March 4-6, 2004

The hypothesis that nationalism is inspired by secularist impulses is increasingly open to question, as religion comes to be viewed as a powerful source of cultural identity in a world dominated by multinational capitalism. Current world affairs invite us to examine the potent confluence of religion and nationalism as articulated in official and popular representations of political identities and agendas. Recent events draw our attention to the representation of national identities in the politics of the Middle East while current scholarship focuses on the historical importance of religious rhetoric in the founding of the United States. Nationalism has frequently been described by scholars as a secular religion with patriotism substituting for religious feeling, and texts like the Declaration of Independence functioning as secular relics. While many modern nations provided for an explicit way of protecting the operations of state from the encroachments of religious interests, these interests, many would argue, have motivated citizens of nations to behave politically, in unacknowledged ways, throughout history.

While religious affiliations and sentiments can unite or divide a polity, they can also work beyond the boundaries of states altogether. We are currently witnessing the development of religious identities quite separate from any association with state formation or national identification. The displaced citizens of a global economy emphasize religious faith as integral to their ethnic identities — identities that have less and less to do with the physical borders of a nation-state. How might we compare the globalized religious identities and behaviors of diasporic Hindus or Jews with those of religious groups who act through and within particular state boundaries? Further, how might either or both of these shed light on transnational religious groups such as Christian missionaries or Islamic fundamentalist groups who seek, or have sought, to unite the world in a religion that transcends national boundaries? More importantly, can and do these transnational religious identities undermine the affinities that nourish national identities and, in so doing, undermine the stability of the global system of states?

This seminar seeks to identify the ways in which religious beliefs –Islamic, Jewish, and Christian - have come to figure in representations of nations and national political life both locally and internationally throughout history, beginning our historical analysis in the 5th century BCE and ending in the 21st century CE. We will investigate the various ways in which religious nationalism differs from secular nationalism, as well as the extent to which nationalism includes elements of religiosity. Further, we will consider both the risks and the power of such rhetorical strategies and also the extent to which the connections between religious and nationalist rhetorics are produced by political leaders or, alternatively by those who shape cultural and religious discourse. We will question the significance of religion to developing countries, and ask how it differs from the practice of religion in more established nations. Finally, we will consider how we might distinguish the rhetorics deployed by established religions in nationalist discourse from those characterized by a more abstract religiosity commonly associated with patriotism.

This seminar will draw from scholarship on the history of religions, political science, history and literature. Speakers will include Menachem Brinker (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations), Dipesh Chakrabarty (South Asian Languages and Civilizations), Janice Knight (English Languages and Literature), Bruce Lincoln (Divinity School), Eric Slauter (English Languages and Literature), and Lisa Wedeen (Political Science).

Prereadings