Dimensions of Nationalism and Religion in France, Poland and the United Kingdom: Towards a Renewed Syncretism?

By Sayegh, Pascal-Yan | Geopolitics, History and International Relations, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Dimensions of Nationalism and Religion in France, Poland and the United Kingdom: Towards a Renewed Syncretism?


Sayegh, Pascal-Yan, Geopolitics, History and International Relations


ABSTRACT. In the past decades, we have witnessed the global re-emergence of the political meaning of both nationalism and religion. This paper explores contemporary fragments of this trend across three European countries: France, Poland and the United Kingdom. The discursive occurrences brought into the analysis are taken from state-centered political arenas as well as from more diffused or marginal sociological dements. While the approach is primarily set in the perspective of nationalism studies, the final aim of the paper is to nourish the reflection on the negotiations of political and social significations between religion and nationalism. To what extent are religious discourses inherent to the resurgence of nationalist discourses and social practices? Reversely, are nationalistic phenomena inherently religious in nature, hence favorable to combinations between religious and nationalist discursive elements? Are the contemporary dimensions of the relationship between religion and nationalism, such as those presented in this paper, tokens of a new (or renewed) syncretism of a reactionary grid of social significations?

Keywords: nationalism, religion, discourse analysis, France, Poland, United Kingdom

1. Introduction: Relations1

Interrogating the relationship between religion and nationalism ultimately means interrogating the relationship between culture and politics, or rather what is - in the modernist mindset - considered to be two separate fields. Interrogating this relationship is also the predicament of the study of nationalism. The importance of the political (civic, Western) aspect of nationalism and the cultural (ethnic, Eastern) can be hotly debated, but this tension is itself a representation of what nationalism is. The signification of nationalism thus remains unstable (see Breuilly 1993: 348) In short, nationalism already posits the relation between culture and politics as fundamental for its (re)production and its critique.

In The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm describes the three major innovations which were essential to the establishment of the French Third Republic in the following words: "The first was the development of a secular equivalent of the church - primary education, imbued with revolutionary and republican principles and content, and conducted by the secular equivalent of priesthood - or perhaps, given their poverty, the friars - the instituteurs. [...] The second was the invention of public ceremonies. [...] The third was the mass production of public monuments." (Hobsbawm 1992: 271-272)

The novelty here is the agencement, the assemblage of these parts into a different, new cultural composition: the national state.2 The three particular parts - an order, a set of ceremonies and of monuments - have always been parts of the field of religion, but of politics as well. In the same pages, this leads Hobsbawm to define the national state as the "national church" and nationalism as a "new secular religion."

As Hobsbawm's quote suggests, there is an established and perhaps too obvious connection between religion and nationalism.3 The quasi-religious discourse in Renan's "What is nation?" (e.g., the notion of sacrifice) shows how nationalist myths are closely related to and perhaps of a similar nature as religious myths. The fact of this relation being too obvious may be part of the reason why this issue is seldom addressed beyond academic circles.4

The few elements of the relationship between religion and nationalism presented above suggest we may consider nationalism as a form of nation centered-religion, and in a mirrored perspective, to consider religion as a form of ideology. In the equation of the relation between nationalism and religion, there operates a double relation, a cultural process: that which distinguishes (the sacred objects, the content, the signified) and that which associates (the cult, the form/container, the signifier). The cultural process which negotiates this equation is the space where an agencement takes place. …

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