God Bless America: From a National Covenant to the Global War on Terror

Paul James


Religion has always played a role in nation formation, and continues to do so even in these late-modern and post-sacred times. The overall argument of the essay is that the nation formation involves both deep continuities and radical discontinuities with sacredly conceived ways of life. It is not wrong to say that religious evocation is bound up in the will to power, but it is important to recognize that there are much larger social reasons why religion is linked to the name of the nation. This essay thus resonates with Ivan Strenski's article in this volume when he argues that processes of legitimation go deep into the past. However, it adds another claim: namely, that religious evocation works as an act of legitimation because of the very nature of the community (the nation) in whose name the evocation is made. Read though the flickering screen of the globalising and postmodernising nation state with all its contradictions, it is hard to see any continuities-of-form here. The continuities at most appear as surface content, and even then only as points of reference, a Jewish Bible, a Christian cross, a slab of engraved marble. However, the postmodern/late-modern nation has all the ontological vulnerabilities of the prior dominant forms of polity. Despite unprecedented technical power, it still has to legitimize itself, at one level, through basic categories of human existence such as embodiment, placement and temporal transcendence.

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