Nationalism can exploit morality, says professor


In shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with support from Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Cyril, perhaps time for moral reflection on religion and nationalism, says David Seljak.

The University of Waterloo’s St. Jerome’s Religious Studies professor, speaking as part of the university’s Catholic Experience Lecture Series on March 25, said that there was an increased focus on the relationship between religion and nationalism. Today, many are seeking to find an ethical response to the upsurge in religion-based violence around the world.

Seljak refers to the work of Roman Catholic theologian Gregory Baum in finding ways to address the ethical issues raised by nationalist projects. In the session titled Why Religion and Nationalism Refuse to Die, he argues that while nationalism has a role and function, it has adaptive and maladaptive tendencies that need to be explored.

Baum identified a set of ethical criteria by which one could justify any particular nationalist project. His approach to nationalism was rooted in his critical theology and his experience of nationalism in Nazi Germany as well as in Canada and Quebec. Baum studied the dark side of nationalism experienced in Nazi Germany and the post-World War II world. However, his experiences in Quebec and the rest of Canada convinced him that nationalism had a benevolent side.

“Although (Baum) understood that nationalism had the potential to promote chauvinism, isolationism and self-interest, he believed it could create a horizon of deep meaning for individuals and communities and foster a sense of community, history and destiny that inspired solidarity,” Seljak said in his online lecture. “In this way, nationalism protected society against the external pressures of imperialism and the internal centrifugal forces of personal selfishness, sub-group loyalty and regionalism.”

While nationalism could take on imperialism, as Gandhi did in India, it could also glorify a specific nation over others and justify dreams of expansion, which is evident in invasion. Russian at the end of February from neighboring Ukraine.

Baum observed that by promoting strong in-group solidarity, nationalist movements always risk generating hostility towards outsiders.

Reports indicate that there are elements in the Russian Orthodox Church that provide Putin with religious justification for the expansion. It is an idea that Russia should expand its borders and protect itself and Eastern Europe and Asia from Western incursions. For Putin, Seljak said, the West represents decadence and weakness. This ideology, he argues, is linked to feelings of homophobia and the spread of Western decadence and pluralism that Russian orthodoxy condemns.

“There is a fusion of the religious and the political that Baum would find lamentable,” Seljak said. “Pope Francis, in his video calls to Patriarch Cyril, reminded him that only God is good. Russia is no good. Russia is a human creation and often creations have limits. Francis reminded him that there must be a separation between God and worship and religion and politics.

The failure to identify the real culprit of the social challenges experienced by members of nationalist groups is at the heart of nationalist violence. Like the Christian right in America, Seljak says Putin misidentified the threat to Russian culture and society. Focusing on NATO, Ukraine and the Western world, it misses the real source of their discontent.

While Russian nationalists and religious nationalists in America have very different circumstances surrounding their feelings of solidarity, there are parallels to consider.

“The Russians have invited a very aggressive neoliberal capitalism to come and transform their country,” Seljak said. “In the United States, you see this all the time with conservative Christians. They blame Hollywood, the media, the Democrats, the (liberals), they never look at what really eats away at traditional American conservative society, small-town America with its Christian base — that’s neoliberal capitalism,” he said. he declares.

“The LGBTQ community didn’t send all the jobs to India and China. It was not the abortionists who destroyed the family farm in the name of agribusiness. The culprit is socio-economic. Yet, since they don’t want to name capitalism, they have to point the finger at these other moral agents…Putin refuses to name the source of Russia’s feelings of insecurity and threat. I think we should examine what are the sources of this insecurity and this feeling of threat.


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