In his 1829 essay Reflections on Tragedy, Benjamin Constant insists that there is no more sense in writing plays about the inevitability of destiny or the adversities of fate. What worked for the Greeks would not work anymore. He suggests that playwrights should pit the protagonist against “the state and the action of society.” Constant (d. 1830), a Swiss-French political thinker who was one of the first to adopt the title “Liberal,” suggested that “the social order, the action of society on the individual […] these are the tragic motivations which one needs to know how to manipulate. They are entirely equal to the fatality of the ancients.”

Constant understood that far beyond the lack of belief in the divine Moirai, something fundamental had changed. Entering Modernity, people had become individuals. They would no longer see themselves as part of a wholistic order, a Great Chain of Being stretching from the heavens to the underworld, subjecting them to a preordained purpose into which it was rightful and necessary to fit in. The center of our life is our autonomy, and the threat to that autonomy comes not from the gods but from rulers and courts. The state now holds the power that was once under Zeus or Jehovah.

Modern drama is thus manifested through the slings and arrows of outrageous government. From Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to Kafka’s The Trial, we witness the unavoidable friction between the individual and the socio-political complex. And as the heart of art pulsates politics and not theology, so does the heart of religion. 

Where’s the heart of Christianity? Massive White Evangelical support for Donald Trump has long raised doubts about their dedication to the principles they had not too long ago outwardly professed. The insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, sported quite a few crosses and posters of MAGA hatted Jesus. Once inside the Capitol, Jacob Anthony Chansley, a.k.a. “Q Shaman”, led a prayer from the Senate podium, thanking God for allowing him and his co-hooligans to “send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.” Others were Chanting, “Trump is President, Christ is King,” an amalgam of the religious and the political in which the regal title of the Son of God uncomfortably tilts more to the monarchical than the heavenly. A campaign banner read “Jesus 2020”.

To say that this is Christian Nationalism would be a truism. Religion and chauvinistic politics are wedded here, of course, but it’s worth noting that in the process, the place of the religious tradition is minimized. In fact, traditional Christianity, its dogma, ethics, ritual, and customs take a back seat, if at all, in this campaign bus. There is a fundamental unwillingness to get bogged down by traditional beliefs and taboos, and the whole endeavor is not about worship at all. The name of God is vocalized, no doubt, but it emotes less an omniscient transcendental father figure and more a partisan political leader.  

This is tribalism, but it comes not from lack of knowledge or dedication to the faith. Church going does not temper tribalism, it stimulates it. According to Pew Forum data in the months before the election, 77% of white evangelicals who attended church at least once a month said they would vote for Trump. Of those attending church weekly, that answer was given 78% of the time. And only 67% of those who attended church less than once a month said they would vote Trump.

In their Taking America Back for God (Oxford, 2020) Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry bring further data showing that “those Americans who most strongly espouse Christian nationalist beliefs also tend to be the most religious as measured by activities like church attendance, prayer, and Scripture reading.” They also conclude that “the “Christianity” of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion… It is as ethnic and political as it is religious.”

If the Christianity of the gospels is a universal religion, quite removed from tribalism, the religion spreading today prefers politics over the Gospel. Referring to Trumpism as a major manifestation of Christian Nationalism, Philip Gorski comes to a similar conclusion and states that “Trumpism is, amongst other things, a secularized version of white Christian nationalism, and that Trump’s most ardent evangelical supporters are actually more nationalist than Christian” (American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump, Routledge, 2020).

What does it take to make a churchgoing Christian more nationalist than Christian? The fact that participation in communal worship is married to political tribalism rather than separated from it means there is something in the way religion functions today that connects it to political passions. Ironically, it is through the church that religion is nationalized.

This phenomenon is not limited to the United States. A 2017 Pew Forum survey found that in Western Europe, “non-practicing Christians are less likely than church-attending Christians to express nationalist views” and “non-practicing Christians are less likely than churchgoing Christians to say that ancestry is key to national identity.” Western European churchgoers also express more anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments. 

Nor is this only a Western or Christian phenomenon. In India, the BJP party, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is reshaping Hinduism. A veritable smorgasbord of traditions, some more internally divergent than Christianity is from Islam, Hinduism is pushed into a monolithic mold and given the essence and edges of a nationalistic ethos. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist movement that forms the source and base of the BJP, views India as a Hindu Rashtra (nation), challenging the secular character of the state formed by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and enshrined in the Indian constitution. Contemporary Hindu nationalism today displays all you would expect from your run-of-the-mill, right-wing nationalist movement, from insistence on “secure borders” and fear of illegal infiltration, through initiating vigilante activity and violently fighting ethnic “defilement” and up to silencing dissent. And it does all this using religious symbolism and justification. There’s a coherent theology here, a tribal, nationalistic Theology of the Nation, meaning a religious framework that takes the nation (and not the divine) as its main theological concern and is flexible enough to modify traditional principles of faith to serve it. 

Nothing exemplifies this more than the consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya this January. Built on the ruins of a 16th century mosque, the lavish temple was built after a long and arduous civic and legal battle, which at times devolved into riots in which thousands lost their lives. In what seemed like a national (though solely Hindu) festival in India, the temple was consecrated, with Prime Minister Modi serving as the chief patron of rituals for the event and performing (vegetarian) sacrifices to the main Idol, that of the God Ram. Army Helicopters showered the cheering crowds with colorful flower petals while Modi’s main message in a speech he gave at the event was “Dev to Desh, Ram to Rashtra” – from deity to country, from Ram to nation.

The theology of the Nation is not to be confused with civil religion. We are witnessing no overarching civic ethos that uses generic religious frames of reference to express the nation-state’s implicit communal values. Civil religion, as in Robert Bellah’s seminal 1967 article, is a state-formed social institution, an ethos shared by citizens working together for their republic, while the Theology of the Nation is a religious need, using explicit religious symbols and holding religious hopes, fostering nationalism and energizing congregations.

Nor is this a case of a state-sponsored and controlled church, in which the state employs a religious system to empower the national movement (such as in Franco’s Spain and Putin’s Russia). On the contrary, here, nationalism is used by religion. As with the American evangelicals, the religious tradition adopts the state as its central point of reference and uses nationalism as a dominant theological context.

Of course, the political powers are more than willing to manipulate faith to their advantage, and of course they do. But in this case, religion needs politics more than vice versa. The tradition finds substantial sustenance in the political sphere and is galvanized by the struggles of the state and the nation. The Theology of the Nation is borne out of the modern crises of tradition.

Entering the Eighteenth century, tradition in the West had to address two complementary sociocultural developments. The first was the formation of the modern subject. Here were human persons who had internalized their sources of meaning, authority, and identity and had come to see themselves as evolving, self-aware subjects facing an objective, material world. These were individuals concerned about their autonomy and apprehending their liberty as the unrestrained exercise thereof. Naturally, a religious tradition centered on communal worship and operating under the authority of the past and its official interpreters is significantly crippled in trying to cater to such believers. 

The second development was the creation of the nation-state. The principle of the freedom of conscience was championed through the Seventeenth century, which demanded that the state not interfere with personal religious beliefs and practices, both derived from and reinforced the conception that religion was an internal, private matter. This way of understanding religion was in concurrence with the formation of the modern state, which wished to assert a single sovereign authority inside its boundaries but had to negotiate the terms of which, with a public growing in political engagement and anxious about their autonomy. Delineating religion as the private, confessional part of the individual’s life, the state became the res publica, the outer, communal, public thing. Just as a person’s faith is her or his private matter, the civil sphere is all the people’s and the peoples’ public interest. And as with the formation of individualism, so here: a religious tradition used to take its power (as in actual, coercive authority) over the populace for granted finds itself deflated.

There are two well-known modern religious answers to this novel predicament. One is fundamentalism, or the attempt to sustain religious identity and authority through a rigid and collectivist framework that presumes to be the one true faith. Substituting the authenticity of the personal choice for the authenticity of the “original source,” fundamentalism invites the modern individual to seek fulfillment not in the free expression of her or his own will but in accepting a higher authority claiming to be exclusively true. It works to an extent. That extent is the small size of the groups formed by such an endeavor and, following that, the willingness of the group to accept minority status. When they don’t, as in the ayatollahs’ Iran or the late ISIS “Islamic State,” the only way onward is the use of violence, and the results are as grotesque as they are miserable.

The other popular answer is not to resist change but to embrace it. Contemporary spirituality, known as the New Age milieu, offers personal religion, tailor-made to fit the individual’s contours. Here the emphasis is quite consciously put on the interior, experiential, and emotional dimensions; communal, traditional, ritualistic, or dogmatic religion is blatantly ignored. Indeed, for some spiritual seekers, institutional religion has taken the place the Devil occupied just a century ago, being rejected as a dangerous foe and a stumbling block for true connection to the divine. The New Age, becoming a widespread popular phenomenon in the 1960s and demonstrating an adversarial beginning during the early counterculture days, has become an intrinsic and jubilant part of the capitalist market and exhibits much the same values as mainstream Western culture. 

Along with contemporary New Age spirituality and different types of fundamentalism, a Theology of the Nation functions as a formula for modernizing traditional forms of faith. It offers its adherents a path that mediates between the communal and the individual and allows for engagement with mainstream society. Its clear advantage over the other paths of religious modernization is that it assumes the status of a majority. Its adherents view themselves not as a separate, usually isolated minority, as in the case of fundamentalist movements, nor as disunited individuals, as with the New Age milieu, but as the vanguard of the entire public. They are the voice of the moral majority, the champions of the people.

As with fundamentalism, the Theology of the Nation seeks to amend the modern rift between individuals, to return to a gemeinschaft of brothers with mutual values and a collective vision. it attempts to do so, however, not by receding to a presumptive “original” doctrine unavoidably held by a select few, but by appropriation of a national ethos, presumably held by most. Crucially, it also does not surrender individual agency and autonomy. Expanding the circle of identification from the religious community to the nation allows for greater individual expression – in fact, it supports and encourages individualism.

As the eminent sociologist Georg Simmel had discerned already at the beginning of the Twentieth century, the greater the social circle we identify with, the greater our individual autonomy. Nationalism gives us communal identity and presumptive collective fellowship with minimal demands on our personal lives. It bolsters individualism by giving people communal meaning and allowing them great personal choice in deciding how to express it. 

The Theology of the Nation thus succeeds in having its cake and eating it. It presents a religious message to a broad swath of the populace, invites all to join its holy crusade, and offers those who join in shared missions and goals, yet simultaneously promises minimal demands on lifestyle and personal choice. The more our society underscores individual autonomy, the more religious systems will use nationalism as a meaningful context for understanding and expressing themselves. The more they do so, the more the Theology of the Nation will come to define them. It is a religious form ideally suited for our time. At least as long as we are contented with a religious life in which the worship of the divine takes the back seat. 

The Jewish version of the theology of the nation is particularly interesting, because the Jewish ethnic community defined itself as both a religion and a nation in the modern era. Nationalism is thus obviously an inherent part of the deal with Judaism or is at least within the religion’s stretching distance. Indeed, the Religious Zionist public in Israel carries this dynamic duo in its very name. Furthermore, in Israel, an extreme form of religious messianism saw the state itself as the central, most crucial agent of religious drama. 

Kookism, the religious movement that developed out of the teaching of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), would attribute supreme, sacred significance to the State of Israel. But Kookism was religious nationalism, not a nationalistic religion. Within it, the divine played a necessary and inevitable part; transcended authority was its point of reference and centered on acts of worship, not partisan agendas. It is only with the degeneration and final demise of Kookism during the first decade of this century, after it’s messianic promises of imminent redemption and the impossibility of Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory were dashed, that Religious Zionism in Israel made the concluding shift toward a Theology of the Nation. 

With it, Religious Zionism had moved its center of weight from the first to the last of the two parts of its title. The political manifestation of this reality came in 2012, when Naftali Bennett was elected by a landslide to lead the Religious National Party in the Israeli parliament, renaming it The Jewish Home. Never before had this party placed in its head a leader that had neither studied the Halakha (the traditional Jewish law) nor cared for it. Bennett, who since then enjoyed a short term as Prime Minister (2021-2022), is nominally an observant Jew, but his disregard for the particulars of the Jewish law is widely known. In fact, he himself publicly confessed in June 2017 that he is of little faith: “I am and Israeli and a Jew. My basic identity is not religious.”

It’s the combination of Israeliness and Jewishness that constructs Bennett’s nationalistic religion, as well as that of his voters. Under his leadership, right-wing secular Jews were enlisted as the party’s parliament members, while clearly an observant left-winged candidate could never be admitted. Nationalism became the common denominator, diminishing the importance of the religion and turning the Religious National Party into no more then a hard-core right-wing association using religious language only to legitimize its nationalistic policies and rally voters.

The same pattern can be seen in the current wave of activism concerning Jewish ascendence and prayer at the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. Most Religious Zionists who ascent the mount, do so, by their own admission, in order to “strengthen Jewish sovereignty” over the place. Indeed when asked, in a survey conducted in 2014 among the religious Zionist public, “What are the reasons by which to justify oneself when it comes to Jews going up to the Temple Mount?”, 54.4% thought a visit should be made in order to carry out “prayer at the site,” 58.2% asserted that the ascent “will raise awareness about the Temple and its meaning,” and fully 96.8% replied that visiting the site would constitute “a contribution to strengthening Israeli sovereignty in the holy place” (Makor Rishon, 23 May 2014). Consonantly, when the Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir ascended the Temple Mount just this last July his statement during his march on the mountain was that “we [=Jews] need to come back and show our control here”.

As research done by The Israel Democracy Institute (Religious? National!, Tamar Hermann et al., 2015) has shown, “right-wingness” has become a broader, more common characteristic of Religious Zionist circles than a religiously observant lifestyle. Their vernacular continues to be reverently religious, but their primal object of worship has changed. 

As with American Evangelicals or Hindu RSS members, Religious Zionists have traded God for the state. The continuing investment in the settlements has long lost its messianic vigor and is now grounded on security measures (with a dash of “promised land”). The struggle to deport Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel is led by a coalition of the religious and the Right, though traditionally, Jews are markedly obligated to receive and accommodate refugees. The Temple Mount has suddenly become not a religious but a popular national symbol, and the Israeli Left has been branded as not Jewish enough in an apparent attempt to equate nationalism and Jewish Identity and display an evolving discourse of “purity” and “loyalty.” The growing bond between Religious Zionism and Evangelical Christians is as good a testimony as any to the precedence of nationalistic agendas over theological distinctions.

Parallel to the evangelical adoration of Trump in the United States, ethnocentricity in Israel has replaced religious values, and the usual menu of “secure borders,” hyper-patriotism, and the delegitimization of dissent has been presented to the Israeli citizen. As in other manifestations of a Theology of the Nation, the use of nationalism as a religious ideal in Israel has allowed the religious to draw in broader swaths of the populace and, no less importantly, support their own dwindling religious identity. 

Entering the current era, religion has departed from its traditional structures and has adopted modern conceptions of meaning. In an increasingly secular and individualistic society, the Theology of the Nation assists in maintaining a semblance of a religious frame of reference. Indeed, religion today arguably functions as a communal meta-narrative only in the form of nationalism, that is, following Georg Simmel, as a framework that broadens its frame of reference while diluting its theological depth and empowering the individual. 

The global popularity of this experiment in our time is a testament to its efficiency and broad applicability. As the brilliant Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth noted in his The Epistle to the Romans, “The enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ is avenged by its success.” Idolatry works. And so, the heart of religion has been taken over by politics. Nationalism surges from misplaced passions, empty hopes for redemption, and religion’s cumbersome struggle with modernity. “The images and likenesses,” continues Barth, “whose meaning we have failed to perceive, become themselves purpose and content and end. And now men have really become slaves and puppets of things.”