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Religion no longer the glue for national identity - is anything?

15th February 2017

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A fascinating new study by the Pew Forum has revealed that there are few strong links between Christianity and national identity. Looking at 13 countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland Spain, Sweden the UK and the USA) it asked the question whether being Christian was important to truly being [the nationality in question]. Only in Greece did a majority think it was. In eight countries fewer than 20% believe it to be so.

The first thing to note is that this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The 13 countries in question are among the most secular countries in the world. Even in the USA, long considered a religious outlier among developed countries, 23% have no religious affiliation. That’s a higher proportion than any Latin American, Middle Eastern or African country according to Pew data.

People’s perspective on what makes a national identity tend to reflect their own image (unsurprisingly – it would take a peculiar self-loathing to rule yourself out of your own national identity). We can see this in the data underpinning the Pew report. Looking at the breakdown in data from the USA reveals that, overall 32% of Americans think that being Christian is very important for being truly American. However, among those with no religion that number drops to just 11% and among people for whom “religion is very important personally” it jumps to 51%.

More interesting is the tentative conclusion we might be able to draw that, on the whole, religious people care more about collective senses of identity than the non-religious. For example, again looking at the data from the USA as you’d expect Christian Americans are more likely to think Christianity is important to American identity. Interestingly, though, they are also significantly more likely than the non-religious to think that the ability to speak English is important to being American (among the religiously unaffiliated only 51% believe that, while for White Evangelical Protestants it is 84% and, for Catholics, 77%).

The task of creating collective and meaningful identities is one which is at the forefront of political debates across the West. Whether it is in debates over what constitutes national values, the basis for citizenship, the future of political unions like the EU, the UK and even the USA (if stories about growing interest in Californian secession are to be given any credence), the search for compelling unifying narratives is a major concern.

The Pew report identifies an ideological dividing line – right wing respondents are more likely to believe that collective markers of identity like language, religion and shared traditions are more important to making someone truly part of the national culture than left wing respondents. That, again, is probably not a surprise to anyone, but it does reveal a curious hole in current left wing answers to these questions. The political left has traditionally had much to say about identity questions. The Clinton campaign, for example, made a great deal of the likelihood they would win the black vote, the LGBT vote and the female vote.

Where the Clinton campaign failed was in providing a collective narrative that spoke not only to particular identities but forged a wholly American common culture. The ability of the Trump campaign, by contrast, to create a powerful narrative, or of the anti-EU movements across Europe to create a narrative, owes much to their ability to make a claim to collective identity, even if in so doing they leave minority groups vulnerable on the edges.

Therein lies a task and a challenge for the Church. Unless you are living in Greece there doesn’t seem to be much chance of building these necessary collective identities on active belief in God. That era is past. There may yet, however, be a space for creating conversation that helps build collective national identity within an ethical framework that protects minority groups. 


Ben Ryan is Researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan


Image by EOSfoto.nl, Flickr, available under Creative Commons 2.0

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