When Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, he used his addresses and homilies to speak of faith and the moral renewal of the country, and of human dignity and religious freedom. Millions of Poles responded to his words with hymns and prayers. But aside from carrying crosses, they also waved Polish flags. For them, the pope’s appeals to the dignity of the human person did not resonate in an abstract theological sense, but within concrete historical experience: their opposition to Marxist atheism and Russian control, and their commitment to preserving the Catholic identity of the Polish nation.

How are we to understand this moment in the history of Polish Catholicism? Did John Paul II’s personalist theology, placed within the narratives of the distinctively Polish embodiment of Catholicism, constitute appropriation of religion for nationalistic purposes? Or did the papal visit to Poland, and the Solidarity movement that followed it, gesture toward a vision of Polishness that transcended the narrow political meaning of the religiously-colored national identity, by giving impetus to a discourse of Polishness as a moral category that embraced the dignity of every human person, and by affirming an ethics of belonging specific enough to shape a sense of solidarity, while also capacious enough to affirm differences?

These questions are important for scholarly and political reasons alike, yet it is impossible to ask them in the context in which the notion of religious nationalism is the dominant category for the study of religions and group identities. To be sure, this notion is useful for at least two reasons. Analytically, it correctly identifies important contemporary phenomena—the links between religions and national identities, or between religions and national ideologies. Normatively, the notion of religious nationalism provides a framework for critique of group-oriented religions when they incite, perpetuate, or justify social conflicts. But this category also carries significant problems. It primarily, or exclusively, addresses the political aspects of the links between religion and nationalism, while leaving out the cultural narratives through which religions become group-oriented, that is, associate with various forms of belonging—regional, linguistic, territorial, tribal, socioeconomic. Put succinctly, the notion of religious nationalism highlights only one very specific expression of group-oriented religions, while it purports to explain all of them.

My book Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity makes three points regarding the study of religion and collective identities. First, it suggests that the notion of religious nationalism does not simply omit, but actually precludes an exploration of the complicated and nuanced ways in which religions shape collective identities. Second, the book maintains that the links between religions and collective identities bring both potential and problems to public life, and that the distinction between these two possibilities is difficult, but necessary, to make. Third, the book proposes an analytic and normative framework that sustains the possibility of both critique and affirmation of group-oriented religions—the notion of “collectivistic religions.” As the remainder of this paper explains, these three points developed in the interplay between historical and sociological exploration, and between the theoretical insights of scholars of religion and social scientists.

Collectivistic Religions compares several European cases, tracing the multiple meanings of group-oriented Christianities prior to, and after the rise of, modern nationalisms and nation-states. The narratives of such Christian traditions were often defined against various religious, territorial, linguistic, cultural, and economic “others,” but some narratives also affirmed the centrality of these others for one’s own sense of identity and for the shared social life of different groups. Furthermore, the comparison of the Bosnian, Croatian, Irish, and Polish cases uncovered Christianities that, although constitutive of national identities, provided a critique of the exclusivist and homogenizing drive of national ideologies. In the recent Bosnian war, for example, the Bosnian Franciscans affirmed their Croatian identity, but also condemned and rejected nationalistic agendas that sought to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina between Croats and Serbs. Countering these agendas, the Franciscans spoke of a Bosnian identity that embraced different religious, cultural, and national groups in dialogue with each other. The Bosnian Franciscans thus managed to articulate their national and religious particularities while also subverting the Croatian nationalistic ideology.

The comparison of these European Christianities generated several questions. If the history of group-oriented religiosity precedes, and cannot be reduced to, the phenomenon of religious nationalism, what are the implications of that history for how we conceptualize religion? In light of the complex history of religions and the formation of collective identities, can we continue to assert that religions associated with national ideologies are secularized by virtue of that link? Most importantly, perhaps, how are we to distinguish between those group-oriented religions that are posited against other groups—and in some contexts also desire to abolish them—and those group-oriented religions that recognize others as a mode of their own affirmation?

These questions changed the character of my project, from a critique of the social manifestations of religious nationalism into a critique of the notion of “religious nationalism” and of the theories of nationalism from which this notion emerged. There are many differences and disagreements among scholars of nationalism, but they all, ultimately, carry modernist and secularist suppositions when it comes to religion and collective identities. This is the case whether their theories are organized around the ideas of modernists such as Ernest Gellner, or around an ethno-symbolic approach like one proposed by Anthony Smith. In Gellner’s work, for example, consideration of the relationship between modernity, nationalism, and religion becomes an argument about nationalism as a replacement for religion. Gellner not only suggests that, in modern societies, nationalism plays the former role of world religions; he also argues that, when religion does retain its importance in relation to collective identity, it exists only to strengthen nationalism. Smith’s work illustrates how even scholars critical of the modernist paradigm and attentive to religion link the rise of modern nationalism to a marginalization or decline of religion. Smith thus recognizes religion as vital for the creation and the sustenance of nations; he sees it as one of the most important markers of collectivity, next to language or territory. He also argues, however, that class, gender, race, or religion—all these other types of collective identity—rarely succeed in undermining the hold of nationalism. Gellner thinks that nationalism replaces religion; Smith declares that nationalism displaces religion.

Notwithstanding the differences between the theoretical approaches to nationalism, it is also important to note that they have two ideas in common: the notion that national identity is the collective identity of modern age, and the view that religion is religion only when it occurs in the domain of beliefs, ideas, and rituals. These designations are problematic for several reasons. On the one hand, they are grounded in a flawed understanding of collective identity, which stems from a modernist reading of history as the triumph of nationalism and nation-states at the expense of all other sources of group identities.

On the other hand, the theories of nationalism operate with an implicit theory of religion. This theory results partly from the modernist narrative of social sciences, which is both secularist and about secularization, and partly from the scientific study of religion as a subject sui generis, which holds Protestant Christianity as the archetype of modern religion. The outcome of the described approach to religion is the privileging of the realm of beliefs and theological ideas over historically embedded religious traditions and robust religious institutions; of the individual’s relation to God over her relation to some specific collectivity; of choice over ascription.

The reductionist understanding of collective identity and a theory freighted with a particularistic and individualist reading of religion also shape the notion of religious nationalism. According to this concept, religion is necessarily marginalized when it is linked to nationalism: it becomes subsumed by national identity, used as a tool of national ideologies, and it is secularized because, by being about group identity, it loses that which makes it religious. The notion of religious nationalism, in other words, de-centers religion in the very study of religion: it presents religion as the property of the political sphere of life and condenses the complex histories of religious traditions into histories of nationalism. Paradoxically, even the critics of religious nationalism (scholars who reject the ways in which religions sacralize national identities or sacramentalize nation-states) and the critics of secularism (those who identify nation-states with secularism and as positioned against religious communities) reiterate the secularist bias constitutive of theories of nationalism. According to the secularist preconception, the phenomenology of the group-oriented religions reflects the homogenizing force of secular modernity—it points to the victory of secular national ideologies and nation-states over religion as a source of collective identity. For the theorists of nationalism and the critics of religious nationalism and nation-state, then, religion linked to group identities indicates secularization. Such claims are problematic historically: religions have been linked to people’s collective identities for centuries, certainly long before the age of modern nationalisms. No historian would consider discussing group-identity religions in traditional societies as somehow secularized. The arguments about the unavoidable secularization of religion within the framework of collective identity face challenges in contemporary contexts as well, as evidenced by both the Polish and Bosnian episodes.

The book Collectivistic Religions begins with the critique of religious nationalism and theories of nationalism in order to underline the modernist and secularist premises upon which the study of religion and collective identities is built. But the book moves beyond this critique in order to develop a conceptual trajectory and parameters of comparison needed to capture the complex phenomenology of religions and collective identity, historically and sociologically. Following the insights of the religious studies scholars (who define religion as embedded and embodied in history and culture, in individual human experience and social institutions), and following Anthony Smith’s call for the reconstitution of the historical, subjective, and symbolic meanings of the concept of “collective identity,” I put forward the notion of “collectivistic religions.” This term refers to religions that are public in manifestation, culturally specific, historically embedded, and defined in part by the presence of religious (or non-religious) others. Most importantly, these religions are experienced as ascribed rather than chosen, despite and because of the fact that such identities are shaped by historical and cultural particularities and locations.

The notion of collectivistic religions organized the comparative approach to European Christianities in two distinctive ways: first, by focusing on the role and meanings of religion as one of the aspects of collective identity, and second, by placing the analysis within a historical perspective not limited to the age of nationalisms. The comparison thus captured both the changes and continuities in the ways in which religions have been formative of collective identities. On the one hand, this approach highlighted that, while some narratives of collectivistic religions emerged as important for articulating the boundaries of national communities, such claims can be made only with the advantage of hindsight. Prior to the emergence of nationalisms as modern movements and ideologies, collectivistic religions were what they were—collectivistic religions—and possessed their distinctive symbolic meanings, collective narratives, structural manifestations, and institutional carriers.

On the other hand, the comparison of European Christianities through the lenses of the notion of collectivistic religions pointed out that the arrival of modern nationalisms neither replaced nor displaced religious identities in some evolutionary fashion. Depending on the specific historical context and the presence of religious or non-religious others, religion continued to exist as a powerful element of collective identities, and was capable of building these identities as well as of reflecting them (to use Grace Davie’s summary of my arguments).

For the study of group-oriented religions, the notion of “collectivistic religions” emerges as a productive trajectory because it opens both the analytic and normative spaces for appreciating these religions with regard to various collectivities. Analytically, the notion of collectivistic religions allows us to consider religions along with linguistic, national, regional, or cultural identity. Furthermore, this notion enables the continued exploration of religion-nationalism links, but understands these links as only one possible manifestation of collectivistic religiosity—wherein the relationship between religious and national identities is not to be taken as an a priori indication of a secularized or weakened religion, but always needs to be examined empirically.

Normatively, the notion of collectivistic religions is significant because it recognizes both the potential and the problems that these religions may bring to social life. The concept provides the framework for the critique of those group-oriented religions that are the source of social conflict, but the notion also facilitates the retrieval of those religions that are not reducible to the politics of nationalism—collectivistic religions that help to define, in William Connolly’s phrase, “the visceral registers of intersubjectivity” in non-manipulative ways. Such religions are not an obstacle, but rather an impetus, for affirming and sustaining pluralism as a value in contemporary societies.