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September 04, 2002

God, country and family (part III)

Church and state. The two words evoke the image of a clash of values, culture wars and reams of dead-tree of apologia and advocacy. What role does God have in the United States in its self-perception as a nation? Many Christians would assert that this is a Christian, or at the least a Judeo-Christian, nation. Others would point to the heterodox views of many of the founders and the starkly godless nature of the Constitution to argue that though we are a nation informed and sustained by our religious views, they have little place in the public square. What role does God have in the building of and conception of nationhood on a more universal level? The United States is a difficult specimen to clarify this relationship because of our relative plurality of Gods and nations-or at least their definitions. Let us start from the most extreme case I can think of. I won't bring up Saudi Arabia or any of the other wretched "theocracies" that dot the Middle East [1]. To me, Israel is an example of a nation who's existence is predicated and intertwined with a certain God. It is because of the covenant with the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob that the Jewish people have form as one nation. Their conception of themselves, the Hebrew folk, is directly related to their relationship to their God-if God had not spoken to Abraham no doubt the Hebrews would have been another obscure Semitic tribe long in the mists of time (I don't believe in their God, but I believe in the power of the idea). The more sacred appellations for God have strong connotations of kingship and the legal framework of the Jewish religion is evidence of that, for the divine commandments, the ten prominent and the six-hundred thirteen less well known ones, come from God Himself. Though minorities-Arabs, Christian and Muslim as well as odd groups like Armenians or the Druze-are tolerated, they are most certainly not part of the mainstream of the national culture [2].

The Jews in fact perpetuate an ancient religious tradition, that of the tribal God. The original Jews might have been polytheistic, or at the least henotheistic by the Davidic Empire. But with the Pharisaic religious revolution during the Roman domination and the later incubation within Christendom and the Dar-al-Islam Jews have added concepts to their religious beliefs that make them more similar to their universalistic daughter religions [3]. But its core still remains tribal (nationalistic), so to convert to Judaism can be a rather arduous task compared to the simple profession of faith in Islam or the baptism of Christianity [4]. After conversion one becomes part of the Jewish people. This is a different in degree if not kind than Muslim or Christian brotherhood. In addition, Jews maintain ancient familial lineages such as the Kohanim and Levites from their tribal past, and both these groups are expected to resume their roles when the Temple is rebuilt. Other people are termed the goyim, the nations.

But Jews are only a small, if influential, group of people. There are though other examples of religions with nationalistic overtones. The Hinduvata movement in India makes a overt appeal to the "Hindu nation"-which includes those who have converted to other religions [5]. It is often said that Hinduism is a "way of life" rather than a religion. But acceptance of karma and the divine nature of the Vedas tends to united Hindus, of whatever religious or philosophical inclination [6]. Though India is a militantly secular republic, there is no doubt that the piety of the overwhelming mass of its people is reflected in its outlook. Though India has had several Muslim presidents (including the current one), this is a ceremonial role. Its Prime Ministers have all been Hindu, and in fact there is some question as whether Sonia Gandhi is fit to lead the Congress Party because she is by origin a foreigner and by religion a Roman Catholic [7]. The Hindu nationalists become positively apoplectic at the prospect of a non-Hindu becoming Prime Minister, and I suspect that this will always block Sonia Gandhi from true power, though she likely doesn't relish such a position in any case and is but preparing the way for her daughter Priyanka [8]. To Hindu nationalists, to be Indian is to be Hindu, and to be Hindu is to be Indian (therefore, the term Non-Resident Indian, or NRI, that is often applied to the Diaspora in Britain and the United States) [8.5].

On the other hand, let us look at Islam, in many ways the antithesis of Hinduism [9]. As Malcolm X saw firsthand during his pilgrimage to Mecca Muslims come in every shade (there is a tradition of Native American Islam!). Even the dominant ethnos in Islam, the Arabs, are multi-racial. It is true that an Islamic nation, the Ummah, which theoretically should be governed by a Caliph, exists to bridge the babble of nationalities. But this unification of diverse peoples in actual execution resembled the polyglot years of the high Roman Empire rather than a unitary state. One of the great clashes in the Middle East was between Arab nationalists, Christian and Muslim, against Islamists. The latter are of the mind that the Arabs have no nation other than Islam. In fact, the idea of Christian Arabs is something of a new development. Though there were Christian Arab dynasties on the periphery of the ancient Levant (the Ghassanids and Lakhimids), the dominant Christian culture was Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic and Greek speaking. The liturgies and ecclesiastical loyalties of Christian Arabs even today are toward these older traditions, and not to their Arab present [10]. Before Islam, the Arabs of the desert had little identity, the affinal people of Yemen looked toward the seas and the ancient cultivated civilizations of India, Persia and Byzantium for their influences and not toward their distant desert relations. But now Arabic is Islam's holy language and Allah is an Arabic and Muslim word for God [11]. The cloying influence of Islam and its Arabic ancestry can be illustrated by the case of Iran [12]. Here the ancient Persian culture, which as Ferdowsi lamented was conquered by dirty primitives, still retains elements of its pre-Islamic past. The Persian language is Indo-European. But the script is now in Arabic, with many loan-words. The Islamic clerisy of Iran recently attempted to suppress the celebration of the Persian New Year (No Ruz) as un-Islamic. In addition the splendid ruins of Persepolis are in decline and most of the visitors are Parsis from India and the Zoroastrian Diaspora. Ironically, the Shia identity of modern Iran was shaped by Turkomans from Azerbaijan, not Farsi speakers. The Pahlavis were the first Persian ruling dynasty in some 1,000 years! In the Dar-al-Islam we have the seeds for a great nation, but the irony is that the failure of the Islamic nations might very well be that they lay in the no-man's land between their own indigenous non-Islamic histories and the ideal of an unattainable pan-Islamic Caliphate.

But let us get back to more familiar environs. It is in the West that modern nationalism was defined. And it is the West that other civilizations look toward to pattern their evolution on [13]. England and most of the nations of Scandinavia have established churches. The Germanic countries have a special status given to historic religious traditions [14]. Russia also gives place of priority to its main faith, Russian Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism, are also recognized as valid and indigenous faiths [15]. The nations of the Mediterranean, Spain, Italy and Greece, are tied closely to their dominant religious tradition. Though in many of these cases there is no coercion and religious persecution of minorities, it is understood that to be Castilian, one is Catholic, or to be Greek one is Orthodox. In some of the northern European countries, like England for instance, the established church is a minority presence, so to be English does not mean to be Anglican (Tony Blair's wife is a Catholic and Margaret Thatcher was from a Methodist background). And yet a general Christian identity is accepted as the norm. Peculiarities start to crop up in countries like the Netherlands where as much as 40% of the population is non-affiliated, in other words, post-Christian (the popular term is "nothing"). It seems that unless one becomes an active member of another religious tradition, post-Christianity does not entail expulsion from the circle of European culture. This is reminiscent of the situation in 19th century Germany where Jews who were secular, in other words "confessionless," were accepted as Jews and tolerated, while those who converted to the Christian faith were ostracized or not considered Jews. It still seems appropriate to speak of the West as Christendom, for even though a large minority of Westerners are no longer Christian, that is still the religious tradition that most impacts their everyday life, for if they aren't Christian, it is likely their parents, brothers or sisters are going to be Christian.

But there wasn't always an identity between the West and Christendom. In the year 600, at the end of the papacy of Gregory the Great who more than any other early pontiff shaped the Western church, most of the lands of Christendom were outside the West. Egypt, north Africa from the Atlantic to the edges of Araby, Anatolia and Mesopotamia were still part of Christendom [16]. England (for Celtic Britannia was gone) was pagan, as was Germany. The only land outside of the outer limits of the old European Roman Empire that was Christian was Ireland, and only semi-Christian at this point. Christianity was receding in regions like the Balkans where Turkic Avars and their Slavic confederates were swarming over fields that had once been cultivated by Roman Christians. The vast bulk of Christians in this era would have been non-European. But by 700 the old Christian heartland along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean were quickly disappearing from the view of history. Though their populace would be Christian for centuries they were cut off from the developments that were occurring in European Christendom. By 750 Islam had ceased its expansion after swallowing all the non-European lands of Christendom less Anatolia. Spain and Sicily were being added to the Muslim lands, but Charles Martel, "The Hammer", stopped the Muslims in France and Leo the Syrian turned back the last Muslim siege of Constantinople. Boniface was converting the Germans and Britain and Ireland had been decisively won for Christianity [17]. The first missions to the Slavic people had been initiated. Christendom and Europe were fast become one and the same as paganism receded in the north and the Christian religion slowly suffocated in the south.

But within the context of Christendom, the seeds of nation-states began to form. The old Roman notion of a citizen was replaced by the idea of the subject (of both king and church). In most of non-Roman Europe Christianization was concomitant with the rise of centralized monarchies [18]. It was the old aristocracy that resisted the tide of Christianity. Saxon warlords like Widukind must have connected the attacks of Charlemagne and his edict that the nobles accept either baptism or death with their own loss of independence and power (Widukind eventually did become a Christian according to many sources, indicating that his initial resistance was political). One church under one king seemed to be the precedent. Later the warlords of Norway resisted the efforts of Olaf Trygvason as did the chaotic Swedish tribes to their own Olaf. It seems no coincidence that the rise of the modern states of Norway, Sweden and Denmark seem to follow their Christianization. The Christian clergy imparted an element of Romanitas to people that would otherwise have been outside of the purview of the Empire, because the Empire was no longer and its traditions were dying even in the homelands.

And yet it seems strange to me in some ways that nations coalesced out of tribe as they Christianized. How ironic that as the Scandinavians and other Germanic peoples abandoned their tribal gods for a universal divinity they came together as peoples dictated by geography and language. What place does Christianity truly have for nations in its paradigm? Certainly the church exists as a transnational institution that realizes the idea of Christian brotherhood, irrespective of color or tongue. But Christianity also exists at the other extreme, the personal relationship of a savior with the individual [19]. So to me it seems peculiar that Christianity should be associated somehow with the formation of nationhood. I have argued before that Christianity is an expansion of the circle of citizenship, a culmination of the classical evolution from the narrow polis and the more expansive res publica. Christianity, as a universalistic religion, transcended political boundaries, as the great Christian Diaspora, within and without the Roman Empire, partook of a common experience. In a way the medieval church was the equivalent of the United Nations, meddling in the affairs of kings and only existing at their sufferance-playing a dangerous game of balancing the powers. In addition, the long standing enmity between state and Christianity that arose from the time of Nero and down to Diocletian 250 years later impacted it even after the Christianization of the state. By the end of the 4th century the Christian Emperors had jettisoned pagan religious titles such as pontifus maximus and taken a more explicitly temporal role. Theodosius the Great allowed himself to be humbled by the churchmen Ambrose for his brutal slaughter of the inhabitants of Thessalonika [20]. This sort of confrontation, to the church's advantage, was recapitulated at Canossa nearly a thousand years later. The church's moderating influence on national feeling prompted Machiavelli to wonder if a pagan religious culture would not have been more conducive to republicanism [21]. Quite obviously pagan religious traditions were often more easily subordinated to political considerations as often the temporal and sacral offices were conjoined. Caesar spoke with the voice of the gods, in part because he was one of them [22]. Worship of the Emperor was a less a religious than a patriotic act.

But one would have to be a fool to assert that the High Middle Ages was a day of nation-states. National cultures were developing under the aegis of king and church, but it took the expansion of literacy with the printing press and Protestantism to truly allow the expression of nationhood. The Reformation shattered the consensus of the European order. The Roman church no longer had any say in the political workings of a great swath of Europe, and its influence was often diminished in the Catholic regions of Europe on the temporal level simply because it had fewer patrons. The translation of the Bible into vernaculars had a galvanizing effect on what were before a loose collection of feudal holdings. The Angevin empire of Henry II stretched from the Pyrenees to Hadrian's Wall. The collection of French, Breton, Norman and Anglo-Saxon nobles and commoners that formed that state had little common feeling. But later the Tudor and Stuart dynasties of the 16th and 17th centuries in England showed the strength of nationalism wedded to religious feeling. The marriage of Queen Elizabeth to Phillip of Spain was simply impossible because of the religious differences, while Stuart legitimacy was undermined by their pathetic dependence on Catholic French support [23]. By the end of the century the British were bold enough to overthrow the Stuart succession and put in place a Protestant Dutchman married to the niece of the Stuart monarch (and later they installed a German in the palace).

The Treaty of Westphalia traditionally marks the beginning of a new diplomatic order. Religious toleration became the norm in much of Europe [24]. This process continued, with starts and stops until the modern era. But with the increase in toleration, dissent, and even secularism, began to spread. National feeling began to percolate more widely in society, beyond the lettered and landed classes. And with this new national feeling, ancient and non-Christian religious feelings were rising. I don't want to overemphasize these trends, as most of Europe remained firmly Christian until the 1960s, but reactionary spirituality was growing [25]. Movements like Romuva (Lithuania) and Ariosophy (Germanic sun worship) began to germinate and blossom in the 19th century, firmly in the camp of nationalism. While German Christianity (not to be confused with the Protestant Confessing Church that remained true to Apostolic Christianity, rather Germany Christianity was a racialized religion similar to Christian Identity) was a failure and viewed with suspicion by the Nazi party. Pagan religious beliefs elicited less remark, though Himmler seemed to be the only one in a high position that had much enthusiasm for it. Interestingly, Himmler detested Charlemagne and called him "Charles the Frank." It seems that much of the SS officer corps had become de-Christianized by the initiation of World War II, though the German population as a whole still adhered to their old churches (95% were either Protestant or Catholic, with a tiny minority that were "God Believers," the term for the new paganism).

It seems today that the more extreme elements of nationalism-racialism-have given up on Christianity. Though John Paul II is considered a conservative on some issues, he has been the exemplar of an international and globalist Pope. He has diminished the European nature of Roman Catholicism by his aggressive outreach to Africa and Latin America. The next Pope might very well be a Nigerian. The Nazis were most certainly going to do away with Christianity and replace it with a volk-centered paganism [26]. The right-wing nationalist attack exists outside the context of Nazism in the form of proto-Fascist Julius Evola, and later on in the writings and teachings of Alain de Benoist and the French radical conservative movement. Nationalism degenerates into the most vulgar of racism through the prism of the Church of the Creator, which vilifies "Jewish Christianity." American Renaissance, the thinking man's white nationalist publication in the United States had a special on Christianity several years ago. It seems that half of the subscribers were Christian, but the other half were not. This is far greater proportion of non-Christians than the general population, and indicates to me that 100-proof nationalism tends to have an aversion to a universalistic religion like Christianity.

But the trend also seems against tribal or ethnic religions. Even practitioners of these faiths don't expect to become majoritarian anytime soon. Steve McNallen, one of the major forces behind Norse neo-Paganism, Asatru, asserts that they exist as a witness to the ancient traditions of their forbears and help connect whites to their pre-Christian northern European past. But it seems for any near term future, whites in the United States will remain firmly Christian, and remain part of a worldwide community that is becoming blacker and browner by the moment. Certainly today most Americans understand that Christianity is no longer just the white man's religion. I have read that many of the younger white racialists are turning away from Christian Identity-which itself is a radicalized form of Christianity that has little in common with the mainstream.

I do not believe that modern Christianity offers nationalism much hope. The liberal variety is explicitly anti-nationalistic (and on this subject I believe that the Roman Catholic Church is firmly in the camp of the liberals, though there are right-wing nationalistic Catholics in places like Poland, they are often disavowed by the more 'respectable' elements of the hierarchy). Like science, national feeling has been cleaved from the Christian religion, in the latter's case because Christianity is the religion of one of three humans, and expresses so many interests and traditions. In some ways Christianity is going back to its ancient anti-nationalistic roots. The nationalistic churches, the established Lutheran and Anglican traditions of northern Europe, or the Russian Orthodox church, don't seem to be handling the changes well. The attendance rate for the northern European Protestant denominations is abysmal (Sweden finally disestablished in 2000 because it was a farce). There is no doubt a reason that the Russian church is so hostile to Protestant missionaries.

The conservative Christian sentiment that shows such strength in the United States certainly has its element of patriotism, but has thankfully discarded the crude racism of years past [27]. In fact, the growth of Protestant evangelicals in Latin America and fundamentalist Christianity in Africa makes the right-wing Christians in the United States far more likely to have sponsored churches in the Third World rather than having contempt for colored folk. Mainline denominations like Methodism has been stagnating throughout much of Africa while African and fundamentalist churches have been eating into their membership and charismatics have been winning over the remaining pagans. The linkages between the Christian Right and the Christian international are far stronger than they were a few generations ago (think Christians in the Sudan or China).

Nations are created by a complex intersection of factors. I believe that the religious glue is weakening, and what remains is far more diffuse and universalistic than it was in the past. The individual faith of believers remains, and the worldwide structure of churches also is strong, but the old hometown church attended by generations is now just a memory. As I have stated before in my debates on evolution, religion and God are withdrawing from the world of sense and reason toward the inner world of faith and feeling. Nationalism and nationhood I believe are part of the outer world, and the paradoxically particularist (individualistic) and universalistic tendencies in most modern religions mitigates excessive religious attachment to a nation, which exists on the intermediate level.

[1] I use quotes because sometimes I question whether the term "theocracy" is appropriate in the Middle Eastern (generally Gulf) context, the incestuous relationship between cleric and king tends to resemble the Middle Ages more than anything else.

[2] Yes, I know that Arabs in Israel have more freedom than in neighboring countries and that a recent Miss Israel was Arab. But by the "mainstream" I mean the political and military culture of Israel that sets it off from the Diaspora, where professional and economic achievement tend to set the tone for the Jewish nation. Remember, no Israeli government will accept an Arab party into its coalition, because a large portion of the electorate considers only a Jewish majority legitimate.

[3] The role of Zoroastrianism is injecting concepts like the devil, hell and heaven is well attested to. I also don't reject the ancient contributions of Hellenists like Philo, though that tradition has been held in some disrepute until the rise of the Reform tradition in Germany in the 19th century. The influences of Christianity and Islam are more straightforward, Jews from Morocco and Yemen for instance still consider polygamy within the bounds of their tradition while European Jews reject it.

[4] I don't know if circumcision is mandatory for adult converts to Islam, but I believe it is in most Jewish sects, though I've heard some Reform temples don't require it. Russian Jews for instance have been obligated to make a trip to the hospital when they arrive in Israel for this very reason.

[5] Exactly what a Muslim of Hindu ancestry must do to placate the Hindu nationalists is beyond me. I do know that a movement to reconvert these people is taking place, and is the source of much tension between the minority communities and the newly minted missionaries.

[6] Note that Hinduism is much more diverse in terms of its religious philosophy than Christianity or Islam. For instance, though most Hindus are monistic, there is a dualist school. In addition, though Hinduism is generally a theistic religion, there are atheistic variants.

[7] There is some dispute as to Sonia Gandhi's Roman Catholicism, though she seems to be at least a cultural Catholic-reasonable in the light of her Italian origins. Her children seem to have been raised as Hindus, likely in case either wanted a political career. Sonia's dead husband, Rajiv Gandhi was by blood half Parsi, but his father had converted to Hinduism.

[8] Priyanka's husband is half-white as well, and was raised as a Catholic by his mother. He converted to Hinduism, again likely to ward off any stumbling blocks to Priyanka's political career. She needs to pluck her eyebrows too in my opinion, she certainly didn't inherit her mother's delicate looks or her father's gentle mien but rather Indira's more hawkish features.

[8.5] A Hindu nationalist would have been a bit confused in the year 1000. There were Hindu rajas in Kabul, which is only marginally considered Indian and more appropriately part of the Persian sphere of influence, and Hindu kings ruled throughout Southeast Asia. The Balinese of Indonesia and the Chams of Vietnam are all that remain of that ancient Hindu international.

[9] This is a case where differences in substance and style are so great that I suspect that the clash between Islam and Hinduism was inevitable and a malicious accident of fate. While Muslims assert that there is One God, Hindus will semi-seriously assert 600 million (most Hindus accept that the divine spark exists in everything), Muslims abhor idolatry, while Hindus consider it an acceptable avenue of focusing one's devotion, Muslims make a sincere effort to declare the equality of man before God, while Hinduism's caste crystallized right before the Islamic invasions, and so forth. When the Portuguese came, they were brutal, but generally would leave idols of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu alone because they thought it might have been Trinity.

[10] There are a few Aramaic speaking villages left in Syria, and Syriac and Coptic still exist as liturgical languages. In my understanding, Syriac as a dialect of late Aramaic, though someone can correct me on this.

[11] El is the Hebrew version.

[12] I'm sorry for using the word cloying, but I'm not going to back away from my own biases. The ancient culture of Iran seems so colorful next to what the Arabs brought in, but that's just my opinion.

[13] We speak of needing an "Islamic Reformation." The Muftis of the Sunni world and the Ayatollah's of Iran are based on Western religious motifs, not indigenous ones. Forward is the only way to move, and the reactionary Islamists and liberal secularizers are its two faces.

[14] Germany for instance has a "church tax" which one may opt out of. The tax goes to the maintenance of the Protestant and Catholic churches. Evangelical denominations, Jews and Muslims may also receive monies, but consideration is far less in keeping with smaller numbers and marginal historical profile. Also, Protestant in Germany means the coalition of Calvinist and Lutheran churches.

[15] Kalmykia is the only Buddhist European state. It is the remnants of a great migration of Western Mongols, Oyrats, who came into the service of the Russian Czars.

[16] Though Mesopotamia was ruled by the Sassanid Persian dynasty who were Zoroastrians, most of the populace were Christians of a variety of sects, though most often of the Nestorian tradition, which had strong theological and political differences with the Byzantine church. The Nestorians still existed after the rise of Islam, and the modern Chaldaen/Assyrian community from Iraq are their remnants. Nestorians were aggressive missionaries in central Asia, and many of the tribes that Genghis Khan conquered around 1200 were Nestorian. Southern Mesopotamia had many Jews.

[17] Armenia, Ethiopia and the Nubian principalities of the upper Nile were the non-European Christian states during this era. It would not be an exaggeration to say that by 750 Christian and European were already synonymous as they would be until around 1500 when the conversion of the Amerindian peoples began.

[18] By centralized, this is a very relative term. But even the loose elective monarchies of Germany were more unitary than the tribal confederations that dominated the scene prior to Christianization.

[19] The Catholic Church to some extent interposes the church and its clerics as mediators, but even in the High Middle Ages mystics sparked reforming and charismatic movements, generally drawing from a personal experience with God. No amount of institutional scaffolding can hide that the individual and God are an essential dynamic in Christianity.

[20] This incident was sparked by the murder of one of Theosodius' generals by the Thessalonikans on the charge of homosexuality.

[21] Please note that Machiavelli was a practicing Catholic.

[22] This ancient pagan tendency is also found in Islamic traditions-the Ottoman Sultan was also the Caliph of the Sunni Ummah.

[23] Charles found himself a Catholic French wife. This solidified his relations with Europe's most powerful state, but undermined his standing in the eyes of his more radical Protestant subjects. The fact that he wasn't too bright didn't help of course.

[24] This is a very relative thing. Protestants were not allowed in Spain, but France had a large Protestant minority (later expelled), while Germany was a patchwork and England still had Catholics and a diverse mix of Protestants. Protestant lords mixed with the Catholic peasantry in Ireland while Ulster was being settled by the Scotch Presbyterians. Poland was pulling away from its brief flirtation with Protestantism. Russia slumbered, as usual.

[25] By reactionary, I mean religious conservatism in the sense of the pagan Senator Symmachus, who attempted to maintain the "way of the ancestors" in the face of Christianity. Many European nationalities, especially the Germans, seemed to have had fond memories of the ancestors fueled by the Romantic movement.

[26] I don't mean to imply that paganism is naturally racist or nationalist. I do though believe it is more amenable to nationalist manipulations than Christianity-for Christianity as a universal religion simply will not brook excessive parochialism.

[27] It seems peculiar, but the muscular Christians of late 19th century wanted to Christianize the Catholic Philippines!

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