Sunday, 21 February 2021

Religion, nationalism, Europe, Brexit


Above is an interesting webinar hosted by Aristotle Papanikolaou of the Orthodox Christian Studies Centre of Fordham University regarding religion and nationalism. The guests are José Casanova, Elizabeth Prodromou and Eric Gregory.

In his opening remarks Casanova says religious nationalism, as he calls the intersection of religion and nationalism, is characteristic of all religions – Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and exists in all Christian denominations. A lot is made of how, where Orthodoxy prevails, it has developed into a religion that has come to define national identity but Casanova says this is nothing unusual or unique to Orthodoxy and in his country, Spain, under Franco, the ideological glue of the regime was National Catholicism.

Gregory makes some observations about how, despite the explicit tradition of separation of state and religion in the USA, religion has now come to pervade that country’s politics. Trumpism or Make America Great Again populism, Gregory argues, is a form of religious nationalism and is code for making America white and Christian again.

Ironically, all three scholars observe, Christian nationalism, whether in the form of Trumpism in the USA, Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in Holland or the AfD in Germany, has little to do with Christianity as a religious creed. Christian nationalist leaders and many of their followers are not devout and have no real interest in the faith. Rather they assert Christianity, its centrality to American and European identity, as a means to oppose non-Christian religions that are perceived as a threat to European and American culture and global interests.

There are many other interesting points that emerge from the discussion. One is Gregory’s claim that while the Orthodox Church sees itself as being the bulwark of a Christian nation, Protestants see nations as temporal constructs and assert that salvation only comes to individuals – grace not race. (Of course, the Byzantines saw the Roman people, and not any individual, as ‘chosen’ and the Roman nation as uniquely righteous and under the protection of God, the Virgin Mary and any number of saints, in which case the notion of individual salvation is both decadent and grotesquely vain).

Another interesting observation is Casanova’s that the EU was the result of 70 years of war between France and Germany, which started with the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, took on a second phase in the Great War and concluded in 1945 with the Second World War.

It was at a the end of this last war, Casanova argues, that Roman Catholic intellectuals in France and Germany began to consider how their two countries could put an end to this internecine bloodshed and establish a new Europe. The result of this Roman Catholic or Christian Democrat initiative was first the Treaty of Paris (1951), which created the European Coal and Steel Community, then the Treaty of Rome (1957), in which France and Germany joined by Holland, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg – all overwhelming Roman Catholic countries or countries where at least half the population were Roman Catholic, formed the European Economic Community, which morphed into the European Union following the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

These cultural and historical foundations of the EU are always useful to remember, particularly if we want to see why the UK was always an uncomfortable, then a semi-detached and ultimately a fully alienated member-state, deciding to abandon the whole project in 2016.

Since Brexit, a cottage industry has developed trying to explain why Britain has, for better or worse, ended up where it is.

Many have attributed the vote to leave the EU, and the recalibration of politics it represents, the fall of the Red Wall to Boris Johnson in the 2019 general election, to English nationalism. Some have argued that this English nationalism is rooted in hostility to immigration – though for former PM Tony Blair this has less to do with European immigration and the EU’s policy of Freedom of Movement, and more to do with non-European immigration to the country:

‘For many people, the core of the immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue – is immigration from non-European countries especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.’

This hostility to immigration is often linked to imperial nostalgia. During the vote leave campaign there was much talk of Britain, having shown in the past that it can thrive and triumph globally, striking out again into the wider world, leaving behind the narrow confines of Europe and the shackles of Brussels. Moreover, given its unique imperial history, Britain, it was argued, has greater cultural, historical and ethnic ties to countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA – the so-called Anglosphere – than the countries of the European continent.

Gary Younge put the imperial-nostalgia-prompted-Brexit thesis like this:

‘Our colonial past, and the inability to come to terms with its demise, gave many the impression that we are far bigger, stronger and more influential than we really are. At some point they convinced themselves that the reason we are at the centre of most world maps is because the Earth revolves around us, not because it was us who drew the maps.’

Others have argued that rather than imperial nostalgia being behind Brexit, it’s the myths of the Second World War, with its notions of plucky, little Britain fighting to retain its freedom from malevolent forces in Europe that explain the country’s rejection of the EU.

Mike Finn writes that for the two leading Brexit campaigners, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson:

‘Britain is the nation who stood alone in 1940, a great nation, heir to Anglo-Saxon culture and “first in the world for soft power”, owing to Britain’s supposed invention of representative democracy. For Johnson, Churchill was a man of 
vast and almost reckless moral courage, the encapsulation of all that is good about Britain, not least British pluck. As Gove puts it, those who believe that the prospect of Brexit is a terrible idea are actually arguing that Britain is too small and too weak…to succeed without Jean-Claude Juncker looking after us. Johnson went further, comparing the European project to Hitler's attempt at territorial domination. Both agree that, as in 1940, Britain can, and should, stand alone.’

Tony Blair also invokes the dominance of Second World War myths in British national ideology as a cause of Brexit.

‘On the one side are those who feel Britain as they know it, is being cast aside, the things they like about Britain disappearing, and in their place, petty political correctness, bureaucratic obsessions, magnified and exemplified by Europe, and, above all, obedience to the god of multi-culturalism at the expense of our own culture. 

This part of Britain imagines a parallel with the Second World War, a period of our history which, rightly, makes us proud. Read the speeches of the Brexiteers and they are replete with references to this feat of glory.

But it casts a long shadow over the British psyche. It creates a longing to live the moment again, to see each new circumstance through the lens of its narrative, a life and death struggle between us and those who would harm us, where against all odds we triumph, a series of Darkest Hours from which we emerge to the sunlit uplands.’

Imperial nostalgia and Second World War myths aren’t mutually exclusive. Even if the first evokes feelings of global supremacy and significance while the second celebrates the virtues of the underdog and isolation, you can believe in both and Brexit can be explained by both.

Also worth noting are the arguments of historian Linda Colley on the origins of British national identity and how this might have contributed to Brexit

In Britons: Forging the Nation, Colley argues that the British nation was formed between 1707 and 1837, i.e. between the Acts of Union between Scotland and England and the beginning of the Victorian era. The principal ideological adhesive that bonded England, Scotland and Wales, Colley argues, was Britain as a Protestant state standing against a largely Roman Catholic Europe.

Even if these foundations of British national identity have, since the Second World War, faded, with empire gone and religion a peripheral and derided endeavour, what hasn’t faded is the notion, however vaguely understood, that Europe is other, foreign and not only not part of British – or, now, English – identity but inimical to it.