Religion and patriotism

At this very moment, I’m at an international workshop on patriotism. What makes it especially interesting is how many presentations (about half of all) explicitly deal with religion. My own preliminary paper (a full version is expected to appear in 2022):

From Political Religion to Religious Politics and Back


The term “political religion” (religio politica) was first used in the 17th century by authors like Tommaso Campanella or Daniel Clasen (Seitschek 2007, 103). It originally meant the official religion of a community (polis), similarly to what the ancient theologia tripartita called “political theology” in distinction from philosophical and mythical theologies. With all their political implications, however, these were “real” religions or theologies that openly confessed belief in God or gods, exercised explicitly religious rituals, and had their own priesthood named as such.

In contrast, when the word was revived at the end of the 18th century by Condorcet, “political religion” referred to a set of teachings, practices, and institutions that were self-professedly secular, yet continued to show an unintended (and, in the eyes of the critic, deplorable) resemblance to traditional religions. Condorcet’s target was the new system of public education in revolutionary France, or, more precisely, its proposal for the teaching of the Constitution:

It has been said that the teaching of the constitution of each country should be part of national education. This is true, no doubt, if we speak of it as a fact; if we content ourselves with explaining it; if, in teaching it, we confine ourselves to saying: Such is the constitution established in the State to which all citizens must submit. But if we say that it must be taught as a doctrine in line with the principles of universal reason or arouse in its favor a blind enthusiasm which renders citizens incapable of judging it; if we say to them: This is what you must worship and believe; then it is a kind of political religion that we want to create. It is a chain that we prepare for the spirits, and we violate freedom in its most sacred rights, under the pretext of learning to cherish it.” (Condorcet 2005 [1791], 42)

File:Marquis de Condorcet statue.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
The Statue of Condorcet at the Louvre: itself an example of a political cult? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Although Condorcet’s aim was to “unmask” a purportedly secular system’s hidden similarities to “religion” (which for him, as for most contemporaries, usually meant Christianity), it is doubtful whether there was anything to unmask at all. The Fête de la Constitution, it is true, was only made into something like a religious celebration in 1791 (Ozouf 1976, 102), but other, “patriotic” feasts had already begun with the creation of the Fête de la Fédération in 1790, all with the aim to propagate – a still non-existent – national unity (Ozouf 1976, 63). The spatial center of these festivities was always the “Altar of the Fatherland” (another explicitly religious reference) and already in 1790, two years before the outbreak of revolutionary wars, they were primarily military events symbolizing the unity of the army and the people (Ozouf 1976, 99).

Later developments (the creation of the Panthéon as a “temple of the nation” or the adoption of the Marseillaise as a national anthem with lines like “amour sacré de la patrie”) also reinforced the nation and the homeland as the center of this political religion, so much so that even counterrevolutionary authors like Joseph de Maistre acknowledged that the successful amalgamation of patriotism and revolutionary spirit established the military triumphs of the French armies (Maistre 1994, 16-17). The political religion of homeland and nation – with all its belligerent features – was therefore ready for adoption by other European nations in the nineteenth century.


Examples of such patriotic / nationalistic religions were many and varied. Some of those in the nineteenth century were still associated with traditional Christianity (much in the same way as the first Fête de la Fédération involved a Catholic liturgy in France); others translated Christian symbolism into a new context; and still others acted as open rivals to Christianity.

The perhaps most famous one was the “Christ of Nations” or “Christ of Europe” idea in Poland, popularized by Adam Mickiewicz’s dramatic poem Dziady (Forefather’s Eve, 1832), which identified the vicissitudes of Polish history with the redemptive sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. This idea – a peculiar combination of belief in the Christian God and the Old Testament view of a chosen nation, but also with a European outlook, since the sufferings of the Poles was expected to bring salvation to other oppressed nations – became widespread all through Europe, especially France, where Mickiewicz took refuge after 1832. In Italy, the Risorgimento was also often seen as a religious undertaking (Mazzini 2009, 124), sometimes in agreement with Catholic doctrine, sometimes in open hostility with the latter (or at least with the Papacy, after it rejected to take a leading role in the liberation of Italy, see e. g. Chadwick 1981, 545).

Poland as the Christ of Nations. Pologne, by Sergey Solomko.
Poland as the Christ of Nations. (Source: Pologne, by Sergey Solomko.)

In other countries such as Hungary, poems like the 1823 Himnusz by Ferenc Kölcsey (later to become the national anthem of Hungary) also adopted the chosen nation imagery for Hungarians: a “nation that suffered for all sins of past and future.” By the 1848 revolution, references to the “God of Hungarians” became commonplace in popular literature (see Sándor Petőfi’s National Song or Gergely Czuczor’s Alarm), even though the exact meaning of such phrases remained ambiguous: on the one hand, adherence to traditional Christianity was still explicitly professed, while the very idea of a national God stood in obvious tension with Christian universalism. The leader of the revolution, governor president Lajos Kossuth was also called the “Moses of Magyars” (even in official documents like municipal records), while after the defeat of the war of independence in 1849, the thirteen Hungarian generals executed by Austrian authorities were not only called “Martyrs”, but a full-fledged cult arose around them, with their bones and parts of their gallows placed in reliquaries (similarly to the veneration of the relics of Christian saints or pieces of the holy cross in medieval Europe, see Nyirkos 2018, 100). The link between religious patriotism and military efforts is once again hard to dismiss.


The image of Hungary as a chosen nation, or a Christ of Nations gained a new impetus after the First World War, when two-thirds of Hungary’s former territory had been lost to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the later Yugoslavia). Although the replacement of Christ with a secular entity like the nation or the nation-state should once again seem problematic from a Christian point of view, it remains true that in Hungary, the new (political) and the traditional (Christian) aspects of the patriotic religion continued to be intertwined. It was only after the Second World War that such rhetoric became unacceptable or outright forbidden during the Communist era, only to reappear – but still in a rudimentary form and certainly not as an official political religion – after the regime change in 1989-90.

Something like an official recognition only arrived with the 2010’s, when prime minister Viktor Orbán (who previously defined his “national approach” to politics as “illiberal”, see Orbán 2014) changed his vocabulary to “Christian democratic” in 2018, while still maintaining that the two concepts were basically identical:

Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues – say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.” (Orbán 2018a)

For our present purpose, the main point of interest is the reference to anti-immigration policies, which seems most obviously to involve a defense of national unity; or, as the prime minister more explicitly put it in a radio interview also in 2018, Christian democracy meant the protection of the nation against all outside forces: “global ideologies are rejected; because we believe in the importance of the nation, and in Hungary we do not want to yield to any supranational business or a political empire” (Orbán 2018b). Linking nationalism or patriotism to Christianity – despite the tension with Christian universalism mentioned above – is, however, still not what we might call a political religion. It rather looks like a mixture of politics and religion, at least until one reads it together with the most interesting passage in the 2018 speech where it is repeated no less than three times that this sort of Christian politics is “not about defending religious articles of faith”, “our duty is not to defend the articles of faith”, and “not the protection of religious articles of faith is the duty of Christian democracy” (Orbán 2018a).

In other words, Christian democracy is not a religious, but a secular ideology, a transfer of religious concepts into the political realm, which is the exact definition of what is usually called a political religion. Many other examples might be listed, but let me just cite one more from 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which formally ended the First World War for Hungary, and, as I mentioned earlier, meant the greatest loss of territory and population for the Hungarian state in history. In his commemoration speech on June 6th, Viktor Orbán outlined a complete eschatological vision of “five Trianon generations”: four until the present day and one more in the future, whose task is to fight a last “decisive battle” for Hungary, another invocation of military imagery (Orbán 2020). Similar “immanentizations of the eschaton” or “secularizations of salvation history” are, of course, well known from the works of Eric Voegelin or Karl Löwith (among others), but here, the location of the speech is also significant: the so-called “Hungarian Calvary” near the town of Sátoraljaújhely (which was itself divided by the new border drawn in Trianon). The monument was erected in 1936, and its very symbolism expresses the analogy of the nation’s sufferings with the passion of Jesus Christ, a core feature of many political religions since the nineteenth century.

File:Sátoraljaújhely, Magyar Kálvária 23.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The “Hungarian Calvary” at Sátoraljaújhely. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the same time, however – and especially with regard to the many ambiguities involved in such rhetoric –, it is yet to be seen whether all this constitutes a full-fledged “political religion” or just one aspect of a complicated ideological framework that tries to connect patriotism and the defense of one’s homeland at a higher level than a simply secular commitment would suggest.


Chadwick, Owen (1981): The Popes and European Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat (2005): Cinq mémoires sur l’instruction publique.

Löwith, Karl (1949): Meaning in History: The Theological Implication of the Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maistre, Joseph de (1994): Consideration on France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mazzini, Giuseppe (2009): A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations. Edited by Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nyirkos, Tamás (2018): Politikai teológiák: a demokráciától az ökológiáig. Budapest: Typotex.

Orbán, Viktor (2014): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the 25th Bálványos Summer
Free University and Student Camp.

Orbán, Viktor (2018a): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the 29th Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp.

Orbán Viktor (2018b): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “180 Minutes.”

Orbán, Viktor (2020): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Commemoration Speech.

Ozouf, Mona (1976): La fête révolutionnaire 1789-1799. Paris: Gallimard.

Seitschek, Hans Otto (2007): Early Uses of the Concept ‘Political Religion’: Campanella, Clasen and Wieland. In Totalitarianism and Political Religions, Volume Three. Edited by Hans Maier. London: Routledge.

Voegelin, Eric (2000): Political Religions. In The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Volume 5. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.