restricted access The Biblical Origins of Nationalism
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March/April 2006 · Historically Speaking 21 The Biblical Origins of Nationalism Anthony D. Smith Nationalism is generally assumed to be a secular ideology and a modern movement. While there may be some debate about the nature and dating of nations, there is little or no disagreement about the character and modernity of nationalism. Yet, even here, things are not that clear-cut. Not only do we find strands ofnationalist ideology in earlier periods of history, but closer inspection reveals an early modern form of nationalism, one with an ancient religious pedigree, which I shall term "covenantal" nationalism.1 What can such a term imply? Pacts and oath swearing were common enough in the French Revolution and its successors. In Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere the formation of more or less secret societies whose members were bound to each other by oaths and rituals was a common prelude, or accompaniment, to mass agitation. There were also open, public oath ceremonies. An early example was the celebration of the Fete de la Federation on the Champs de Mars in 1790, when the tricolor was flown and the participants swore to defend the patrie using the selfsame gestures of the Roman oath sworn by the three Horatii brothers in Jacques-Louis David's painting ofLes Horaces of 1784. The point of such oath ceremonies was not to enter into mutually beneficial contracts. It was to bind the nation to its own image of itself. As such it was an act ofworship, and its god was as exclusive as that of any previous monotheism . As the Petition ofAgitators put it in 1792: "The image of the patrie is the sole divinity whom it is permissible to worship."2 In other words, this secular doctrine was embedded in a sacred context and had a religious purpose. Ofcourse, this was not religion in a transcendental mode. It did not seek salvation from a suprahuman, otherworldly cosmos . The salvation it offered was entirely of this world—to be part of the nation progressing through time and history. The immortality it conferred was equally terrestrial: the judgment ofhistory and the praise ofposterity. But it was not less religious for that. Better than any Durkheimian totemism, the rituals of nationalism created social solidarity through collective effervescence in national self-worship , if only temporarily. They also set the nation apart from others and imbued its members with strength and purpose, including aggression and expansion, as happened in Revolutionary France from 1793. Yet these rituals were not the first of their kind. They possessed a lineage, not so much in France perhaps, but certainly in England, Scotland, and the Netherlands. Though these mation was a growing identification of England as an elect nation, a view encouraged by the ideal of the Covenant found in the Hebrew Bible. This in turn encouraged a return to the study and inspiration of the Old Testament (long regarded in Catholic theology as merely a prelude to the gospel of the New Testament), with the laws of the Pentateuch Colonel Titus addresses Oliver Cromwell, undated. The James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. are not the only cases—we may cite the cases of Ulster, the northern colonies of the United States, and the Afrikaners—they are the first, and the most striking. Here, we can clearly discern the biblical lineage ofnationalism and the image ofthe ancient Mosaic Covenant.3 Let me start with England. Here the Henrician Reformation, much like those of Denmark and Sweden from the 1530s, was undertaken by the state and elevated the Royal Supremacy in place of papal authority. But it was succeeded by a more radical Protestant reform, whose main legacies were a vernacular Bible and Book of Common Prayer. However, it was the bitter experience of the Marian exiles from 1553 to 1558, reflecting on the Protestant martyrs of Mary's reign, that established a specifically English mode of Protestantism with growing Calvinist tendencies . Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1560-1573) became, after the Bible, the most widely read Protestant text. One of the fruits of this reforand the moral examples of biblical heroes serving as models for the Puritan...