In general I decided long ago that Another Voice would not get involved in partisan politics. While I have some strong feelings about the candidates and their qualifications, I don’t care to get involved in a discussion about US presidential candidates. I will stick to Christianity and religion..

Religion has always fascinated me. As a young boy I often played priest and my sister was the congregation. I remember very clearly when, in 1954, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and then again, in 1956, when “In God We Trust” was adopted as the official motto of the United States. I understood that a flag belonged next to the cross.

As a young adult I became especially interested in the use of religion as a shaper of national identity. God, I learned, supported both sides in the Civil War. Union soldiers witnessed to “the glory of the coming of the Lord.” My relatives in Virginia saw things differently. Their song was “God save the South!” The pope in Rome wanted God to save the South as well. Pope Pius IX (“Pio Nono”) sent a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis assuring him of his prayers and his papal support for the cause of the Confederacy. Southern Catholic bishops were in agreement with Pio Nono: religion and nationalism. I still teach a university course titled “The American Way of Religion.”

One of my big interests these days is religion in post-communist European countries. The political and historical conditions of post-communist countries have created a specific and unique environment for looking at the role of religion in politics, nationalism, and domestic stability.

In a number of ways, religion can be seen as a potentially unifying force in post-communist society. An important question that arises, however, is whether or not the newly important religion is a sign of a newly important faith.

Between 1991 and 2008, for instance, the number of Russians who consider themselves members of the Russian Orthodox Church went from 32% to 72%; and the number of Russians indicating they did not belong to any religion dropped to 18%. Those figures are more or less accurate today. Russians remain, however, terribly ignorant about the meaning of Russian Orthodoxy, leading one to suspect that religion for them is more a matter of newly-important national identity than a lifestyle grounded in Christian spirituality.

Just over a year ago, I was invited to Moscow to give a lecture about religious fundamentalism and to participate in a conference about the growing power and importance of Russian Orthodoxy. Carefully phrased (everything at the conference was being secretly recorded and watched) there was a lot of conversation about Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

The patriarch is a powerful fellow and leading, much to the delight of President Putin, a broad based Russian nationalistic and fundamentalist Orthodox movement. The alliance between Putin and Kirill is strong and close. Kirill not only supports Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and Ukraine but also Russia’s military actions supporting Syria’s President Assad.

Two years prior to my Moscow adventure, I was a speaker at a conference on Religion in Post-Soviet Countries in the little country of Moldova. There an Orthodox priest acquaintance told me that the Patriarch of Moscow was actively working to undermine the independence of the Republic of Moldova and wanted the citizens of Moldova to cease being “disobedient” and return to Mother Russia. Church and state in real time.

In Azerbaijan, by way of another example, 93% of the population claim Muslim identity, with 60% to 75% connected to Shiite traditions. Their religious and spiritual knowledge, however, is rather poor; and a recent survey puts the number of active believers at between 4% and 6%.

After the collapse of communism in Poland, one of the significant features of Polish Catholicism has been a discrepancy between those who say they belong to the church yet have a remarkable ignorance about Catholic life and teaching. Poland seems to be yet another example of “belonging without believing.” Various studies indicate that about 90% of the society claims membership in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, only about 50% say they believe in God and eternal life.

Last year one of my MA students, a young woman from Poland, got into a discussion about Roman Catholic holidays. She said her favorite holyday/holiday was Assumption (August 15). When a Muslim classmate asked her what the Assumption celebrated, she replied that it was “the day when the Angel Gabriel came down from heaven and made the Virgin Mary pregnant with baby Jesus.” I chuckled and said that was quite an assumption!

Well what is the point of all of this?

The point is that we need to remember what we are about. Examples of religion in post-communist countries are invitations for deep reflection about religion, national identity, and public life everywhere. Religion is not the same thing as faith. (Some religious people actually contradict faith.)

Faith is our relationship with the Divine: our relationship with God who is intimately connected to us and at the heart of all reality. Religion is a systematic institutional approach to interpreting our faith experiences and expressing them in symbol, ritual, and creeds. Healthy religion is always in process, always seeking better ways of expressing what cannot be completely captured in word or symbol; and it must always be open to critical evaluation and reform.

From time to time – if there are no prophetic reformers — institutional religion can assume an existence and importance all its own. Then religion begins to exist for its own sake. Criticism of religious leaders becomes disobedient and disloyal.

Then interpreting the faith experience becomes secondary and institutional influence, power, arrogant self-protection, and maintaining the socio-cultural status quo become the real religious mission. God becomes a convenient tool for promoting particular socio-cultural agendas and specific political or national priorities. “God bless America” becomes simply a bit of political rhetoric…..

Then….“In God we trust” invites a follow-up question: “Does God trust us?”


For further reading: Greg SIMONS and David WESTERLUND, eds. Religion, Politics and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Countries. Surrey and Burlington: Ashgate, 2015.


7 thoughts on “Religion and Nationalism

  1. A devout man myself, I am also an historian, and those two converge in mid-Europe 1618-1648 and the treaty of Westphalia. A savage National-religion-based war decimated the countryside–and left us a modicum of reason for America’s effort in 1789 to ensure that no national religion characterized our country. States could still have their state establishments of religion, but that was insignificant since they did not war with one another because of that same Constitution. I share your view of evolving religion (and, contra Justice Scalia [rip] awareness that the Constitution is for people and justice, not merely laws).

  2. During my several years of working for our Catholic Diocese I remember a priest once saying to me, “I just hate those bracelets, and the saying “WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)!'” I’ll just bet he does. Aren’t there at least a handful of Cardinals who actually think about what our Lord would think regarding our institutional Church? Where are their voices? When will the People say “Enough is Enough”? Thank you for another thought-provoking essay, Jack.

    1. Thanks Patricia! I have an old colleague and friend who is now dying of cancer. Doctors told him that the cancer had spread throughout his body over the course of years….When I last saw him, he chuckled and said he was kind of like the church but he hoped there was still time to eradicate ecclesial cancer…..

  3. So sorry to hear about your friend, Jack. Sounds as though we’ll be losing a great wit and a wonderful human being. God bless him!

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