October 27, 2017
In the first issue of the new magazine American Affairs, its editors ask: “Can nationalism be leavened by justice—or even be essential to it—rather than being abandoned to its worst expressions?”
At the moment in which a major public American university (UVA) can become a site for marches of the clean-shaven, torch-bearing neo-Nazi white nationalists, and in which the ruling nationalist party of one of the European Union’s states (Hungary) can unapologetically produce and post antisemitic advertisements, relating justice to nationalism seems not only indefensible but also irresponsible. The idea of nationalism as a possible path toward more just societies would seem historically unwarranted as well: The record of oppressive, hegemonic political institutions and violent conflicts that nationalist movements and nationalist politicians have helped shape during the last two centuries is long and hardly reassuring. But nothing more greatly fuels contemporary doubts about nationalism—and specifically, the power of nationalism to produce a democratic civic culture—than the current tendency to identify nationalism with populism.
This is not surprising. Both nationalists and populists act in the name of strong visions of collective identity; both nationalist and populist politicians assert the sovereignty of a people to include some and exclude other groups in the notion of “the people.” Perhaps most importantly, many of the contemporary populist movements and parties—whether progressive in Latin America, Spain, and Greece, or radical right populists in France, Austria, and the Netherlands—employ nationalist and, in the case of the latter group, nativist agendas. Yet distinguishing between nationalism and populism has never been more important, for reasons that are analytic, normative, and political in nature.
It is important to avoid the temptation to substitute one tendency among scholars and certainly among religious studies scholars—that is, thinking about nationalisms as identical to and embedded in nation-states—with another inclination: thinking of nationalisms as they are expressed in populist movements and politics. Both tendencies carry the same danger—the conceptual and historical flattening of nationalism rather than a fuller, more nuanced appreciation of its cultural narratives and political manifestations. For scholars of populism, identifying the differences between nationalism and populism is central to understanding the multiple forms of populism that are not always organized around nationalist rhetoric or agendas. But appreciating the differences between nationalism and populisms is also vital in helping us see both the expressions and the democratic possibilities of contemporary nationalisms.
While all populisms, progressive or conservative, are (as Jan-Werner Mueller correctly asserts) about the denial of pluralism, that is not the case with nationalisms. Yes, nationalisms always involve some level of homogenization inside the national group and impose boundaries around those who are not considered to be members of that group; and, yes, nationalisms often share with populisms the exclusive focus on justice for one people or one nation. But populisms represent what scholars call a “thin ideology”. As such, they might initially increase the level of political contestations and bring together many ideological constituents, but they ultimately involve two processes: a narrowing of political imagination and platforms, and the silencing of many voices in the political arena to accentuate the one voice of “the people” in its struggle against “the elite.”
By contrast, multiple narratives of national identity can exist next to, or in competition, with one another. As a result, nationalism is not simply an ideology of collective identity defined against other nations; it is also a significant field of democratic antagonistic struggle (to use Chantal Mouffe’s terminology) within some society. Most importantly, nationalisms can involve expressions of identity that do not marginalize or abolish pluralism but can simultaneously affirm drive toward homogeneity and respect for plurality; nationalisms can also, while clearly asserting boundaries of belonging and collective attachment, frame more expansive forms of national identification that acknowledge and respect the members of other national groups.
I’ve written about the historical and contemporary expressions of such nationalisms elsewhere (while uncovering the place of religion and religious ethics in collective identities and while staying away from the simplistic distinctions between civic and ethnic nationalisms). Here, I want to highlight two concrete instances in which nationalism is framed within narratives that link homogeneity and pluralism, on the one hand, and inclusion and justice, on the other. The first is the event that started as a symbolic protest of just one NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, and grew into a movement of solidarity (as well as contention) among many NFL players—the event that, at least in one reading, emerges as part of a narrative of American identity that is not just a protest against racial injustice but also the affirmation of the idea of what America as a nation ought to be. The second event I want to highlight is the sustained protests of American citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds against Trump’s policy to prohibit immigrants of selected Muslim countries from entering the United States— protests which are constitutive of a vision of a more just, more inclusive American national identity.
These two cases—as well as the American history of (in John Courtney Murray’s words) “a unity of a limited order,” wherein “one” and “many” are in conflict but also in a productive tension—are central to distinguishing contemporary expressions of populism and nationalism, in the American context and beyond. Most of all, such cases raise important questions about the range of democratic responses to contemporary populist politics: Is the only plausible and forceful challenge to a populism that threatens democratic pluralism some type of cosmopolitan vision and identity (which is often, it ought to be underlined, intertwined with the discourse and practices of global capitalism)? Or can a more powerful response to white nationalism and radical populisms be a nationalism that asserts a robust but more expansive—pluralistic—narrative of American national identity, defined by questions of justice, equality, and inclusion?
While white nationalists and radical right populists continue to bring torches to the lawn of a public university to call for a resurgence of white-only America, citizens all over the United States keep responding with their own vision of America by posting signs on their own lawns welcoming the others in their mother tongue. Nationalism is not synonymous with populism; it can be its foil.
Slavica Jakelić is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College, The Honors College of Valparaiso University. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and collective identity, religious and secular humanisms, theories of religion and secularism, theories of modernity, nationalism and populism, interreligious dialogue, and conflict resolution. Before joining the Christ College faculty, Jakelić has worked at or been a fellow of a number of interdisciplinary institutes in Europe and the U.S., including the Erasmus Institute for the Culture of Democracy in Croatia, the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, Austria, the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame, the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago, and the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, and the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She is an Affiliated Scholar of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where she was a faculty member and co-director of the institute’s program on religion for several years.
Jakelić is a co-editor of two volumes, The Future of the Study of Religion and Crossing Boundaries: From Syria to Slovakia, a co-editor of The Hedgehog Review’s issue “After Secularization,” and the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity. She is currently working on a book The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms.
Isaac Barnes May & Sarah Azaransky
Sarah Azaransky, Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, just released her new book This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement via Oxford University Press. Isaac Barnes May, Doctoral Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, spoke with her about it — read their conversation below.
Q: Your book looks at the careers of a number of prominent black Christian intellectuals. What attracted you to those particular figures?
A: This project grew out of my dissertation and first book about Pauli Murray. In research on Murray’s time at Howard Law School, Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays grabbed my attention. Their theological voices were anticipating black theology, they were doing groundbreaking work in religious studies, and they were great friends. I wanted to learn more about them and set out to write a kind of theological buddy book. I soon discovered that they visited India, separately, but both in 1936, where they interviewed Gandhi, and that they mentored a subsequent generation of activists.
The book then grew broader in scope as I found that Thurman and Mays were part of a network of black Christian intellectuals who were creating the intellectual infrastructure for a black Christian activism. They were also experimenting with forms of activism—like sit-ins, multicity marches, and integrating buses—that would become mainstays of the later civil rights movement.
In short I was attracted to these figures because they are great examples of intellectuals whose work is interested in social application, and activists who grounded their work in intellectual reflection. They show the symbiosis between theory and practice that helped fuel the most important American social movement of the last century.
I emphasized relationships, professional and personal, because they were an important part of what helped to build the movement.
Q: This book draws from different bodies of scholarship on history and religion, peace studies, civil rights studies, and even Quaker theology. What were the advantages and challenges of writing a work at the intersection of so many fields?
A: Researching interdisciplinarily is the only way, to my mind at least, to tell a story like this. The challenges are also significant: these are indeed different disciplines with different audiences and slightly different interests.
The larger challenge is how to be accountable to the people I’m writing about—how to offer a version of the international and interreligious roots of the movement that does some kind of justice to the brilliance and bravery of this group of intellectuals and activists. With that criterion in mind, the fields start to feel less divergent; instead disciplinary differences start to feel more like different kinds tools that are necessary to develop a better version of this history and its moral lessons.
Q: How does putting the religious aspects of the struggle for civil rights in a global context change our understanding of that movement?
A: The story of the civil rights movement is often told as inexorably American—that American democratic (and American Christian, for that matter) ideals necessarily coalesced in a great social movement that affirmed U.S. egalitarianism. This is not what happened, of course.
That the greatest civil rights movement has significant international and interreligious roots tells us that American resources were not enough. This group of black Christian intellectuals and activists looked abroad, including in other religious traditions, for ideas and practices that could inspire an American racial justice movement. For example, after Thurman and Mays traveled to India in the mid-1930s they began to understand Jim Crow as a kind of colonialism, and believed that black Americans should organize themselves as people of color around the world were organizing against white supremacy.
Q: How did examining the religious and theological convictions of the black Christian intellectuals featured in your book inform your understanding of their activism?
A: To best answer this question, I’ll point to how Bayard Rustin’s theological convictions were integral to his activism. Rustin is best-known as the organizer of the March on Washington and as an important advisor to King. He was both things, and he was an incredibly sophisticated thinker; actually a religious thinker. People miss this, because he was an activist, so they overlook all the intellectual work that requires. And Rustin was Quaker, so even people trained in religious studies or Christian theology don’t necessarily know how to make sense of his particular kind of religious reasoning. Reading so much of Rustin’s writing from the 40s and 50s convinced me that he is among the most important—and most effective—religious thinkers of the mid-twentieth century.
As a Quaker, Rustin’s religious belief was always connected to practice; in fact, Quaker theological ethicist Rachel Muers describes Quaker religiosity as a kind of “interpretation-in-practice.” Rustin wrote about how Quakers seek to develop “workable trials;” that is social activism to address social, political, and economic injustice. Examples include prison reform, women’s rights, pacifism, and post-war reconstruction. For Rustin, then, religious convictions are somewhat unintelligible unless they are connected to social action.
From Rustin’s experiments with direct action in the 1940s to his engagement in what he would later call the “classical” phase of the civil rights movement, Rustin’s careful moral reflection and his thoughtful action are necessarily connected.
Q: Does studying this phase of the civil rights movement offer any insights or guidance for the contemporary political situation?
A: I think there are many insights. I’ll list two:
1. The importance of learning from people whose moral visions are limited. This is a crucial skill as we look for moral and intellectual resources to address contemporary crises.
It turns out Gandhi is someone with a limited moral vision. Lately, there has been important reevaluation of Gandhi’s work, prompted by questions like: Why did Gandhi exclude black South Africans from his movement there? Could Gandhi reconcile his service in the Boer War with his later anti-imperialism? Why did Gandhi oppose untouchability, but not caste? These questions suggest that Gandhi’s program was not as nonviolent as he insisted it was. In 1936, Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays asked these exact questions to Gandhi himself.
Thurman and Mays knew that Gandhi had moral blind spots that limited his activism. Yet Thurman and Mays were able to learn crucial lessons from Gandhi about antiimperialism and organizing a mass movement.
2. This history shows us how the greatest American social movement has international roots. Indeed, the international history of the civil rights movement affirms how democratic histories are always transnational. If our president asks whether Western values will survive, well, this is the wrong question. History shows that democracy has prophets in every region of the globe, and that learning from many others has made this country more just and more free. And it strikes me that these are the kinds of lessons we need today, as we develop our own disciplines, methods, and techniques toward a more just social order.
The Project on Religion and its Publics hosted a vibrant public discussion to reflect on the tragic and violent events over the weekend of August 11th and 12th that occurred in our home town of Charlottesville, VA. It was held in St. Paul’s Memorial Church – the venue where clergy and other peace activists gathered on the evening of the 11th as white nationalists marched outside. It focused on the role and responsibility of people of faith to tackle white supremacy theologically, intellectually, culturally – and how to continue to move forward with a new, invigorated religious-based activism.
The five-member panel included the Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms, co-pastor of New Beginnings Christian Communities; Charlottesville Vice-Mayor, Dr. Wes Bellamy; the Reverend Seth Wispelwey, co-founder of Congregate Charlottesville; Dr. Larycia Hawkins, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Virginia; and Dr. Jalane Schmidt, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. It was chaired by John Edwin Mason, Professor of History at UVA.