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date: 27 January 2021

Religious Nationalism and Religious Influencefree

  • Anna Grzymala-BusseAnna Grzymala-BusseDepartment of Political Science, Stanford University


Religious nationalism, or the fusion of religious and national identities and goals, is an increasingly salient aspect of nationalism. Rather than secular nationalism simply replacing religious identities and allegiances, religious and national identities coexist and even reinforce each other. Such religious nationalism becomes a powerful force in buttressing popular religiosity and attitudes, empowers religious organizations in influencing policy across a wide range of domains, and shapes the patterns of inter- and intra-state violence. The two implications of these findings are that we should invest in better measures and operationalization of religious nationalism and reconsider the logics of state- and nation-building.


Religious nationalism, or the fusion of religious and national identities and goals, is both neglected and powerful. It is neglected because the literature on nationalism has tended to dismiss it, viewing it either as an anachronism or an exception. Instead, these analyses focused on the creation of “imagined communities” through homogenizing effects of “high culture,” to notions of “invented tradition” and “ethno-symbolism” that help to create powerful and durable “idioms of nationhood” (Anderson, 1991; Brubaker, 1996; Breuilly, 1985; Gellner, 1983; Hechter, 2000; Hobsbawm, 1990; Tilly, 1996). Yet religious nationalism is also powerful: it has shaped the very definition of legitimate citizenship, delineating the nation and privileging some political actors and visions in making public policy, obtaining electoral support, and building states. This is especially true in the Christian world, which is the focus of this analysis and of much of the scholarship on religious nationalism.

This article first examines the relationship between religion and political identities. There has been a major debate between scholars who view nationalism as a phenomenon (if not cause) of modernity, where nationalism substitutes for religion, and those who see religion as a pervasive source of national identity that functions as a complement to (and one source of) nationalism. A third approach focuses on the ways in which nationalism and religion can reinforce each other.

The article then examines the impact of religious nationalism. Scholars have argued about its influence on religious practice, on public policy, and on violent conflict. One set of debates is between scholars who emphasize the salutary impact of religious pluralism on religious practice and influence and those who view religious monopolies as sustaining both religious vibrancy and identity. Another set of scholars has investigated the role of religious sentiment and identity in shaping politics, influencing public policy, and fomenting violence.

Religious Nationalism: Origins and Controversies

So what is religious nationalism and what are its origins? One definition is the “fusion of nationalism and religion such that they are inseparable” (Rieffer, 2003, p. 225). Both religion and nationalism are “order-creating cultural systems” (Greenfeld, 1996, p. 170), forms of social identification and modes of social organization and segmentation (Brubaker, 2011, p. 4). Religious nationalism relies on religious identities and myths to define the nation and its goals.

In turn, nationalism, to use Ernest Gellner’s famous definition, is the “principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Gellner, 1983, p. 1). Religion, or the system of relating to the supernatural and the sacred, can be conceptualized as participation, belief, and identity, or the “3 Bs”: behavior, belief, and belonging (Wald & Wilcox, 2006). Participation consists of behavior and the degree to which the believer is willing to sacrifice time and effort in the name of religion: attending religious services, evangelizing, and taking part in communal religious activities such as Bible study or prayer. Belief is an internalized and personal adherence to the doctrine and to the sacred: the personal level and kind of faith, acceptance of doctrine, and relationship to the deity, the sacred, and religious teachings. Belonging, or affiliation, is a much weaker connection: it may simply consist of self-identification or a nominal belonging to a given religion.

Three caveats follow. A first consideration is that rather than the fusion of identities alone, religious nationalism also comprises an alignment of goals; where nationalism seeks political recognition and sovereignty for the nation, religious nationalism does so for a nation first and foremost defined by religion.

Second, such fusion is empirically a spectrum, rather than a constant. Nation and religion coalesce to differing degrees, and nationalism and religion do not always easily align. As Roger Brubaker cautions, the “languages of religion and nation, like all forms of language, can be intertwined pervasively. But even when the languages are intertwined, the fundamental ontologies and structures of justification differ” (Brubaker, 2011, p. 17). The referents of religion are the sacred and the transcendental: nations are fundamentally mundane and political. Both serve to provide meaning to our lives—but religious nationalism does not reconcile these differences as much as it uses religious criteria for defining the nation and its members (Greenfeld, 1992).

Third, religious nationalism is distinct from religious observance, both empirically and conceptually. Roger Friedland (2001) noted that “religious nationalism is only a viable option when the collectivity has a religious basis in common” (p. 138). Religiosity, operationalized here as religious participation—attendance at religious services and taking part in activities such as Bible study, prayer, or proselytizing—thus appears to be a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for religious nationalism, as shown in Figure 1. Yet we also see cases of intense identification between nation and religion, despite very low levels of religious attendance, as in the Orthodox Christian cases of Russia, Bulgaria, and Greece.

Figure 1. The relationship between religiosity and religious nationalism.

Source: Grzymala-Busse (2015).

An increasingly prominent strand of the scholarship has examined this relationship and religion itself as a source and cement of national identities. Accordingly, scholars have cataloged the impact of “pietism on German nationalism (Lehmann, 1982), of Catholicism on Polish nationalism (Zubrzycki, 2006), of Orthodoxy on nationalism in the Balkans (Leustean, 2008), of Shinto on Japanese nationalism (Fukase-Indergaard & Indergaard, 2008), of Buddhism on Sinhalese nationalism (Kapferer, 1988) and of the Hebraic idea of covenant on Northern Irish, Afrikaaner and Israeli nationalism (Akenson, 1992)” (Brubaker, 2011, p. 6). Whether in South Africa (du Toit, 1994) or in France (Kselman, 1994), narratives of nations as divinely “chosen people” have merged religious and national identities. Some scholars suggest that religion has had an uninterrupted influence on nation-states since their formation (Grosby, 1991; Roshwald, 2006). Atalia and Springs (2013) carefully document these and other manifestations of religious nationalism across cases that vary widely both by geography and historical time period.

How do religion and nation relate to each other, and how do we conceptualize the logical underpinnings and empirical manifestations of this relationship?1 The scholarship of religious nationalism ranges from arguing that religion and nation are substitutes for each other, to complementary coexistence, and all the way to emphasizing how religious and national identities reinforce and reify each other. Anthony Smith (2008) divided the participants in the debates over the origins of religious nationalism into “perennialists” and “modernists.” Perennialist scholars view national identities as reaching back before the advent of the modern nation-state, as “nations before nationalism” (Armstrong, 1997; Gillingham, 1992; Hastings, 1997; Hutchinson, 1996; O’Brien, 1994; Tomka, 1995). Other scholars argue that confessionalization, or the Protestant Reformation, was a critical factor in the rise of religious nationalism (Baron, 19, p. 124; Schilling, 1995; Tomka, 1995). “Modernists” see nationalism as the product of modernity alone, and religious ideas and identities as incompatible with national identities. More recent revisionists have pointed out that many of these fused national-religious identities themselves are in fact relatively recent inventions (Grzymala-Busse, 2015; Porter-Szucs, 2011; Zubrzycki, 2006).

Substitute and Supplant?

On one end of the spectrum, many scholars view religion and nation as substitutes, and the concept of “religious nationalism,” as an oxymoron (see Lawrence, 1998, p. 16). This is very much the tradition of Emile Durkheim, who saw secularism as inevitably displacing the enchanted world of religion and spirituality. Religion would give way to nations and other sources of social integration. Nationalism here functions as a substitute for religion, fulfilling both individual needs and consolidating group identities (Hayes, 1960; Marvin & Ingle, 1999; Tamir, 1995). As an earlier student of religion and nationalism put it, “modern nationalism has displaced religion as the chief factor in human group relationships” (Baron, 1960, p. 7).

Scholars in this tradition do not underplay the importance of religion—but argue that it is incompatible with modern nationalism. As Gorski and Türkmen-Dervişoğlu (2013) have noted, in this approach “nationalism could replace religion: it could be a political religion, a surrogate religion, or simply a religion. But it could not coexist with religion, any more than tradition could be combined with modernity” (p. 194). For others, religion was mentioned only in passing, as one of the features of traditional society being swept away in the modernizing nationalist moment (Anderson, 1991; Gellner, 1983; Hobsbawm, 1990; Kedourie, 1993).

In these accounts, nationalism may have religious roots—in fact, religious nationalism may very well be a stage in the development of nationalism—but religion would eventually wither away as the core identity and collective project. Thus, Michael Mann (1993) saw religious nationalism as an early stage of the nationalist project, supplanted by the expansion of literacy, the central role of military crises, and the expansion of industry and the modern state (pp. 216–247). Similarly, Greenfeld (1992) traced how the rise of Protestantism initially influenced a nascent English national identity with a vernacular Bible, and Catholic Spain as the clear enemy, to be eventually replaced by more secular identities.

This is not to say the substitution need be complete. In early modern Europe, exclusionary nationalism was shaped first and foremost by religious conflict fomented by the elites of nascent states eager to consolidate their power and secure popular compliance. In this process, “what began as religious fanaticism aggravated by elite conflicts was gradually transformed into more explicitly political identities reflecting the interconnection between issues of faith and power. These identities still rested on religion as a crutch for long periods, before they were sufficiently consolidated to become more or less secular, or at least with religious foundations forgotten” (Marx, 2003, p. 194). Religion has also played a considerable, and perhaps even greater, role in the initial formation of non-Western nationalist movements (Jaffrelot, 2007; Little & Swearer, 2006; Von der Mehden, 1968).

Similarly, the substitutive relationship between nation and religion does not simply mean that the direction of displacement inevitably runs from religious to secular nationalism. Indeed, secular national projects may instead be replaced by new religious visions: Mark Juergensemeyer (1993) identified the rise of religious nationalism and fundamentalism as a reaction to the failures of secular nationalism. These new religious movements reject the secular aspirations of their predecessors and seek social transformation based on strict interpretations of ancient religious texts. Similarly, Fouad Ajami (1992) argued that the failure of secular Arab nationalism, based on language and advanced by secular Christian Arabs, led its supplantation by the much more religiously infused national visions of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet there are both theoretical and empirical reasons for skepticism regarding the fluidity of these substitutions. As Genevieve Zubrzycki (2006) has pointed out, there is no clear evidence of the modern functional equivalence between nation and religion or the needs each might fulfill (p. 20). More directly, both coexist empirically, with little evidence of the substitution effect, in countries as varied as Poland, India, and the Philippines. Even where secularism reigns triumphant, as in France, “church or churches remain important institutions and actors in the nation-state; religious cultures and values exert a continuous influence on national cultures; national and state symbols retain religious components; and national identities continue to entail not only secular and secular religious, but also religious forms of identification” (Spohn, 2003, p. 271).

Coexist and Borrow?

The durable coexistence of national and religious projects in the modern world suggests that we move away from conceptualizing the relationship between religion and nationalism as exclusively substitutes. Empirically, coexistence seems to prevail. As Spohn (2003), the key proponent of “multiple modernities” has argued, religion, “despite the various forms of secularization, remains a constitutive basis of national identity and nationalism” (p. 269). Instead, religion and nationalism may coexist, either as separate projects or intertwined, with language and symbols borrowed from each other.

Several works have traced the continuing contributions of religious doctrine, symbolic language, and narratives to nationalism in early modern Europe. Brubaker (2011) noted that “much of this work has focused on the motif of chosenness” (p. 6). In what Anthony Smith (2008) termed “convenantal nationalisms,” religious narratives and symbols justified and infused nationalist projects, whether Calvinist discipline, the notion of a “chosen people,” or the Old Testament as a template for a polity, in its fusion of people, land, and religion (Gorski 2003; Grosby, 2002; Hastings, 1997; O’Brien, 1994). With the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the resulting doctrine of “cuius regio, eius religio,” religious pluralism across Europe also meant religious monism or monopolies within given territories, which gave further opportunity for the consolidation of national religious projects that combined national and religious aspirations within country borders (Brubaker, 1996, p. 39).

More broadly, “nationalism has roots not in religious decline . . . but rather in moments of religious fervor and renewal” (Zubrzycki, 2006, p. 19; see also Calhoun, 1993; Gillis, 1994; Gorski, 2003; Marx, 2003). Examples of persistent coexistence of religious and secular nationalisms abound. Religious doctrine and religious conflict can justify the exclusionary nationalism that allows elites to build both powerful states and compliant subjects (Marx, 2003). Religion, oriented around a fiery Protestantism, has been central to American nationalism and national identity (Grzymala-Busse, 2015; Haselby, 2015; Kurth, 2007; McKenna, 2007; Morone, 2003). Similarly, the central element of nascent British identity was Protestantism and its intolerance of Catholicism as foreign and corrupt (Colley, 1992). Friedland (2001) has also contended that the national identities of Iran, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine are all “suffused with religious narrative and myth, symbolism and ritual” (p. 129). The centrality of religion to national identity remains both salient and durable, even when multiple denominations compete, as in the United States.

Nationalist projects further borrow religious language and symbols. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, religious symbols and rhetoric were superimposed on the mobilization of nationalism by political entrepreneurs: “religious beliefs are associated with new ethno-national projects, to which they have brought a feeling of historical continuity with the pre-communist past. Religious symbols, banners and icons have appeared in mass political rallies, giving legitimacy to pro-independence movements and their leaders. Even prominent former communists, as illustrated by Tudjman’s appropriation of Catholic symbols, have played the religious card” (Iveković, 2002, p. 534). In the long run, this politicization of religion serves to undermine the moral authority and societal standing of churches and other religious groups (Grzymala-Busse, 2015). But in the short term, such borrowing allows political authorities to benefit from religious legitimacy—and further intertwines religious and national projects without necessarily reinforcing either.

Reinforce and Reify?

If coexistence and borrowing implies a one-way relationship between religion and nationalism, as one buttresses or provides resources for the other, reinforcement consists of a mutual reification and buttressing. In this relationship, religiosity defines the nation—and nationalism reinforces religiosity, leading to unusually high rates of national identification with a given religion and high rates of religiosity itself. This mutual reinforcement characterizes countries where religious participation and religious nationalism are both high, such as the Philippines, Poland, Ireland until the late 1990s, or the United States. Religious nationalism thus enhances religiosity, which then helps to further consolidate the nation and its boundaries. In contrast, the salience of religious nationalism without much religious participation (as in Greece, Bulgaria, or Russia) suggests the “borrowing” relationships outlined previously: religion supports nationalism, but the converse does not hold.

Three forces have reproduced a reinforcing relationship between religion and nation. The first general factor is religion’s durability, that is, its resistance to secular onslaught. Thanks to divine sanction and the promise of salvation, believers are not as easily repressed, and religious organizations are not as easily abolished as trade unions, newspapers, political groups, and student organizations (Sahliyeh, 1990, p. 13). The clergy often have little to lose. For them, the benefits of activism and the chance to redeem their flock outweigh the benefits of passively waiting out the crisis (and thus losing legitimacy). If the church(es) are identified with the nation, rather than a smaller subnational group, secular “divide and conquer” strategies are even less feasible. If a domestic national movement is under church protection, eradicating such movements means crossing over into the sphere of the sacred, a move that even communist leaders were loath to make.

A second and more immediate factor is conflict with a hostile secular state or power. For example, in communist east central Europe, the communist regime was seen as an alien and unwelcome imposition, but churches and the anticommunist opposition were not allied in all countries. The more the communist authorities tried to repress societal protest, and the more the Church stood in defense of the opposition, the more the national and religious liberation projects would align. Education and indoctrination within the family and religious community, often in the face of considerable political repression from the state, also reproduced the equation of nation with religion (Grzymala-Busse, 2012, 2015).

Where the administrative state and an existing nation historically opposed each other, churches could serve as protectors of national identity against the state, as they did in Ireland and Poland. Public religiosity became a political act, and patriotism blurred with religious loyalty (Grzymala-Busse, 2015). In contrast, where churches had historically opposed national aspirations and the nation-state project, outcomes were quite different. The Roman Catholic Church and the papacy, for example, explicitly and vigorously battled liberal or nationalist revolutions in the Czech lands, Italy, and France. The nation-state and the Church in these countries had a subsequently uneasy relationship. Private religious beliefs coexisted with secular political identities, but the church had only a tenuous claim to moral national authority.

Thus, hostility between a secular state and a religious nation redounds to the latter, accentuating the chasm between the illegitimate state and the “real” religious nation. This adversarial state can be a secular authoritarian regime, a foreign colonial power (Jaffrelot, 2007; see also van der Veer, 1994), as in India, or a local hegemon exercising near-colonial rule, as in Ireland. Similarly, Spohn (2003) argues that the growth of ethnic and religious nationalism in postcommunist countries is the result of the former imposition of secularism by either Western liberal or Eastern socialist regimes. The resulting identities and resentments can be sustained through practices such as informal education outside of the formal state sector through family narratives and church Sunday schools (Darden & Grzymala-Busse, 2006), as well as religious pilgrimages and peregrinations, publications, and performances (Grzymala-Busse, 2015; van der Veer, 1994).

Finally, elite entrepreneurs explicitly link religion and nation, articulating and reinforcing their “natural” compatibilities. Politicians and activists link the two, even if sometimes inadvertently (Hibbard, 2010). Organized state campaigns can foster a “godly nationalism,” as in Indonesia (Menchik, 2014). These communal identities are not simply the result of elite manipulation. They are often part of complex networks of power relationships, historical hostilities and alliances, and local grievances (Atalia & Springs, 2013; Mitchell, 2006). Yet as the wars of Yugoslav succession show, elite use of religious symbols and historical grievance can mobilize popular support, activate particular identities, and mobilize often violent conflict (Iveković, 2002; Perica, 2002), especially where religion has already divided communities and served as a source of political identities (Alexander, 1982).

Yet such mutual reinforcement does not mean a blurring of the boundaries. Whether religion and nation replace, reconcile with, or reinforce each other, they are conceptually and empirically distinct. The sacred and eminent nature of religion is very different from the profane and explicitly political nation. The two may go hand in hand, or they may contradict each other. But it is theoretically and empirically muddled to argue that nationalism is a form of religion itself, as Brubaker (2011) suggests Smith has done: “a religion both in a substantive sense, in so far as it entails a quest for a kind of this-worldly collective ‘salvation,’ and in a functional sense, in so far as it involves 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’” (Brubaker, 2011, p. 3).

The Impact of Religious Nationalism

If the relationship between religion and nation can take different forms, that range conceptually from substitution to mutual buttressing, what influence does religious nationalism subsequently have? The next sections explore the impact of religious nationalism on religious practice, public policy, and violent intra- and interstate conflict.

On Religiosity

First, religious nationalism helps to explain why some religious monopolies remain so lively. Such vibrancy runs counter to the expectations of scholarship affiliated with the “political economy of religion” (see Clark, 2010; Gill, 2001). Aiming to provide individual-level and finely grained explanations for religious behavior, scholars in this tradition have argued that vital religious marketplaces are the sources of religious vigor and influence, and religious monopolies are inherently weak. They have found that where the religious market can freely offer diverse alternatives to meet the demand for diverse religious beliefs and preferences, rates of religious participation and denominational affiliation increase (Chaves & Cann, 1992; Clark, 2010; Finke & Stark, 1992; Gill, 2001; Iannaccone, 1998). Competition among religions leads to better meeting consumer “demand,” and subsequently to innovation and efficiency.

Religious pluralism thus breeds religious fervor. In contrast, where the state regulates religious markets (by financially or politically supporting a state religion), the levels of religious pluralism and participation decrease. Religious monopolies, such as those found in Poland, Croatia, Lithuania, Ireland, and Italy, are the result of artificial and heavy government subsidy and regulation. The theory predicts that they cannot occur “naturally,” absent this state mandate. Similarly, when it comes to religious and national identities, Friedland (2001) has noted that religious nationalism developed earliest in places where religion was not controlled by the state: in Iran, in Israel, in the United States, and in India. It could not develop where the state actually controls religious finances and appointments (Friedland, 2001, p. 144).

Yet religious monopolies can thrive, thanks to the historical fusion of national and religious identities, rather than as a result of the careful tending and preferential regulation by secular states. Religious nationalism, in other words, can reinforce religious practice and observance. The relevant processes are historical and societal, rather than economic and legal. Moreover, Catholic monopolies have greater influence than the more competitive Protestant-Catholic markets (and in turn, there is considerable variation in influence among the Catholic churches themselves). Rather than sickly plants in need of state support, then, monopolies can be hardy perennials with deep roots in national soils.

Moreover, the political economy of religion has difficulty explaining why the absence of regulation does not result in greater observance. Religiosity remains low even where the state does not favor or regulate any particular religion, as in the Czech Republic or Estonia. These unregulated markets should see high rates of religious participation, yet religious entrepreneurs have not successfully moved in and the rates of religious observance have not gone up. If the assumption of a universal and varied need for religion is true, then “the sacred should have returned ... where secularization had gone the furthest and the absence of religion created the greatest need. . . . Yet the public resurgence of religion took place in places such as Poland, the United States, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Iran, all places which can hardly be characterized as secularized wastelands” (Casanova, 1994, pp. 224–225). The answer given by the political economy of religion is that historical state support for a given religion precludes subsequent conversions to other religions (Iannaccone, 1994). Yet if state-supported monopoly religions are so inefficient at satisfying consumer demand, how do they bind adherents so successfully?

We are thus left looking for an account of why some societies might be more receptive to religious mobilization or church attempts to influence politics. Religious nationalism, or the fusion of national and religious identity, provides one answer: it can both underpin policy influence and keep religious monopolies vibrant. It did so for decades in countries such as Ireland, the Philippines, Poland, and Lithuania, suggesting that the mutually reinforcing relationship between religion and nation can defy the predictions of religious competition and foster fervent religious landscapes. Religious nationalism thus reinforces popular religiosity—and that religiosity becomes a marker of who belongs to the nation and who is a “true” member of the national community.

On Popular Attitudes Toward Immigration

If religious nationalism buttresses religiosity, it is also associated with a bundle of other political attitudes. Specifically, we should expect that religious nationalism is compatible with other attitudes that favor cultural homogeneity and the preservation of national traditions: natalism, redistribution to members of the religious nation, the preservation of national religious symbols and traditions. In contrast, religious nationalism holds little affinity for increased diversity or change in national composition. Groups with very strong social identities, religious or otherwise, tend to resist the dilution of these identities, which they view as a threat to the status quo (Bloom, Arikan, & Courtemanche, 2015). One implication is that countries with high levels of religious nationalism will also exhibit high levels of hostility toward immigrants and other new groups that dilute the existing national identity. Thus, Christian nationalists in the United States, who believe in a divinely inspired American mission, view immigrants as a threat (McDaniel, Nooruddin, & Shortle, 2011). In contrast, members of minority religions, whose identities are less likely to be intertwined with a dominant religious nationalism, show greater tolerance of newcomers. This may explain why voters in some countries with high levels of religious nationalism, such as Poland, have also shown such anti-immigrant animus (although it should be noted that very secular countries, such as the Czech Republic, have shown similar attitudes). The irony is that even as European integration has lowered the salience of religion and strengthened some secular aspects of collective identities (Koenig & Knöbl, 2015, p. 149), joint EU policies on the acceptance of refugees and immigrant quotas for individual countries have prompted a religious-nationalist backlash in places such as Poland and Hungary.

On Public Policy

Religious nationalism also lends itself to the influence of religious groups on public policy, especially when a specific church or denomination can claim the mantle of a representative of national interest (Grzymala-Busse, 2015, 2016). Across public policy areas that range from education to divorce, from stem cell research to same-sex marriage, to abortion rights, churches with such moral authority have been enormously influential in shaping policy debates and influencing the final outcomes. Where religious nationalism was a powerful force, and religious groups had gained moral authority, newly independent secular states even handed over entire sectors to religious authorities. For example, in Ireland, education, welfare, and health care were all entrusted to the Roman Catholic Church after 1922.

The origins of this moral authority lie with religious nationalism—and more precisely, a historical narrative of defending the nation against hostile secular states, whether colonial, domestic, or imperial. Churches, and especially monopoly churches, can then point to a historical record (or a series of historical myths) of standing on behalf of the religious people against adversaries that would rob them of their sovereignty, identity, and religion.

Where religious nationalism has equated religion with nation, and where the representative churches thus serve as representatives of the common good and the national interest, religious actors do not have to rely on pressure at the ballot box or on partisan coalitions. Instead, these churches gain direct institutional access to the policymaking structures of the secular state, essentially sharing sovereignty with secular governments. Such access can consist of helping to write constitutions and everyday legislation, having direct input into policymaking and policy enforcement, vetting secular state officials, and even running entire sectors of government (typically welfare institutions such as hospitals, schools, reformatory institutions, and so on). The channels of institutional access may vary considerably, and besides actively participating in policy discussions and formulating legislative bills (special episcopal commissions, for example, formulated both the abortion law in Poland and school policy in Ireland), church officials have influenced personnel and organizational decisions within ministries (as was the case in Poland and Ireland) and taken part in national negotiations during regime transitions (as was the case in both Poland and Lithuania).

In addition to the direct impact on public policy through institutional access, the more religious and national identities fuse, and as the churches’ moral authority increases, so does politicians’ wariness of offending organized religions (Layman, 2001; Mooney, 2001). Given their standing as trusted guardians of the national interest, churches can portray opposition as antipatriotic. As a result, few politicians dare to criticize the church for fear of condemnation from the pulpit and backlash at the ballot box. Anxiously anticipating the churches’ reaction, many politicians will formulate policy with the churches’ preferences in mind, even without any active lobbying by the churches themselves. For their part, churches try to frame policy domains they consider important as moral issues—not merely as matters of doctrinal significance, but as crucial underpinnings of national moral character. When religious and national identities are fused, such framing resonates with the public—and even more so with anxious politicians.2

As a result, once religious authorities frame issues as moral imperatives, they can indirectly influence policy outcomes—regardless of which political party or secular politician is in power. They can also do so in the face of popular opposition to church influence. Across a large set of democracies surveyed, an average of 72% of survey respondents opposed church influence on politics, 78% opposed church influence on voting, and 72% opposed church influence on government.3 This opposition belies belief or other measures of religiosity: in Ireland, where 93% of the population declared itself to be Catholic and over half attended Mass once a month or more, 80% of poll respondents rejected church influence on government and on voting.4

In short, religious nationalism empowers churches and other religious groups to influence public policy. Such churches, central to the national project, can influence public policy in a variety of areas without paying the political price for outright politicking or partisan coalitions.

On Violence

Religion is neither sufficient nor necessary for violence. This is not to ignore religious violence, or to argue it does not exist. While some observers have attempted to disavow the link between religion and violence tout court (Armstrong, 2015; Cavanaugh, 2009), these arguments have been criticized for their lack of falsifiability and logical inconsistencies (Grzymala-Busse, 2016). An extensive literature has examined the impact of religion on the duration of conflict (Tusicisny, 2004) as well as its intensity and devastation (Pearce, 2005; Toft, 2007). This literature has also examined whether religious fragmentation (Collier & Hoeffler, 2002; Fearon & Laitin, 2003) or religious polarization (Reynal-Querol, 2002) have made a difference. Much of the research has found that religious differences do not predict either how long such conflicts last or how durable the peace is that follows, but they may influence peace settlements (Svenson, 2007). The literature also differentiates between conflict where religion played a central role, such as whether or not a given territory would be under a specific religious tradition, and where religion was peripheral, such as where combatants identified with a religion but the religion’s role was in contention (Toft, 2007). A new and innovative scholarship has also started to analyze disputes over sacred and indivisible places (Goddard, 2006; Hassner, 2003).

More broadly, “religion becomes an important factor in nationalist sentiment and nation formation when it is able to play some sort of differentiating role for the nation” (Barker, 2009, p. 31). Conflicts between secular and religious authorities, or among religious communities, both serve this role. As Anthony Marx (2003) has reminded us, Carl Schmitt argued that political identities require enemies—and since religion is a powerful cleavage on which to build such enmities, religious conflict breeds political boundaries (Marx, 2003, p. 26). Religious conflict has aided nation-building elsewhere: in India, nationalism has relied on religious hostilities between Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists (Van der Veer, 1994).

In much the same way, religious nationalism can lend itself to violent conflict—yet the role of religious nationalism has not been explored as extensively. As already noted, violent religious conflict can produce nationalism (Marx, 2003). While ethnonationalism and violence have been explored in depth, as have religion and nation, there has been less research on the connection between religious nationalism per se and violence. This is partly because religion tends to be subsumed into ethnicity as a category of identity, community, and motivation, and partly because rationalist approaches to ethnic conflict tend to have conceptual difficulty with the categories of the sacred and symbolic (Gorski & Türkmen-Dervişoğlu, 2013, p. 204).

There are reasons to think that religious nationalism, like religion, provides the motivation to fight, which prolongs conflict and raises the stakes (and potential collective benefits). Like religion, religious nationalism invests some territory with sacred and indivisible character (Hassner, 2003). Religious nationalism and the violence done in its name share perceptions of communal fate and its repression. Such feelings readily translate into a justification of violence: “their communities are already under attack-are being violated—and that their acts are therefore simply responses to the violence they have experienced” (Juergensmeyer, 2003, p. 23).

The role of religious nationalism in conflict has changed over time, even in the 20th century. Jonathan Fox (2004) has found that religious nationalism was an insignificant influence on violent conflict in the early postwar era, but became an increasingly important influence after the 1960s (p. 715). Mark Juergensmeyer (2003) found a rise in religious violence and that religion increasingly motivated terrorist groups (Juergensmeyer, 2003, p. 19). He further differentiated between ethnic and ideological religious nationalisms. The former views religion as an aspect of ethnic identity, and the latter rejects the current secular order and proposes a new political vision infused with religion (Juergensmeyer, 1996). Both may be equally violent, but for different reasons: in the case of ethnic religious nationalism, violence is “aimed at a society that the terrorists regard as exerting direct military or political control over them” (Juergensmeyer, 1996, p. 8). For ideological religious nationalist movements, the violence focuses on secular enemies, whether in government or not, who stand in the way of the new vision, a profound rejection of the secular order and post-Enlightenment politics. For both, however, religion provides both motivation and justification of the violence that follows.

Yet it is still not clear how religious nationalism translates into conflict. First, it is not obvious that it is a more powerful force than ethnic divisions, political entrepreneurs, struggles over material resources, and so on. The research on sacred inviolability of territory (Hassner, 2003, 2009) and on the motivations of fighters (Toft, 2007) offers the most plausible and demonstrable clues to the ways in which religious nationalism may prolong conflict. Second, it may be necessary without being sufficient. As Gorski and Türkmen-Dervişoğlu (2013) have noted, the prevalence of apocalyptic narratives and violent rhetoric in the name of religious nationalism far outstrips actual violence. So, why and how do these perceptions and their articulation translate into action?

Further Research

Where, then, should the study of religious nationalism proceed? First, despite the enormous theoretical contributions of this literature, we have a ways to go empirically. Much of the scholarship tends to illustrate the empirical manifestations of religious nationalism rather than demonstrate their primacy over other explanations or phenomena. Yet the existence of religiously inflected nationalism does not necessarily translate into significance or meaning: “the simple existence of popular worship, public liturgy, and political ritual does not provide any information regarding their function or effects on social integration” (Santiago, 2009, p. 440). As Brubaker (2011) similarly cautions, “in almost any setting, the field of nation-talk is vast, heterogeneous and chronically contested; one can’t judge the degree to which nation-talk is framed in religious terms simply by giving examples of such religious framing, no matter how numerous or vivid” (p. 11).

What we need, then, is a set of evidentiary standards for establishing the empirical existence of religious nationalism that goes beyond the invocation of religious motifs and symbols in politics. In the contemporary era, public opinion polls that ask about the importance of religious identities to political citizenship may be one source of such evidence, especially if these answers can be compared to other sources of salient political identity (ethnic, linguistic, historical, etc.). We may also make greater use of the historical pronouncements of political and religious authorities and how they are perceived by their intended audiences. The quest is to compare the salience and resonance of religious motifs and symbols in nationalist discourse to other images and representations, to gauge the relative importance of religious (as opposed to other) nationalisms and alternative sources of identity and motivation. Such standards would also go a long way in facilitating more comparisons of Christian religious nationalism to other instantiations, such as Hindu nationalism’s fusion of religion and national identity or the melding of religion, nation, and state in the Sunni caliphate.

Second, we need to reconsider and disaggregate further the “nation-state” and its role here. The nation-state may be the goal of much of secular nationalism, but religious nationalism rests more uneasily with the notion of a state. For example, in Poland the Church long argued that “religion should never be based on the state, but on the nation ... the state was a potential source of oppression because it was artificial and contingent, whereas the nation was a natural community sustained exclusively by bonds of kinship and affection” (Porter-Szucs, 2011, p. 345). This distinction suggests that the emergence of states and nations, though often linked empirically, should not be conflated.

Yet at the same time, religion, if not religious nationalism, can also help to build states. It can do so by example and coordination. For example, in the early modern era, both churches and the state constructed mechanisms of moral and social regulation (Gorski, 2003). These included poorhouses, schools, and hospitals, which were eventually absorbed by the nascently secular state. Denominational differences mattered. Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic doctrine each viewed the source of poverty differently and saw its moral import in distinctive ways. Accordingly, each church imposed different regimes of poverty assistance in early modern Europe: integration, punitive work, and exclusion, respectively (Kahl, 2005, 2014). Calvinist church efforts led to the rise of a powerful state at the local level in the Low Countries, and the imposition of an efficient modern state from above in Brandenburg-Prussia (Gorski, 2003).

Nationalism necessitates and relies on the state, since “the political processes are organized through the state in the name of the nation” (Friedland, 2001, p. 138; Marx, 2003). Yet, “state building provoked just the opposite to nation-building, with religious discord making national unity both more difficult and more pressing to achieve” (Marx, 2003, p. 39). And these differences may be based on doctrine and theology. Some religions, such as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, all provide visions not only for society, but for a state, and imagine “political communities whose physical survival, territorial control, and material prosperity are all contingent upon their obedience to the revealed laws of God” (Friedland, 2001, pp. 127–128). For Christianity, the formation of states was often at odds with established churches. Both states and churches attempted to create a hierarchy of control and their claims often competed. In contrast, nation building can be imbued with religious meaning and the active participation of religious authorities (Grzymala-Busse, 2012).

These varied findings suggest that we rethink the distinct logics of state- and nation- building. How and when does religious nationalism align itself against the state? When do states and religious organizations work hand in hand? And what are the long-term effects of the hostility or mutual support? The broader history of religious nationalism suggests that we cannot treat the “nation-state” as a necessarily coherent entity: the state may have deliberately fostered the nation-building project, but it can very well oppose it (as it did in colonial and communist regimes).

Religious nationalism thus implies several potential relationships between religious and national identities, between secular state control and national aims and boundaries defined by religion. Its impact, similarly, varies, empowering those political actors (including religious groups) with the readiest access to its moral authority. Above all, the study of religious nationalism continues to pose questions for how we conceive, measure, and situate the peculiar fusion of religious and nationalist projects.


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  • 1. Brubaker (2011) noted four ways that religion and nation have developed: as analogues, as religion explaining the nation, as imbricated and intertwined with each other, and as religion as a form of nationalism.

  • 2. Most research on framing effects focuses on the effects on the public (see Chong & Druckman, 2007), but they also apply to uncertain politicians facing powerful societal actors, especially in new, volatile, or unstable democracies.

  • 3. 2005 World Values Survey and 2003 International Social Science Survey Programme data, n = 44 and n = 28, respectively. Standard deviations are 9, 5.4, and 8.1, respectively.

  • 4. An average 50% of respondents wanted the Church to have less influence on politics throughout the 1990s and 2000s in Poland, and 78% respondents did not wish the Church to be politically active. CBOS. 2007. “Opinie o działalności Kościoła,” Komunikat z Badań, Warsaw, March 2007. In Italy, only 32% of respondents agreed that religion should have influence on the state. In the United States, 70% of respondents do not want churches to endorse political candidates (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2002 “Americans Struggle with Religion’s Role at Home and Abroad.” Majorities believe it is wrong for churches to speak out on politics (51%) and for clergymen to address politics from the pulpit (68%). Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2000, “Religion and Politics: the Ambivalent Majority”.