Nation State, Civil Religion, and Blood Sacrifice
(From Major Wars and Regional Responses in Australia and New Zealand)
By Judy Hemming and Michael McKinley
Judy Hemming and Michael McKinley have written a strikingly original paper,
breaking new ground. One of the most important sections of their paper—Nation State,
Civil Religion, and Blood Sacrifice—appears below, condensed and edited.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
Dr. Judy Hemming is a Lecturer in the International Studies and International Development Programme at the University of Canberra.

Dr. Michael McKinley
is a Visiting Research Fellow at the College of Arts and Sciences at The Australian National University and author of Economic Globalisation as Religious War: Tragic Convergence.
If traditionally we understand the nation-state as the “legitimized exercise of force over territorial boundaries within which a population has been pacified,” then, because nations frequently lack “the commonality of sentiment shared by members of a language group, ethnicity, or living space,” the fundamental commonality is actually “the shared memory of blood sacrifice, periodically renewed.”

According to the formulation proposed by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, the nation, in these terms, is

The memory of the last sacrifice that counts for living believers. Though the sovereign nation, or nation-state, is an agreement about killing rules that compels citizens to sacrifice themselves for the group, the felt nation makes them want to.

The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the willing deaths of a significant portion of its members. The lifeblood of these members is shed by means of a ritual. The most powerful enactment of this ritual is war which leads us to define the nation as the memory of the last sacrifice.

For many, those of a modernist cast of mind especially, this is nothing less than a form of servile idolatry. But this is to miss the point about the existential shortcomings of modernity, and the perils of religion. Foremost among the former, is the desire to see an ordered universe and certainly not one that is monstrously indifferent to humanity.

This need, which social scientists so often deny, President Eisenhower epitomized in 1952 with the statement: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply religious faith - and I don’t care what it is.” He was only repeating in the most generalized way what scholars sensitive to both history and modernist anxieties had affirmed before and since.

Some system of belief is essential in order to effect:

  1. A justification and consolation for the most wrenching human tragedies, especially mortality.

  2. A guide to one’s dignity of place and meaning in the cosmos, especially in view of personal inadequacy and the need for expiation.

  3. A primary bond of social cohesion expressed in rituals or ceremonies that connect human beings to each other and the sacred.

Such a system is not necessarily a sectarian faith, or even theological. Indeed, it might be independent of, or reinforced by them, but as Peter Berger reminds us, in the final analysis, it depends on the “credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk, inevitably toward it.”

If the nuances identified by Clifford Geertz are incorporated—namely, that the system will be symbolically coherent, potent and long-lasting in the unique motivations it creates, and conceptually relevant to the order of existence it relates to—then patriotism and its synonym, nationalism, is a religion; most notably, a Civil Religion, which “determines who may kill and what for, how boundaries are formed, and what national identity is.”

What Marvin and Ingle refer to as the “violent character of genuine religion” is no more than a reminder of the warning found in Lucretius: tantum religiō potuit suādēre malōrum (the practice of religion leads people to practice evil). This being so, it is appropriate to ask what, ultimately, this might involve at a deep human level. Two immediate requirements are apparent. The first is that the god of the civil religion is exactly that—the God.

Where Christianity overlays the civil religion, or is informed by it, the latter, too, is monotheistic, a conceptual inheritance from Judaism. In the history of the nation state, this has been the dominant relationship—allowing for the proclamation that the God in question is definitive—“the one true supreme God” of Christianity’s founding as the new Israel, whose historical advent Richard Tarnas recalls:

[He was] the Maker of the universe, the Lord of history, the omniscient King of Kings whose unequalled reality and power justly commanded the allegiance of all nations and all mankind. In  the history of the people of Israel, that God had entered decisively into the world, spoken his Word through the prophets, and called forth humanity to its divine destiny; what would be born of Israel would have world-historic significance.

In sum, this is an exclusive God, the worship of whom bestows exclusive truths and exclusive knowledge, the benefit of which is the resolution of all claims resulting from pre-Christian religious pluralism if, and only if, He is recognized as the “authentic source of salvation.” Indeed, where pluralism in race, class, and creed, had created rootless and dispossessed populations,

Christianity offered mankind a universal home, and enduring community, and a clearly defined way of life, all of which possessed a scriptural and institutional guarantee of cosmic validity.

What might seem to twenty-first century Christian believers in the modern West a reasonable transition—is in fact the adoption and of a form of violence against the conscience. Because Christian monotheism defines itself so exclusively, it is commanded to reject and repudiate all other gods and their concomitant religions, which, again by definition, are false. It becomes, therefore, a “means of intercultural estrangement.”

In the practice of the civil religion, the distinction is between Christian truth and pagan idolatry - the idolatrous and the true. Egyptologist and religion scholar, Jan Assmann, defines the “Mosaic distinction”: the inherent intolerance of belief systems which give “meaning, identity, and orientation to non-Christian others.” In this world devoid of mutual respect, rather full of conflict and violence, the reality is an historical ethic of “live and let die.”

The death of belief in false gods can be effected, however, by outright recognition of them, or by deep and genuine gestures which indicate a conversion process. But, one way or the other, recognition is mandatory. And it is a reciprocal arrangement: as the converted recognize the truth, so too, are they recognized.

The choice is stark and precludes agnosticism, indifference to religion and adherence to the old ways. Not to recognize the civil religion is to grievously offend the covenant with the nation because it entails a refusal to subscribe to the minimum illusion which legitimates sacrifice. Or, to phrase it another way, to decide on being an outcast from what might be termed the nation’s security culture.

Security culture relies upon Raymond Williams’ attempt to define culture in general as a metaphorical construct representing “a complex argument about their relations between general human development and a particular way of life, and between both the works and the practices of art and intelligence.” It is, therefore, “formed by perceptions, intentions and acts” which will give rise to creations which are socially reified.

Both security culture and national identity are constructions and intertwined. More than this, they are privileged constructions which establish an orthodoxy which, contrary to the old Quaker mission, speaks social, political and economic power to truth. By extension, the practices which follow from them, urged and provoked by the imperatives of security culture.

Security, for its part, is inseparable from that other nation-state invocation—the national, or vital interest—and both enjoy the benefits that obfuscation brings to justifications for the use of force in politics. Where once national and alliance debate concerned defense, and thus, the ability to withstand an attack by a known, territorial rival or enemy, the move to the portmanteau term, security, enabled and encouraged the proliferation of anxieties concerning every aspect of life, and thus of so-called national security budgets to allay them.

Too little thought was given to the possibility that, even in the absence of enemies, the human condition for the great majority of people might still be, for a host of reasons, one of uncertainty, fear, and at best only fleeting happiness. Psychology nevertheless had its victory and national security is now thought to include at least strategic, social, political, economic, ethnic, ideological, religious, and gender security—where security seems to be a sense of perpetual well-being. More accurately, this describes an impossible state of clarity, invulnerability and immortality.

In turn, anything which is thought to bring about this desirable state of affairs is in the national interest; indeed, is a vital interest, unchallengeable and supreme. But here the absurdity of the situation overflows: the constant and cheap supply of Middle Eastern and African oil; the deterioration of living standards in the First World; the immiseration of whole populations in the Third World; the commodification of basic needs such as health, education, and water; the political complexion of democratically-elected Latin American governments; the insistence that microstates in the Southwest Pacific neo-liberalize their economies, and decisions of national governments to set their own foreign exchange rates. All are examples of what is now included in the schedule of national interests by so many countries.

At no stage in the articulation of national security is it thought germane to ask just how this state of affairs was brought about, at what cost, and why, and under what conditions they should continue. Instead, what so often reigns is a subterfuge: What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the tings which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war.

The immediate requirement of this arrangement is that national narratives and discussions of war have to be privileged. Discourse in this context accords with the brief definition of “rule-governed knowledge”: certain texts are “elected” on the grounds of bearing witness to those dominant, or “preferred meanings” that establish an apparently transparent, unmediated historical reality.

Notwithstanding contending narratives, usually at the margins, the dominant discourse is by definition consensually agreed at the popular level, and care is taken to ensure that, as befits a custom made garment of singular importance based on myth, fraying seams are reinforced and loose threads removed by whatever means are available.

This is discourse in action: the deliberate forgetting of social and political events, aided and abetted by those whose interests are served by the persistent evasion of reality—so as to constitute a security culture fundamentalism of noxious certitude and consoling balm against uncertainty and angst, for the credulous.

The resulting state of mind denies paradox and ambiguity and borders on, where it does not spill over, into a fascist certainty which insists, inter alia, “that the death of our own does not originate with ourselves, but is a reluctant response to violence that originates beyond group borders, that is, with others.”

In a phrase, this is a sacralizing project, but that which is sacred extends beyond the Divine Being, and the sacraments of Christian faith, to “objects and phases of life to which the special reverence arising from religions in general. For Emile Durkheim, this comprised the construction of a “totem system,” defined contemporaneously as a “symbolically coherent, deeply primitive, powerfully religious enterprise organized around a violent identity-crystallizing mechanism.” The totem itself is both the emblem of the state’s agreement to be a state, and the foundation of the national security identity. In Durkheim’s words: “It is at once the symbol of the God and of the society.”

Exactly what it is depends on the particular history of the nation-state in question, but the popular understandings of beliefs, flags, events, places and personages come naturally to the fore. In each and every case, they may only be approached, but never fully comprehended. They are ultimately “unknowable, untouchable, and unviewable.” But, under certain conditions, they effect consubstantiation whereby the totem’s power is transferred to other persons and things so that they, too, enjoy its holy status. As Marvin and Ingle remind us: “It is not like religion; it is religion.”

And, as argued by Mary Douglas, the greatest respect that is paid: it is the self-delusion that it is not a social and political construct, but something independent of its creators’ understanding of it; a thing with an autonomous existence. Thus embraced, the nation is a perpetual communicant with the totem and, should it be threatened, or worse, defeated, great restorative sacrifice will be required to prevent its extinction. It is no exaggeration to say that this would be experienced literally as “the death of God.”