Religion , Nationalism and Violence

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Religion, Nationalism and Violence

Philip S. Gorski

Department of Sociology, Yale University


"Religious nationalism"? Until fairly recently, most social scientists and historians would have

regarded this conceptual construct as a contradiction-in-terms. Nationalism could replace

religion - could be an ersatz religion - but it could not co-exist with religion. No longer. A small

trickle of works on religious nationalism during the 1990s has given way to a veritable flood

during the last decade, not just in sociology but also in neighboring fields such as anthropology,

history, political science and even English.


This paper provides a selective survey of important trends within this quickly expanding

literature, focusing especially on three themes:

1) Historical dis/continuities between religious traditions and national identities. Scholars

once drew a sharp line between religion and nationalism, by invoking distinctions between the

religious and the secular and tradition and modernity. Today, critics have not only blurred these

distinctions but sometimes erased them altogether, by suggesting that even modern and secular

nationalisms are built on traditional and religious foundations. In particular, they have identified

Biblical notions of chosenness and covenant, with their emphasis on cultural uniqueness, political

autonomy, popular sovereignty and sacred homelands, as crystallizing, or at least prefiguring,

"modern" nationalisms.

2) Western vs. non-Western forms of religious nationalism. Revisionist accounts of Western


nationalism suggest a certain genealogy: on this account, Western nationalism: a) has its roots in

the Judeo-Christian strand of Middle Eastern monotheism; b) assumes a (putatively) secular form

in Europe sometime between the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and then c) diffuses to

non-Western countries via European colonialism. Recent work on religious nationalism suggests

that this genealogy is too simple. In Eastern Europe, for example, religious nationalism seems to

have crystallized around other tropes: martyrdom rather than chosenness,