The Monotheistic Roots of Nationalism Part I

What Nationalism and Monotheism Have in Common

What Is The Relationship Between Nationalism and Religion? 

Do religion and nationalism compete with each other? Do they replace each other? Do they amplify each other and drive each other forward? Do they exist in symbiosis? Theorists of nationalism have struggled with this question. At one extreme of the spectrum is the early work of Elie Kedourie (1960), who argued that nationalism is a modern, secular ideology that replaces religious systems. According to Kedourie, nationalism is a new doctrine of political change first argued for by Immanuel Kant and carried out by German Romantics at the beginning of the 19th century. In this early work, nationalism was the spiritual child of the Enlightenment, and by this I mean that nationalism and religion are conceived of as opposites. While religion supports hierarchy, otherworldliness, and divine control, nationalism, according to Kedourie, emphasizes more horizontal relationships, worldliness, and human self-emancipation. Where religion supports superstition, nationalism supports reason. Where religion thrives among the ignorant, nationalism supports education. For Enlightenment notions of nationalism, nationalism draws no sustenance from religion at all.

Modern theorists of nationalism such as Eric Hobsbawm and John Breuilly (1993), share much of this position. For these scholars, secular institutions and concepts such as the state or social classes occupy center stage, while ethnicity and religious tradition are accorded secondary status. For Liah Greenfeld (1992), religion served as a lubricator of English national consciousness until national consciousness replaced it. 

Conor Cruise O’Brien (1999), Adrian Hastings (1997), and George Mosse (1975) have added sacred texts, prophets, and priests to the list of commonalities between nationalism and religion. Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities) argues that just as sacrifice is important to religion, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the equivalent translation for the nation. Just as religion has its rituals of religious conversion, nations have citizenship rites in which immigrants sing a national anthem rather than religious hymns. Just as members of a religious community are encouraged to love the stranger, members of a nation will never know, meet, or even hear about most of their fellow members. 

Anthony Smith (1998) argues that nationalism used and secularized the myths, liturgies, and doctrines of sacred traditions and was able to command the identities of individualists not only over ethnic, regional, and class loyalties, but even over religion itself. What Smith wants to do is conceive of the nation as a sacred communion, one that focuses on the cultural resources of ethnic symbolism, memory, myth, values, and their expression in texts, artifacts, scriptures, chronicles, epics, music, architecture, painting, sculpture, and crafts. Smith’s greatest source of inspiration was George Mosse (1975), who discussed civic religion of the masses in Germany. 

My article will help us understand not only which social institutions command people’s loyalty, but how they accomplished this. It is not enough for states to promise to intervene in disputes and coordinate the distribution and production of goods, although this is important. Individualists must also bond emotionally with each other through symbols, songs, initiations, and rituals in support of nationalism. In this effort, the state does not have to reinvent the wheel. There was one social institution which, prior to the emergence of absolutist states that was also trans-local and trans-regional. Interestingly, this institution also required its members to give up their kin, ethnic identity, and regional identity in order to become full members. That institution was religion. 

Civic Religion In The French Revolution

 During the great calling of the Estates-General in 1789, Abbé Sieyès contended that the rights of the nation had been usurped by the nobility. He wanted a “nation-state” to end the aristocratic rule of regional privileges, along with intermediate institutions and corporate bodies that came between the individual and the state. By 1793 the revolution swept away regional bodies, resulting in a centralized regime with no parallel in the history of Western Europe. 

Understood from a secular view, the state was seen as a sole and absolute sovereign, directing and advancing the process of secularization by limiting ecclesiastical power. Religion was totally subordinate to the state. A new national community was to be based on reason and nature without reference to the customs of the past. It did not appeal to ethnic or linguistic commonalities, but to a centralized education. The nation was envisaged politically as calling for unity as well as liberty and equality. The idea of democracy was strong, coming from the working classes. These classes wanted to push for popular sovereignty, not national representation. 

On the surface, French nationalism was secular, political, scientific, and anti-clerical. The beheading of the king during the French Revolution deprived France of its divine protector. This left an increasingly autonomous sphere for humanity to construct an earthlier protector: the nation-state. Reinforced by the horrors of religious wars, patriotism was seen as a counter to religious strife and appealed to an increasing number people, both educated and uneducated. Patriotism was the sacred communion of the people in arms. If the nation simply replaced religion with a more enlightened view, there would be no need for religion’s rituals and techniques. But this was not what happened. 

If we examine the process of how the state commands loyalty, we find the state uses many of the same devices as religion. After the revolution in France, the calendar was changed to undermine the Catholic church. The state tried to regulate and dramatize the key events in the life of individual—birth, baptism, marriage and death. French revolutionaries invented the symbols that formed the tricolor flags and invented a national anthem, La Marseillaise. The paintings of Delacroix and Vermeer supported the revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen became a new belief system, a kind of national catechism. By 1791 the French constitution had become a promise of faith. The tablets of the Declaration of Rights were carried around in procession as if they were commandments. Another symbol was the patriotic altar that was erected spontaneously in many villages and communes. Civic festivities included resistance to the king in the form of the famous “Tennis Court Oath,” (Serment du Jeu de Paume) along with revolutionary theater. The revolution, through its clubs, festivals, and newspapers, was indirectly responsible for the spread of a national language. Abstract concepts such as fatherland, reason, and liberty became deified and worshipped as goddesses. All the paraphernalia of the new religion appeared: dogmas, festivals, rituals, mythology, saints, and shrines. Nationalism has become the secular religion of the modern world, where the nation is now God.

In his book, Nationalism: a Religion (1960), Carlton Hayes says that:

Nationalism, like any religion, calls into play not simply the will of the intellect, but the imagination, the emotions. The intellect constructs a speculative theology or mythology of nationalism. The imagination builds an unseen world around the eternal past and the everlasting future of one’s nationality. The emotions arouse a joy and an ecstasy in the contemplation of the national god who is all good and all protecting. (pages 143–144)

For Hayes, nationalism is large-scale tribalism. Modern national identity appears in Western Europe at a time when all intermediate bonds of society were collapsing due to the industrial revolution and religion was losing its grip on its populations. What occurs is a reorganizing of religious elements to create a social emulsifier that pulverizes what is left of intermediate organization while creating a false unity. This unity papers over the economic instabilities of capitalism as well as the class and race conflicts that it ushers in. 

How Monotheism Differs From Animism and Polytheism

Anthony Smith is not simply saying that religion itself is the foundation of nationalism. He claims that the monotheism of Jews and Christians forms a bedrock for European nationalism. However, Smith does not account for why animistic and polytheistic religious traditions are not instrumental in producing nationalism. What are the sacred differences between magical traditions of tribal people and monotheists—the high magical traditions of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Aztecs, and Incas on one side, and Jews and Christians on the other? We need to understand these religious differences so we can make a tighter connection between monotheism and nationalism.

The five parts to a monotheistic covenant vs polytheism and animism

The following discussion draws from my book, From Earth Spirits to Sky Gods, along with the work of Anthony Smith. According to Smith (2003), the foundation for the relationship between a monotheistic people and its God is a covenant.A covenant is a perceived voluntary, contractual sacred relationship between a culture and its sacred presences. This contractual relationship is one of the many differences that separates monotheism from polytheism and animism. Polytheistic and animistic cultures perceive a necessary, organic connection between themselves and the rest of the biophysical world, and this connection extends to invisible entities. The monotheistic Jews were the first people to imagine their spiritual relationships as a voluntary contract.

The first part of a covenant agreement is that God has chosen a group of people over all other groups for a particular purpose. This implies that God is a teleological architect with a plan for the world and simply needs executioners. Polytheistic and animistic people imagine their sacred presence as a plurality of powers that cooperate, compete, and negotiate a cosmic outcome having some combination of rhythm and novelty rather than a guiding plan. Like Jews and Christians, pagan people saw themselves as superior to other cultures (ethnocentrism), but this is not usually connected up to any sense of them having been elected for a particular purpose by those sacred presences. 

Still another side of this contract is that people have to consent to join in the agreement. There has to be choice. This choice implies that the elected culture could get along well enough even if they refused God’s offer. For polytheistic and animistic people, spiritual presences are the life blood of their communities. There are no debates, negotiations, qualifications, or haggling with sacred presences as to whether or what kind of a relationship will exist. There relations are already and always the case.

The second part of a covenant is the announcement of a promise of prosperity and power for the chosen people as part of the bargain if they behave themselves. In polytheistic and animistic societies, the gods make no promises. Some people are born into ecological settings that are bountiful while others are born into austere conditions. Why this has happened has more to do with the success or failure of magical practices than it has to do with spiritual kindness or cruelty on the part of the gods. 

The third part of a covenant is the prospect of spreading good fortune to other lands. This is part of a wider missionary ideal of bringing light to other societies so that the blind can see. It is a small and natural step to affirm that the possession of might—the second part of the covenant (economic prosperity and military power)—is evidence that one is morally right. We know that the ancient Judaists sought to convert the Edomites though conquest. On the other hand, while it is certainly true that animistic and polytheistic people fight wars over land or resources, these are not religious wars waged by proselytizers. 

The fourth part of a covenant is a sacred law. This is given to people in the form of commandments about how to live, implying that the natural way people live needs improvement. In polytheistic societies, how people act was not subject to any sort of a plan for great reform on the part of the deity. In polytheistic states, the gods and goddesses engaged in the same behavior as human beings, but on a larger scale. There was no obedience expected based on a sacred text.

The fifth part of a covenant is the importance of human history. Whatever privileges the chosen people have received from God can be revoked if they fail to fulfill their part of the bargain. The arena in which “tests” take place is human history, in the chosen people’s relationship with other groups. For the animistic and polytheistic, cultural history is enmeshed with the evolutionary movement of the rocks, rivers, mountains, plants, and animals. There is no separate human history. Please see Table 1 which  summarizes these differences.

Animistic and polytheism rituals vs monotheistic ceremonies

Lastly, in polytheistic societies, sacred dramas enacted in magical circles and temples were rituals. This means they were understood as not just symbolic, representational gestures of a reality that people wished to see in the future. Rather, they were dramatic actions believed to be real embodiments of that reality in the present. In the elite phase of monotheism, rituals were looked upon with suspicion because people became superstitiously attached to the ritual and thought their rituals could compel God to act. In From Earth Spirits to Sky Gods, I coined the word ceremony to describe sacred dramas that were more passive and less likely to create altered states of consciousness, intended to show deference and worship to a deity who was not subject to magical incantations. In contrast, a religious ceremony, at least among middle and upper-middle class is more passive. The priest or pastor does most of the work while the congregation supports what the priest or pastor is doing. 

Table 1 Monotheism vs Animism and Polytheism

Judeo-Christian MonotheismType of Sacred SystemAnimism, polytheism
Contract between two free parties (covenant)Type of connection between a culture and sacred powersOrganic bond between two interdependent powers
A culture is chosen. Ethnocentrism with a spiritual justification.Is a culture “elected?”Ethnocentrism without any spiritual justification
Yes. Promise and deliverance of land, prosperity, and powerIs there a promise of abundance?No. What abundance exists comes from magical rituals upon ecological settings
Missionary ideal to bring light to others (religious wars and proselytizers)Expansion or provincial?Fight wars and expand for land or sexual and material resources, but they do not fight over spiritual beliefs.
Obedience to a law, typically written texts, for purposes of reforming humanityExpectations of humanityAltered states using imagination and the senses, transmitted orally with no purpose for reforming humanity
Holy and all good —qualitatively different from humanityQualities of sacred beingsGods and goddesses are the same as humanity, except on a larger scale
Human history is important as the arena in which people will be blessed or punishedPlace of historyHuman history is less important. More important is an extension of the ecological relationship with plants and animals
Ceremony—symbolic, representational gestures that show deferenceDramatizationRitual—real attempts to compel the spirits

Common Elements Found In Monotheism And Nationalism

Elite monotheism vs. popular monotheism  

Just as we saw in my previous article Nationalism as the Religion of Modernity that there was elite nationalism and mass nationalism, there was also an  elite monotheism and popular monotheism. In the early Iron Age, (1000 BCE to 200 CE) elite monotheism was an intellectual reaction of the prophets and upper classes to what they perceived as the degenerate superstition of polytheism and animism among their fellow Jews as well as of the agricultural states of West and East Asia. These qualities included a close identification of people with animals and plants, particularly through the use of the arts—music, dance, mask making—to create altered states of consciousness using imagination, sensory saturation, and trance states.

In some cultures, this pagan magic was used by state officials, such as priests and priestesses such as the Canaanites and the Babylonians. The first monotheists were reformers and outsiders to pagan magic. In societies where monotheism acquired state power, as when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity had to appeal to the lower classes. It had to bring back some of the magical ways that it had first rejected. To overcome the huge gap between the transcendental power of a God who had no human qualities and human beings, intermediaries such as saints, the Virgin Mary, and angels were brought in. Something similar also occurred in India when the Buddhism of the merchants acquired more influence among the lower classes.  

Loyalty to one God; loyalty to one nation requires pulverizing intermediaries

All sacred systems have to answer the question of whether the sacred source of all they know is singular or plural. Monotheistic religions break with the pluralistic polytheism and animism in pagan societies and assert that there is one God. It is not a matter of having a single God who subordinates other gods. This is not good enough. The very existence of other gods is intolerable. Any conflicting loyalties are viewed as pagan idolatry. 

Just as monotheism insists on loyalty to one God, so nationalism insists on loyalty to one nation. Claiming national citizenship in more than one country is looked upon with suspicion. Additionally, within the nation, loyalty to the nation-state must come before other collective identities such as class, ethnic, kinship, or regional groupings. To be charged with disloyalty to the nation is a far more serious offence than disloyalty to things such as a working-class heritage, an Italian background, or having come from the East Coast. In the case of both monotheism and nationalism, intermediaries between the individual and the centralized authorities must be destroyed or marginalized. 

Loyalty to strangers in the brotherhood of man; loyalty to strangers as fellow citizens

 The earth-spirits, totems, and gods of polytheistic cultures are sensuous and earthy. In tribal societies, they are part of a network among kin groups in which everyone knows everyone else. The monotheistic God is, on the contrary, abstract, and the community He supervises is an expansive non-kin group of strangers. Just as monotheism insists that people give up their ties to local kin groups and their regional loyalties, so the nation-state insists that people imagine that their loyalty should be to strangers, most of whom they will never meet. The universal brotherhood of man in religion becomes the loyalty of citizens to other citizens within the state. In monotheism, the only way an individual can be free is to belong to a religion (pagans or atheists are barely tolerated). In the case of a nation-state, to be free the individual must belong to a nation. One cannot tolerate individuals with no national loyalty.

Many inventions and historical institutions facilitate one’s identifying with a nation. The invention of the printing press and the birth of reading and writing helped build relationships among strangers beyond the village. Newspapers and journals gave people a more abstract sense of national news, and they were able to receive this news on a regular basis. The invention of the railroad, electricity, and the telegraph expanded and concentrated transportation and communication. 

The problem for nationalists is that all these inventions can also be used to cross borders and create competing loyalties outside the nation-state. Increasing overseas trade brought in goods from foreign lands and built invisible, unconscious relations with outside producers. In the 19th century, another connection between strangers began with the international division of labor between workers of a colonial power and workers exploited on the periphery. 

Religious contract of equality before God; constitutional contract of equal citizenship

 In polytheistic high magical societies, it was only the upper classes who were thought to have a religious afterlife. If a slave were to have an afterlife at all, it was to be as a servant to the elite. Monotheism democratized the afterlife, claiming that every individual, as part of God’s covenant agreement, had to be judged before God equally. So too, nationalism in the 18th century imagined national life as a social contract among free citizens, all of whom were equal in the eyes of the law and the courts of the nation. In the 19th and 20th centuries, popular nationalism included the right to vote in elections. 

Monotheistic and nationalist history as mythology 

According to Anthony Smith, the history that religions construct is not the same as what the professional historians aspire to do. For example, historians ask open-ended questions for which they do not have answers. They accept the unknown as part of the discipline and accept that an unknown question may never be answered. In contrast, accounts of religious history are not welcoming to open-ended questions. Rather, they ask rhetorical questions for which they have predictable answers. Those believers or non-believers who ask open-ended questions are taught that the question is a mystery that will only be revealed through some mystical experience or in the afterlife. Further insistence in asking open-ended questions is viewed as blasphemy or a sign of heresy. 

So too, nationalist renditions of history most often share a mythological conception of history as well. The history books of any nation generally try to paper over actual struggle between classes, enslavement, colonization, and torture that litters its history. Members of a culture that have built nationalist histories like to present themselves as being in complete agreement about the where and when of their myths. But, in fact, myths compete with each other and are often stimulated by class differences within the nation. Smith (2003) gives the following examples:

  • The Celtic pagan vs. Christian antiquity in Ireland
  • The Gallic vs. Frankish origins and culture in France
  • The Anglo-Saxon vs. Norman origins of Arthurian cultures in England
  • The Classical Hellenic vs. Byzantine origins in Greece
  • The Islamic-Ottoman vs. Turkic origins in Turkey
  • The Davidic-Solomonic vs. Rabbinic Talmudic traditions of the Golden Age of Israel 

Nationalist history is sanitized, polished, and presented as the deeds of noble heroes. This mythology is intensified by the way the founders of religion and the nation are treated. It is rare that Moses, Christ, or Mohammad, in addition to their good qualities, are treated as flesh and blood individuals with weaknesses, pettiness, and oversights. So too, in the United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are treated like Moses or Christ, having charismatic powers (Zelinsky, 1998). Just as religion attacks open-ended, critical questions of heresy, so nationalists tar and feather citizens as unpatriotic when they question national stories and try to present a revisionist history. 

Written records and artifacts comprise the building materials for historians. Myths are often treated as untrustworthy and are interpreted sociologically or psychologically for their “real meaning”. Historians might say that myths tend to oversimplify, exaggerate, and act as comforting devices rather than describe events that actually occurred. Collective memories are treated by historians as untrustworthy because, just as individuals have selective memory, so can whole cultures. However, for both monotheism and nationalist histories, the search for records and artifacts tends to be used to support the memories and myths that cultures already believe. 

Further, what makes nationalist histories and monotheism different from the work of professional historians is the direction of history. All national histories have a cyclical shape. They begin with a golden age and are followed by a period of disaster or degradation and, after much struggle, a period of redemption. First, there is a selection of a communal age that is deemed to be heroic or creative. There is praise for famous kings, warriors, holy men, revolutionaries, or poets. Second, there is a fall from grace, whether it be a natural disaster, a fall into materialism, or external conquest. Third, there is a yearning to restore the lost communal dignity and nobility. In order to return to the golden age, they must emulate the deeds and morals of its past epoch. For Christianity, the golden age consists of the story of Adam and Eve. For the Hebrews, it is the Old Testament with Moses in the wilderness. In the United States, it is the time of pioneers, frontiersman, cowboys, and Western expansion. These are mythic archetypes that are endlessly recycled today in the names of banks, television commercials, television programs, and movies. 

Contrary to both nationalism and monotheism renditions, among professional historians, whether there is a shape to human history is controversial. Some 18th and 19th century historians also saw history as having a linear time direction. The movement from beginning to end was categorized as progress. This means that things are gradually getting better for human beings as we progress through history in the areas of technology, economics, political institutions, and morals. However, after two world wars, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism, this position has fallen into disfavor among most historians. 

The Function of the golden ages 

Smith identifies four functions of the golden ages. The first is to provide a sense of continuity between the present and past. Golden ages do this either through the presentation of a cyclic mythical story or through an archaeologist’s geological discovery of a long-lost vernacular language, a sacred book, or artifact. Second, the golden age grounds nationalist culture with an identity in the flux of historical change. Third, a golden age provides a community with temporal roots, a time for beginnings and endings. Lastly, golden ages give expression and sanction to a quest for authenticity. It provides models for the nation’s true identity, stripped of cultural mixing, corruption, and decline.

Creating altered states of consciousness 

Everyday life is composed of small conflicts and problems that most often require neither a sense of adventure nor a great deal of social solidarity to resolve. But extraordinary life circumstances require both risk-taking and group support. Whether the sacred tradition is magical, religious, or nationalistic, it appeals to the big picture and requires the adventure and support that goes with it.

In tribal societies, rituals before war or harsh rites of passage induce altered states of consciousness, which are memorable because they require both courage and dependability. Popular monotheistic states of consciousness invite speaking in tongues, devotional emotional appeal, and the promise of being taken care of in exchange for obedience. In nationalistic settings such as recruiting offices, prospective soldiers are promised they will be taken care of by a strict military discipline while having great adventures in other parts of the world. Like monotheism, nationalism appeals to the petty side of humanity. Participants are told they are an elite group, superior to other nations. Once inside the military, boot camp becomes the arena in which individual will is broken. New recruits are taught to be dependent on authority and to not question things. 

Altered states can be created by either sensory saturation or sensory deprivation. A great example of sensory saturation to create an altered state is the Catholic mass. Here we have the bombardment of vision (stained glass windows), sound (loud organ music), smell (strong incense), taste (the holy communion), and touch (gesturing with the sign of the cross). Sensory deprivation in a monotheistic setting includes fasting, prayer, or meditation. Sensory deprivation in nationalistic settings is at boot camp and on the battlefield of war itself. 

Sensory saturation occurs in nationalistic settings at addresses by prominent politicians, such as the presidential state of the union addresses, in congressional meetings, at political rallies, and during primaries. Presidential debates and elections are actually throwbacks to rituals and ceremonies. Those diehards of electoral politics who attend these rituals are at least as taken away by the props as were participants in a tribal magical ceremony. In Yankeedom, the setting includes the Great Seal of the United States hanging above the event, along with the American flag, a solemn pledge of allegiance, a rendition of “God Bless America,” and a military parade. 

Attachment vs. detachment to land

As Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) and others have pointed out, tribal societies’ sense of physical setting contains a psychic element, where rocks and rivers are not physical things separated from our psychological states, but rather they have a psychic field before we even interact with them. When we interact with them, they deepen our own memories, dreams, and emotional life. This sense of attachment was not attachment to a nation, but a kind of group loyalty to the ecological setting of trees, mountains, and rivers. Tuan refers to this as attachment to “places.”

With the rise of monotheism, and later commerce in city-states, physical nature as a psychic, sacred place is undermined by a geographical conception of “space” as being purely physical and secular. Correspondingly, outside of churches, much of Christianity saw natural geography either as a temptress—a lush and tropical jungle—or as a wasteland. 

The relationship between monotheism and territorial attachment is conflicted. On the one hand, elite monotheists depreciate the importance of territorial attachment as an expression of pagans whom Christians feel are enslaved to the land. The prophets promote a kind of cosmopolitanism. Yet on the other hand, the more fundamentalist sects in popular monotheism insist on locating the actual birthplace of the religion and making it the scene of pilgrimages—Muslims go to Mecca, Christians to Bethlehem—or even a permanent occupation as with Zionist Jews in Palestine. In a way, on a more complex level, the rise of a nation’s sense of loyalty based on geography is a kind of return to pagan attachments to place. 

Promised lands of the past: the Swiss Alps

 We need to make a distinction between the promised land as an ancestral homeland (the past) and the promised land as a land of destination (the future). During the late Renaissance, the Alps were becoming a source of interest for artists like Dürer, Bruegel, and da Vinci as a vortex of the great powers of nature (Tuan, 1977). Naturalist Conrad Gessner climbed Mount Pilatus in 1555 to lay to rest stories about evil spirits in the mountains, and he raved about the clarity of mountain water. But the link between the Alps and the national identity of the Swiss was made only by 18th-century Enlighteners. They championed the primitive virtue of simple Alpine rustics. A century ago, Ernest Bovet, professor at Zurich University, wrote that Swiss independence was born in the mountains: 

A mysterious force has kept us together for 600 years and has given us our democratic institutions. A good spirit watches our liberty. A spirit fills our souls, directs our actions and creates a hymn on the one ideal out of our different languages. It is the spirit that blows from the summits, the genius of the Alps and glaciers. (Tuan, 1977, page 161) 

In his play William Tell, Friedrich Schiller links the origins of the Swiss confederation to the purity of the Alpine landscape. 

Promised lands of the past: Anglo-Saxons

For the Anglo-Saxons who had traveled across the waters to Britain, the analogy with Israel’s election was established by the time of King Alfred and his successors before the 10th century. The parallel between the Exodus of the Israelites and the journey of the Saxons across the seas from Denmark and Germany to Britain was already present, according to Anthony Smith, in Bede’s work as long ago as 730 CE.

It was the Anglican Church that, supported by the monarchy, advanced providential interpretations of Anglo-Saxon history. England was imagined, in biblical terms, an island nation under God in the manner of ancient Israel. The Germanic invasions of Britain were understood as divine punishment. The invasions of Anglo-Saxon land were compared to the assaults of the Assyrians upon the Jews.

According to Adrian Hastings (1997), the Norman Conquest did little to diminish the sense of English nationhood, except that the French language replaces Anglo-Saxon languages among the elites for almost two hundred years. It was only towards the end of the 13th century and into the 14th century that a more aggressive and widespread English national sentiment appeared in a series of wars conducted by Edward I against Wales, Scotland, and later France. Nationalism was also fueled by the rise of English literature in the age of Chaucer and the use of English in the administration and the courts.

During the 17th century, Cromwell’s New Model Army and the English Civil War against Catholic influence deepened the connection between the English people and their feeling of being chosen. In fact, men going into battle for Cromwell’s New Model Army were inspired by hymns and songs from the Old Testament. Myths of the English Protestant election was carried over into the constitutional settlement after 1689. Hans Kohn(2005) also claims that the Puritan myth of missionary election became deeply entrenched in subsequent English nationalism. Christopher Hill (1964) points out that Milton’s writings contain frequent assertion of the English having been chosen. This is carried over into colonial attitudes of cultural superiority and paternalism overseas. 

Promised lands of the future: Yankeedom and the Dutch

For the Puritan settlers in America, who fled the Restoration and experienced a perilous exodus in crossing the seas, it was easy to create in their imaginations an “American Israel,” or a “New American Jerusalem.” Though conditions were difficult at first, the scale and abundance of the continent held promise for many immigrants. American Puritans’ ideal of the “City on the Hill” was originally confined to small settlements and towns. From the early 19th century on, the promised-land concept came to include expansion across the United States. As the Western frontier expanded and indigenous populations dwindled from disease or conquest, the belief in a providential and manifest destiny was extended. This is exemplified in the epic paintings of Thomas Cole, Edwin Church, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran and Sanford Gifford that glorify the majesty of the West. Anthony Smith (2003) points out that the relationship of sublime landscape to nationalism was not unique to the United States. 

Even more than the British, the Dutch returned to the Old Testament—the idea of themselves as the chosen people and the children of Israel—to build their national and colonial identity. At first the Dutch strove for their rights to their land in their struggle with Spain. But then it was used later in the story of the Dutch Afrikaners who colonized South Africa.

The Great Trek of Dutch-speaking farmers from the British-ruled Cape Colony occurred 1834–1838. The wandering of the Boers from British oppression to freedom in a promised land was interpreted as deliverance of Israelites from Egypt. The Dutch saw themselves as a later-day version of the Puritans—the prototypical Israelites, fleeing a British pharaoh. But the Dutch were also taking the land of the Zulus. In the Battle of Blood River, the badly outnumbered Boer farmers linked ox wagons in a circle and held off an army of three thousand Zulus. A few had taken a vow that if God would deliver them from their enemies, they would honor Him on that date, and so the Battle of Blood River was celebrated annually. 

The covenant and the Great Trek amplified later Boer drives for purity through separation from all other peoples:

The genealogy of Ham…legitimated the servitude of non-white heathen to the Judaeo Christian children of Shem. Just as the Pentateuch and Book of Joshua had commanded the Israelites to drive out the idolatrous peoples of Canaan… their descendants believed they were destined to take the lands of heathen natives and expel or rule over them. (Smith, Chosen Peoples, page 81)

To be “the elect” was to justify land conquest. 

Using the theme of the promised land as both a past and a future for the nation is powerfully described at the hundred-year anniversary commemoration of the Afrikaner Great Trek. Daniel Malan, a chief instigator in the Dutch Reformed Church, said the following in his speech: 

You stand here upon the boundary of two centuries. Behind you, rest your eyes upon the year 1838 as upon a high, outstanding mountain top, dominating everything in the blue distance. Before you, upon the yet untrodden Path of South Africa, lies the year 2038, equally far off and hazy. Behind you, lie the tracks of the Voortrekker wagons, deeply and ineradicably etched upon the wide outstretched plains, and across the grinning dragon-tooth mountain ranges of our country’s history. Over those unknown regions which stretch broadly before you there will also be treks of the Ox Wagon. They will be your Ox Wagons. You and your children will make history. (Smith, 2003) 

Smith concludes, from these and many other examples, that no amount of manipulation by elites of myths and biblical texts could have mobilized and transplanted such large numbers unless these myths and texts were rooted in sacred beliefs of ethnic election. He shows that these beliefs were deeply rooted in the history of everyone in the ethnic group, not just the elite. Modern theorists of the nation separate nature from the history of cultures and separate the human psyche—emotion, memory, inspiration—from the landscape, but, according to Smith, they simply cannot explain this kind of attraction to nationalism. 

From mission of the chosen people to Manifest Destiny

Earlier we said that what separates monotheism from polytheism is the expansionary, missionary zeal of monotheism. This tendency was also characteristic of many nation-building projects throughout history. Both monotheism and nationalism wish to expand. There is an exclusive commitment to either one religion or one nation; yet once that exclusive commitment is made, the religion or nation sometimes advocates for expansion around the world. Table 2 below shows a summary of the commonalities between monotheism and nationalism. 

Table 2  Commonalities Between Monotheism and Nationalism: Beliefs and Dramatization

Monotheism Judeo-ChristianCategory of ComparisonNationalism  (United States)
A sacred system prevalent stratified state societies with possible developing empires in which a single, abstract and transcendental deity presides over “chosen people” via a contract or covenantDefinitionA secular system which exists in capitalist societies in which a single nation claims territory regulated by a state.It is an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of three characteristics: autonomy, unity, and identity
Destroys gods and goddesses, ancestors, spirts, totems, and earth spiritsDestruction of intermediariesDestroys loyalty to kin groups, regions, religion, and social class
Singular: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me” (Idolatry)Sacred SourceSingular: One nation— “Thou shalt not have other nations before me”
Covenant: contract of equality of participants before God as opposed to class or status differences in access to God.Type of binding to sourceConstitutional: contract of equality as citizens as opposed to class and status differences
Chosen peopleStatus in relation to other groupsChosen people (American Exceptionalism)
Lighting up the world; opening a blind eye (missionary work)ExpansionManifest destiny, making the world safe for democracy, and flooding colonized countries with commodities
Human history is important, but it combines facts, myths and memories. Distorts and omits conflict and atrocities. Resistance to revisionist history.Importance of historyHuman history is important, but it combines facts, myths and memories.  Distorts and omits conflict and atrocities. Resistance to revisionist history.
Golden ages: Adam and Eve, Old Testament and wildernessImportance of originsGolden ages: Founding of Jamestown, taming the western wilderness with pioneers, frontiersman, and cowboys
Strangers united in the brotherhood of manComposition of communityStrangers united as citizens of the nation.
Moses, ChristFounders mythologizedWashington, Jefferson, Franklin
Ceremonies: going to mass, speaking in tongues, dancing in the isles, blessing one’s self, crucifixCeremonies; symbolic reality; giving thanksPresidential elections, rallies, Great Seal of the United States, military parades, pledging allegiance, flag
Sensory deprivation: prayer, fasting, meditationSensory saturation: Catholic Mass (stain glass windows, organ music, incense, Holy communion)Methods of altering states of consciousnessSensory deprivation: boot camp, fighting in a warSensory saturation: singing the national anthem, flag waving, hot dogs, apple pie
Religious paintings: Gothic Cathedrals, Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo), The Last Supper(Da Vinci)PaintingsPatriotic paintings: Washington Crossing the Delaware,redemptive Western landscapes (Remington, Moran)
Liturgical hymn books: “Amazing Grace,” Christmas musicMusic“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Bless America,” “Battle Hymn of Republic
CatechismLiteratureNovels about the American West

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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