In modern times and in many cases, the figure of the Nation replaces past religious and spiritual sentiments. Accordingly, many feelings holding people’s nationality are closer to sacred beliefs, just as the idea of being a chosen community, the nationalistic messianism, the religious imagining or the cult of the past.
As a consequence of that, belonging to the nation is transformed by the society into a kind of civil religion organized around a sacred flag, whose followers engage in periodic sacrifice to protect and unify the group. Thus, “when soldiers swore the oath of allegiance to the flag, the flag attained the status of a sacred shrine. The pledge to the flag assumed the function of a religious rite sanctioned by a priest. Enticed by the magic implicit in the pledge, millions of soldiers have marched to their death throughout history” (Hoffmann, 1996: 11).
The first reason that nations acquired for themselves religious sentiments can be found in questions related to time. A feeling that has mutated from the divine sphere to the national sphere is how time is experienced. In that way, nations bring “a messianic time, a simultaneity of past and future” (Anderson, 1983: 24), something that also gives sense of continuity with previous generations of the national unit. This is accomplished through memories, myths and traditions, giving a sense of destiny and mission to people by fixing certainties on the coming into being of the national life. Hence, as Brennan points out, in the daily national life “the ritualization of memory, celebration and all those forms of magical behaviour signify defeat of the irreversibility of time” (Brennan, 1988:51). The nation performs this by attaching the person to something that transcends him or her.
The second reason why nations took some aspects from religion can be found in the personal attempt to survive death and to belong to a nation that offers people a resource against the irreversibility of the passing of time, a kind of anti-death process. As a consequence of this fusion between national sentiments with religion, nations are transformed into a sort of divinity or monsters for their citizens acquiring power and natural rights. These natural rights can justify any action done just for the sake of the nation and just for that reason the nation can ask for any sacrifices, as if the nation could ask something by itself.
©Sebastian Guerrini, 2009