Religious Nationalism. When Religion is used as Instrumentum Regni


When the economic perspectives appear gloomy, when on the horizont people do not see reasons for hope, either people have a strong moral and religious commitment, or their tendency is to lock themselves down into the local community. An article by Joseph Lobo S.J. recently published in La Civiltà Cattolica, “Against Religious Nationalism“, examines that problem, which is so relevant for the current world situation.

We are confronting the risk that some political factions and leaders again perceive and use religion as an “instrumentum regni”: a way to expoit its potential in a demagogic way. Christian religion is exactly the opposite: the way to free humanity from the chains of subjugation to earthly powers, whatever they are.

Since there are so many signs of the re-emergence of a cold-war like situation, driven by the search for new hegemonisms, we re-publish here a portion of that article, and leave to our readers to consider its relevance for today’s situation. The link underneath permits to read Lobo’s article in its entirety. 

Against Religiouos Nationalism

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. 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.

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.”

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”).

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.”

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.”




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