'Now, the essence of a nation is that the people have many things in common, but have also forgotten much together. No French citizen knows if he is Burgundian, Alain, Taifale, Visigoth; every French citizen must have forgotten the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the massacres in the Midi in the 13th century.'

Auguste Renan, ‘What is a Nation?’

Nationalism and/or/as Religion

Since the earliest conceptualizations of nationalism, scholars have identified a complicated relation with religion and secularism.[1] Nationalist projects,[2] arose in collaboration with, alongside of and in competition with religion. The way in which nationalism is seen to be connected to a regulation of religion, in short, differs drastically. In this lexical entry we chart some major connections between these notions as they have been identified by scholars, and we will conclude with a reflection on the value of these terms for an understanding of a variety of current affairs.

Nationalism is frequently seen as intimately connected to the rise of secularization, where the influence of religion in the public sphere subsides and is replaced with civic values and a pluriform public sphere.[3] We can see that a number of approaches to nationalism stress this relationship with religion. For Auguste Renan, whose famous definition of a nation is quoted above, the 'forgetting' of religious strife such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was a central ingredient for a coherent national community. On the basis of this definition of the nation, nationalism can be conceptualized as connected to a demise or at least a curbing of the political influence of religion. Proponents of this view, which is still highly influential in approaches to nationalism, focus on the way in which nationalist projects explicitly orient themselves towards effacing religious strife by instituting some sort of civic imagination. This has led scholars to state that nationalism offers an alternative imagined community for the religious community. The choice in this framework is nationalism or religion. These lines of thought are of relevance to our contemporary world: up until today religions are frequently seen as threats to civil order and a separation of the spheres of influence of religious institutions from political life is frequently seen as one of the core principles of contemporary polities. What is more, nationalism has historically presented itself as the harbinger of modernity.[4]

This supposed neutrality of nationalism with regards to religious matters, and the belief that nationalism constituted ‘progress’ over and against other forms of political organisation has deep and deeply problematic roots with Western expansionism and colonialism. Nations and empires have not only been built at the same time, they are two sides of the same coin.[5] For instance, many of the most prominent Enlightenment philosophers developed their theories of the state with regards to a variety of encounters with colonial others. Examples of this are Rousseau's natural man, the role of Africa in Hegel's theses on History and the world Spirit, or Voltaire's Candide, as well as Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes and the encyclopedians around Denis Diderot. It was to a significant extent through their engagement with reports of colonial encounters that these philosophers developed the political theories that would form the basis for the modern nation state such as the figure of the citizen. This is why scholarship on citizenship, one of the most eminent forms of political association with the nation state, increasingly turn to “citizenship after Orientalism.”[6]

Despite the way in which nationalism can be seen as an attempt to replace the potentially unruly 'vertical' fidelity of the believer with his/her Deity with the 'horizontal' fidelity to the state and the nations that belong to it, it is also possible to identify a vertical dimension intrinsic to nationalism itself. Proponents of this view argue that nationalism is not characterized by the 'ebbing of religious belief' as Anderson states, but rather a migration of belief.[7] Proponents of this view point out that nationalism actively uses religious dimensions. Nation-states can often be seen to demand allegiance or subscription to its creeds, and it can obtain a cult-like status through martyrs, sacred documents and the veneration of flags. It is this dimension that has led people to speak of nationalism as religion.[8] These considerations are worthwhile for our present to the extent that they focus on how nationalisms present and legitimize themselves as a transcendental belief-pattern. This might also shed new light on what has been called 'the culturalization of citizenship.'[9] This notion can serve to highlight the often highly exclusionary ways in which membership of the polity is recognized. This is particularly poignant in critiques of gendered and sexualized citizenship. In the work of Joan W. Scott and Judith Butler for instance, it has been elaborated how secular nationalism has entailed not just a liberation of females from religious oppression, but also how nationalism entails a regulation of gender and sexuality.[10]

However, nationalism as religion might not only be framed in terms of exclusion. Recently, the notion of civil religion[11] has resurfaced as a way to speak about and stimulate the core beliefs that underlie ideals of inclusivity and tolerance. For authors such as Robert Bellah and Philip Gorski, civil religion can exist alongside or independent of one’s chosen religion.[12]

Finally, there are also examples of nationalism that closely aligns itself with a single particular religious creed as one of its core defining characteristics. 'Religious nationalism' as this has been described, is characterized by the conflation of religious and national identity.[13] There have been, and there are, movements that have stated that certain nation-states should be seen as, for instance, explicitly and exclusively Christian, Islamic, Jewish or Buddhist. These religious-nationalist movements would see exclusive religious identifications as one of the prerequisites for full participation in the polity and do not see religious dissenters as equal members of the polity.


Contemporary returns and limits of nationalisms

This incomplete sketch of a variety of positions gives both an idea of the historical complexity of this question, as well as a point of departure from which we can approach contemporary questions concerning nationalism and religion. On the one hand the narrative that predicts a decline of importance on the global level of individual nation states because of globalization still contains some force. Globalizing currents in economy, law, culture and religion are actively challenging the coherence and imaginative capacities of geographically oriented identities.[14] However, on the other hand, the nation remains one of the most central identifying traits of self-identification for peoples all over the world, and in many regions nationalism is on the rise.

Indeed, many of the most recent nationalist movements have emerged as a response to an early form of globalization: colonialism. Nationalism was a central ingredient in the struggle of many societies for colonial independence. Seen in this light, it is perhaps less surprising that some of the most eminent late modern works on nations and nationalism have been produced by studying processes of decolonization. Benedict Anderson, for instance, developed his influential idea of the “imagined community” through an analysis of the Indonesian struggle for colonial independence. This nationalist movement strove to replace the colonial state with a new form of political association that could nonetheless encompass the diversity of people contained under colonial rule. More complex still, the diasporas that emerged from the trans-Atlantic slave trade have found alternative modes of binding that both embrace their belonging to a nation and undermine the idea territorial coherence.

Perhaps it makes more sense, echoing William Cavanaugh, to speak of migrations of nationalism rather than of a decline. Investigating how religion and secularism are caught in processes of national belonging remain an urgent question for today.  In what follows we would like to give two examples and an afterthought.


European Union

In the case of the European Union there were those who expected and hoped that the role of the nation state would subside and be replaced by a more internationalist form of solidarity.[15] Specifically after the Second World War, the goal of European integration was to create an international community in which national identification would become less and less a divisive factor of influence. Up until today, spokespersons for the European Union credit the EU with preventing war on the European continent.[16] At the same time, debates concerning the religious identity of ‘Europe’ has been a perpetually returning topic. From Robert Schuman’s idea of a Christian Europe, to debates concerning the inclusion of Turkey and potential references to the Christian roots in a hypothetical European Constitution, there has been a recurring discussion concerning the interaction between the secularity of Europe and its religious roots.[17]

After a time in which nationalism was expected to withdraw (and to be replaced by European ideals), it is now common to see parties explicitly calling for a return of the nation to safeguard national and cultural identity. These calles must be understood in the context not only of European unification, but also as a mode of engaging the decline of European empires. Hence, the flip side of anti-colonial nationalist movements are the responses to decolonization in the former metropoles. Here, the decline of colonial empires has often been experienced as a sense of loss, or what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperial nostalgia”, throwing a self-understanding as colonial powers into crisis.

Religion plays an important part in these developments. Many Western European parties are actively concerned with the question whether Islam is compatible with national values, and some parties are actively demanding pledges of allegiance from Muslims to the nation state.[18] Religion is not just an 'Other' for these nationalist movements.  References to a 'shared' religious-cultural heritage are frequently used to define national communities. British PM David Cameron's statement that Great Britain should cherish its Christian heritage is illustrative of this development[19], as is the indicative use of 'Judeo-Christian' to describe Western nation-states. The question of religion and nationalism is once again wide open in contemporary Europe.

Central here is also a debate concerning the capacity of the European project to capture the imagination. As Rosi Braidotti and others have argued, there is a tenacious tendency to associate the imagination of communities with roots. One could also imagine a form of political imagination that breaks with the idea that a historical national community is the way to channel imagining a collectivity.[20]


Islamic State?

In September 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama has called the Islamic State 'not Islamic and not a state.' This was followed by statements of a similar nature by others.[21] This disavowal of the religious violence and the state-building claims of the Jihadist organization seems to imply a number of things concerning both states and religions. For instance, by fully distancing Islam from the activities of the Islamic State, apparently a criterion concerning what counts as Islam and what does not is applied. Apparently, the group’s claims notwithstanding, IS's aspirations to create an Islamic caliphate falls outside of warranted religious-political claims. What are recognized and contested roles of religion in contemporary state-building practices? What is the place of movements such as IS in the development of thought concerning state-religion interactions? In its rhetoric, the Islamic State criticizes the artificial nature of many of the Middle East's nation-states and it relates the ties of these borders to colonialism. In giving shape to an alternative polity, rather than placing IS outside of political-theological thought, shouldn't IS be seen as a combination of a theological concept of the caliphate with a modern notion of religious nationalism?


Politics of Belonging?

Although the national register is dominant in addressing which forms of religion belong and which don’t, it might be of importance to resist this connection between secular-national recognition and religious practice. As suggested by Nira Yuval-Davis in her book Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations, it might be productive to approach practices of belonging through the prism of intersectionality.[22] What are modes of belonging that go beyond this nexus of regulation of religion in the nation state? What are ways of religious or secular organizing that move independently from or in parallel with nationalist identifications? Specifically, religious diaspora becomes of interest here. What are ways in which religion can play a role in identity formations that are not limited to, or that interact creatively with, the nation state?


[1] Cf such influential definitions of the nation as Auguste Renan 'What is Nation?' (1882), Ernest Gellner Nations and Nationalism (1983). For an overview, see Erica Benner 'Nationalism: Intellectual Origins' in: Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism, ed. John Breuilly. Oxford University Press, 2013.

[2]  Debates concerning and definitions of nationalism falls outside of the scope of this lexical entry. We will sketch here some issues that have been of influence to us: Nationalism should be seen in connection to the rise of the nation-state. The nation-state is usually defined as a political entity that ties cultural or ethnic groups in a certain territory (the nation) to a polity that governs this territory (the state). Nationalism can be seen as a way in which this remembering and forgetting, in short, the belonging of groups to the state is generated, maintained and regulated. Anthony Giddens, for instance, has defined nationalism as 'a phenomenon that is primarily psychological': 'the affiliation of individuals to a set of symbols and beliefs emphasizing communality among the members of a political order'. In what follows we will approach the idea of nationalism with these concerns in mind: Nationalism is about the ways in which the nation-state is imagined. 

[3]  Many classical approaches to nationalism take this point of view. Ernest Gellner, for instance, sees the rise of nationalism as occurring simultaneously with the demise of religion. Gellner would state that nationalists value religion 'as an aid to community, and not so much in itself'. Cf. Gellner Nations and Nationalism, p.77. Similarly, Benedict Anderson states in his influential Imagined Communities that nationalism is inherently linked to the 'ebbing of religious belief', 11.

[4]  For an overview see Liah Greenfeld. “Nationalism and Modernity.” Social Research 63, no. 1 (April 1, 1996): 3–40.

[5]  See for instance: Gilroy, Paul. “Nationalism, History and Ethnic Absolutism.” History Workshop, no. 30 (October 1, 1990): 114–20.

[6]  Cf.  The project by the Open University under this header, where thinkers such as Engin Isin work on the ways in which citizenship can be thought in more open and flexible ways. See

[7]  Cf. William Cavanaugh Migrations of the Holy (2011), one can also think of Carl Schmitt's famous statement that 'all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts' (Political Theology, chapter III).

[8]  Cf. Carlton Hayes who published in 1926 Essays on Nationalism, one of the chapters of the book is entitled 'nationalism as a religion'. See also Anthony Smith who argues that nationalism is 'a new religion of the people'. According to Smith, nationalism is a religion because it offers a form of collective salvation but also because it relates to 'a system of beliefs and practices that distinguishes the sacred from the profane and unites its adherents in a single moral community of the faithful' A.D. Smith, Chosen Peoples. Sacred Sources of National Identity (2003), As Roger Friedland states, a form of religion might be fundamental to all authority: 'Faith, beyond reason and proof, thus undergirds the performativity of [any] authority, the saying so that makes it so' (2010: 97). Jan Assman highlight the religious dimension of national thought: 'nationalism is (...) a political religion that does not tolerate other religions besides itself' (Assman 2005).  Jose Llobera even states that 'nationalism is the god of modernity': 'in modernity, nationalism has become a functional equivalent of religion: nationalism has become a religion – a secular religion where god is the nation'. (1994: 143).

[9]  This was the title of a conference which took place in 2012. See

[10]  cf. Joan W. Scott, 'Sexularism'

[11]  ‘Civil religion’ was originally coined by Rousseau to describe what he saw as a necessary ingredient to uphold the social contract. It was used by Robert N. Bellah in 1967 to describe what he saw as the religious belief in the national identity of the U.S. This ‘civil religion’, upheld by a variety of ‘typical’ American values and rituals such as holidays, flag ceremonies and the veneration of foundational documents and martyrs, runs parallel to or independent of the chosen religion of a certain invidivual. cf. Robert N. Bellah (1967) and Rousseau (1997).

[12]  Philip S. Gorski has stated for instance that Barack Obama's election is part and parcel of a return of a notion of civil religion, that succeeds in bringing together a nation that was divided. See Gorski, Philip S. 2010. Civil Religion Today (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from

[13]  'Religious nationalists’ in the definition used by Philip S. Gorski, 'advocate a total fusion between a religious creed and a political community'. Examples would include the conservative right in the U.S, as well as a variety of historical attempts to construct a state out of believers of the same type (Gorski 2010).

[14]  White, Philip L. (2006). 'Globalization and the Mythology of the Nation State', In A.G.Hopkins, ed. Global History: Interactions Between the Universal and the Local Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 257–284

[15]  For an overview of these arguments, see Karl Dieter Opp, 'Decline of the Nation State? How the European Union Creates National and Sub-National Identifications', Social Forces (2005) 84 (2): 653-680

[16]  Cf. Indeed, the EU was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

[17]  Cf. ‘Does the European Constitution need Christian Values?’ Zucca, Lorenzo; Cvijic, Srdjan.

        In: Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2004, p. 739-748.

[18]  Cf. Geert Wilders’ proposal to oblige all Muslisms in the Netherlands to swear an oath of allegiance to the Netherlands.

[20]   Cf. Rosi Braidotti, 'Nomadism: against methodological nationalism', in: Policy Futures in Education, Volume 8. Numbers 3 & 4, 2010.

[22]   Cf. Yuval-Davis, Nira. The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2011.



Response to “Nationalism”

Tel Aviv University

The entry presents the complex relationship between religion and nationalism, through a detailed analysis of the ways different scholarly approaches consider the affinities between them: Nationalism can be seen as a modern mode of belonging, substituting religion at the moment of its demise; but also as the continuation of religion in other means, since many of the “old” religious components are still in tact within modern nationalism; or as a “new” religion, with its own set of practices and believes; or as two discrete categories whose intersection form the basic coordinates of modern life. Through a careful discussion of European modernity’s Janus face – the rise of liberal nationalism and the launching of the great expansional projects –  with a glance at the aftermath of European colonialism in the formation of anti-colonial nationalism, this entry points at the centrality and persistence of the nation, both as a recruiting political force and as a foundational theoretical category, even in our global, neo-liberal, data-capitalist age – not a post- or trans-national, but a neo-national one.

Indeed, the entry’s vantage point is that of nationalism: it starts at the rise of European nationalism in the early modern era, and ends with contemporary challenges to, and re-emergence of nationalism, with the examples of the EU and ISIS. Religion, within this framework, is taken as one element – central or marginal, affirmed or negated – within nationalism. That is, nationalism is taken here as the socio-historical phenomenon to be explored and discussed, whereas religion is set as part of the explanation, to the extent that it relates to the national phenomenon. This is perhaps only natural in an entry entitled “nationalism”. Yet such an analysis assumes the category of “religion” rather than explores it; and it assumes it as a stable entity, whose impact on the changes in nationalism is examined, without gesturing towards religion’s own multiple manifestations and historical transformations. Religion appears here only from within the national discourse as well as from within the research of nationalism: 16th and 17th century religious wars became “religious” in the national age; and Ernest Renan’s concept of religion is already carved from the nationalist paradigm. Religion is staged here almost as a specter of nationalism – its forsaken forefather or repressed double; an effect, multi-faceted and ambivalent as it might be, of the national itself (and of the national as a theoretical Self).

There are good reasons for assigning religion this secondary place. Talal Asad and others have argued that as a concept and a frame of reference, religion is inaugurated in modernity, as part of the secularizing process itself. Thus, there is no “religion” before there is an outside (or an Other) to religion – the secular; religion as a distinct realm was constituted in modernity, and in many respects in nation-based modernity (that is, in the national state that forms itself vis-à-vis religion). It then seems that a discussion of religion outside the national matrix makes little sense. A post-secular critique would define religion (whether implicitly or explicitly) only in its relation to national modernity that initially formed the religion-secularism axis.  

And yet we would like to propose a speculative inversion: could we think of religion as the phenomenon and consider nationalism as one of its elements? Instead of placing religion itself within nationalism, and one specific tradition thereof, Could we see nationalism as one contingent segment in the historical life of religion? Religion would then stop being completely conditioned upon modernity, and broader forms of religiosity would be accounted for, even if they historically or nominally exceed the modern category of religion. To do so, we need to overcome the modern bias and think of other affinities between religion and politics: to start, for example, from religion an/or/as post-colonial nationalism – Christianity in Africa or Latin America; but rather than considering how Christian religion alters these formations of nationalism, to try to conceptualize how they change our very notion of Christianity – its current state, but also its genealogy. Or, to take a different example, closer to home, can we think not only on the explicit and implicit role of Jewish theology within the Zionist national project – on the changing manifestations of religion from the inception of the national project to present day, as well as on its persisting structural place – as post-secular critique does; but rather to consider Zionism as one historical component, crucial for us today yet perhaps peripheral in the future or in the grand scheme of things – in the evolution, transformation, rifts, and fractures of Judaism? 

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