogues – nationalism replaced religion functionally as the unifying “value consensus” of society. In this case, did, or will, religion ever disappear or decline?

2. Nationalism and religion coexist as partners and as potential rivals for people’s loyalty.


Religious Origins of Nationalism

The question has to do with the role played by religion in the origins of nationalism. It has been argued that the territorialization (Peace of Westphalia, 1648) and pluralization (through print, vernacular [state] languages) of religion following the Reformation led to the development of nationalism. Thus, the attribute of sovereignty, which is the essence of the modern national state, was transferred from God to the absolute monarch, and then to the people, resulting in the emergence of nationalism with the French Revolution.


Did this process require secularization as its precondition?


According to Rogers Brubaker,

"This process of differentiation – and in particular the emergence of understandings of economy, society and polity as autonomous realms – was arguably a precondition for the emergence and widespread naturalisation of the social ontology, social imaginary and ascending understanding of political legitimacy that are characteristic of modern nationalism."[2]

By the same token, Talal Asad has argued that nationalism requires the concept of the secular to make sense, because the loyalty that the individual nationalist owes is directly and exclusively to the nation. Yet Asad has also claimed that “the established church, which was an integral part of the state, made the coherence and continuity of the English national community possible.”[3] Are these two statements compatible with each other?


Uriel Abulof has made a useful distinction between religion as a resource for nationalism, providing it with symbols, myths, imageries, etc., and religion as the source of nationalism, in which case the nation is conceived of as the divinely chosen people.[4] This leads to the question of religious nationalism.


Religious Nationalism

According to Roger Friedland, all religious movements active in the public sphere, such as Evangelical Christianity or political Islam, constitute forms of religious nationalism. Brubaker, however, has argued that the category of religious nationalism requires a much more demanding test, a demonstration that “there is a distinctively religious type of nationalist programme that represents a distinct alternative to secular nationalism.”[5]


The religious nationalist program, in cases such as Hindu nationalism in India, religious Zionism in Israel, and Christian nationalism in the US, is prone to be much more militant than that of secular nationalism. If the particular nation involved is the chosen people, then opposing it is not merely a matter of conflicting interests, it is a religious sin and should be treated accordingly.


To illustrate, during Israel's military operation in Gaza in the summer of 2014, the religious Zionist commanding officer of one of the infantry brigades, Col. Ofer Vinter, called on his troops to fight "the terrorists who defame the God of Israel." This call for religious war by a senior commander in the Israeli military was unprecedented in the history of Israel’s wars, which were commonly presented as defending the national interest, rather than the interest of Jewish religion.


In India the ruling BJP party, under the banner of Hindutva, instituted policies that prohibit the slaughter of cows – seen as sacred by Hindus – in regions across the country. Sacred cow policies have been used as a pretext for various episodes of targeted violence and persecution against Muslims, who are labelled as cow killers, because they farm and consume beef.


In the attack on the US Capitol, according to Philip Gorsky, there was a “jarring mixture of Christian, nationalist and racist symbolism amongst the insurrectionists: there were Christian crosses and Jesus Saves banners, Trump flags and American flags, fascist insignia and a ʻCamp Auschwitz’ hoodie. Some saw apples and oranges. But it was really a fruit cocktail: White Christian Nationalism.”[6]


Finally, religious nationalism is closely allied with ethno-national populism. European populist movements increasingly use Christian language and symbolism to define the borderline between “us” and “them” – the Muslim immigrants who allegedly threaten Christian European civilization. Brubaker has termed this phenomenon “Christianism,” to be distinguished from traditional Christian religiosity. In Northern and Western Europe (but not in Eastern Europe or the US) Christianism has abandoned anti-semitism in favor of Islamophobia and adopted a quasi-liberal rhetoric of human rights, gender equality, etc., in order to highlight its civilizational difference from Islam.




[1] Mark Juergensmeyer, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008, p. 21.

[2] Rogers Brubaker, (2012) “Religion and Nationalism: Four Approaches,” Nations and Nation­alism, 18 (1), 2012, p.   16.

[3] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford University Press, 2003, pp. 190,     193.

[4] Uriel, Abulof, "The Roles of Religion in National Legitimation: Judaism and Zionism’s Elusive Quest for              Legitimacy, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 53, 2015, p. 518.

[5] Brubaker, “Religion and Nationalism,” p. 12.

[6] Cited in Thomas B. Edsal, “The Capitol Insurrection was as Christian Nationalist as it Gets,” The New York Times, January 28. 2021.

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