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World: Theologian Suggests Nations Preceded Nationalism

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 23 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An English theologian argues in a book that nations existed before nationalism, a position that both challenges the assumptions of much of the scholarly community and suggests that ever more groups are likely to adopt a nationalist agenda in the future.

In the book, entitled 'The Construction of Nationhood," Adrian Hastings argues that the existence of nations extends back to the Middle Ages and even to Biblical times. In so doing, he directly attacks the view of many scholars that nations arose after the appearance of modern nationalism in post-Renaissance Europe.

Hastings, a retired University of Leeds theological professor, argues that the emergence of vernacular literatures in Medieval Europe gave national communities at that time the necessary degree of self-consciousness independent of state structures that has been the chief characteristic of modern national movements.

And perhaps not surprising given his theological training, Hastings suggests that the church, both its scriptures and its clergy, played a key role in assisting this development.

For the Christian world at least, Hastings says, the Bible provided "the original model of the nation." It did so by suggesting that a people could see itself as both chosen and apart, qualities without which "nations and nationalisms, as we know them, could never have existed."

In making his argument, Hastings cites two nations where religion played an especially key role: Armenia and Ethiopia. In both, the existence of a native language religious tradition across many centuries allowed people to come to define themselves as distinct from all other groups.

Hastings even suggests that one of the more dangerous aspects of modern nationalism, the tendency of some extremists to treat all outsiders as unworthy of equality, has its roots in what he describes as the Christian assumption that there can be only "one fully elect nation, one's own, the true successor to ancient Israel."

While Hastings avoids making specific predictions about the future, his argument suggests that the forces of supranational integration are likely to be countered by the forces of national distinctiveness well into the future.

And to the extent that is true, the age of nationalism, something some other scholars have suggested is ending, may only be beginning.