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Patriotism, Nationalism, Illiberalism in Their Relation to Religion: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

by 1,* and 2,*
Faculty of Humanities and Center for Studies of Civil Society and Non-Profit Sector, HSE University, 101000 Moscow, Russia
WIFU, Faculty of Management, Economics and Society, Witten/Herdecke University, 58448 Witten, Germany
Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Religions 2022, 13(9), 772;
Received: 22 July 2022 / Accepted: 8 August 2022 / Published: 24 August 2022

1. Introduction

This article is the introduction to an interdisciplinary Special Issue and serves two purposes. On the one hand, it reviews and analyzes the literature on patriotism, nationalism and illiberalism in relation to religion. On the other, it introduces the individual contributions in the volume. For this, the authors in their articles take a fresh look at the main approaches and emphasize the close relationship between religious fundamentalism, the rise of nationalist movements and the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies available in contemporary academic thought. In so doing, they also address the question of whether there is an “elective affinity” between nationalism and religion but have to answer this negatively because similar phenomena can be found in cultural religion and within atheist groups. Overall, the authors take substantial efforts to show the main patterns and use the latest explanatory models for discussing the separation of national groups, notions of belonging and demarcation in great detail. For the analysis, they also draw attention to the general tendencies towards re-enchantment, de-privatization of religion or the coming of a postsecular era and religious mythologization of national culture. Among others, the texts analyze trends towards the sacralization of territories and the “deification of the native space” as common to post-secular processes. In this context, it is also worth pointing to the inextricable link to religious fundamentalism, a Manichean worldview, millenarianism and militarization. The authors also point to strategies for the transformation of religious fundamentalism into the form of political religions. In many cases, this is accompanied by mobilizationism as a socio-cultural attitude and securitization, as well as the adaptation by religious communities to certain political concepts and ideologies for their political goals, for example, when Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” is used by Orthodox and other religious groups. Last but not least, it is also worth pointing to an increase in authoritarianism, fundamentalism and illiberalism in the overall relationship between the nation and religion.
As has become increasingly clear in recent years, despite all the global challenges, interactions and a certain cosmopolitanism, patriotic, national and ethnic patterns of identification remain extremely relevant to this day. Even more so, nationalism has become a global phenomenon (Werron 2018). Therefore, we experience a persistence or even a growth of the national in relationship to patriotic, militant and illiberal notions. Examples of this are the United States under Donald Trump, India under Narendra Modi, the United Kingdom with Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, or Hungary and Poland with Victor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński. On a truly global scale and in very different cultural settings, nationalism, patriotism and illiberalism are resurgent and force us to question: What are the reasons for these developments? Why do they appear almost simultaneously? What are the paraphernalia and tools that make it so convincing for ever-growing parts of society across so many continents, cultural settings and in so different political milieus? What are the tangible results of these developments, for example, when we think about mobilization patterns for what is happening in Ukraine now?
Our suggestive reflection on that is to point to the importance of religion—in its different contexts—and its threefold potential for integration, demarcation and mobilization. Religion, then, is not only “a powerful force shaping how people explain suffering, form values, craft identities, and imagine change” (Steinberg and Wanner 2008, p. 3) but increasingly becomes important for processes of inclusion, exclusion and nationalist mobilization. To be sure, we are not the first and only ones who point to the extraordinary power of religious ideas and values for global phenomena. Although in a very different context, the most famous example of this is Max Weber who related the emergence of capitalism to religious notions and traced an “elective affinity” (Wahlverwandtschaft) within some Protestant groups. According to his argument, some Protestant groups tend to produce an “ethically colored maxim for the conduct of life” (Weber [1930] 2001, p. 17; see also Weber [1920] 1988, p. 33) that allowed for “a special tendency to develop economic rationalism” that is also characteristic of modern capitalism (Weber [1930] 2001, p. 7; see also Weber [1920] 1988, p. 23).
Sure, this is taken from a different social and historic context and needs further analysis. Nevertheless, such approaches inspire us to take up similar questions and urge us to develop a comparative perspective on the phenomena of nationalism, patriotism and illiberalism. Thus, we take up that inspiration and address the following questions throughout the Special Issue: Do we also witness an “elective affinity” between nationalism and religion? If so, who are the particularly prone groups for that and what characterizes this relationship? How are we able to describe the relationship between nationalism, patriotism and illiberalism, on the one hand, and religion, on the other?
These are crucial questions that we had in mind when designing and initiating this Special Issue. For this, we imagine a comparative perspective that gives more insights into the workings and relationships between religious actors, their notions and convictions, and the relation to nationalist, patriotic and illiberal leanings.

2. Theoretical Considerations on Religious Patriotism, Nationalism, Illiberalism and Fundamentalism

2.1. Religious Nationalism

A starting point for our considerations is that nationalism primarily can be interpreted as a specific form of boundary-making (Smith 2013; Young et al. 2007). Processes of inclusion and exclusion have become the central features of identification, and for this to happen, central characteristics that enable demarcation must be elaborated (Barth [1969] 1998 speaks of ‘markers’ in his classic study on ethnic groups and their boundaries). Accordingly, we perceive boundary-making to be inherently linked to notions of belonging because notions of belonging are always linked to both, inclusion and exclusion (Assmann 2000; Billig 1995). This means that there could be no belonging without exclusion because belonging always is understood in contrast to a significant other. Without othering, no cohesion in a group can be fostered. This seems to be true, although the nation is increasingly understood as a construction so that national belonging, in particular, is presented as follows: “Beneath the decline of sacred communities, languages and lineages, a fundamental change was taking place in modes of apprehending the world, which, more than anything else, made it possible to ‘think’ the nation” (Anderson [1983] 2006, p. 22).
Thus, nationalism is not only important during the formation phase of a nation but remains a permanent task for creating belonging and fostering a community (Billig 1995). Michael Billig calls this “banal nationalism” and thus describes processes of permanent external demarcation (‘flagging’) and internal cohesion (‘reminding’). Parallel to the external demarcation, there is an increased focus on the characteristics of one’s own group, its history and its convictions. In this way, a stronger inward coherence is sought. This has been pointed out in research on memory culture (Assmann 2000; Langenohl 2000; Pine et al. 2004). The central concept of this research is the memory figure, which describes that identification patterns only become relevant for action if they are linked to concrete places, persons or events (Assmann 2000, pp. 17, 37–48, see also Halbwachs 1980). The more often one is confronted with such memory figures, the more important they become for one’s own actions in everyday life. Thus, a form of confrontation with one’s own identity develops, which is most closely linked to action in everyday life (Goode and Stroup 2015; Goode et al. 2020).
Alongside this persistence of national identity, as well as external and internal demarcation, the increasing importance of religious patterns of identification associated with the national idea is striking (Brubaker 2012; Hastings 1997). Interestingly, this is also true of the former socialist bloc where religion is of increasing importance in defining identity and in the public sphere in general (Benovska-Sabkova et al. 2010; Mitrofanova 2005). In the case of Russia, Douglas Rogers (2015, p. xii) considers religion to be an integral part of the “post-Soviet cultural front”. His findings are confirmed by Sonja Luehrmann, who states: “what is happening in post-Soviet Russia is thus part of a more general shift of transformational hopes toward religious institutions” (Luehrmann 2011, p. 16). Religion enters into a mixture with national and ethnic identities, which Karpov et al. (2012) describe with the term “ethnodoxy”. The growing importance of religiously framed nationalism, however, is not peculiar to Russia or the former socialist states only. Increasingly, such phenomena become virulent across the world and we can notice a general trend towards re-enchantment, de-secularization, de-privatization of religion or the coming of a post-secular era (Berger 1999; Casanova [1994] 2001; Habermas 2010; Isnart and Testa 2020; Martin 2005; Partridge 2005). Nevertheless, it remains to be noted that the turn to religion is often still very ambivalent and does not only pursue genuinely religious goals (Pelkmans 2009, 2013). Therefore, phenomena such as cultural religion or the relation between atheism and nationalism/patriotism have to be taken into account too and receive increasing attention in academic discussions (Bechert in this volume; Demerath 2000; Hennig and Hidalgo in this volume). It then falls to religion to provide an identity beyond ethnic affiliations, to provide a moral basis for individual and collective action, and to sacralize action so that it can no longer be questioned (see, for example, Agadjanian 2017; Koellner 2020; Steinberg and Wanner 2008; Zigon 2011). This allows for mobilization and concrete actions to be taken so that politics and religion are deeply entangled (Koellner 2021).

2.2. Religion Justifying Action

But as had been said in the beginning, religious nationalism, patriotism and illiberalism are increasing on a global scale. India is a case in point too and Glushkova (2007) shows interesting cases of how the inspirers of the national revival in India use the religious factor in Indian politics. In particular, the singling out of the peculiarity of the Hindu nation can occur today through the “deification of the native space” in India. The territory of the country is deified through the image of the special deity—multi-armed Durga, the warrior goddess, and so religious mythology, contributes to the national understanding of the “sacred territory” and “sacred borders” of the homeland. Thus, India’s rationale for military power and national borders takes a religious justification. However, the problem is not pertaining to India only because we have similar phenomena in the Russian Federation. Like in the Indian case, a particular meaning is inscribed on the landscape and largely rests on the use of religious symbols and architecture (Koellner 2018a). In addition, the use of religious symbolism transcended the borders of the Russian Federation and includes the near abroad, the so-called Russian World (Russkii mir) (Curanović 2019, 2021; Hovorun 2015; Knorre 2016, pp. 27–32; Wawrzonek 2016, pp. 41–51). With the invasion of Russian military forces into Ukraine, this gained further relevance and continues previous narratives which have been important for the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and other Ukrainian cities (Stahlberg 2019).
Turning back to India, Knorre (2009, pp. 275–76) recognizes similar phenomena and points out how Hindu nationalists articulate their ideas of spreading Hinduism and sacred territory not only within India but also beyond its borders. In this case, we are not talking about a revival as such, but about religiously grounded cultural expansionism. After all, Hindu mythology, due to the richness of its concepts, and in particular, the idea of cyclical time, allows some Hindu nationalists to consider the territory outside India as once belonging to the culture of “Sanatana-Dharma”.1 Moreover, Knorre also cites an example from a discussion about the compatibility between nuclear weapons and the principle of ahimsa (non-violence). The famous leader of the nationalist organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus), Atal Bihari Vajpayee, justified the great importance of nuclear weapons for India by the fact that they give India the divine energy—shakti (Raimondo 2002).
To sum these findings on India up, it becomes visible that there are serious discussions about the extent to which the religious-nationalist revival in India today is supremacist and potentially militaristic in its nature. In some cases, even questions are being discussed such as how some Hindu movements can be considered fascist, despite the fact that such accusations may sound quite superficial at first. Thus, political scientist Benjamin Zachariah, an author of the books “Playing the Nation Game” (Zachariah 2011) and “After the Last Post” (Zachariah 2019), considers the well-known nationalist movement Rashtria-Svayak Sevak Samgh (Union of Volunteer Servants of the Nation) and some other nationalist groups to be fascist. His analysis rests on the argument that their leaders do not hesitate to cite Nazi Germany as an example, discussing the idea of the Hindus as a “race” and as “Aryans” and how India could get rid of Muslims (Chakrabartty 2020). The desire to correlate the nationalist Hindu movements with fascism, however, causes disagreement and objections from other scholars, for example, the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha (Pais 2014).
Today, discussions about the authoritarianism and illiberalism of earlier Indian thinkers and figures, whose significance goes far beyond their own internal Indian politics, are becoming relevant in a new way. Thus, researcher Jyotirmaya Sharma in his book “A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism” (2013) considers Vivekananda “a father and preceptor of Hindutva” (Sharma 2013, p. xv) in its nationalistic and chauvinist expression. In opposition to Sharma, researcher Medhananda (2020) argues that Vivekananda was no suprematist, but a cosmopolitan patriot, who strove to prepare the spiritual foundations for the Indian freedom movement and followed Ramakrishna in championing the pluralist doctrine that various religions are equally capable of leading to salvation.

2.3. Is There Any Difference between Patriotism and Nationalism?

As will be discussed in the articles of this Special Issue, then, so far we lack convincing approaches that allow for a distinction between “good patriotism” and “bad nationalism”. On the contrary, these phenomena build on similar foundations, which only manifest themselves differently and can always incorporate both mundane and everyday expressions, and extreme variants, as has been shown in recent anthropological approaches (Hemment 2015; Oushakine 2010). This becomes visible, for example, when summer camps or festive days not only provide the population with opportunities for association and identification but are also used to transmit nationalist values and foster patriotic education (Hemment 2015; Sperling 2009). The same applies to the field of religious education, where values or cultural and historical facts are taught alongside more excessive forms of nationalism and, at times, with the support of armed forces (Koellner 2016; Ozhiganova 2019; Sperling 2009).
However, it is also worth acknowledging that these statements are only true for those religious communities whose religious traditions are historically connected with the dominant ethnic group of a country in which they show revival or post-secular progressive movement. In other cases, religious communities can quite easily use patriotic discourses against the dominant nationalist ideas, because they are not directly associated with the main ethnic group of the state.
For example, Kaarina Aitamurto (2021, pp. 293–94) shows that in contemporary Russia, “the tightening control of Muslims in Russia reflects <…> the global securitisation of Islam” as well as “the political authoritarianisation of the country” which forces the “Islamic leaders to adopt the general patriotic rhetoric”. In so doing, they demonstrate adherence to “traditional values” and aggressive rejection of the Western world values, and also emphasize their own role in the Great Patriotic War. Thereby showing their loyalty to the state ideological policy in various aspects. “Descriptions of the contributions of non-Slavic people, such as Tatars, to the history of Russia, including the wars it has waged, are set against the nationalist ideology of ‘Russia for [ethnic] Russians’ (Rossiya dlya russkikh)” (Aitamurto 2021, p. 295).
According to Kaarina Aitamurto, Muslim leaders contribute to the patriotic policy of the state while ignoring the problem of violations of religious freedom, but “open new avenues for them to defend their position and influence public discussions” (p. 295). Nevertheless, it could hardly be denied that Muslim leaders express their readiness to support the authoritarian policy of the state anyway, volens-nolens, because they are deeply involved in the process of the authoritarianisation and rejection of liberalism in Russia.
Mikhail Kemper and Gulnaz Sibgatullina talk about another interesting strategy that allows Muslims to fit into the process of authoritarianism and illiberalization in Russia. They write that Russia’s official Islamic leaders “call upon the Russian authorities to fully acknowledge the Muslim component in Russian civilization”, expressing their patriotism and their support for Putin’s course through the form of the ideology of Eurasianism (Sibgatullina and Kemper 2019, pp. 116–17). It means indeed that “Neo-Eurasianism as the umbrella term for contemporary ideologies that pretend to develop the original Eurasianist ideas” which were “developed by exiled intellectuals in the 1920s” (p. 97), however, contemporary intellectuals add a lot of new ideas—in particular Gumilev’s ideas of passionarity and ideas of convergence of different Asian and European ethnic groups on the Russian territory which form a special superethnos. Nevertheless, Russian Eurasianism by different Muslim groups can be used quite differently, partly by drawing on mythological civilizational identities for example while relying on ideas of the ideological succession of the civilizational heritage of Volga-Bulgar khanate (Sibgatullina and Kemper 2019, p. 105) or civilizational heritage of the Golden Horde (pp. 110–12).
Some parts of the state’s cultural and ideological policy focus on the archaic and indigenous nature of beliefs, thus, Eurasianism provides Islam with arguments in favor of considering itself as the indigenous religion of Russia. Herewith Eurasianism justifies the policy of peaceful coexistence and cooperation between Islam and Orthodoxy (Sibgatullina and Kemper 2019, p. 105), and also provides the basis for looking at Russia as “a Christian-Islamic power” (Sibgatullina and Kemper 2019, p. 108), despite the fact that Russian state policy recognizes the cultural and historical role of Orthodoxy as dominant in its history, and despite the fact that Orthodoxy serves in Russia to be a main ethnic religion while using it in the sense of “ethnodoxy” (Karpov et al. 2012). Additional arguments in favor of the allied relations of Islam and Orthodoxy in Russia are provided by the declaration by Eurasianism of its commitment to traditional values, its rejection of Western values and anti-globalism in general. Of course, this does not allow for considering the Orthodox–Muslim relations in Russia as being simple and straightforward. According to Alfred Bustanov and Michael Kemper, “in spite of the state’s attempt at defying globalization, Russia’s Islam remains strongly shaped by global processes of individualization and the privatization of religion, which make religion a big marketplace for individual choices and bricolages” (Bustanov and Kemper 2017, p. 133). Consequently, different variants of the Eurasian idea result from these choices.
Nevertheless, drawing on Eurasian ideas allows Islamic leaders for attacking “the Western Islamophobic discourse” which depicts Islam as “an ‘archaic’ religion that ‘oppresses women’ and engages in ‘terrorism’” (Sibgatullina and Kemper 2019, p. 117). By defending their right to establish religious patriarchal traditions in society, Islamic leaders thus contribute to the legitimization of some aspects of religious fundamentalism in Islamic terms. Cases of Islamic fundamentalism in the form of separate sharia norms in the field of family law can be found in some regions of Russia (Malashenko 2007).
In turn, Islam’s commitment to patriarchy, “traditional values”, anti-Westernism, authoritarian post-secular tendencies and primordiality provoke Orthodox fundamentalist movements themselves to consider Muslims as their allies, unlike Catholic Christians or Protestants associated with the Western globalized world. For many Orthodox fundamentalists, Muslims turn out to be spiritually closer than Western Christians, and Orthodox priests not rarely cite Muslims as ideal examples of the faithful while appealing to their stronger “sacrality” and “passionarity” than the “lukewarm” and politically correct Western Christians, and their readiness to violate the rules of the secular world for the sake of their faith (Knorre and Zasyad’ko, p. 88).
In addition and as has been mentioned before, the landscape is also used as a source for arousing patriotic sentiments or national pride by using the materiality of religion (Huyssen 2003; Koellner 2018a; Meyer 2014; Morgan 2010; Park 1994). In this way, a specific meaning is inscribed to the landscape and linked to religion. Herewith, religion allows us to construe historic continuities and significantly contributes to an image where the own group is described as superior and a negative picture of the significant others is created, which serves old stereotypes and fears. Religion, then, allows mundane and extreme forms of nationalism to intermingle and contributes to mobilization and nation-building. The negative perception of significant “others” during processes of demarcation is especially clearly formed within the framework of particularly conservative and illiberal strands of religion, which are today quite popular in different religious systems, and show quite paradoxical phenomena.
This clearly indicates that there seems to be a tendency for the growing importance of distinctly conservative, fundamentalist, and illiberal convictions (Bluhm and Varga 2018; Koellner 2018b; Laruelle 2009), which are used for mobilization, some of which have direct links to nationalist and militant groups or the milieu of right-wing extremism. In addition to demarcation from external groups, exclusion can also be seen within states, and this often concerns minorities with whom a threat situation is associated or who are perceived as fundamentally different (Kolstø 2018). To sum up these discourses, beliefs and actions, it becomes clear that there is a continuum between barely perceptible and everyday forms of patriotism and extreme expressions of nationalism (see also Koellner 2021).

2.4. Religious Fundamentalism

More extreme forms of nationalism may be connected to particularly fundamentalist-oriented actors who claim to hold the exclusive truth, to be superior, demand universal validity and demand the restoration of the past (Pollack et al. 2022). They advocate for especially rigid religious norms not only within the church environment, but also at the broader level of society as a whole, and aim to consolidate these norms at the level of state laws that are obligatory for everyone (Verkhovskiy 2003; Hovorun 2021; Appleby 2007). In many different ways, such forms of fundamentalism, then, become closely linked to religious notions and symbols; we are dealing with post-secular processes (Uzlaner 2013) and the de-privatization of religion (Casanova [1994] 2001).
That is, the optics of fundamentalists turn out to be authoritarian and total because they want to abolish the detachment of the “sacred” from the “secular”, the religious and the non-religious (Kyrlezhev 2003). After all, they insist on the need to put the maximum of social spheres of life under the control of religious norms (Knorre 2014). The strategy of fundamentalism is to radically change the social system, sometimes not only in one’s own country, but also outside it, up to the reorganization of the whole world (Eisenstadt 1999; Lustick 1988). Although the latter peculiarity is disputed today by researchers (Hovorun 2021; Mitrofanova 2005). Mitrofanova, for example, considers the claim to influence the whole world as a feature of political religion and not of fundamentalism itself.
Until today, there is a discussion about whether fundamentalism is actually oriented towards the past, using innovative technical means, or, on the contrary, uses an appeal to the past only at the level of rhetoric, in fact, wanting to integrate into the process of modernization. Riesebrodt, using the concept of “radical patriarchy”, emphasizes that fundamentalism does not deny modernization itself, but protests against the destruction of traditional social structures that occurs in the process of modernization (Riesebrodt 1998). Similarly, Lawrence believes that fundamentalism is not a turn to the past, but a modern movement against modernization (Lawrence 1989). Likewise, John Esposito objects to the Western understanding of Islamic activism as an anti-modern return to the past (Esposito 1999). These arguments give ground to conclude that the restored “salutary order” the fundamentalists are striving to achieve is not being restored, but constructed. That is, fundamentalists are shaping a new reality, not restoring the old one (see also Pollack et al. 2022). Variations of fundamentalism that attempt to master the world, then, represent not so much a movement of those striving to restore the traditional social structures destroyed during modernization processes, but a “political religion” (Hovorun 2021; Mitrofanova 2005). Therefore, Mitrofanova proposes to distinguish between fundamentalism and “political religion“ where the first understanding means using concepts of the past to change modernity, while the latter means using modernity to change concepts of the past (Mitrofanova 2005, pp. 24–25). Thus, the claims of “political religion” are more all-encompassing than simple fundamentalism which does not claim more than closure and concentration in a certain country. Accordingly, “political religions” pose a more serious threat to liberal order and democracy than fundamentalism in itself. Based on the reflections of the aforementioned researchers about the relationship between fundamentalism, modernity and modernization, we conclude that the groups of fundamentalists who coped with innovation in the world have to be distinguished from other forms of fundamentalism. It may be reasonable to designate this type of fundamentalism as “advanced fundamentalism”.

2.5. Religious Nationalism, Fundamentalism and the “Clash of Civilizations”

Today, “political religions” largely implement the model of civilizational confrontation described by Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” concept, and often the leaders themselves recognize and are proud that they can implement the concept of such a great scholar like Samuel Huntington. Taking the Russian situation, we can see this in the example of the concept of “Orthodox civilization”, to which Patriarch Kirill refers openly in his geopolitical concepts (Knorre 2016). Taking the form of “political religion”, this includes especially strong support of militarization, as also can be seen in the lack of critique of the Russian Orthodox Church towards the invasion of Ukraine. On a theoretical level, there are debates over whether it is worth attributing the phenomenon of militarization to fundamentalists, or if militarization actually is to be understood as a broader phenomenon inherent in religiosity in general. The first position, presented by Karen Armstrong (2001), has been common in recent decades. In relation to Orthodoxy, it is applied by Stella Rock (2002), considering militancy to be part of fundamentalist currents and not a characteristic of Orthodox Christianity as such. Today, however, another point of view is going to replace the former one that perceives militarism and militancy to be clearly related phenomena in contemporary religion (Juergensmeyer 2017; Esposito 2002; Appleby 2007). With regard to Orthodox Christianity, these ideas are further developed by Knorre and Zygmont (2020), who noted that although militarization goes hand in hand with fundamentalism; in general, it is a broader phenomenon, which is typical for a religious worldview to see the world in a state of permanent war, which can happen not only in active form. At the moment, however, we can witness its worst cases in action, as daily life in Russia and Ukraine shows.
Speaking about the development of the idea of “Orthodox civilization” (which is elaborated in the Russian Orthodox Church on the basis of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations), Sergei Filatov (2005) shows how the phenomenon of militarization is developing at the level of aesthetic preferences of Russian Orthodoxy (that is, not superficially, but at a deep level of religious consciousness). That is, Filatov shows that militarization is inherent not only to fundamentalists but to wider spheres of believers which would explain the support for the “special military operation” in Ukraine among the inhabitants of the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, in comparison with the general mass of believers, the actual implementation of militarization is primarily inherent in fundamentalist circles. The commitment of fundamentalists to war is understandable due to the quality of fundamentalists who perceive themselves as the “chosen” ones and their self-awareness as a “holy remnant”. Lawrence (1989) specifically emphasized that fundamentalism is always the sensation and worldview of a minority, a “holy remnant” surrounded by enemies even among fellow believers.
Therefore, some researchers draw attention to the enemico-centrism (lat.) (Rock 2002) or ekhtrophobia2 (gr.) of fundamentalists (Knorre 2011) as well as to the fact that fundamentalists have a Manichean dualistic picture of the world, in which the world as a whole appears as evil or something that has come under the rule of evil (Juergensmeyer 1992; Appleby 2007; Kostyuk 2000). Accordingly, the world, according to the understanding of the fundamentalists, must be freed from the enemies, and violence or military force are usually thought of as an integral and legitimate element for doing so (Knorre 2016). The speech of Patriarch Kirill on March 6 is a case in point, where he legitimated the invasion of Ukraine with the rights granted there to persons with non-traditional sexual orientations. (Gundyaev 2022) The militarization of fundamentalists, however, must today be understood more broadly—not only in a narrow sense but as a tendency to solve problems with military action and in relation to the perception of the world as an arena of battle (Appleby 2007).
Such aspects of the fundamentalist conscience as a culture of conspiracy, militarization, millenarism, Manichean views on the world allow sometimes to speak not so much on the fundamentalism itself, but about a special social milieu with close relations to the church, as (Tarabukina 1999; Akhmetova 2010) have shown for the Russian Federation.
This allows us to speak about a specific “fundamentalist religious culture”. In this case, there are some other new aspects of religious militarization virulent. In particular, this includes securitization—which seems to be a sociocultural feature of the fundamentalist religious culture. Discourses on security issues are usually growing in fundamentalist milieus because fundamentalists feel themselves to be a minority surrounded by enemies. As a rule, fundamentalists are supporters of a strong centralized state, on which they pin their hopes as a guarantor for the use of legitimate authoritarian measures of violence to preserve or install particularly conservative social norms and traditions. This also can be witnessed in contemporary Russia.
At the same time, fundamentalists like to talk about the traditions themselves, including religious ones, as a guarantee of the security of the state. Thus, fundamentalists begin to explain the significance of their religious traditions through the importance of state security (Østbø 2017), and even like to view religious disputes through the prism of the struggle of the intelligence services of different states among themselves (Knorre and Zasyad’ko 2021, pp. 81–83). Due to the fact that fundamentalists try to explain all the phenomena and processes of modernization and technical progress not as objectively existing processes of world history, but as the implementation of a conspiracy or a special “secret plan” of transnational forces acting through special services, they believe that modernization should be taken under “right” control. This reading should be directed in the right way, using different techniques of special services and hybrid warfare tactics. In this way, they consider the right decision to replace the so-called “secret plan” of transnational corporations with their own “plan” of reorganizing society.
Overall such fundamentalist tendencies in nationalist, patriotic and illiberal circles show that one can characterize religious fundamentalists to be particularly ready for mobilization and for considering military actions to be legitimate. Fundamentalism, then, can be understood as a special ideology of mobilization that emphasizes the need for society to stay in constant (hyper)tension, an attitude that demands an extraordinary exertion of forces and efforts, all of which can be seen in different countries of the world today. The extraordinary state of affairs thus justifies suffering, deprivation of any comfortable conditions of life, hardship, and the sacrifice of one’s own (or even somebody else’s) life for the sake of the faith and the Fatherland (Chaplin 2006; Gaman-Golutvina 2006; Knorre and Zasyad’ko 2021, pp. 279, 297–302; Lubskiy 2012).
To sum these introductory theoretical considerations up, we conclude that the aim of this Special Issue is to analyze and compare different religious traditions in their relation to patriotism, nationalism and illiberalism. To what extent, we ask, could we enrich our understanding of religion in its relation to patriotism, nationalism and illiberalism by providing new empirical material? Could we gain any new insights if we take a more comparative research perspective and try to elaborate on the differences and similarities more clearly? Of course, our aim is not to provide a simplified picture of religiously inspired patriotism or nationalism as a state ideology, exclusively introduced from above. Instead, we ask, what is the repertoire of ingredients for such formations and to what extent the combination of local cultural elements with more idealized and general connotations and ideas is important? For this, it is necessary to analyze the interrelation between the “center” and the “periphery” in their full complexity. Herewith, we also attempt to contribute to a better understanding of recent developments where the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is used to implement further authoritarian measures and for nationalist inclinations by drawing on religious symbols, discourses and notions. Last but not least, we are also referring to the invasion of Russian military forces into Ukraine, where many of the military actions have been legitimated by referring to religious notions and religious discourses which have been used for identity and territory claims.

3. Overview of the Volume

This Special Issue presents articles analyzing the position and role of religion in today’s relationship with nationalism, patriotism and illiberalism. In so doing, we are drawing attention to very different cultural and religious contexts and hope to provide a broader theoretical reflection in this introduction. However, it should also be kept in mind that the research field is constantly evolving and due to substantial change. Accordingly, the results and ideas presented here neither claim completeness nor finalization. Rather, they have to be understood as a starting point for further empirical research and theoretical reflection on the relationship between nationalism, patriotism, illiberalism, and religion in different cultural and religious settings. The invasion of Russian military forces into Ukraine is a crucial case in point for this that highlights the use of religion for nationalist mobilization. In the future, we need better analytic tools to detect such developments well in advance before violence is used and based on religious justifications. Moreover, it also becomes obvious that contemporary Russia is an important place for this but not the only one. In other states, similar developments are visible and here it is necessary to unveil and counter them much earlier. This is a major aim of the volume and we hope to be able to contribute to these discussions. Let us now turn to the presentation of individual contributions.
Wojciech Sadlon (2021) offers a starting point for the volume, in his article “Polarization but Not Pillarization: Catholicism and Cultural Change in Post-Transformation Poland”. In the article, Sadlon shows the complex transformations that have taken place in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Polish society: the transition from the role of a grassroots institution of civil society to the position of an actor enshrined in the power structures, while retaining rootedness in popular religiosity and parish communities. In particular, he notes that in the 1980s, despite the Polish People’s Republic policy of separating church and state,
“the Catholic Church became a symbol of freedom and an inspiration for systemic change. This significantly strengthened the historical connection between Catholicism, national identity and patriotism and renewed the symbolic role of the Church in the formation of the national community. The Church, in its basic function of evangelization, stood in defense of democracy and human rights, which led to the presence of the Catholic Church in the political sphere”
However, as Sadlon also notes,
“the strategy of integrating with the European Union and hence gaining access to European funds generated a process of separation between the ‘old’ Catholic civil society and the new liberal sector of civil organizations, as the definitions of civil society which were adopted actually excluded Catholic organizations”
Catholicism is no more an actor within the dominant former social movement that thrived on the call for freedom and human rights. After 1989, when the Catholic Church has begun to represent a public institution and a socio-cultural system of power, the trust of the society in the Catholic Church started to decline. This is a major shift that, to some extent at least, also pertains to the Russian Orthodox Church which became more prominent in the late Soviet era as an oppositional force but became deeply entangled with politics and the power structures in contemporary Russia (Koellner 2021).
Quite naturally, such tremendous changes also cause tensions, for example between traditional religious actors and civil society, which can be also found in contexts such as Moldova (Iordache 2019) or Romania (Cirlan 2019). For Poland, however, Sadlon, nevertheless concludes “that Catholicism in Poland still represents a crucial cultural system that conditions the whole of the Polish socio-cultural system”. In contrast to widespread ideas about the structural separation of Catholicism from society, the influence of Catholicism on the Polish nation cannot be reduced to an authoritative structure of power: “Catholicism still represents a symbolic and agential complex of attitudes, values, and identities” and “a frame of reference for the moral system of Polish society” (Sadlon 2021). Therefore, Sadlon concludes that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Polish nation has to be seen as polarization, but not as pillarization.
Anja Hennig and Oliver Hidalgo write another article in the Special Issue on “Illiberal Cultural Christianity? European Identity Constructions and Anti-Muslim Politics”. The article provides a detailed analysis of the phenomenon of “cultural (or culturalized) Christianity” and argues that this phenomenon in itself is not so much religious but secular. This correlates with the conceptualization voiced by Sergei Filatov on so-called “identificationist Christians” or “identificationist Orthodox” in post-Soviet Russia which he characterizes as a “secularized religion”. Indeed “cultural Christianity”, as Hennig and Hidalgo show, is drawing on religious symbolism but has little religious content. Moreover, cultural Christianity is open to and used for illiberal purposes whereas the official churches aim to stay at distance from the political right-wing nationalist groups (Hennig and Hidalgo 2021). In great detail, Hennig and Hidalgo explain the reason for the susceptibility of cultural Christianity to illiberal and nationalist propaganda in Europe by the fact that cultural Christianity has a
“religious superficiality and the detachment of a pseudo-religious identity from universalist theological [which] claims facilitate the resurgence of exclusivist interpretations of Christian heritage by linking the actual contradictory logic of national and secular domination with the transnational collective identity of Christian Europe”
This connects nicely to Insa Bechert’s article (Bechert 2021), which examines the widespread assumption that atheists have less national pride than religious people. Based on the data retrieved from various international surveys and societal-level sources, linked by the ONBound Project, she concludes that such views are largely valid, but the reality is more complex. It depends on the ideological background of countries, which is one of the most important factors determining the national pride of atheists at the country level. Thus, in highly religious countries, the feeling of national pride among atheists is indeed weaker, but if the state ideology is opposed to religion, atheists tend to maintain a combination of anti-religiousness and patriotism.
At the same time, Bechert also draws our attention to the fact that society in its attitude towards atheists in religious countries is largely guided by widespread prejudices. In these cases, it looks as if atheists are less reliable citizens than religious people are, a fact that is particularly widespread in the USA. Based on that assumption, atheists are less likely to get a good job because “the right religion” is a prerequisite for public office, and it means that atheists turn out to be a group whose rights are implicitly discriminated against. This finding can also be found in other states such as post-Soviet Russia where the career prospects for politicians and businesspeople increase when they declare their commitment to mainstream religions such as Orthodoxy in public. Religion, then, becomes a crucial marker showing the trustfulness of politicians, government officials or businesspeople although their actual relation to religion as such is much more complicated and rests on very different associations that include religious belief, religious practice or notions of belonging to the religious community (Koellner 2013, 2020).
Ryszard Bobrowicz and Matthias Nowak have contributed yet another article focusing on Poland to the Special Issue. In their analysis, they highlight conservative tendencies inside Polish society. In particular, they analyze the intellectual roots for this distinct form of conservatism which closely connects identity issues with patriotism and the Catholic religion. This resonates with findings in Russia, India and other states of the world. For Poland, however, the authors call this “national paleoconservatism”, an expression taken from the American context, and apply it to the Polish case. In so doing, the authors stress the conceptualization of the Polish nation as “biopolitical, historically and religiously grounded organic unity“ that is grounded in Christianity—Catholicism more precisely. Moreover, this concept equates being Polish with being Catholic and emphasizes the rootedness of the Polish nation in the Catholic religion. Again, this connects nicely to similar understandings in contemporary Russia where Russian ethnic identity is conflated with Orthodox Christianity. In order to provide more evidence for their conceptualization, Bobrowicz and Nowak give some case studies. For this, they focus on “culture wars” surrounding representations of the rainbow, the symbol for diversity and LGBTQ+ rights, and follow the ideological conflicts which evolve between conservative circles in their opposition against liberal, progressive and secular tendencies in Polish society.
The article by Efe Peker compares far-right discourses in their relation to religion in eight European countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Norway). Following a qualitative research approach based on content analysis, the author highlights three important findings. First, the research confirms previous analyses in other countries and shows similar tendencies and developments in Europe. Secondly, an understanding of Christianity in these countries as a national/civilizational heritage and identity is stressed that making theological content not irrelevant but less important which connects to the findings on cultural Christianity in the article by Hennig and Hidalgo. Thirdly, a strong difference in the understandings and evaluations of Christianity and Islam is highlighted which causes a religio-cultural hierarchy. Finally, the research also contributes to a better understanding of the differences and similarities between far-right and conservative parties in these countries. Whereas the far-right parties tend to form a Christianist-civilizationalist cluster, the conservative parties provide evidence for a more ‘variegated picture’ in their tendency to include far-right discourses.
Another article is provided by Michael Roseneck, who offers a theoretically inspired contribution to authoritarian leanings inside different new atheist movements. In his article, the author provides evidence for the fact that illiberal and authoritarian tendencies are included in New Atheism. For this, references are taken from Habermas’ and Rawl’s theory of democracy, which are used for an analysis of New Atheism. Especially, the rejection of reasonable pluralism and a non-positivistic view of human nature are emphasized and detected as crucial obstacles. These tendencies, then, allow for the development of an unreasonable comprehensive doctrine inside New Atheism that may find resonance in authoritarianism. With this contribution, Roseneck is able to enlarge the scope of the volume and shows the ambivalences of new atheist movements. Therefore, one conclusion can be that religion is an important but not the only source of nationalist thinking and action. This is an important finding for the future analysis of such phenomena in different cultural settings that need to be taken into account.


This research was funded by the German Reearch Association grant number KO 4652-1, for the part written by Tobias Koellner. This research work also uses the results of the project, carried out as part of the Basic Research Program of the HSE University by Boris Knorre.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


The term “Sanātana Dharma” (meaning “eternal religion”, “eternal order” or “eternal law”) is used by Hindus for self-identification of their religious Hindu tradition including many rituals which are necessary to implement not only within temple space, but also within daily life. See in details: “Sanatana dharma|Hinduism”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 4 July 2021.
Enemico-centrism and ekhtrophobia means the same—redundant psychological focusing on the presence of enemies, a feeling that all the world around is overlapped and occupied mostly by foes.


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Knorre, B.; Koellner, T. Patriotism, Nationalism, Illiberalism in Their Relation to Religion: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Religions 2022, 13, 772.

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Knorre B, Koellner T. Patriotism, Nationalism, Illiberalism in Their Relation to Religion: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Religions. 2022; 13(9):772.

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Knorre, Boris, and Tobias Koellner. 2022. "Patriotism, Nationalism, Illiberalism in Their Relation to Religion: A Cross-Cultural Perspective" Religions 13, no. 9: 772.

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