Nowadays there is preached and practised a twofold doctrine, (1) that each nationality should constitute a united independent sovereign state, and (2) that every national state should expect and require of its citizens not only unquestioning obedience and supreme loyalty, not only an exclusive patriotism, but also unshakable faith in its surpassing excellence over all other nationalities and lofty pride in its peculiarities and its destiny. This is nationalism and it is a modern phenomenon.

   Carlton Hayes: “What is Nationalism ?”  (1926)

Largely forgotten today, but a significant figure in his time, Carlton Hayes taught History at New York’s Columbia University for some forty years until his retirement in 1950, after which he continued to write and lecture until his death in 1964. Despite the controversy that arose from his over-optimist assessment of Franco’s regime whilst US ambassador to Spain during WW2 he is widely regarded as having kept Spain from active support of the Axis powers. Brought up as a Baptist he later converted to Roman Catholicism and remained a practising Catholic for the rest of his life.

Recently I read Hayes’ 1960 book Nationalism as Religion, followed by his earlier collection of Essays on Nationalism, published in the aftermath of WW1, and was struck by just how relevant his thoughts were to the situation in our world today.

At the start of Nationalism as Religion Hayes observes that:

If anybody in Europe is asked now who or what he is, his response is almost certain to be: “I’m English,” or “I’m Irish,” or “I’m German” or “Italian” or “Russian” or some other national. If a medieval European had been asked the same question, he probably would have answered: “I’m a Christian.”

 (p. 29)

Though the world has changed vastly (and largely for the good) since medieval times, and Christianity is no longer the prevailing worldview, I can’t help wondering what would happen if those of us who profess Christian Faith went back to defining ourselves by our commitment to the church rather than our commitment to the nation.

For Hayes it is clear that the reason our self-understanding has changed in this way is that nationalism has taken on the characteristics of a religion.  As he observes:

Nationalism has its processions and pilgrimages. It has, too, its holy days, and just as the Christian Church adapted some festivals from Paganism, so the national state has adopted from Christianity. In the United States, for example, the Fourth of July is a nationalist Christmas, Flag Day an adaptation of Corpus Christi, and … Veterans Day a patriotic version of All Saints Day …

(Religion, p. 167)

Furthermore, the parallels do not end there:

Moderns may regard their medieval ancestors’ veneration of images, icons and relics as savoring of “superstition”, but let them replace, say, a statue of St Joseph with a graven image of Abraham Lincoln … and they display a fitting reverence.’

(Religion, p.168)

The full extent to which nationalism has taken on the role of religion for many people is seen for Hayes in the way that:

Westminster Abbey is a fane [shrine] of the Church of England and, more so, of British nationalism; and Protestant cathedrals of England … or New York and Washington, are adorned not so … conspicuously with statues of Christian saints as with images and memorials of national heroes, military and naval, and with national battle flags.

(Religion, p. 178)
Photo by Manuel Weber on Unsplash

So it is not just that nationalism has taken over the role of Christianity for many people in the West, but that the church has colluded in that shift, and helped to make it possible.  As Hayes acutely observed nearly a century ago:

… it may be affirmed that in the main Protestant and Orthodox Churches have not encountered very serious difficulties with modern nationalism. The origin of these Churches is too closely associated in the popular mind with the beginnings of nationalism; their organisation is predominantly national; and the syncretism of their religion with the religion of nationalism is likely to be far advanced. Neither Protestantism nor Eastern Orthodoxy appears dangerous to the average nationalist.

(Essays, pp. 205-206)

As the U.K. approaches the coronation of King Charles 3 it is a timely moment to review the syncretism of the state church with nationalism and the way in which for many people in England nationalism has become their religion. In this connection it was interesting to read a paper by sociologists Edward Shils and Michael Young written in the aftermath of Elizabeth 2’s coronation in 1953. For them, the coronation service ‘was an act of national communion’ (Shils & Young, p. 67) by which society both reaffirmed its moral values and renewed its devotion to those values.  As they concluded:

The Coronation provided at one time and for practically the entire society such an intensive contact with the sacred that we believe we are justified in interpreting it as we have done in this essay, as a great act of national communion.

(Shils & Young, p. 80)

The upcoming coronation may be a harmless piece of theatre for a jaded nation, though the cynic might speak of “bread and circuses”, but Shils & Young’s analysis points out how vitally interwoven are church and nationalism.   And, indeed, if the new king is anointed in the same words as his mother (“And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen over the Peoples”) it would seem clear that the church is not at all willing to be considered “dangerous” by the “average nationalist” in suggesting this might not be the most appropriate way of putting it !

It will be interesting to observe how the coronation in May is perceived in the UK, and how far Shils and Young’s ‘act of national communion’ describes the experience of the day for citizens of the twenty first century U.K.

That being said, it seems to me that, both in Europe and in the USA,  we are still in the position described by Hayes nearly a century ago, when he observed that:

…citizens of a modern national state imbibe nationalism with the air they breathe and … many a nominal adherent of an international religion is really a devotee of nationalism.

(Essays, p. 202)

Yet he was optimistic:

… it may well be that the great religious systems of the world will be enabled in the next generation to resume their historic role of cementing nationalists and strengthening the spiritual brotherhood of mankind.

(Essays, p. 263)

Sadly, that optimism seems largely to be unfounded.   The churches continue to be mired in nationalism, not least, as we have seen over the past year, the Russian Orthodox Church in its backing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  And in the USA, despite the formal separation of church and state, the rhetoric of nationalism frequently appears framed in religious terms.

And if nationalism has become for many a religion, then its demands are those of a jealous god.  Hayes suggests that nationalism evokes in people ‘a will to believe’ which renders them easily led into rhetoric of war and imperialism, and makes them ready to give all in the name of “national honour”.  Nationalism as a religion worships a jealous god, demanding of its adherents ‘a spirit of exclusiveness and narrowness’; a concern with “uniformity” and “intolerance” (Hayes, Essays, pp. 258 ff), all of which we can see manifested around us today in government rhetoric about immigrants, the promotion of so-called “British values” and hostility towards different cultures and neighbouring countries.

In our twenty first century world, Hayes’ warnings about the toxic potential of nationalism, and the dangers of nationalism as a form of religion, speak to our own time no less powerfully than they did 60 or 100 years ago.  As Hayes concludes:

Nationalism, unless it be rendered critical instead of ignorant, humble instead of proud, does not promise, despite its proved modernity, despite its admitted idealism, to promote real human progress. It promises not to unify, but to disintegrate, the world; not to preserve and create, but to destroy, civilisation.

(Essays, p. 133)

What then can we do to bring about a world where the churches seek to bring the world together rather than sanction and legitimise its separation ?

Photo credit: Peter King

I would suggest that the first step is to be aware of the problem.  Nationalism, experienced and promoted as a religion, is indeed a false religion, and it is the task of the church to point this out and to refuse to collaborate in its symbols and rituals.  In the words of the Barmen Declaration of 1934:

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.

These words have a particular resonance in England, where there is an established church, and where there is a formal constitutional intertwinement between church and state, but there is a challenge here to all of us.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that Martin Luther King Jr had recognised and addressed just this challenge in one of his early sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1953, right at the start of his ministry:

Our age is one in which men have turned away from the eternal God of the universe, and decided to worship at the shrine of the god of nationalism. …

We are all familiar with the creed of this new religion. It affirms that each nation is an absolute sovereign unit acknowledging no control save its own independent will. The watchword of this new religion is: “My country right or wrong.” This new religion has its familiar prophets and preachers. In Germany it was preached by Hitler. In Italy it was preached by Mussolini. And in America it is being preached by the McCarthy’s and the Jenners, the advocators of white supremacy, and the America first movements.

King continues:

One cannot worship this false god of nationalism and the God of Christianity at the same time. The two are incompatible and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them exist together. We must choose whom we will serve. Will we continue to serve the false god that places absolute national sovereignty first or will we serve the God in whom there is no east nor west? Will we continue to serve the false god of imperialistic greed or will we serve the God who makes love the key which unlocks the door of peace and security. Will we continue to serve the false god of racial prejudice or will we serve the God who made of one blood all men to dwell upon the face of the earth ?

Today we need prophetic voices willing to cry out against the false god of nationalism. I realize that such a venture might bring about the possibility of being called many undesirable names. But speak we must if we are to acknowledge the sovereignty [of God]. Against the claims of the false god nationalism we must affirm the supremacy of the eternal God of the universe, the Father of all mankind. This is the God we must worship if we are to sail through the tempestuous seas of confusion to the harbor of peace.

Spurred on by Barmen and King, where are the prophetic voices today ?

Carlton Hayes, Essays on Nationalism (New York: Macmillan,1926)
Carlton Hayes, Nationalism – A Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1960)

Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.

The Jealous god of Nationalism
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