Beyond Religious Nationalism


Slavica Jakelić in The Immanent Frame:

When Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, he used his addresses and homilies to speak of faith and the moral renewal of the country, and of human dignity and religious freedom. Millions of Poles responded to his words with hymns and prayers. But aside from carrying crosses, they also waved Polish flags. For them, the pope’s appeals to the dignity of the human person did not resonate in an abstract theological sense, but within concrete historical experience: their opposition to Marxist atheism and Russian control, and their commitment to preserving the Catholic identity of the Polish nation.

How are we to understand this moment in the history of Polish Catholicism? Did John Paul II’s personalist theology, placed within the narratives of the distinctively Polish embodiment of Catholicism, constitute appropriation of religion for nationalistic purposes? Or did the papal visit to Poland, and the Solidarity movement that followed it, gesture toward a vision of Polishness that transcended the narrow political meaning of the religiously-colored national identity, by giving impetus to a discourse of Polishness as a moral category that embraced the dignity of every human person, and by affirming an ethics of belonging specific enough to shape a sense of solidarity, while also capacious enough to affirm differences?

These questions are important for scholarly and political reasons alike, yet it is impossible to ask them in the context in which the notion of religious nationalism is the dominant category for the study of religions and group identities. To be sure, this notion is useful for at least two reasons. Analytically, it correctly identifies important contemporary phenomena—the links between religions and national identities, or between religions and national ideologies. Normatively, the notion of religious nationalism provides a framework for critique of group-oriented religions when they incite, perpetuate, or justify social conflicts.

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