Which is more important to national identity, language or religion?

John Myhill (University of Haifa, Israel):


An analysis of essentially all of the nationalist movements in Europe and the Middle East shows that the answer to this question depends in each case upon historical factors, and, in relation to this, whether the religious affiliation in question was originally national or universal. For example, nationalities which developed in the 16th century on the basis of Protestant national churches--the English, the Dutch, the Danes, and the Swedes--could not be combined with Catholics on the basis of linguistic commonality to form a single nationality, which is why the United Kingdom and the United Netherlands fell apart; on the other hand, in cases where Protestantism was adopted by part of the population but a national church did not develop, as with the Germans, the Czechs, and the Hungarians, it was possible to unite Protestants and Catholics into a single nationality on the basis of a common language. Similarly, in cases where Orthodox national churches developed in premodern times--the Bulgarians, the Serbs, the Greeks, and the Russians--these nationalities could not be combined with speakers of the same language with different religious affiliation, which is why Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s along religious lines, while on the other hand when Orthodox populations did not form a national church in premodern times, modern nationalities could be formed on the basis of language by combining Orthodox with Catholics, as with the Belarusians, the Ukrainians, and the Romanians, or by combining Orthodox with Catholics and Muslims, as with the Albanians. This theory is also applied to Middle Eastern nationalities to explain conflicts in the past and to predict what will happen in this regard in the future.