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Against Religious Nationalism

Joseph Lobo, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, Jul 12th 2020


In some countries a form of religious-cultural nationalism is back in vogue. Religion is exploited both to obtain popular support and to launch a political message that is identified with people’s loyalty and devotion to a nation.[1] It is taken for granted that people have in religion a common identity, origin and history, and that these support an ideological, cultural and religious homogeneity that is strengthened by geopolitical boundaries.

In reality, in today’s globalized world, there is no geographical entity that can be defined as a “nation” that has within it a single homogeneous identity from a linguistic or religious point of view, or indeed from any other point of view. Therefore, radical nationalism is only possible if it eliminates diversity. It follows that a liberating deconstruction of nationalism is more necessary than ever.

Let us be clear: nationalism should never be confused with patriotism. In fact, while the “patriot is proud of his country for what it does, the nationalist boasts of his country, whatever it does; the former contributes to creating a sense of responsibility, while the latter gives rise to the blind arrogance that leads to war.”[2]

The relevance of a theological response to nationalism

What are the contours of a nationalism that gains mythical status? Effective nationalistic narratives usually mythicize history and historicize mythologies with great success. Let us take the following passage by Johann Dräseke, written in Bremen in 1813, as an example: “All temples, all schools, all town halls, all workplaces, all houses and all families must become arsenals in defense of our people against all that is foreign and evil. Heaven and earth must unite in Germany. The Church must become a State to increase its power, and the State must become a Church until it is the Kingdom of God. Only when we have become devout in this sense, and we all unite in this devotion, and become strong in this unity, will we never again have to endure a yoke.”[3]

Even a national sentiment as secular in some ways as that of the United States has cloaked itself in “religious” guise, with a kind of divinization of the founding fathers and a narrative centered on the special role and favor given by God to that people. In the period following the Second World War, the exaltation of the American way of life led to the apotheosis of national life, the equivalence of national values and religion, the divinization of national heroes and the transformation of national history into Heilsgeschichte (“History of Salvation”).[4]

As reported in La Civiltà Cattolica, some fundamentalist religious communities “consider the United States a nation blessed by God, and do not hesitate to base the economic growth of the country on a literal adherence to the Bible. Within this narrative, whatever pushes toward conflict is not off limits.” On the contrary, “often war itself is assimilated to the heroic conquests of the ‘Lord of Hosts’ of Gideon and David. In this Manichaean vision, belligerence can acquire a theological justification and there are pastors who seek a biblical foundation for it, using scriptural texts out of context.”[5]

An appropriate response to nationalism is an authentically religious response, that is, a response that, through theology, grasps the essence of religious discourse itself, deconstructing narratives and practices that threaten to be destructive rather than constructive, precisely like those of nationalism. Theology is not only important, but essential in deconstructing so many dangerous narratives and practices that dehumanize individuals and communities, such as the rhetoric and practice of religious-cultural nationalism.

Pope Francis has spoken about the role of religions in the face of today’s dangers: “Religions therefore have an educational task: to help bring out the best in each person.” This is the opposite of “the rigid and fundamentalist reactions on the part of those who, through violent words and deeds, seek to impose extreme and radical attitudes which are furthest from the living God.”[6]

The universal saving will of God

The Old Testament texts are quite ambiguous with regard to nationalism. On the one hand, they support Israel’s religious-cultural exclusivism and its related feeling of being favored by God; on the other, they depict the vision of God’s universal love for all peoples. That is, on the one hand, we have the so-called “trajectory of royal consolidation,” aimed at fostering, defending and justifying the role of the Jewish ruling class and its theology. On the other hand, we have the so-called “trajectory of prophetic liberation,” characterized by authentic criticism of the idolatrous lifestyle of the rulers, with the prediction of judgment, punishment and a subsequent reconstruction of Judah as the sign of a universal providence of God.

In fact, the prophets relativize Israel’s exclusive proximity to God: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7), thus deploring a purely exclusive vision, with the repeated evocation of the “mixture of races” that characterizes Jewish history,[7] of the pagan king Cyrus who is “the chosen one of the Lord” (Isa 45:1), of King Nebuchadnezzar who is “the servant of the Lord” (Jer 27:6), and of God, who is not God of his people “only from nearby, […] but also from afar” (Jer 23:23).

Reading these texts within an overall picture of justice and God’s love as they are revealed by the Christ event leads to the unequivocal denunciation of all oppression and exploitation of any human being in any circumstance. Any vision that is not set at this height certainly goes against God’s universal salvific will.

The ‘neighbor’ instead of nationalism

It is enlightening to consider the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Its impact comes from the prominence given to a Samaritan instead of to a (good) Jew. While criticizing the priest and the Levite for their non-liberating religiosity, the parable could have exalted any poor Jew. Why does it exalt a Samaritan instead? The new category, that of the “neighbor,” is an antidote to nationalist self-justification. The neighbor does not coincide with the co-religionist and the compatriot.

The parable of the Good Samaritan debunks the myth of a nationalism that aims to build a nation on the rubble of some of its citizens and neighbors. The commitment to become anyone’s neighbor, as extolled in the parable, demands concrete steps. Before a true and living neighbor, nationalism and hypocritical patriotism end up in oblivion and the concrete truth of every human being created in the image and likeness of God emerges. The Easter event will then definitively mark the passage to a new People of God, whose members are reconciled in the blood of Christ regardless of their affiliations and cultures. As Saint Paul says, “our citizenship […] is in heaven, and from there we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). This “heavenly citizenship” transcends any sectarian and idolatrous citizenship.

Moreover, the love of one’s neighbor is really the love of the “other,” in contrast to “love of oneself or one’s fellow” sustained by nationalism, because the latter is “love for me”[8] a narcissistic self-love, which Christianity cannot condone.

Rightly, therefore, “the parable of the Good Samaritan establishes the priority not of my people or my nation, but of the needy, whoever and wherever they may be. By contrast, the factiousness of the nationalist arbitrarily favors those who before God have no special privileges or conditions. Jesus teaches a radical love that recognizes the equal value of every person created in God’s image, and forbids special treatment for me and mine.”[9]

From ideology to idolatry?

Otto Dibelius, a famous German evangelical preacher, proclaimed during the First World War: “Whoever fights for his nationality and gives everything for it complies with God’s command. […] Whoever seeks to promote international culture at the expense of the nation is guilty of treason against humanity; against him the curse of God is raised. […] He who wants to be a Christian must esteem his nation more than anything else in the world.”[10] Such an exaltation of a nation makes nationalism a religion and commitment to a nation coincide with religious faith, reducing religion to a nationalist ideology.[11]

Idolatry is the cult rendered to something other than divinity. It exploits religion. All religions in the world, without exception, at some point in their history have given in to such processes. Christianity has not been exempt from this, sometimes allowing itself to be exploited by interests that had little or nothing to do with the genuineness of the Gospel message. (Just think of the colonialist period). Every time Islamic fundamentalists use religion to perpetrate and justify violence and corruption, they exploit Islam. The current dynamics of Hindutva have done the same to Hinduism.[12] Buddhism in Sri Lanka risks being prey to radicalized monks.

All this is in direct contrast to the fundamental liberating principles of religions. Today, however strongly criticized, in any tendency to essentialize a religious tradition in an idealized form, at least some transcendent and humanizing dimensions can be identified. These can be very liberating for a religious tradition and lay bare the contrast between it and its debased forms.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out that Nazism, when it claimed to be the guardian of German culture, was exploiting the great legacy of Germanism.[13] Every nationalism does the same. The true adversary of “we” – the nation with a sectarian identity – is not the “other” as such, but the “we” unleashed against itself.

‘Public exegesis’ and ‘public theologies’

The religious-cultural nationalism we are discussing is a “public” discourse. That is, its plausibility is based on public acts such as its narratives, metaphors, exegesis, “rituals,” as well as a language that is directly understandable by the public, concerned with real problems of everyday life, on which religious-cultural nationalism is projected as a panacea. In these terms, it converts many euphoric followers who would not hesitate to commit heinous actions “for the good of the nation” in clear violation of traditions and sacred texts, which are interpreted as the opposite of their central message .

Pastor Arden Buchholz, for example, promoted a typical nationalistic spirit when he preached in Germany during the First World War: “This conflict is a time of Pentecost for our nation, a time full of Pentecostal energy for a Pentecostal work. […] May this German Pentecost enter deep into us, and remain in us, and have a great effect on our nation.”[14] Likewise, in an attempt to silence the protests against the war that had arisen in the United States at the time of the First World War, Ulysses Grant Wilkinson wrote: “Must we still endure those who cry out: ‘Peace when there is no peace’ [a distortion of Jer 8:11]. […] Shall we throw pearls before swine? Shall we give, though Christ forbids it, ‘holy things to dogs?’”[15]

If distortions such as these are to be effectively countered, it is necessary that the exegesis and theology of the different religions, as well as being academically founded, be in the public domain.[16] In other words, they must free themselves from the grip of elitism, and they must be allowed to emerge and play a role in the public domain, so that they become socially intelligible and meaningful both in their methodological modalities and in the issues they focus on.

Moreover, religious-cultural nationalism tends to operate a sort of brainwashing in those who profess it, whereby the history of the nation is seen as a sort of Heilsgeschichte, a history of God’s salvation of chosen people. Although such interpretations of national history may appear very liberating, an exclusivist nationalistic vision justifies the “nation” and its legitimate citizens in whatever they do and leaves no room for self-criticism. In this key, Psalm 118:17 (“I shall not die, but I shall live and proclaim the works of the Lord”) during the First World War became for some German pastors a very useful text on which to build the feeling of certainty of divine protection against everything and everyone. The subsequent defeat of Germany created great dismay among them. The problem was solved by shifting the responsibility onto the Jews, the communists and the socialists, and many people became theological and pastoral adherents of Hitler’s projects.[17] In fact, some German Christians could say of Adolf Hitler: “The most German of men, he is also the most pious, a Christian believer”; “He begins and concludes his daily commitments with prayer and has found the deepest source of his power in the Gospel.”[18]

Today we need to ask ourselves: Does the deity always side with his worshippers, no matter what they do? Questions like this need to be asked on a public level about all religions.

A theological antidote

Here then is our question: Can a theological answer be given to attempts to ratify religious-cultural nationalism?

A response should focus on keeping alive the original manifestations of various religions, and thus the founding characteristic of their religious experience, which normally defines an identity in their adherents. The uniqueness of the respective original events should be affirmed for the sake of their liberating value.

This is what Pope Francis discussed in some passages of the speech he gave on April 28, 2017, to the participants in the International Conference for Peace at the University of al-Azhar in Cairo: “Religion risks being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers that in fact exploit it.” And he continued: “For all our need of the Absolute, it is essential that we reject any ‘absolutizing’ that would justify violence. For violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression.” And, in this context, he spoke out against the populisms that often use religion as a propaganda tool: “Demagogic populisms are on the rise. These certainly do not help to consolidate peace and stability; no incitement to violence will guarantee peace, and every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is in reality a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.”

The Christian idea of a plan for the fullness of time, to “gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10) does not impose a religious identity that absorbs all others, but rather suggests that different identities, such as that of Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slaves and free (cf. Gal 3:28), transcend themselves and reach a new collective identity, transformed as redeemed children of God, where “God is all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), something very different from universalizing a particular identity, as cultural nationalism proposes.

Nationalist aspirations nurture themselves by creating hope in a future glorious nation that will replicate an imaginary golden past. Within such a nationalist aura, even the negative dimensions inherent in one’s own land are projected as “holier” or “better” than the positive factors of a foreign land.[19] Even those who are victims of oppression need to create contrasting narratives of hope in order to keep their resistance alive. Saint Paul emphasizes how difficulties and persecution induce hope in those who suffer them (cf. Rom 5:3-5). The hope aroused by the exiled prophets certainly played a significant role in keeping the “exiles” alive and active during their exile. The speeches of great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. (I Have a Dream) remain immortal precisely because they are suffused with hope. And like speeches, rituals also create and nurture hope.

Nationalism and blind zeal

Religious-cultural nationalism is marked by zeal, but this is not one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22-23). In reality, Paul calls a certain “zeal” for the Mosaic law “blindness” (cf. 2 Cor 4:4-6) and one of the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-20).[20] This is a very strong theological criticism of a nationalist spirit that has nothing to do with the true purpose of the law itself.

Religious-cultural nationalism can be defined as “oppressive religiosity.” The fanaticism of religious-cultural nationalism, rather than pursuing a lasting peace for all, subverts true peace and keeps society divided between “us” and “them,” and with its strategies of violent propaganda cannot but consider coercion as a necessary means, and evaluate peace initiatives as dangerous because they are hostile to the exclusive strengthening of one’s own identity. Usually the strongest symbols of identity – such as religion, race, language, culture, ideology and so on – are used to maintain the gulf between “us” and “them.”

The narrow and oppressive nationalist movements prosper by building an “outsider” or “other” as a common enemy, making them a scapegoat, while the internal contradictions of the “we” are deliberately hidden. When Mahatma Gandhi fought the British, he was acutely aware of India’s internal contradictions.[21] Consequently, before every satyagraha[22] he fasted and prayed to free himself and his followers from anger, greed and other aspects of an inner slavery. For him, the personal integrity of everyone, especially the leaders, was of fundamental importance.

Oppressive nationalism is used as an opium for the masses, so that they are not aware of the internal contradictions and lack of personal integrity of those who command them. “But it is a false patriotism,” says Guy Hershberger, “which, in the absence of better knowledge, places these men [the corrupt leaders] on pedestals of perfection, wraps their spirits in an aura of divinity and discredits any criticism that the historian might feel called upon to make of their seemingly immaculate people and impeccable careers.”[23] The internal contradictions, which a nationalist narrative tries to hide, are often the same evils, such as mass poverty, social injustice or corruption.

National repentance rather than nationalism

It is here that true national repentance should supplant the nationalist spirit, which blinds people to such contradictions. A classic example is Abraham Lincoln’s appeal, fully aware of his country’s problems, he called on “good citizens” and “patriots” to “confess their [political] sins and transgressions.”[24] Those affected by blind nationalism would not tolerate such an appeal; rather, they would brand such prophets as “anti-citizens,” inciting the crowd to kill them.

The frequent attempts by nationalists to distort national history are aimed at covering up national sins, as this text shows: “The essential historical teaching to be given to our children is to inculcate in them a healthy appreciation of our country’s heroes, ideals, past achievements, and to stimulate just aspirations for its future. Teaching American children with revised and remorseful history books can only lead to one result, which is to debase American patriotic thinking and depress the national spirit.”[25]

Our theological response to religious-cultural nationalism should focus on “national repentance.” It is necessary to prevent nationalist discourse from spreading and becoming “common sense” in everyday life, thus shaping social intelligibility in terms of an exclusivist religious-cultural ideology, and making the institutions of democracy lose their democratic character. There is a need for cultural interventions capable of creating critical awareness in individuals and groups through a multiplicity of ways: first, through educational responsibility in its various forms. People can be trained by means of education, catechesis, small group discussions, through pamphlets, articles, social media, posters, street performances and all channels of communication aimed at creating a critical and inventive mass consciousness.


The Christian acknowledgement of God’s liberating intervention in human history through the Son highlights prophetic sensitivity to the divine pathos and the related protest against all that degrades the human and the cosmic. The Book of Revelation is a classic case in which this dynamic is applied “against the beast.” The Roman nationalist discourse was supported by an idolatrous economy. Merchants and entrepreneurs had to bear the “mark of the beast” (i.e. participate in the cult of the emperor) in order to be allowed to “buy or sell” (Rev 13:17). We must always remember that “abusing the Bible for political purposes is as blasphemous an act as isolating it from the burning political and social issues of our time.”[26]

The religious-cultural nationalism of every age demands a theological response. Indeed, religion can reach the deepest levels of human reality and induce a transformation on both personal and structural levels. The ideologues of religious-cultural nationalism have always understood very well that the fundamental level of the human being is the religious one, because our openness to the infinite allows us to transcend our own selves, and therefore they have produced many martyrs for their causes, while torturing and killing other people. This can only be countered by a commitment born of even deeper and more authentic religious aspirations. Here are found the roots of the importance of the role of religion and theology.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 07 art. 3, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0720.3

[1].    See A. Spadaro – M. Figueroa, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Fundamentalism A Surprising Ecumenism”, in Civ. Catt. 2017

[2].    S. J. Harris, Strictly Personal, Washington D.C., H. Regnery Co, 1953.

[3].    Quoted in A. J. Hoover, “The Dangers of Religious Nationalism: A German Example”, in Restoration Quarterly 29 (1987/2) 94.

[4].    W. Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, Garden City (NY), Doubleday, 1955, especially chapter XI. The reference is taken from G. R. McDermott, “Poverty, Patriotism, And National Covenant: Jonathan Edwards And Public Life”, in Journal of Religious Ethics 31 (2003/2) 231.

[5].    A. Spadaro – M. Figueroa, “Evangelical Fundamentalism…”, op. cit.

[6].    Francis, Interreligious meeting with the Sheikh of the Muslims of the Caucasus and representatives of other religious communities in the country, Heydar Aliyev Mosque – Baku, October 2, 2016.

[7].    Although the story of Ruth the Moabite and her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi is seen by many as an argument to infer an ideology inclusive of all peoples in God’s saving plan, some scholars, such as Benjamin Mangrum, use literary criticism to read in this story a “centripetal” vision, which affirms the inclusion of non-Jewish nations as the fulfillment of the restoration of Judah. See B. Mangrum, “Bringing ‘Fullness’ to Naomi: Centripetal Nationalism in The Book of Ruth”, in Horizons in Biblical Theology 33 (2011/1) 62-81.

[8].    This is the thought of Kierkegaard. Cfr S. Backhouse, “Patriotism, Nationhood and Neighborhood”, in Modern Believing 53 (2012) 404.

[9].    T. D. Kennedy, “Patriotism and Empire”, in Word & World 25 (2005/2) 119.

[10].   Quoted in A. J. Hoover, “The Dangers of Religious Nationalism…”, op. cit., 88f.

[11].   Cfr J. M. Thomas, “The resurgence of religious nationalism”, in Encounter 47 (1986/2) 133.

[12].   See G. Sale, “L’India di Modi: tra tradizionalismo induista e coronavirus”, in Civ. Catt. 2020 II 457-470.

[13].   Cfr L. Rasmussen, “Patriotism lived: lessons from Bonhoeffer”, in Christianity and Crisis 45 (1985) 250.

[14].   A. Buchholz, Glaube ist Kraft!, Stuttgart 1917, 144; 154; quoted in A. J. Hoover, “The Dangers of Religious Nationalism…”, op. cit., 91.

[15].   U. G. Wilkinson, The Great Conflict, Comanche,, 1919, 83; quoted in M. W. Casey, “From Pacifism to Patriotism: “The Emergence of Civil Religion in The Churches of Christ During World War I”, in The Mennonite Quarterly Review 66 (1992) 386.

[16].   The concept of “public exegesis” and its relevance today are explained in J. Lobo, “When Public Faith Discords with Professional Exegesis…”, in K. H. Jose (ed.), Becoming Human – Becoming Christ, Bengaluru, ATC Publishers, 2018, 242-253.

[17].   Cfr A. J. Hoover, “The Dangers of Religious Nationalism…”, op. cit., 92f.

[18].   J. A. Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors, Missoula, Scholars Press, 1976, 112; quoted in J. M. Thomas, “The resurgence of religious nationalism”, op. cit., 131.

[19].   Cfr M. R. Wilson, “Zionism As Theology: An Evangelical Approach”, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 (1979) 31f.

[20].   Cfr D. Ortlund, “Zeal without knowledge: For What did Paul Criticize his Fellow Jews in Romans 10:2-3?”, in The Westminster Theological Journal 73 (2011) 37.

[21].   See M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj: Or, Indian Home Rule, Ahmedabad, Navajivan Pub. House, 1989.

[22].   This is the method of political opposition advocated by Gandhi, based on non-violence and passive resistance.

[23].   G. Hershberger, “False Patriotism – I”, in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, No. 1, 1927, 15.

[24].   A. Lincoln, “Speech in United States House of Representatives: The War with Mexico”, in Collected Works, vol.1, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955, 432; 433; 431; quoted in G. M. Simpson, “Hope in the Face of Empire: Failed Patriotism, Civil International Publicity, and Patriotic Peacebuilding”, in Word & World 25 (2005/2) 136.

[25].   D. Hirshfield, Report on Investigation of Pro-British History Text-Books, New York, 1923, 13; quoted in G. Hershberger, “False Patriotism – I”, op. cit., 33

[26].   Ibid. See V. Anselmo, “Religious Symbols and Political Exploitation. A biblical reflection”, in; R. J. Z. Werblowsky, “Prophecy, The Land and The People”, in C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Prophecy in the Making, Carol Stream (IL), Creation House, 1971, 353; quoted in M. R. Wilson, “Zionism As Theology…”, op. cit., 40.

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