Monotheistic Roots of Nationalism Part II

Commonalities in Socialization Between Monotheism and Nationalism

Summary of Part I 

The second part of my article focuses on how monotheistic beliefs and dramatization have the same parallels in nationalization processes. The categories include the destruction of intermediary institutions, the commitment to expansion and the importance of both origins and future destiny in history as opposed to mythology. In both nationalism and monotheism founders are mythologized. Both nationalism and monotheism use the arts (painting, music and literature) for altering states of consciousness. 

Coming Attractions

In this article we will be discussing the social-psychological and psychological techniques by which both monotheism and nationalism promote loyalty. These include means of transmission (writing as opposed to oral), how social time (holidays) is marked throughout the year as well individual time (rites of passage). We find that marking geography (territory and cityscapes) is crucial to both monotheism and nationalism. Each demands self-sacrifice, either as religious martyrs or soldiers. Each requires a conversion process. Membership is usually lifetime. Each has processes of exclusion and its members are purified through wars. Membership is sustained over time through fear of being exiled.

Next, I show that both nationalism and monotheism support individualism (as opposed to collectivism) for different reasons. I provide six reasons why each supports individualism. Lastly, I provide two qualifications. First, I pose the question of why the monotheistic religion of Islam is not included. After all, Islam began as a world religion hundreds of years before the rise of nation-states. It would seem to have had plenty of time to connect to the emergence of nation-states around the world. Why didn’t it? Secondly, in the 21st century we have a nation-state that is very powerful (India) that is founded on Hinduism, a polytheistic rather than a monotheistic religion. How do I explain that?

The ability to recognize patterns is one of the adaptive skills that allowed the human species to survive in competition with other species. We live most of our everyday lives as problem solvers. But at the same time we need to be socialized to rise, metaphorically, from the ground level and examine long-term patterns to assess where we have been and where we are going.                                                             

In pagan traditions, sacred patterns involve the changing of the seasons. In Catholicism they include Christmas day, Easter, Lent, feast days and saints’ days. At the same time, at the micro level, the rites of passage in the life of an individual are linked to spiritual traditions through the sacraments. In Catholicism, the sacraments include baptism at birth, confirmation during adolescence, marriage in adulthood, and the last rites just before death. Further, a Catholic is expected to attend mass at least once a week and to go to confession. Lastly, monotheists – whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim – make pilgrimages. What does this have to do with socialization into nationalism? Like monotheism, nationalism has its special days, including Independence Day, various presidents’ days, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. There are pilgrimages to Washington, DC and trips to Mount Rushmore all of which support nationalism. 

Socialization takes place in physical spaces. Pagan societies built mounds and temples to spirits or deities. In caste agricultural civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia, physical buildings of monumental proportions made of impenetrable materials had a psychologically intimidating impact that was not lost on those in power. Likewise, Christians, Jews and Muslim elites build churches, synagogues and mosques, not just to pay homage to their deities, but to propagandize the lower classes into following them since they are God’s representatives on earth. Sacred sites are not limited to places of worship. Streets and buildings are named after saints. In the case of nationalism, we have gargantuan state buildings in Washington, streets named after presidents, and monuments at Bunker Hill, the Statue of Liberty, Plymouth Rock, and Mount Rushmore.  

For most “people of the book,” hearing stories from sacred texts like the Bible or the Koran begins at a very young age. This upbringing is strengthened by studying, as with learning the Catholic catechism in grammar school or preparing to read an excerpt from the Old Testament as part of a Jewish bar or bat mitzvah. The most logical parallel to nationalism would be reading or even memorizing the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. However, since this is rarely done, a very important source of nationalistic literature is novels about the American West.

Animistic hunting and gathering societies used cave paintings, amulets and totems) long before monotheists to socialize (Lewis-Williams, 2002) their members. In the case of Catholicism in the 17th century, baroque paintings were epically dramatized to overwhelm the population with monumental scale. Furthermore, music has perhaps been the most compelling of the arts in creating an immediate emotional reaction. Hymns such as “Amazing Grace” help the faithful sing their way into submission.

Nationalist socialization may come about when the population is being exposed to patriotic paintings such as Washington Crossing the Delaware. Music such as the “Star-Spangled Banner”, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, and “God Bless America” are bound to rouse even the most reluctant patriot.  

Social Action: Fulfilling Destiny Through Sacrifice

As we have seen, both monotheism and nationalism must use the past in order to justify the present. However, each must also organize in the present by referring to the future. This is done through the expectation of sacrifice of the participants to life itself. 

Anthony Smith (2003) points out five instances in which fulfilling destiny through sacrifice is depicted in paintings.  In Jean-Simon Berthélemy’s painting Manlius Torquatus Condemning His Son to Death, we see the conflicted determination of a Roman father’s loyalty to the state in executing his own child for disobeying his order to not engage the enemy in combat. Though torn by the clash of the demands of state and family, Torquatus overcomes his paternal feelings and refuses to listen to his son’s appeal, despite fervent pleas for mercy from friends and family. He maintains legal impartiality and values the state’s welfare over his personal interests. His right hand is publicly outstretched in the preservation of justice while his left hand clutches privately at a father’s agonizing heart.

According to Smith, the painting The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, Jacques-Louis David chose the moment when an anguished Brutus, returning home after the execution of his own sons, hears the cries of his wife and the swooning of his eldest daughter as the bodies of his sons are brought to his house. Having driven out the Tarquin and helping to institute the Republic, Brutus was elected consul in 508 BCE only to discover a monarchial plot fostered by his wife’s family and supported by his two sons. He saw it as his duty to suppress all enemies of the republic, including his own sons.

In 1778 Johann Heinrich Füssli was commissioned by the Zurich council to paint Oath on the Rütli, the cornerstone of Swiss unity and independence. This painting depicts three towering figures who represent the three original forest cantons swearing “an oath of everlasting alliance in the Rütli meadow”. Smith argues that it expresses defiance, struggle, unification, and sacrifice for freedom. In its thrusting defiant male figures embody the ideal of willingness to die for the freedom of the nation.

About a century later, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s painting Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VIIalso conveys the ideal of self-sacrifice as struggle in the service of a higher cause. In 1770 Benjamin West painted The Death of General Wolfe, an epic depiction of the British general who was mortally wounded at the height of victory over the French in Quebec in 1759. 

Lastly, Smith points out that during the French Revolution:

On the occasion of Marat’s murder in July 1793, art and ritual proceeded hand in hand. Marat’s friend David was immediately urged by the assembly to paint his portrait. Marat’s assassination shows with great veracity the ‘Friend of the People’ dying in his bathtub, with a Christ-like wound in his right lung…

David also had to supervise the lying in state and funeral of his friend. Marat’s corpse was exhibited on a high dais in the Cordeliers Church, above the bath and the packing case, with a smoking incense burner as the only light. The funeral…which lasted six hours took place to the accompaniment of muffled drum-beat and cannon… Girls in white with branches of cypress surrounded it, and they were followed by the entire Convention, the municipal authorities and the people of Paris. (Smith, 237)

These examples show how the political religion of nationalism draws upon Catholic traditions and uses them for national ends in order to evoke a sense of sacred communion with the glorious dead. 

The Napoleonic Wars were a catalyst for the process of cementing a sense of national identity not just among the French but for those societies under attack. French nationalism was answered by a growing German nationalism, which was at first cultural but soon became politicized with the Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena in 1806. The War of Liberation of 1813 and the return of aristocratic regimes after Napoleon’s defeat stimulated collective expressions of national sentiment in the form of festivals and monuments.                                                                           

Smith informs us that in 1832 the Germans held their first mass festival in the same alleged place where the ancient German tribes had held their meetings. There was a procession to the ruins of the castle ruins in which patriotic songs were sung and people wore ancient German dress. The later 19th century saw greater efforts to invite people into the sacred communion of the nation through mass celebrations. This began with the songs of the volunteers for the armies of the French Revolution.  

Sustaining nationalist and religious loyalties is not just about getting lost in mystical symbols and myths or engaging in altruistic actions. Building political loyalty to a nation or a religion also involves acting collectively in a very structured way. In his very provocative book, Keeping Together in Time, William McNeill argues that building community involves “muscular bonding”: community dancing, communal work, singing, religious rituals and military drills. In community dancing, moving and singing together tends to dissolve group tensions, reminding community members that they have more in common than they have differences. In the area of work, singing and moving together makes otherwise boring work more creative. The great large-scale architectural projects of ancient civilizations could never have been built without workers singing and moving in sync. McNeill points out that the rise of religious dervish orders at the beginning of the 11th century was so powerful in altering states of consciousness that they came close to being declared heretical. 

In addition, McNeill argues that military muscular bonding, specifically close-order drilling, creates altered states. In his book The Pursuit of Power, McNeill concluded that the victory of European armies over non-European armies was largely due to well-drilled troops who were more efficient in battle. Soldiers moved in unison while performing each of the actions needed to load, aim, and fire their guns. The volleys came faster and misfires were fewer when everyone acted in unison and kept time to shouted commands. The result was more ammunition projected at the enemy in less time. 

However, it was not only the superiority of weapons or efficiency in using them that made Europeans victorious. Drilled troops created deep social-psychological altered states. McNeill suggests that many veterans report that group effort in battle was the high point of their lives. Just like the boundary loss of whirling dervishes, the individual merges with the platoon. 

By inadvertently tapping the inherent human emotional response to keeping together in time, military drills helped create obedient, reliable, and effective soldiers with a spirit that not only superseded previous identities – ethnicity, region, religion – but also insulated them from outside attachments. Soldiers could be counted on to obey their officers predictably even when fighting hundreds or thousands of miles away from their home base. 

McNeill describes witnessing soldiers marching in step as both awe inspiring and terrifying. No twitches, twists, mutterings nor distractions could be seen or heard in the ranks. On the one hand, soldiers were perfectly composed, calm and moving to music. But on the other hand, they were completely poised to destroy human life or be destroyed by it. 

For most of human history, the ruling classes understandably had reservations with arming the lower classes for fear they might recognize their class interests. However, the group experience of altered states that resulted from prolonged drills made soldiers loyal and devoted far beyond any class loyalties. In the 17th century, for poverty-stricken peasant recruits and jobless urbanites recruited from the fringes of an increasingly atomized, commercialized society, the military created a new artificial primary community, providing camaraderie that prevailed in good times and bad, where old-fashioned principles of command and subordination gave meaning and direction to life. It became safe to arm even the poorest classes, pay them a regular wage and expect obedience. In a time of domestic conflict, European soldiers were even willing to fire upon their own social class.

Before the drill, in the standing army of kings, obedience was extracted through fear of punishment. But the coming of the drill created a lively spirit between soldiers that was less prevalent than before. Now, instead of standing armies of subjects to a king, the citizens’ army shared the collective emotional identity of the nation. For soldiers who received regular pay, there was a good reason to not break ranks. 

It would be an overstatement to say that drilling caused nationalism. The military revolution occurred hundreds of years before the rise of nationalism, which I said came about at the end of the 18th century. But there is no question that military drills helped sustain nationalism once it appeared. Other military formations such as the cavalry couldn’t create such a solidarity among those fighting.  

Neither monotheists nor nationalists tolerate rejection lightly. For both, membership is expected to be lifetime. For national states, registration at birth and death is compulsory. What becomes of people who decide to leave? In the case of Catholicism, there is excommunication. In all monotheistic religions, there are attacks for such deviations as apostasy, heresy, blasphemy, inquisitions and witch hunts. Nonbelievers are attacked in religious wars as godless atheists. So too, in nationalism, expatriates are feared, ostracized and shunned. They are considered unworthy, traitorous or treasonous. In the case of political opposition, such people become the targets of CIA spying and assassination attempts. As for countries that oppose the nationalist vision, they are subject to state terror, world wars and torture. Please see my summary table at the end of this article.

Monotheism, Nationalism and Individualism

Both monotheism and nationalism support individualism in the following ways:

  • Each focuses the attention of the individual on a single source of loyalty in the objective world: in the case of nationalism it is the nation, and in the case of monotheism it is a single deity.
  • Each marginalizes and undermines intermediate loyalties between the individual and the single, ultimate source. In the case of monotheism, it is earth spirits, ancestor spirits, totems or gods and goddesses. Similarly, nationalism demands that citizens subordinate regional, class, ethnic and even religious loyalties in favor of the state. The individual must have one and only one loyalty: the state. So with religion, the second commandment of the Bible reads, “I am the Lord Thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me”. This not only applies to religion, but also holds as an expectation that the state demands of its citizens. Both nationalism and monotheism are large-scale emulsifiers that hold together and paper over class or religious conflicts, which monotheists and nationalists tell us will grow and spread otherwise.
  • Each replaces customs and community traditions with written laws. In the case of nationalism, it is the constitution; in the case of monotheism, it is the sacred text of the Bible or the Koran. 
  • The relationship between the individual and the nation or the religion is presented as a freely chosen association or a covenant. In the case of monotheism, individuals are proclaimed to have free will, with the choice for whether to obey God. In the case of the nation, individuals are free to renounce their citizenship and go elsewhere. 
  • Each binds strangers together as opposed to kin groups, clans or neighborhoods.
  • Both have extremely violent ideologies. Monotheism has been responsible for more deaths than any other group membership. After the military revolution in the 17th century, nationalistic wars at the end of the 19th century (and of course the 20th century) show that the state has been at least as violent. 

I hope to have shown that it is a mistake to think of individualism as either anti-social or a withdrawal from social relations. Individualism does mean a weakening of particular kinds of loyalties: kin group, village, regional or estate. But it also means a connection with a de-sensualized community, made possible by the printing press and newspapers.

While the forces of modernization may have weakened religious beliefs, the doctrines, myths, rituals, and entire architecture of religion (specifically monotheism) were reorganized and used in the name of a secular political religion: nationalism. Beginning in the 19th century, individualists were expected to renounce loyalty to class, ethnicity, and region – not so they could be “free as a bird,” but also to become bound to a new secular community of strangers serving the state. Citizens may gain political rights, but that is far from the end of the story. The socialization into nationalism has been an enormously successful project of the 19th-century ruling classes. Individualists were mobilized to fight and die in wars to prove their patriotism. The reality is now that stateless individuals are not allowed to exist anywhere in the world. 

Please see my table at the end of this article. 

Qualifications: What About the Place of Islam in Nationalism?                                    

It might have crossed your mind that I did not include Islam in my monotheistic roots of nationalism comparisons. Certainly, Islam is monotheistic. Furthermore, when we look at Islamic fundamentalism, it would seem that surely there is fanatical nationalism at work. But a closer look shows that Islam has a similar internationalism as the Catholics. Being fanatical about your religion so that you will kill and die for it is not necessarily nationalism. Why did Islam not develop a nationalism the way the Jews and the Christians did: There are at least the following reasons:

  • Western nationalism was inseparable from the development of industry.While Islam went through a “merchant capital” phase of capitalism, they never initiated an industrialization process that capitalism did in the West. Industrialization is very important in pulverizing intermediate loyalties which is crucial to the emergence of nationalism.
  • Nationalism in the West was not built by one country at a time. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 created a system of states that became the foundation for nationalism at the end of the 18th century. There was no system of states that existed in West Asia at the time. Predominantly what existed were sprawling tribes, kingdoms or empires, not nation-states.
  • In the 19th and 20th century, Islam has become a religion of the oppressed. European nation-states were not fighting against imperialism when they arose in England, France, the United States and Holland. Their development was not shackled by fighting defensive wars. West Asian nationalism could not develop autonomously, but as a reaction to being colonized

Qualification: What About the Presence of a Polytheistic Nationalism in India?          

It would seem that when we look at the nation-state of India today, it would constitute a clear exception to my argument that only monotheism develops nationalism. Here we have the polytheistic religion of Hinduism as the guiding religion of Modi’s India. How can this be?

The title of my article is the monotheistic roots of nationalism. As we know, the origin of anything (monotheism) does not guarantee destiny (what something becomes in the future). New processes can take place later in time which are independent of their origin. My two previous articles on nationalism only went as far as the beginning of World War I. The events in the 20th century that went beyond the monotheistic roots of nationalism were two World Wars, a depression, fascism and national liberation movements especially after World War II. 

In Europe as far back as the Middle Ages there were other political formations long before there were nation-states. There were tribes, city-states, federations, principalities, provinces, kingdoms and empires. With the exception of some empires, all these formations were decentralized. These forms of political organizations continued to exist all over the world even after nation-states emerged. But the effect of political mobilization first in World War I and then World War II, pulverized these earlier formations. The Ottoman and Hapsburg empires did not survive World Wars. Tribes, federations and city-states were too weak to survive two world wars and became hammered into nation-states. It is no accident that at the end of World War I, the new global mediator was the League of Nations not the League of provinces, kingdom or empires. After World War II it was the United Nations that was promotedAfter that it is very difficult to have any political standing in world politics without being organized into a nation-state. 

In the case of India, revolutionaries had to build up and centralize their states if they were to fight the British. They succeeded. After World War II Indian religions continued to compete – Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism to name three. As India (as many nations in the 20th century) turned politically to the right over the last thirty years it needed a religious justification for its shift. Hinduism, as the oldest Indian religion was championed. So, in the case of India, Hinduism did not help to form nationalism as Western monotheism helped nationalism. It was a reaction after a political nationalism that had already formed.

Something similar happened in the African liberation movements after World War II. African centralizedstates had to form in order for those revolutionaries to overthrow the colonizers. This has not been easy for those states as tribal and ethic loyalties in parts of Africa were fierce. Islam proved to be a better unifying force as a world religion than various decentralized pagan magical traditions. In the case of Africa Islam, though itself not a religion that helped nation-states to form prior to the 20th century, became one. Again, we have the case of a religion not being the cause of nationalism but a secondary reaction.

Commonalities Between Monotheism and Nationalism in the Socialization Process From Birth to Death

Monotheism(Judeo-Christian)Category of ComparisonNationalism(United States)
Written Scriptures (Bible) interpreted by priests or rabbis Means of TransmissionWritten Constitutions interpreted by courts (judges)
Special occasions throughout the year:Christmas day, Easter, Lent, feast days, saints daysMarking Social timeSpecial occasions throughout the year:Independence Day, President’s Day, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day
Rites of passage:Baptism, confirmation, marriage, anointing of the sick and last ritesMarking Individual Time Rites of passage:Cub scouts, boy scouts, girl scouts, draft registration 
Sunday school, private religious schoolsEducational TrainingPublic school civics classes on American government and history
Detached from territory: Cosmopolitan (early prophets)Attached to Territory: Promised land, Zionists-Palestine, Christians-BethlehemMarking Geography (territory)Attached to territory: (Promised land)Swiss Alps, U.S. Western frontier
Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, Vatican, streets named after saints, religious statuesMarking geography (urban landmarks)Federal and state buildings Streets named after presidents, Monuments: Bunker Hill, Statue of Liberty, Plymouth Rock. Mount Rushmore
Pilgrimages to Mecca, Jerusalem, BethlehemMarking Geography (movement)Pilgrimages to Washington DC 
Sacrifice self (religious martyrs)SacrificeSacrifice of self in patriotic wars (Tomb of Unknown Soldier)
Community dancing ritualsCollective Bodily OrchestrationMilitary drills
Moses on Mount Sinai,St. Paul on the road to DamascusConversionGreat Awakening in America (1725), Second Great Awakening (1780), Naturalization ceremony with immigrants and refugees receiving citizenship rights
To be free every individual must belong to a religion (no pagans or atheists)Loyalty and ExclusivityTo be free, every individual must belong to a nation (no nationless individuals)
Religious warsAttitude Towards NonbelieversState-to-state wars
Usually lifetimeLength of MembershipState membership usually lifelong (compulsory registration of birth, death)
Collective solidarity, comfort propagandaViolence: Fear, terror, torture, witch trials, inquisitionsMeans of Sustaining MembershipCollective solidarity, comfort structure, propagandaViolence: fear, state terror, assassination, torture
Excommunication, religious apostasy, accusations of heresy, blasphemyExileFear, ostracism, shunning of ex-patriots, accusations of treason

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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