THE CONVERSATION — Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, analysts analyzing Vladimir Putin’s motivations and messages about the war have turned to religion for some of the answers. Putin’s nationalist vision paints Russia as a defender of traditional Christian values against a liberal, secular West.
Putin’s Russia, however, is just the latest in a centuries-old line of nations using religion to bolster their political ambitions. As a Jesuit priest and scholar of Catholicism, I have seen in my research on nationalism and religion how patriotic loyalties and religious faith readily borrow each other’s language, symbols, and emotions.
Western Christianity, including Catholicism, has often been enlisted to stir up patriotic fervor in favor of nationalism. Historically, a typical aspect of the Catholic approach is to link devotion to the Virgin Mary to the interests of the state and the military.
The birth of a belief
A 4th-century Egyptian papyrus fragment is the first clear evidence of Christian prayer to the Virgin Mary. The brief prayer, which asks for Mary’s protection in difficult times, is written in the first person plural – using language like “our” and “we” – suggesting a belief that Mary would respond to groups of people. as well as to individuals.
This conviction seemed to grow over the following centuries. After Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, the new faith developed a close relationship with his empire, including the belief that Mary looked with particular favor on the capital city of Constantinople.
Political and religious leaders asked the Virgin to win the battle and to take shelter from the plagues. In 626 AD, Constantinople was besieged by a Persian navy. The Christians believed that their prayers to the Virgin destroyed the invading fleet, saving the city and its inhabitants. The Akathist hymn, which has been prayed in Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches ever since, gives Mary the military title of “General Champion” in thanks for this victory.
In the Catholic West, military successes such as European victories over the Ottoman Empire have been attributed to the intervention of Mary. His blessing was sought in imperialist ventures, including the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Even today, Marie holds the title of general in the armies of Argentina and Chile, where she is considered a national patroness. The same association between Marian devotion and patriotism is found in many Latin American countries.
Outside of the battlefield, many Catholic cultures have historically felt they have a special relationship with Mary. In 1638, King Louis XIII officially consecrated France to the Virgin Mary. Popular belief interpreted the subsequent birth of the future Louis XIV as Mary’s miraculous reward, after 23 years of waiting for a male heir.
About two decades later, Polish King Jan II Kazimierz dedicated his country to Mary in the midst of a war. Both of these acts reflected the beliefs of religious and political leaders that their countries had a sacred mission and divine approval for their political ambitions.
When these types of beliefs become widespread in a society, many scholars refer to them as religious nationalism – although there is a long-standing debate over when affection for one’s country becomes “nationalism”. There is, however, a broad consensus that religion is one of the most common elements of nationalism, and many nationalist projects have invoked Mary’s blessing.
Polish territory, for example, was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria for more than a century. But Polish Catholics continued to address Mary as the “Queen of Poland”. Its title affirmed the existence of the Polish people as a nation. And that implied that efforts to restore Poland as a sovereign country had heavenly help.
Similarly, in the 19th century, Queen Victoria and the Virgin Mary were referred to in different contexts as the “Queen of Ireland”, expressing two rival visions of Ireland: part of the Protestant United Kingdom or a separate and essentially Catholic.
Many different movements have used the figure of the Virgin to support their programs. In colonial Mexico, the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a title for Mary, was originally interpreted as a champion of the “criollos”, inhabitants of Spanish descent. During the Mexican War of Independence of 1810-21, “la Guadalupana” appeared on the banners of the “independence” forces. The Spanish military, meanwhile, adopted the “Virgin of Los Remedios”, another title for Mary, as their own patroness. She would later be invoked to support indigenous peoples and mestizos, people of both indigenous and Spanish ancestry.
Mary is not only invoked by nationalist causes. At times, she is a source of inspiration for counter-cultural or protest movements, from pro-life causes to Latin feminists. Labor leader Cesar Chavez placed Guadalupe’s image on banners as his organization marched for farmworker rights.
All of these uses are based on the ancient belief in the power of Mary to intervene in difficult times. However, ideological, political and especially military ambitions and religious sentiment are a volatile mix. As the current war in Ukraine shows, allegiance to one’s nation, especially when it claims to be Christian-inspired, can inspire both imperialist expansionism and heroic resistance against it.
This makes a better understanding of religious nationalism of urgent importance, especially for the church. The popes of the 20th and 21st centuries condemned aggressive nationalism but did not clearly define it.
In largely secularized cultures, appeals for Mary’s protection or assertions that she has a special relationship with a given nation are now likely to sound archaic, extravagant, or bigoted. But what I know of both Marian devotion and national identity has convinced me that old patterns often survive and reassert themselves in new times and places.
Even where the practice of Catholicism is in decline, the cultural significance of Mary remains strong. And religion continues to be a regular feature of many nationalist programs.
Guess we haven’t seen the last of the Warrior Maiden.
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