NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Religion and Nationalism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

June 6, 2003

Historians have finally begun to speak of religion and nationalism in the same breath. Until recently, there was a consensus that nationalism was a distinctly modern phenomenon.

According to Peter Sahlins, a historian from the University of California (Berkeley), the idea that religious intolerance is the "original sin" of nationalism is drawing more and more attention.

  • He says that faced with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the West has become more open to looking at the role of religion in the formation of nationalism.
  • In a new book, Anthony W. Marx dates the birth of nationalism to 1492 -- when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella united their provinces to form Spain, expelled the Moors and Jews, and launched the Spanish Inquisition.

Marx and others find that nationalism begins with the demonization of a religious "other" -- distinguishing "us" from "them."

  • Westerners inclined to look smugly on Islam's current intolerant nationalism and turmoil would be wise to recall the medieval Christian Crusades against the "infidel Turks."
  • In 16th century England, icons of saints were replaced with royal coats of arms and territorial flags.
  • Monarchs became the heads of national churches -- not only in Britain, but in Sweden and Holland as well.

Nationalism and religious passion are often attended by bloodshed. Catherine de Medici of France manipulated anti-Huguenot sentiment to such a fever pitch that 15,000 Protestants were slaughtered by Catholics in and around Paris during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572.

Source: Alexander Stille, "Historians Trace an Unholy Alliance: Religion and Nationalism," New York Times, May 31, 2003.


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