Unlike a theocracy–which allies religion and government–nationalism-as-religion tries to replace traditional religion.
Certainly nationalism can function in much the same way as a religion. But can it ever be a complete substitute?
Obviously, Nazi Germany tried to make a religion out of nationalism. But their attempt was short-lived.
Years ago, I saw a documentary on China that showed the steady stream of Chinese making the pilgrimage to Mao’s boyhood home. Among their many stops was a visit to the well where he once drew water. They were not drawn there by mere historical curiosity–this was reverence. Nationalism was the religion and Mao functioned as the god figure.
China continues to try to substitute nationalism for religion, but from a historical perspective, this attempt is still fairly new. Can nationalism completely replace traditional religion for an extended period of time?
Certainly, nationalism-as-religion can give people a sense of higher purpose. It can also create rituals that have meaning for the society. It can help order people’s lives–just as traditional religion does.
On the other hand, I don’t see how nationalism can ever address the mysteries of the universe. Just stating the question sounds ridiculous.
Rulers throughout human history used religion as a way to justify their power. But even if they declared themselves god’s representative, they still acknowledged a greater spiritual power. Nationalism-as-religion does not recognize this power.
Theology can be dangerous–to the point of being downright deadly–but nationalism-as-religion may be the most dangerous theology of all. Once prosperity is achieved, you have to keep the people engaged. You have to demonstrate your superiority, your “rightness”. War and conquest would seem a natural way to achieve these “necessities”.
Nationalism-as-religion finds devils out there, in other countries, and heretics in its own ranks. Nationalism-as-religion has no room for other competing religions.
But perhaps, to a greater or lesser degree, all national leaders try to promote nationalism-as-religion–including my own.
I am an American. I am glad that I was born in this country. But am I proud to be an American? Being an American is not an accomplishment for me. I didn’t climb any mountains or swim any seas to get here. On the other, I love my country and take pride in many of our accomplishments. But if I want to avoid nationalism-as-religion, I need to be aware of how we fail to reach our ideals–and do whatever small amount I can to help us become less fearful as a nation.