Biology Magazine

Nation-State Or “Civil” Religions

By Cris

My students and I are finishing up our summer course by looking at what Robert Bellah and others call “civil religion.” To this end, I am re-purposing a post from two years ago:

In Religious Wars and Nationalism, I discussed two factors that play a major role in group cohesion.  The first factor, which played a dominant role for the majority of human evolution, was extended and fictive kinship.  This is what primarily held groups together during the Paleolithic.  After the Neolithic Revolution, another factor came into play: religion.

At about the same time, groups also began to identify themselves with particular city-states — this was the beginning of nationalism, the third major factor that creates group identity.  Today, nationalism surely plays the dominant role in group cohesion around the world.  One of the best treatments of this complex subject comes from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

Another approach to this subject comes from the sociologist Robert Bellah, who has written extensively on nationalism and what he calls “civil religion.”  Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle elaborated Bellah’s notion of civil religion in their controversial and compelling article, “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion.”  The article begins with a commonplace observation: “Americans live in a culture that is as religious as any that exists.”  Few will argue this point, as the United States — along with countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia — routinely rates highest in the world on measures of religiosity.  Marvin and Ingle are not, however, referring to American Christianity.  The religion of which they speak is American nationalism:

In this article we contend that nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States, and perhaps in many other countries. Structurally speaking, nationalism mirrors sectarian belief systems such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others that are more conventionally labeled as religious. It happens that nationalism also satisfies many traditional definitions of religion, but citizens of nation-states have religious reasons for denying it. We argue that both sectarian and national religions organize killing energy by committing devotees to sacrifice themselves to the group.  We also explore the ritual role of media in propagating national religion. Media are not the most important ritual vehicles for nationalism, but they matter. Though based in empirical observation, our claims are theoretical in nature. Their value lies in re-thinking certain empirical phenomena in relation to notions of nationalism and religion in the contemporary world. Although our examples come mostly from the United States and its majority sectarian faith, and although generalization is risky, the principles we describe are broadly applicable to other enduring groups, defined as groups for which members are willing to give their lives.

The remainder of Marvin and Ingle’s article is devoted to analyzing the ways in which American nationalism (and most nationalisms) are similar to — or are the equivalent of — religion, which they define as “a system of cosmological propositions grounded in a belief in a transcendant power expressed through a cult of divine being and giving rise to a set of ethical prescriptions.”  While I find many of their arguments persuasive, I am less impressed by their use of Durkheim and totemism to explain the parallels.  I also think they have missed many points of similarity between religion on the one hand and American nationalism on the other.

With this in mind, I have created my own list of equivalencies:

  • God = United States of America
  • Sacred Texts = Constitution/Declaration of Independence
  • Exegetical Texts = Laws/Gettysburg Address
  • High Priests = Supreme Court Justices
  • Ritual Leader = President
  • Ritual Acolytes = Congress
  • Guardians of Faith = Military
  • Saints = Dead Presidents
  • Sacred Ritual Object = Flag
  • Ritual Icons = Eagle, Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore
  • Profession of Faith = Oaths
  • Believers = Patriots
  • Sacred Text Scholars = Lawyers
  • Liturgy = Pledge of Allegiance/National Anthem
  • Relics = National Archives/National History Museum
  • Hymnals = National Anthem and “God Bless America”
  • Ritual Incantations = “Freedom, liberty, democracy”
  • Sins = Crimes
  • Purgatory/Hell = Prison
  • Sacrifice = War
  • Tithes = Taxes
  • Temples = Lincoln Memorial, Washington Memorial, Jefferson Memorial
  • Sacred Places = Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero
  • Sacred Myths = Boston Massacre, American Revolution and Civil War
  • Badge of Faith = Passport

Given these equivalencies, no one should be surprised by the fact that the most religious Americans also tend to be the most patriotic or nationalistic Americans.  The two go hand in hand.

Marvin and Ingle conclude their article by commenting on how the religion-like attributes of nationalism bind groups together; I will close with their words:

Cohesion in enduring groups is accomplished within a framework of violence as a structural rather than contingent social force, religion as the truth that we are willing to die for, and the re-presentation of society to itself through blood sacrifice rituals performed on the bodies of supplicants. The most powerful expression of this religious framework in the United States, and perhaps not only there, is nationalism. On the surface, we deny nationalism’s religious attributes and functions in order to keep the the killing authority of the group from being challenged by sectarian faiths that have been stripped of the power to sacrifice the lives of devotees. When these faiths or others do challenge totem power, a totem that wishes to endure must fend them off decisively. This means by killing its own, if necessary. If it does not act, a new enforcer may overthrow it.

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