Christianity and Nationalism – a Complex Relationship

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University

In an old joke a lad strolling the streets of Belfast was stopped by a mob asking him whether he was Catholic or Protestant. “I am an atheist,” he answered. “Yes, but are you a Catholic or Protestant atheist?”

Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has got a complex relationship to nationalism. In many contexts, like in Northern Ireland, Christianity, or a specific form of it, is one of the strongest identity markers of belonging to a nation. In Christian thought and practice, there is a tension between national rootedness and the ideal of a universal sister/brotherhood of all believers. Below, there are some examples of how the national dimension is played out in different contexts.

Minorities are often more open: celebration of Eucharist with multinational & -lingual clergy in the Orthodox Uspenski-Cathedral of Helsinki, Finland. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

Nation and Christian belonging in the long run

Often the dominant religion or Christian denomination functions as one of the criteria of belonging vis-à-vis the neighbours not sharing the same faith. Thus, in my native context, Finland, where Lutheranism is dominant, the Orthodox Finns have, at certain times during the national history, felt a strong pressure to leave the “church of the Russians” and join the true Finnish church – the Lutheran. This despite the fact, that both eastern and western forms of Christianity arrived in Finland approximately at the same time.

Greece resembles Finland in the sense that the dominant denomination, the Orthodox, defines strongly the national identity. However, some Greek dioceses are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople located in Turkey instead of the autocephalous church of Greece, which creates some variation. Additionally, there is the historical Catholic minority which is viewed differently than the Orthodox minority in Finland because the historical nemesis is the Muslim Ottoman Empire/Turkey and not primarily the Catholic nations. So, the Greek identity belongs together with Orthodoxy in the first place, but also Christianity in general (with Greek pre-Christian religious traditions mixing in). Outside Europe, the historical frameworks for the Christianity-nationalism relationship are very different.

Tilos, Greece. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

Christianity as the white man’s religion?

In most of the world, Christianity was introduced simultaneously with European colonialism, and often as a part of colonisation. Even if the political systems adopted by independence movements stemmed from Europe and were a product of a long interchange with Christian values, Christianity as a religion is often regarded as foreign to the national identity, especially in many Asian countries.

However, in South Korea, colonialism was Japanese, and Christianity functioned as an impetus for the nationalist movement. Therefore, even if Korean Christianity, especially Protestantism, bears many American cultural features, Christianity is more linked to the national identity than most of Asia. This in spite of the fact, that Christians do not form a majority of the population

Statue of St Andrew Kim Taegon (1821-46) in Seoul Cathedral, a martyr and the first Catholic priest in Korea. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

In Africa, the story is different. At the time of independence, there was a rather strong anti-Christian sentiment among the intelligentsia (even if many of the nationalist leaders had gone to mission schools and were Christians). Yet, the massive numerical growth of Christianity since then has led to a situation where Christianity is no longer seen as foreign. In many majority Christian countries Christianity has become a part of the national identity, like in Zambia which is even officially a Christian country. After all, the borders created by the colonialists do not follow any linguistic or cultural logic, and the newly formed African nations had to construct their national identities from whatever was uniting the population. Vernaculars and local cultures are often related to ethnic identities, which rather than enhancing the national identity, introduce the risk of tribalist secessionism. In such a situation, Christianity (or Islam) are more readily at hand as instruments of national unity.

Pentecostal celebration in Lusaka, Zambia. Zambia is one of the few officially Christian countries. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

It is complex

The United States is the world’s first constitutionally secular state – would you believe that? Despite the secular constitution, Christianity, alongside a vague civil religion, plays a major role in politics and the spinning of nationalist ideologies. Thus, both of the presidential candidates need to present themselves as properly religious Christians in spite of the fact that Trump’s behaviour deviates rather drastically from what has traditionally been seen as Christian.

In addition to mainstream nation-building nationalisms, the populist nationalist movements and their relationship to different expressions of Christianity form a totally different chapter. Are nationalist populists using Christianity for their political purposes or are churches and Christian communities allying themselves with populists because of their own interest – be it reducing the decline in church membership or reaching their ethical-political goals?

Around the world, there are countless variations of the theme Christianity and nationalism. When one adds to the equation the different ways in which Christianity has been directly or indirectly involved in the creation of national ideologies and movements, the question of Christianity’s relationship to nationalism is more complicated than meets the eye.

Lund University launches an online English-medium course on Christianity and nationalism from spring semester 2021 onwards. Through that course, one will be able to gain a nuanced and multifaceted picture of this question. In the 2021 course, we will be able to accommodate only Nordic students, but on the subsequent rounds students are admitted from everywhere in the world.

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