Nation States and the Rise of Tolerance

The following excerpt is adapted from a chapter in Scruton’s excellent book, The West and the Rest

It is, in my view, impossible to understand the French Revolution if one does not see it as primarily a religious phenomenon. The inner compulsion was to dethrone the gods of the monarchical order, and to erect a new community in its place—but a community demanding sacrifice, devotion, and slaughter, establishing a right to obedience through the spilling of blood. The leading revolutionary St-Just could say, in 1794, that a republic “is constituted by the total destruction of that which is opposed to it,” so abolishing at a stroke the century of political thinking that had finally come to fruition in revolutionary France.

Membership, as St-Just’s remark makes clear, means the establishment of a “we,” and the easiest way to invent this “we” is through a fight to the death with “them.” The French Revolution was prodigal of opponents—some of them real, as in the Vendée uprising, some of them imaginary, like the quasi-supernatural émigrés, crystallizing now in this person or club or gathering, now in that, and everywhere the object of the most violent suspicion and enmity. There is no need to dwell on the parallels with subsequent revolutionary movements and their demons: the émigrés were simply the first in a long line of victims—kulaks, Jews, the bourgeoisie—prepared as sacrificial offerings on behalf of a new form of social membership.

It is from a deficit of membership that the urge to revolution arises, and when people are hungry for membership, collective violence issues as a matter of course.

The French Revolution sought to replace one religion with another: hence its fanaticism and exterminatory zeal. But the new religion of the nation was demonic, fraught with contradiction and self-hatred, with no power to survive. It quickly gave way to the Napoleonic project of empire, through which violence was externalized and a rule of law re-established at home. In place of the attempt to build a religious form of membership with the nation as the Supreme Being, there came the desire for a political form of membership, in which the nation was the precondition of citizenship rather than the object of worship.

France emerged from Bonaparte’s defeat as a territorial jurisdiction based in national identity, rather than in a religion or a crown. Though both religion and monarchy had been restored under Bonaparte’s regime, in altered and republicanized versions, it was the code napoléon and its promise of equal citizenship that confirmed the new identity of France. France gained what America had effortlessly bestowed on itself thirty years earlier: a concept of citizenship within a sovereign state ruled by a secular law.

From Monarchs and Religions to Customs and Places

Gradually, throughout the nineteenth century, this concept was spread across Europe; but it was spread because of a growing recognition among the peoples of Europe that their social membership was a matter of language, custom, and place, rather than religion or monarchical obedience. And where monarchies retained their hold over the sentiments of the people, it was where they were identified with a place, a language, and a legal order, as in Britain, Holland, and Scandinavia.

Now there are a great many differences between the American, the British, and the European forms of national loyalty. But they are all associated with territorial concepts of sovereignty and law, and secular ideas of citizenship. Which of these comes first in the order of things—national loyalty or territorial jurisdiction—is a matter of dispute. There are many who follow Lord Acton in arguing that nations are invented by the states that require them—that the new experience of membership has the function of legitimizing the new kind of legal order, and that this in some way explains its existence. Some think that this is especially true of those nations born from the disintegration of colonial administrations, in which it is necessary for the artificial boundaries to be attached to “imagined communities” that will engender a new experience of legitimacy. Such is the theory given by Benedict Anderson in a now widely acknowledged study. But it is a theory that only partially explains the emergence of nationhood in the Czech lands, in Poland, or in Germany. In any case, it is not pertinent to my theme to linger over this disputed question.

The point that I wish to emphasize is that the emergence of the modern Western state, in which jurisdiction is defined over territory, supported by secular conceptions of legitimacy, and associated with the rights and duties of citizenship, has also coincided with the emergence of a special kind of pre-political loyalty, which is that of the nation, conceived as a community of neighbors sharing language, customs, territory, and a common interest in defense. The nation-state did not come about painlessly, nor did it dispense with the need for those visceral attachments which enable people to call on the sacrifices that make communities durable. Nevertheless it was, until recently, the normal form in which Enlightenment ideas of legitimate government presented themselves. It is through the idea of the nation, therefore, that we should understand the pre-political loyalty presupposed in the contractarian view of citizenship.

National Loyalty vs. Religions Obedience

National loyalty does not rule out religious obedience. The nations of Europe began life as Christian communities, and the boundaries between them often mark out long-standing religious divides—usually between Catholic and Protestant, though in some places between Catholic and Orthodox, or even Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, once the national idea gains ascendancy, religion is gradually reshaped in terms of it—which is why we distinguish Greek from Russian Orthodox, for example, or the Anglican from the Scandinavian forms of Protestant Christianity. The English experience is particularly important, since it involved the wholesale subordination of the priesthood to the head of state, himself regarded as bound by a territorial law that preceded his accession and also confirmed it.

nation state home to tolerance


In America religion has been a vital force in building the nation. The initial unity of faith among the Pilgrim Fathers rapidly disintegrated, however, and while religious worship remains an important feature of the American experience, freedom of conscience has been guaranteed from the beginning by the Bill of Rights. This does not mean that America is a secular nation, or that religion has no part to play in establishing the legitimacy of American institutions. It means, rather, that all the many religions of America are bound to acknowledge the authority of the territorial  law, and that each renounces the right to intrude on the claims of the state. Furthermore, these religions come under pressure to divert their emotional currents into the common flow of patriotic sentiment: the God of the American sects speaks with an American accent.

The patriotism that upholds the nation-state may embellish itself with far-reaching and even metaphysical ideas, like the theories of race and culture that derive from Herder, Fichte, and the German romantics. But it might just as easily rest content with a kind of mute sense of belonging—an inarticulate experience of neighborliness—founded in the recognition that this place where we live is ours. This is the patriotism of the village, of the rural community, and also of the city street, and it has been a vital force in the building of modern America. Indeed, in the last analysis, national identity, like territorial jurisdiction, is an outgrowth of the experience of a common home.

Nation and Home

The American and English sense of being “at home” in the mother country is therefore amplified by the legal culture, whose rules are seen as procedures for those who share a common territory. If that territory contains people whose religion differs from mine, or whose way of life diverges from anything that I would envisage for myself and my family, and if nevertheless they live by the rules and obey the legal requirements of our common housekeeping, I am obliged to tolerate their customs. Indeed, in these circumstances, a culture of toleration emerges of its own accord, and that is why the nation-state, which to many who study only its degenerate and belligerent forms seems a threat to Enlightenment values, is really the best guarantee that we have of a regime of toleration. For it is the transcription into political and sovereign form of the experiences of territorial loyalty and territorial law.

National loyalty arises only under certain conditions, however, the most important of which is the presence of a common language. And it is threatened by too great an attachment to exclusive ways of life, to militant religions, and to customs that invade the public space and privatize it in the interests of this or that inwardly turned sectarian feeling. One of the great difficulties facing Western societies today is that of integrating immigrant communities into a form of life that perceives exclusion, militancy, and public displays of religious apartness as threats to the experience of membership. And the perception here is self-confirming. That which is perceived as a threat becomes a threat.

Such is the nature of home.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, public commentator and author of over 40 books

Images by Kelly Searle and Carolyn V via Unsplash.

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