The Problem of Religion and Nationalism

The innocent question, “Are you religious?” raised in the Japanese context will evoke an answer which hints at a history that has been repressed in the West.  Even if the subject being questioned happens to be praying at a Shinto shrine, the answer is most likely to be negative.  Praying and offering homage or worship indicating complete obedience to a national identity – does it seem strange?  (It will make no difference if the question is raised in Japanese and the word shukyo is used in place of “religion.”) The act of praying or making an offering at a shrine or of following the practices affiliated with being Japanese are specifically not “religious” but are simply the requirements of being Japanese.

To get at the ambiguity of the question, an ambiguity that is more normative for human history and culture than not, we can raise a similar question in a Western context. Ask someone who stands and sings the national anthem, “Are you religious?” Whatever their answer, the question would not seem to apply to the act of singing or even the act of pledging allegiance to the flag “under God.” They might reply that they are religious, but probably will be eager to explain that the scruples (the original meaning of religious) demanded by the civic faith of the land are not religious. There is only a slight difference between the function of national identity in Japan and the United States. In fact, it is precisely the U. S. and Great Britain that the Japanese had in mind when the Meiji elites began to set forth the understanding that makes up the modern Japanese sensibility. That is, the supposed division between national identity and religion is of recent vintage.

 For example, a pre-Christian Roman could not have conceived of separating his religion from his identity with Empire. They were one and the same. In the ancient world the phenomena we might call “religious” permeated daily life. There was no clearly demarcated realm which one might dub religious as the gods were everywhere and everything potentially religious. Even in modern Japan the gods reign over the kitchen, the toilet, the forest, and are in control of life and death to such a degree (even if only dimly acknowledged) that to build a house, buy a car, or raise a child, without following the required practices is, for most, just too dangerous.  The notion of religion as a realm apart arises only with the accompanying modern notion of the secular and Japan’s encounter with the West.

The role of Christianity in early modern Japan and ancient Rome seems to have created very similar predicaments for potential converts. Can one be a good Roman or a good Japanese if one does not adhere to the rites required by the state? Can a Christian bow to the emperor so as to acknowledge his supreme power? The original Christians answered this question decisively, acknowledging that certain rites required by Rome were forbidden by the Christian faith. A Christian could not acquiesce to Caesars claim to exclusive or final sovereignty. The faith demanded loyalty to one God and this particular God, unlike the multiplicity of gods, would not allow preeminent loyalty to the state. There would have been numerous occasions (feasts and festival days) on which loyalty to the gods would mark loyalty to the state. The Roman provinces were kept orderly by governors who were simultaneously public cult leaders. No one really cared about private cults so long as they remained private. Notions of personal belief or private faith were allowed but were accorded little importance in terms of true piety – which was synonymous with publicly honoring the traditions.  The strange Christian notion that they could not offer sacrifices, light incense, or perform other religious rites for the gods, would have been read as disloyalty to the state. One either pledges his allegiance or he does not and Caesar was not tolerant of insurrectionists

The resolution brought about through the Constantinian compromise, the rise of modernity and notions of the secular, is not to ban oaths, sacrifices, and rites, it is to declare what was formerly religion as religious no more. The positing of this secular space simultaneously posits a separate role for religion, which tended to copy Roman cult practices and organization.  It is not Japan which first converted religion into rites of state, it was the West. It was Western Christians who developed a full-blown notion of religion as a realm apart and the profane world of the political as in no way intersecting with the sacred. Constantine’s conversion, Augustine’s two cities, Descartes’ soul and body, are the signposts of the rise of a religious sensibility which no longer need interfere with civic duties – theoretically. (The tension between Church and state was never a settled proposition, as was clear to Japan’s elites.)

The contested nature of religion in Japan and the open debate of the Meiji government as to how best deploy what is and what is not religious, points to the manipulation of religion by cultural elites aiming to achieve parity with the West. Japan offers a unique hot house for an examination of the role of national identity and religion due to its relatively late development of national institutions. It was with the specific goal of warding off Western dominance, equated with Christianity, that Japan adapted Western institutions of state.  Japanese intended to take the Western form of state and fill it with Japanese substance. Great Britain had their monarch, who was also head of the national religion, so Japan would have her Emperor as head of a new State Shinto. But to call this form of Shinto “religious” would create problems with the West and with Japanese who had converted to Christianity. There was the need to isolate the imperial institution and its connection to religion so as to justify these institutions (particularly in the eyes of the West). There was the pressure of the United States to protect Japanese Christians and the recent discovery of hidden Christians around Nagasaki became the focus of the United States and thus the concern of the Japanese government.  

At the same time, the Western model posed the puzzle for Japanese as to how the nation-state could create loyalty in the midst of conflicts created by a fragmented religion. Freedom of religion and the maintenance of social order was not a finished process in the West and had not even been posed as a possibility in the East. When religionists perceived that the West was to be the model in early Meiji, Buddhists and Shintoists began vying and arguing for the top spot in the implicit state religion, like Christianity in the West. The leap to State Shinto, the religion transformed into a national polity, points to the reality Japanese perceived at the heart of the Western nation-state. The modern nation-state is religion by another name. (As Peter Berger came to recognize late in his career, the sacred canopy of nationalism functions as religion always functioned.)

 The hardening distinction between private piety and the need for public order, hammered out over centuries in the West, became overt political policy in Japan. The Meiji Constitution reflects the attempt to relegate religion to private belief and to posit the belief supporting the public realm as non-religious. The Imperial Constitution enshrined religious freedom (a freedom of private belief) while, according to Trent Maxey, it “sacralized and secularized the imperial institution.”[1] Maxey maintains the constitution “offered the avowedly religious the promise of freedom in proportion to their irrelevance to and undifferentiated treatment by the state.”[2]

What Japanese perceived in 19th century America is the abiding truth that conservative religion, stripped of its anarchic (anti-arche or over and against the principalities and powers) and independent impulses, serves the modern state. The notion of a Christianity independent of national identity did not present itself, even to Japanese who converted to Christianity.  Uchimura Kanzo, who became a Christian and studied at Amherst College, reaches the dilemma posed by his new faith. If being Christian was a constitutive part of being American and visa versa, then this necessarily stood juxtaposed to his Japanese identity. Loving Jesus stood opposed to loving Japan. In the end, Uchimura could not abide the Western Church due to its integration into Western national identity, and so he founds the No Church Movement.

This sad history of Christianity made subservient to the state is not simply a cultural problem or a problem of practice. Even the study of religion has been infected. The father of modern religious studies, Mircea Eliade, under the guise of saving religion from the encroachments of the secular, sums up this history in creating a place for religion which is absolutely transcendent and absolutely irrelevant. Religion rises above the mere social, economic, historical, or psychological to its own sui generis category. It is universal by way of being unalterable, irreducible and inconceivable. The sacred maintains it place only in its complete difference from the profane world which people actually inhabit. Eliade’s dalliance with fascism and anti-Semitism embodies the role for religion in the modern state. Even the formal study of religion in the modern university must lend itself to state servitude.

There is a Christianity that has not bowed its knee to the Baal of the age. By definition it is a militantly non-violent, anarchic, destabilizing, critic of Empire.  It is on this basis that the upcoming PBI module will undertake the study of religion and culture. World Culture and Religion is a study of religion which aims to demonstrate how Christ exposes and defeats the religio-cultural understanding as it exists in several of the world’s major religions and cultures, most especially Christianity and the United States, as well as how Christ redirects and completes this understanding. 

Sign up beginning on January 27th at PBI.


[1] I am following my nephew Trent Maxey’s excellent work, The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Asia Center, 2014, and quoting here from p. 185.

[2] Ibid p. 184.

Catholic or Fascist Christianity: The State of the Christian Union

I have long presumed that Peter Berger’s three step description of culture gets at (in part) the reality of the manner in which culture is at once a human creation which acts upon us. According to Berger, it is through externalization that society is a human product – humans make it, build it, constitute it. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis – culture and its products take on the appearance of being independent of humans.  Then due to internalization of culture and its products man is himself a product of society. The role of religion in this process is to falsify human consciousness so that the projecting and reification involved in objectivation are mystified – made non-human. The fact that the socio-cultural world is shaped by human activity is obscured by the religion. The sui generis nature of religion, set forth by Mircea Eliade – the father of modern religious studies, cuts religion off from the realities of culture and even the realities of any particular religion. For Eliade, the historical and social conditions play into the interpretation of the religious phenomenon but they cannot ultimately explain it: “All these dreams, myths, and nostalgias…cannot be exhausted by a psychological explanation; there is always a kernel that remains refractory to explanation. . . that, we shall never tire of repeating, is not solely ‘historical.’”  Given the Berger choice that religion is a human creation and the Eliade choice that religion transcends the human, one might think Eliade is on the side of Christianity. Eliade provides a universal experience in which to ground religion and Berger seems to reduce all religion to the relativity of culture.

The problem is that Eliade’s is a cheap universality which ultimately has nothing to say (all articulation falls short) about the transcendent (it is absolutely transcendent). The transcendent object of religion does not intersect with the realities of economics, politics, or culture and at the same time it is presumed the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference. This, of course, is simply not true of any religion of which I am aware. Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, biblical idolatry, and most especially Christianity, are interconnected with economics, politics, and culture. In Japan, the rise of fascism depends directly upon State Shinto, Buddhist nationalism, and Christian accommodation to deification of Hirohito. All of these religions might be said to have maintained their universality – their transcendent orientation – but at the expense of being of no earthly value or influence.  The sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to the sui generis notion of Christianity – that the Church somehow exists apart from society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence by which we are shaped and to which we are subject.

The advantage of Berger’s theory, as opposed to the sui generis notion of religion, is that religion as key to world construction ties religion into every aspect of human society. In Berger’s notion human being cannot be understood as somehow resting within itself, in some closed sphere of interiority, and then setting out to express itself in the surrounding world. Objectivation seems to accurately portray the function of money and idols (intrinsically worthless and yet the most valued object). These man-made entities confront its producers as a fact external to and other than themselves. Internalization re-appropriates this same reality, transforming it from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.

 Berger, as a practicing Christian, has his own problems. In religion as a social construct there is no clear place for sociology and Christian theology to meet – there is no place from which to critique the society or to stand outside of it. On the other hand, if one understands that it is precisely a Berger like world which Christ disrupts– persons are constituted in culture – then salvation must take on an integration with all things human. The resolution to this problem posed by Richard Niebuhr, is to recognize that culture is the shaping force of humankind and Christ, then, is incarnate so as to reshape culture. Niebuhr offers a series of possibilities as to how this might be accomplished: Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in paradox with culture and transforming culture.  The problem is that culture is the essence around which Christ is made to work. What we recognize from Berger is that Niebuhr has also reified culture and presumed Christ is forced to work with this given. Rodney Clapp sums up a more sufficient answer which allows for the primacy of culture without succumbing to Berger’s relativism or Niebuhr’s essentializing of culture: Christ and the Church constitute a culture. “The original Christians, in short, were about creating and sustaining a unique culture – a way of life that would shape character in the image of their God. And they were determined to be a culture, a quite public and political culture, even if it killed them and their children.” Here Berger’s integration of the human and the cultural are accounted for without succumbing to an essentializing of culture while also allowing for a universal through culture. At the same time, the universal is not absolutely transcendent but takes on its properly biblical slant. The incarnation is an interruption of history which re-founds what it means to be human through one who is human and divine. Yet this interruption is itself historical, cultural, and social.  

Where catholic or universal is understood to be concerned not only with all people but with every aspect of life – social, political, sexual, familial, gastronomical, etc., I presume this is not only the true form of the Christian faith but the only form resistant to the manufactured reality, described by Berger, of contemporary culture. The double-sided meaning of universal, all people and all encompassing (concerned with every aspect of life), are interdependent in that universal identity manifests itself in practices inherently (political, cultural, etc.) resistant to the human “sacred canopy” always characterized by its cultural production (local and exclusive).  The politics of Jesus, the culture of Christ, the family of God, or even Christian eating habits (eating with sinners, a communion open to all), are the particular manifestation of universality and are what constitute the Church a force of opposition to the alienating and divisive reified socio-political principalities and powers.

Where the opposition has failed and the dictates of the culture, with its essentializing ethos, nationalism, regimented conformity,exclusivism, and ethnocentrism, succeed then the distinctives of Christian universality are, by definition, absent. And while no particular church (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) can exclusively claim universality (an oxymoron?) the supreme test of whether the faith is, indeed, catholic is whether it succumbs to cultural tyranny – or the reification of culture known in our day as fascism.

 Fascism is the primary and most damaging form this cultural reification has taken in the 20th and, I would claim (along with Noam Chomsky and others) in the beginnings of the 21st century. Fascism presumes there is an essence to the national ethos (the blood and soil of Germany, the unique spirit (ki) of Japan, American exceptionalism) such that individuals, as in Berger’s picture, bear within themselves this essence (e.g. Japanese citizens are depicted as the egos circulating around the super-ego Emperor which together constitute the wholeness of a person).  There may be many markers of the passage from nationalism to fascism – the rise of a cult of personality, the violent suppression of opposition, the demonization of certain ideas, the continual gearing up for war – but one of the clearest markers in Germany and Japan was the manner in which Christianity was co opted by the state. Pictures of Hirohito adorned every official church in Japan and Christians were made to bow to this god man to inaugurate the service. Japanese theologians even attempted to incorporate Hirohito into the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God Hirohito). German Christians were those who accepted the Aryan clause, which excluded Jews from holding public office, inclusive of state church offices and German Christian theology expunged the Bible of its Jewishness. In both Germany and Japan, this Christian fascism is one step beyond the Constantinian fusion of state and church (arguably most complete only with the reformation). Where the Roman emperor fused church and state by acknowledging Christianity, fascist Christianity presumes to overtly absorb Christianity into state ideology (which is not to deny this was implicit with Constantine).

Though there are moments in history where “fascist Christianity” accurately describes the church, in retrospect it would seem that genocide, all-out war, emperor/dictator worship, racism, and anti-Semitism, may not accord (to say less than the least) with the basic tenets of the teaching of Jesus. Fascist theologians, fascist Christians, fascist churches, are a historical reality (not just a pejorative description), which more than simple fascism (or any of the isms of the 20th century – communism, socialism, Marxism, nationalism) may best describe the contemporary anti-Christ (the imitation or displacement of Christ). In other words, the fascist reification of a particular culture and the violence this entails – equated with Christianity – is the most obvious enemy of Christ.

 Is it something like fascist Christianity, a Christianity absorbed by nationalist chauvinism, that threatens the Church universal in the United States?  American exceptionalism premised on America as a Christian Nation may have succeeded, some place and some time (as with the varieties of Constantinian Christianity), in escaping the complete co opting of the church by state purposes. But one wonders if there is not an evident incongruity in Trump Doctrine, summed up by a senior White House official with direct access to the president, as “We are America, bitch.” As Jeffrey Goldberg, who originally reported this in The Atlantic has put it, “the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence” amounts to “a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world.” The exclusivism, isolationism, mistreatment of aliens, chauvinistic hostility, and sympathy for authoritarian strongmen, captured in this posturing may be good for America (though I doubt it) but can it be equated with the teaching of Christ? Could it be that “we are Christian America, bitch” or that we are holding up a Christian middle finger to the world? This is no more unlikely than “Christian fascism” but what it clearly is not is catholic Christianity.[1]


[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch’ The president believes that the United States owes nothing to anyone—especially its allies,” The Atlantic, June 11, 2018.

Breaking Free of Failed “Religion” Through a Practical Salvation

Religion as a projection of man (philosophy, psychology), as a sui generis essence (religious studies), or as a sacred canopy (sociology) all partake of a singular mistake.  It is the same mistake found in the various Christian approaches to non-Christian religion (pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism).  The problem with “religion” is with the category itself.  There is the mistaken assumption that religion can be separated out from culture and practice and studied or theologized about as an entity or essence unto itself.  The Bible does not make this mistake in that it does not address religion per se (more on this later).  This raises the question as to whether Christianity is religion? Or should Christianity distinguish itself from religion? Continue reading “Breaking Free of Failed “Religion” Through a Practical Salvation”