The politics of national identity:

Building secularity via religious revival and the “patrimonialization” of religion

posted by Geneviève Zubrzycki

Image via Flickr user Quinn DombrowskiWhile crude secularization theories predicting the end of religion have, in response to strong criticism, been refined to be less ideologically driven, more empirically accurate, and theoretically more robust, in recent years, “secularism,” “secularity,” and “the secular” have in effect supplanted secularization altogether. Secularity is a principle in which the religious and secular spheres are distinct. Religion, in a secular society, is one option among many other ideational systems, identities, affiliations, and activities. Secularism, by contrast, is a political project that aims at instituting secularity—at creating a secular society by socially upholding, culturally enforcing, and legally securing the separation of the religious and secular domains. Building on that literature, my recent works on Poland and Québec focus on the process of becoming secular—on the aesthetic, bodily, social, and legal practices of enacting secular identifications and affiliations. In this approach, secularity is never fully achieved but always in process, and often itself infiltrated by religion. My first point, then, is that in places where religion was (or still is) an ethnonational marker, secularism only signifies in relation to specific national(ist) projects, and as such can only be understood by social scientists when triangulated with religion and nationalism.

How does this play out in the cases I’ve worked on?

French Canadian identity was intrinsically tied to Catholicism in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, but the articulation of Québécois national identity in the 1960s went hand in hand with the rejection of Catholicism as a symbolic and institutional resource. Secularity is therefore intimately linked, in Québec society, with that historical process of redefinition of national identity. As such, many Québécois today perceive religion as either an atavistic residue of the past surviving at the margins of society, or as imported from outside by recent waves of immigrants. Because secularity is considered to be a sacred, national value, secularism as a political project is always more or less present, but was placed at the center of recent public debates because of recent waves of immigration that brought religion back to the table.

In Poland, too, national identity and Catholicism were tightly related since the early nineteenth century. The communist regime’s forced atheism and often violent secularization of society in the second half of the twentieth century were widely perceived as anti-Polish. This meant that participation in religious services was not only religious proper, but political as well—a signification that was, however, altered when Poland regained independence in 1989. While Catholicism today remains ever-present in the public sphere, that presence is now vigorously contested in anti-clerical discourse and even through a movement of apostasies by individuals who want a “truly” secular Poland that goes beyond the formal separation of church and state. Perhaps most interestingly, the support of secularism is also expressed, and politically pressed, through the support of other religious groups and traditions.

This last observation leads me to my second point: Religion and religious traditions can be recruited to build secularity. Secularity, as a regime of management of the religious and non-religious spheres, can be constructed indirectly, in at least two ways: First via practices that strengthen some religious groups in an effort to dilute the power of hegemonic religious institutions with pluralism; and second, via what I call the “patrimonialization” of religious tradition—the transformation of religious traditions into national culture—to reframe and, so to say, “civilize” religious vitality.


If under communism engaging in religious practices de facto undermined the monolithic worldview propagated by the party-state, and so remained more or less beyond critique, the fall of that system brought about fierce debates about the place and role of the Church in a democratic society. Partly as a reaction to this shift, in which the Church has become one ideology among others, certain clerical parties sought to assert the Church’s centrality in Polish society by symbolically excluding those considered “morally unfit” from full membership in the nation. This is done by discursively turning them into “Jews,” secularists, “bad Catholics,” or masons (all code names for Jews), and now also sexual minorities and feminist-terrorists (likewise, often accused of being Jewish). On the one hand, ethno-Catholic nationalists contend that “Jews” are contaminating the nation with their liberal ideas by attempting to build a post-national, cosmopolitan world and must therefore be politically marginalized. On the other hand, “Jews” must, for the same reason, be rescued, and Jewishness promoted, according to proponents of a secular vision of the polity. Hence liberal youth protesting the presence of the cross in the public sphere wear t-shirts and brandish posters in protests against clerical nationalists, subversively claiming that they too are “Jews,” that is, opponents of the ethnonational vision of a narrowly Catholic Poland.

It is in this broader context of struggles to define Polishness that Poland has witnessed, in the last two decades, a significant Jewish renaissance in which non-Jewish Poles play a crucial role—a surprising development in view of the relatively small number of Jews actually living in that country. One of the many motivations behind non-Jews’ participation in that cultural and religious revival, my research shows, is the potential to neutralize Catholicism. Many activists and NGOs create visible, countable, “objective” counterweights to Catholicism by reviving Jewish culture, supporting the institutional growth of Jewish communities, promoting knowledge about Poland’s Jewish past and present, and even introducing Jewish symbols in the public sphere. Many of those who object to the presence of the cross in the public sphere not only do not object to the presence of Jewish religious symbols in the public sphere, they encourage it. For many of my non-Jewish interviewees, reviving Jewish culture—its cuisine, music, dance, material, and ritual life—and actively supporting Jewish communities’ revival of Judaism is a way to secularize Polish national identity and neutralize the political traction of ethnonationalists’ Catholicism. Becoming secular, in the Polish context, is therefore not the attempt to erase all religious elements from the public sphere, but rather an effort to build a neutral space where no value system (religious or non-religious) is taken as “naturally” hegemonic.


Most in Québec agree that secularity is positive, but what it is and should entail is contested and anything but clear. To take one recent example: A Charter of Secularism was officially proposed by the government in 2013, according to which, so-called ostentatious religious symbols would not be allowed in state or state-funded institutions. At the same time, however, the government stipulated that a large crucifix in the national assembly did not need to be removed because it constituted “cultural and national patrimony.” How can we make sense of such contradictory positions regarding the place of religious symbols in the public sphere, other than seeing them as obvious cases of double-standards against minority religions? In my new book, Beheading the Saint, I analyze the discursive, material, and legal ways in which religious symbols, artifacts, and practices are being secularized and resacralized as secular elements of the nation and its history.

The example points to a process unfolding in Québec over the last several decades. After losing all prestige in the wake of the Quiet Revolution’s rapid secularization of society, religious heritage is now being enshrined as a collective good—neutral, benign, safe—and resacralized in the guise of “cultural patrimony.” In an attempt to inform and educate a public that no longer practices religion, the state launched awareness campaigns, posting large banners on religious sites whose preservation was funded and justified by the state under the slogan, “Our cultural patrimony, it’s sacred!” In this reframing, the state was funding and supporting not religion per se, but rather the memory of a religious past transformed into the broader and putatively neutral notion of cultural patrimony. By this measure, many secular and even atheist Québécois remain “Catholic.”

*   *   *

These two cases underline the importance of thinking about the multiple meanings of secularity and the stakes of secularism. They show that the logics that govern secularism as a political project become apparent only when studied in relation to the specific religious landscapes—including the ways certain landscapes become marked as “religious”—and national projects in which secularism is articulated. They suggest the sometimes surprising ways that so-called religions can be mobilized to assist in building a secular society. In Québec, Catholicism as a religion proper is viewed with suspicion, but Catholicism qua cultural heritage is embraced by many. It serves as a counterweight to what is perceived as a threatening religious mosaic, ensuring the primacy of secular francophone Québécois within Québec. It also makes clear to, and impresses upon, “religious others”—often immigrant groups—that the Québécois have overcome religion, while serving as a reminder for the Québécois themselves of what it took to accomplish that.

In Poland, the power of the Catholic Church and the Right is combatted by reaching back to the past and resurrecting the “Jew,” Poland’s traditional ethnoreligious Other. Philosemitism is at least in part an attempt by center-left political and social groups to crack the hegemonic force of Catholicism in Poland to create space for new multi- or non-religious identifications to appear and take place.

References/Further Reading

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Gorski, Philip S., and Ateş Altınordu. 2008. “After Secularization?.” Annual Review of Sociology 34: 55–85.

Warner, Michael, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, eds. 2010. Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2016. Nationalism, ‘Philosemitism’ and Symbolic Boundary-Making in Contemporary Poland. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 58:1, 66-98.

Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2016. Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion and Secularism in Quebec. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tags: , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.