Eastern Europeans see religion as a gateway to nationalism

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AMONG the countries of Europe that are historically Christian, how strong is the feeling that you have to adhere to that religion to be a true son or daughter of the country? As a newly published piece of research shows, answers to that question vary widely across the continent, with a sense of indigenization growing more common as you travel east and right, although there are some interesting exceptions.

This was one of the most surprising findings of a study by Pew Research, a pollster based in Washington DC, which processed responses from nearly 56,000 people over two years.

Christian nativism was strongest in small countries in the eastern half of the continent where the emergence of a culturally specific church, and survival through times of turmoil, is an important part of the national narrative, as it was spread through schools and public communication.

So 82% of Armenians and 81% of Georgians (pictured) saw Christianity as an important national characteristic: these two countries are fighting for the title of the oldest national church, with stories of great conversions that dating back to the fourth century and possibly earlier.

Countries where Christianity has been preserved​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ and and in some paradoxical ways, reinforced) during centuries of Muslim Ottoman rule also emphasize their religion. So 76% of Greeks thought that Christianity was “very” or “somewhat” important to truly be part of the country, as did 78% of Serbs, 76% of Greeks, 74% of Romanians and 66% of Bulgaria.

In larger post-communist countries, perhaps less aware of the vulnerability of religion, the strong Christian proportion is slightly smaller but still in the majority. So 57% of people in Russia think that their religion is very important, at least, in terms of national identity, as do 51% of Ukrainians.

In the large and relatively secular countries of Western Europe, the majority reject the idea of ​​Christianity as a necessary condition for national belonging, but very substantial minorities still link nationality and religion. In Germany, France and Great Britain, the picture is almost the same: two thirds believe that religion is not very important and a third say it is somewhat important or more. The fact that there is a state church in England, that France has a completely secular system and that Germany gives special privileges to Christian churches does not seem to make much of a difference.

And oddly but not unexpectedly, Scandinavian countries where the (Protestant) church has ritual privileges are among the least convinced that religion should be linked to nationality. In Norway, where the national church is Lutheran, 78% feel that Christianity is relatively unimportant, or less important, as a national identity, and 84% feel the same way in Sweden, at is a Lutheran monarchy.

In general, the connection to Christianity seems to be stronger in places where the religion, often surrounded by patriotism, goes back after being suppressed by communism. But there are major exceptions. The Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia all lived under the hammer and sickle but are now very secular places, showing similar attitudes to the more liberal parts of Scandinavia. Only 11% of Latvians see Christianity as important to their identity, the lowest number in Europe. The Estonians and the Latvians are probably similar to their Scandinavian neighbors in this respect because they too accepted the Christian religion relatively late.

How does the United States compare? More clearly than any European country except France, the American constitution establishes a strict separation between religion and state and excludes the idea of ​​a nationally based religion.

But a separate survey conducted by Pew at the beginning of last year, just after President-elect Donald Trump banned immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, showed that 32% of Americans to the suggestion that one should be Christian in order. to be truly American; the figure was 43% among Republicans and 29% among Democrats. That puts America somewhere in the middle of the European spectrum.

One of the difficulties in decoding polling data like this is that religion and national pride can be almost inseparable in the minds of people in the most religiously devout countries.

When someone calls himself a proud member of say, the Georgian Orthodox Church or an Armenian Apostolic Church, that can be just another way of saying “I’m Georgian” or “I’m Armenian”. In the speaker’s mind, national and religious characteristics can be interchangeable, and have little to do with God, metaphysics or morality.

Whatever these statements actually mean, the drive to conflate religion and nationality makes it more difficult for an outsider to become part of the national family, even if not the relationship between Christian nationalism and vigilance towards, say, migrants is not precise.

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