Faith and the flag

July 5, 1996

It is often assumed that religion strongly influences nationalism. But Tony Claydon believes faith can dissolve nationalism as much as cement it

Consideration of the links between nationalism and religion is a booming industry at the moment. A plethora of studies has appeared in recent years exploring the connections between national identity and faith. Yet while the field has expanded, it has also suffered an internal crisis. As research has illustrated the bonds between religion and nationality, some of it has begun to question whether the relationship between these human experiences is as close, or as uncomplicated, as has been thought.

At first glance, it seems clear why scholars have stressed the link between faith and nationality. Modern understanding of the formation of national feeling can be so neatly integrated with ideas about faith that religion has become central to the story.

Over the past few decades, writers explaining national identity have concentrated on three aspects of the phenomenon. First, they have stressed that nations are "imagined communities". For scholars, nations are bodies of people too large and dispersed to interact with each other in real communities, but who nevertheless come to a mental conviction that they have histories, values and interests in common.

Second, and especially since the popularisation of the concept by Edward Said, everybody has emphasised the importance of "the other". People who do not know each other, and who are often very diverse, can still be unified into a single community by a shared sense of hostility to perceived enemies.

Third, and usually in response to the problem of distinguishing nationalism from simple patriotism, historians have stressed that nations have a transforming moral mission. In this view, nationalists are driven by concern that they are not meeting the ideals which distinguish them from the "other", and by determination to regenerate their community in its true image.

Once these emphases within accounts of nationality are recognised, it is easy to see why religion has become essential - it can create them all. Religion can provide the shared history, values and ideals around which an imagined community can crystallise. Similarly, it can define and demonise "others" outside the national faith; and it can generate the transforming moral mission which distinguishes national feeling. Thus scholars trying to explain the emergence of English nationality have seized upon English protestantism. They have shown how early Protestants created a national community by imagining the English as an elect people who were united in divine covenant to uphold the true faith. They have also shown how Protestants identified papists as a peculiarly terrible "other", and how they provided Englishmen with a transforming moral mission by demanding they adopt the highest godly ideals.

While much work linking religion and nationality is impressive, a paradox has begun to emerge in the field. Numerous instances have been found where religion confused as well as constituted nationalism; and where it acted as nations' solvent as well as their cement.

First, national religions rarely remain abstract intellectual forces. More often they are institutionalised into churches whose precise constitutions can divide national communities. Once faith descends to the details of doctrine and liturgy needed to establish ecclesiastical organisations, the faithful usually begin to argue about these points, and people who might otherwise feel part of the religiously-defined nation find themselves excluded from its national church. The history of English protestantism provides many instances. Elizabethan Puritans, Stuart Presbyterians and Georgian Wesleyans all shared the Protestant vision of an elect people and claimed full membership of the English nation. None, however, could be included comfortably within the Church of England, and all were denounced as aliens.

Second, religions almost always contain a strong universal element. While adherents of a creed may exalt a particular nation for its unique holiness, ultimately they dream of converting the whole of mankind. Faith thus sets itself the goal of universal acceptance, and so aims to erase the distinctions between groups and "others" on which nationality is based. In early books of the Old Testament, the Hebrews began with a strong notion of an exclusive national faith. Finally, however, Israel's God refused to be limited by national boundaries and set himself up as a world deity.

So, while the latest research continues to demonstrate the intimate links between faith and nationality, it also shows that these links are complex and ambiguous, and that religion may do as much to undermine as to construct national feeling. The assumption that faith supports national identity has nourished much useful analysis. Now, however, may be time to pause and doubt.

Tony Claydon is lecturer in history, University of Wales, Bangor and author of William III and the Godly Revolution (CUP, 1996).

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