In what ways can nationalism or patriotism become idolatrous?
MANY PHILOSOPHERS AND SOCIOLOGISTS have observed that the rise of modern secularism has not erased man’s need for religion.
Although it is perfectly true to say that modern man has by and large lost faith in the traditional religions, his need for religion – which is very much alive – has led him to create new ones. This observation corresponds to the Christian view that holds that because God has created humans for fellowship with Him, they are profoundly and incorrigibly religious beings.
Religion, one may say, is hardwired in the spiritual DNA of homo sapiens. The old “secularisation” theory, which argues that the irreversible process of ecularisation in the modern world would lead to the gradual but sure disappearance of the sacred, is now largely debunked. Instead, modernity has witnessed a disconcerting metamorphosis of the sacred in other dimensions of human life, such as economics or politics.
Philosophers have coined the term “secular sacredness” to describe the phenomenon. The things of the world are invested with an aura of sacredness and attached to a system of beliefs, myths, rituals and symbols that can only be described as religious.
Politics is often treated as a form of “secular” or “civil” religion (the latter term was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century). In the modern secular world, the nation has the ability to inspire total commitments and loyalties in the way religions used to. Scholars have long noted that the decline of Christianity in the West as the predominant public religion has been supplanted by nationalism. The religious vacuum that the decline of Christianity has left is filled with the sacralisation of the nation.
Social analyst Mark Jurgensmeyer could therefore write: “Secular nationalism, like religion, embraces … a ‘doctrine of destiny’. One can take this way of looking at secular nationalism a step further and state flatly, as did one author writing in 1960, that secular nationalism is ‘a religion’ ”.
Scholars have pointed out that civil religions often borrow elements from traditional religions while creating new rituals and sensibilities that confer sacred status on democratic institutions and symbols. Modern secular (liberal) democratic societies are in some ways just as “liturgical” as traditional religious societies. It is noted as a matter of fact that many people become conscious of citizenship through semi-ritual practices (election, ceremonies and music) and symbols (flags and images). In secular countries, citizenship is often tied to these symbols and rituals that were invented precisely to express as well as reinforce devotion to the nation-state.
One of the most poignant examples is the flag, which many scholars consider to be the central symbol of nationalism. The many “liturgical” rites created around the flag are simply fascinating: there are rituals for “saluting” the flag, “dipping” the flag, “lowering” the flag, and “hoisting” the flag. In some countries, men bare their heads when the flag passes by. People write poems and sing songs (hymns?) about the flag.
These practices are commonplace in most countries and should not in themselves be a cause for alarm for Christians. I have in many places stressed that the Bible does not prohibit the Christian from being patriotic and from taking pride in their country. But when rational pride becomes irrational worship, or when the kingdom of this world becomes indistinguishable from the Kingdom of God, then nationalism, which in itself is legitimate, becomes a perversion and an abomination. It becomes idolatry. And this can happen quite subtly: when patriotic ceremonies and celebrations elicit an unquestioning and uncritical love for the country, and when orators create a secular deity out of the state by extolling its glories, elevating its heroes (secular saints?), and insisting on the infallibility and purity of its policies.
THIS IS PRECISELY THE PROBLEM with Nazism, the example par excellence of the sacralisation of politics and the idolatry of nationalism. The political religiosity of Nazism is based on the deification of the Aryan race, the cult of blood, anti-Semitic hatred and the supremacy of Hitler.
As the Italian historian Emilo Gentile put it: “ The political religion of Nazism, with the assistance of expert propagandistic direction, took the liturgical representation of the mass to new heights and culminated in the adoration of the Fürher.” The lure of Hitler was so powerful and the nationalism that he generated so persuasive that even some prominent Christian theologians were swayed to organise the German Christian movement in conformity to the Nazi-State.
Karl Barth denounced this “Yes to Hitlerism” as “one of the worst illusions in an age that was rich in illusions”. Together with other theologians, he composed the Barmen Declaration of 1934 that acknowledges that Jesus Christ, as He is attested in Scripture, “is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death”. It goes on to say: “We reject as false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation”.
The Barmen Declaration therefore continues to be an important document today because it reminds us of the real danger of the sacralisation of politics that would nourish an idolatrous nationalism.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.