When God Walks in History: The Sources of Religious Nationalism

By Friedland, Roger | Tikkun, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

When God Walks in History: The Sources of Religious Nationalism


Friedland, Roger, Tikkun


When God Walks in History: The Sources of Religious Nationalism

Roger Friedland is professor of religious studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara. He is the co-author, with Richard Hecht, of To Rule Jerusalem.

God is once again seen to walk in the history of nations. As a century organized around the fear of a godless state comes to a close, we wake to a new terror: states armed with powers of the divine. Today we confront a specter, an apparently pre-modern ghost of religious nationalism. Why in countries as diverse as India and Israel, Iran and Sri Lanka, is the modern unit of collective identity being stitched back into pre-modern dress? What motivates this new cladding?

The Class of Meaning

With the end of the Cold War, one might have expected a surge in class politics, given that policies advocating the redistribution of wealth would no longer be freighted with such awesome geopolitical significance. The opposite has occurred. The unregulated capitalist market is now more extensive--and granted more legitimacy--than at any time in human history.

Capital now turns on a dime, its flows impervious to frontiers. Labor cannot match capital's ease in responding to geographic differentials in wages and profits. This growing gap, widened by complex contracting networks, technologies such as electronic transfer, and multinational organization, has led to a growing income inequality within nations. The new cosmopolitans are either very rich or very poor; everybody else remains uneasily in place, aware that the forces shaping their destiny have moved beyond the horizon.

Faced with these inequalities, states find themselves paralyzed. As multinational corporations increasingly become like states, with welfare benefits and life-chances tied to employment within the corporation, states become increasingly like firms, making competitive deals to trap investment and employment within their boundaries. The first thing to go is the universal welfare state. Capital applies a continuous downward pressure on the taxes a government might wish to impose on it. States cannot afford to sustain a welfare system more advanced than those of their trading partners or competitors. The conditions for the working class have fast eroded. The republic does not care because it cannot.

If we understand working class politics not simply as a struggle for resources but for recognition as well, then it is no wonder that, as the conditions for class organization decline, people without means might seek out alternative meanings around which to organize for resources and respect. However, the rise of religious nationalism is not simply a sublimation of class politics, nor does it have its origins in economic crisis. Its members are drawn from every class strata. As Martin Riesebrodt has suggested, religious nationalism does not put itself in opposition to a particular class, but towards aspects of capitalism as such.

Capital as a Cultural Condition

Capitalism is a cultural condition. Apparently a system for the production and distribution of material goods and services, it is, in fact, a way in which we produce and distribute ourselves. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out long ago that modernity has made a God of man, a sacred subject. The modern society reveres our common humanness, holds our species being inviolate. The unparalleled hegemony and global expansiveness of the market have steadily reduced that sacred subject to an economic man, whose right to life is reduced to a set of rights to own, to buy and sell, to offer oneself in the marketplace. As the logic of the market penetrates into every domain of familial and community life, the territory of value independent of price shrinks, and the meaning of community is itself reduced to the sum of self-interested exchanges. The capitalist economy affords a self-making that is both promise and curse, autonomous and chosen yet lonely and selfish. …

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