One of the interesting things about religious nationalisms is their interchangeablity. I remember reading Peter van der Veer’s book, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, when it came out in 1994. I was struck by the fact that all one would have to do is change the names and it could be about the United States. As I realized this, I slowed down and tested my intuition on individual sentences. It was uncanny. For all of the many differences between India and the United States, in their religious politics they seemed very much the same, each with a large majority belonging to a religious identity that was a sprawling yet cohesive set of beliefs and practices, modernist versions of Hinduism, on the one hand, and Protestantism, on the other, each defined in part as over against what they were not, Islam, on the one hand and Catholicism, on the other. Large, raucous, populous democracies whose elite would-be secularity was belied by substantial and enduring religious life. Each majoritarian religious conglomerate provided a ready repertoire of narratives, ideas, and icons to signal both inclusion and exclusion. And all of this well before the advent of Trump or Modi.
All of the essays in this forum are rich and fascinating in their detailed explorations of the entanglements and dynamic mutual reinforcement of nationalist and religious projects. (I have not responded to them individually because there are eight of them and I could not do them justice in 1500+ words!) Together, they illuminate the protean adaptability of religious nationalisms, which are always indeed both alike and different, and always changing, as Geneviève Zubrzycki has so ably articulated and illustrated in her own work on Poland and Québec. Religious nationalism is a highly mobile space: religions become parodies of themselves and more and more like one another, all in service to the modern state and to consumer capitalism. As Zubrzycki says in her introduction to this forum, what is becoming clear in the new scholarship about religious nationalism are “the many possible entanglements between these different modalities of managing religious and nonreligious identities, institutions, and frameworks in specific national contexts.” She points to differences; and yet what the featured contributions show is how they are always both the same and different.
How did this come to pass? How did specific national contexts become so much the same? Many explanations, cultural, economic, and political, are available. But it is worth considering some beginning points in the invention of the modern nation-state and the suffocating feedback loop that its self-justifying ideology has become, obscuring other versions of religion and community.
We recently had a series of workshops at the Indiana University Center for Religion and the Human with Alessandro Ferrari of the University of Insubria, part of an ongoing collaboration. Among many interesting points about the current pathologies in the entanglements of religion and law in the modern state, I was startled to discover that the main culprit for Ferrari was Napoleon! Napoleon? We in the United States rarely think of Napoleon when we think of church and state and secularism. And yet, as Ferrari said, there is a case to be made that it was Napoleon who invented the peculiar religious form that are the domesticated religions of the modern state. With his permission, I quote from a forthcoming manuscript of his:
. . . the 1905 [French] separation law would not have existed without Napoleon and his tireless earlier state and Church building. In fact, with the Concordat of 1801 and Organic Articles of 1802 the future emperor . . .shaped . . . strongly distinctive and specialized confessional Churches. First of all, an ultramontane Catholic Church and Protestant Churches more sensitive to modernity. Then, with an imperial decree of March 17, 1808, he created ex nihilo an ‘Israelite Church’, providing the Jews with the same specialized institutions already envisaged for Catholics and Protestants.
The effect of this church and state building, Ferrari said, was that
Napoleon took control of religion by the nation state to an extraordinary level. The Emperor, who said that “I did not see in religion the mystery of the Incarnation but the mystery of the social order”, conceived church formation as going hand in glove with the full occupation of the religious space by the state. The fabrication of the imperial cult was the link between the “majority” confessional church religion and a state religion aimed at exploiting and, in due course, sidelining the former.
The United States, Canada, and India are not France. Neither is Israel or Pakistan. But one of Ferrari’s points is how successfully Napoleon’s model has traveled. Ferrari is focused on the Mediterranean, but it is worth thinking about Napoleon again in all of these cases, particularly Ferrari’s additional observation that Napoleon’s “churches” (they were not all Christian) were all the worst versions of themselves, established, of course, not only by the state but with the willing participation of insiders.
There are Schmittian resonances here, but I want to remain for a moment in the sociological register. I think that one of the effects of this Napoleonic-style formatting of religion that is not sufficiently acknowledged in the versions of secularization analysis that highlight differentiation, privatization, or declining belief, ably described by Zubrzycki in the introduction to her new book on Poland, is a failure to consider the effect on the actual content of religion. Because that version of secular, secularism, and secularization theory tends to universalize religion away from its particulars, holding religious content as steady, the remodeling of religion is less visible. Seeing religion being progressively either separated, banned from the public sphere, or simply neglected obscures Napoleon’s project to remodel religion itself, remaking it in service, as Ferrari says, to the imperial cult. It is that remodeled religion that became religious nationalism. Contrary to the myth propagated by advocates of religious freedom, the religion that is the object of state laws of protection has not remained unchanged.
I will take the opportunity of this brief response to step back from the suffocating affect and claustrophobic totalizing feedback loop of religious nationalism, which, as Zubrzycki makes clear in her own work, is a joint project of religious and secular elites, to consider the conditions that facilitate the constriction of the religious imagination. It is, I would like to suggest, the tight link between the bounded territorial containment of the nation-state, what Samuel Moyn calls Cold War liberalism, and a certain modernist historicism that makes other religious and political projects less visible and therefore less viable, both to themselves and to researchers.
In an interview with University of Cambridge theologian Timothy Howles (included as an appendix to his unpublished dissertation), Bruno Latour offered a brilliantly condensed, if somewhat hyperbolic, version of the effects of the Vatican II reform on Roman Catholicism:
Just after I was married, in the early 1970s, we chose to live for a while in the banlieue of Dijon, in the parish of my uncle, who was serving there as a priest. This was after Vatican II of course. And my uncle made the decision at this time to go about (what I call) that very Protestant work, that very Protestant movement, of sorting out what was not essential to the faith. We stayed there with him for three years. And every year I noticed that he had cleaned up more and more and more. So first he decided not to have a church building. Then he decided to celebrate the Mass in a basement of one of the tall buildings in the city. Then there was no linen on the altar. And so on and so forth.
This was a very important experience for me. Because watching all this I realised, I felt in my own flesh, that when you start in that direction, there’s no reason to stop anywhere. He had cleaned away so much, that there was no truth in it anymore.
The reforms of Vatican II were many and complex, not all to be characterized in this way, in my view, but Latour’s report echoes the Napoleonic project in sobering ways. Secular elites have secularized what they like from religion and labeled the rest irrational and superstitious. By not acknowledging as real the religiousness of other ways of being, their formatting of religion condescends to religious people. In the United States, in part because of the iconoclasm of Protestantism and secularized versions of Protestantism, the material and icons of other religions were ironically then freely available for appropriation, because they were not regarded as sacred. Medieval Catholic cultural forms, indigenous religious ways of being in the world, Black religions, are freely ransacked to decorate majoritarian white nationalisms, of the right and the left. Christmas is a perfect example. Outlawed as popish by Puritans and their Calvinist descendants in the United States, Christmas became available as a religio-nationalist celebration when it had been thoroughly commercialized and laundered. Then, forgetful of history, as always, Protestant Americans could campaign to put Christ back into Christmas, forgetting that it was they who banished him from Christmas in the first place.
By holding the secular liberal nation-state as fixed, other ways of being must be shrunk to fit. This includes Black and indigenous religions, as well as uncooperating forms of dominant religions. To the extent that the academic study of religion doubles down on this exclusion, it risks reinforcing the impoverishment of religious ways of being. Religion in the study of religious nationalism is mostly a negative thing—resulting in exclusion and illiberalism. The persistence of religion that does not serve exclusive and il/liberal politics often remains a mystery for secular statist progressivism.
Religious nationalism is never the only game in town. People always find ways to subvert or capture the state or make the state an object of devotion in ways not contemplated by latter day would-be Napoleons. Taking the United States as an example, religious freedom as conceived by liberal statism has been rejected in favor of sovereignty by indigenous groups and by Black Americans engaged in other socialities. They also reject the Napoleonic church in favor of older and more capacious forms of communal solidarity—such as Irish Catholics voting overwhelming for gay marriage. Latour, in his response to the experience of the pandemic, emphasized the thick local connections necessary for a meaningful life.
There is a sense in which religious nationalism and, to some extent, the study of religious nationalisms, can be a refusal to do political theology. By doing political theology I mean taking seriously the fact that that religion is an inescapable way of being human in the world—indeed that religions specialize in what it means to be human. You can’t do politics without it, in my view. It is interesting to pair this TIF forum with another one running concurrently at the Political Theology Network: “Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations.” There is so much potential for cross-fertilization!