Several things happening lately in our country remind me of a word that made its way into our language in the early 20th century: Balkanization. The term comes, of course, from that region of Eastern Europe known as the Balkans, which includes such countries as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia, among others. Few of us need to be reminded of the terrible bloodshed that has happened in those countries throughout the past hundred years.
Balkanization is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “the breakup of a region or a country into smaller and often hostile units.” The Balkans have had the misfortune to be located “where East meets West” and so have often been torn between differing and warring empires and religions. Their geography on the world’s geopolitical stage has been a tragic curse outside their control.
It is something else again, and something even more tragic, when Balkanization takes root in a country purely on account of its own citizens, preachers and leaders. We forget that the earliest days of European settlement/colonization of North America were marked by quite severe “Balkanization” between strongly disagreeing sects of Protestant Christianity and between the Spanish Catholics to the south and the English Protestants to the north.
History is repeating itself. In the Dec. 29 edition of the online magazine Religion Unplugged, Tracy Simmons has written a piece titled “In Search of Religious Freedom, Christians Flock to North Idaho.” For the past 500 years, Christianity has experienced a number of migrations in the name of religious freedom: The Pilgrims came to Plymouth for that reason; other Christians then moved to Rhode Island and Pennsylvania for the same reason. The Mormons split off from Christianity and moved west to establish their own self-contained community.
The whole resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention and fundamentalist Christianity in America’s South and West in the 20th century was, in effect, a type of self-imposed Balkanization. It was built upon a carefully and emphatically established difference between “us” and “them” and since the 1950s, it has worked in no small degree to divide this nation against itself.
We can see by the political demographics of the 2016 and 2020 elections that this Balkanization process has, indeed, happened. The South and the heartland center of our country are strongly conservative Christian and they are defiantly splitting themselves off from the more multi-cultural and multi-religious states clustered toward the East and West coasts.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Christian Right in America is its strong tendency toward nationalism and even white nationalism. They are not comfortable with the growing racial and religious variety that is the new reality of the United States. Trump has played and preyed on that masterfully during the past five years.
It is no mere accident that nationalism tends toward racism. The word “nation” comes from the Latin root “natus” meaning “born.” From where and from whom one is born is the ultimate basis of nationalism. Race is, technically, a social construct based upon from where and from whom one is born — very similar to nationality.
However, when you start blending nationalism with religion, all sorts of nasty and unexpected things start happening. The early Nazi theorists realized this right away. The true and most original form of religion for the “White Aryan Master Race” could not possibly be Christianity, especially not Catholic Christianity, which was headquartered in Rome and came from Jews in Palestine. The true national religion of northern “Nordic White Aryan” Europeans was declared to be the Norse religion, a form of polytheism. This is why the Nazi Party so often made public use of symbols and images that came directly from Norse mythology. Their use of the swastika came directly from Norse religion, although the symbol appeared much earlier in India.
It is not mere accident that many modern day white supremacists are openly reverting to Viking and Nordic/Germanic polytheistic religion. Many of them call this religion the Asatru Folk Assembly and the movement/neo-pagan ‘church’ was founded in 1994. Their use of the word “Folk” is a pointed reference to the Nazi employment of the German words “Volk” and “Volkische.” The Volkische Movement began in Germany in the 19th century and continued through the Nazi era; it was staunchly nationalistic, populist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.
On Dec. 22 of last year, NBC news covered the story of the Asatru Folk Assembly having bought a recently closed church in Murdock, Minnesota, and making application to establish an Asatru worship house there that would be open only to “white people.” The town itself is upset about it, but the town council found they were legally obligated to approve the permit.
Christian nationalism and neo-pagan white nationalism are both very much present in America today. This is Balkanization of a high order and must be reined in or it will split our country totally apart. Those 20th-century scholars who confidently predicted the death of religions and the secularization of society were flat-out wrong. People have a craving and need for religion. Therefore, the key to social peace is to encourage a religion or religions that foster cooperation and kindness rather than tribal/racial superiority and warfare.
One could argue — and I would tend to agree — that nationalism, polytheism, war and racial superiority theories absolutely go hand in hand. Looking back across human history, it is clear that polytheistic tribal societies were (and remain) constantly at war with each other. To claim otherwise is just romantic fantasy and fallacy — although many armchair amateur anthropologists engage in it.
Also looking into our own European history and the history of Christianity, we find the single largest breakthrough in the early centuries of Christianity came when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity was an accepted religion throughout the empire in the Edict of Milan of 313 CE. And 67 years later, the Edict of Thessalonica made Christianity the only official religion of the empire.
Why did these emperors, and their advisers, do this? Many historians believe it was to help unify the huge empire and encourage warring tribes and regions to lay down their arms and cooperate more — that this was possibly the main reason emperors went in this direction. They were not necessarily motivated by deep spiritual convictions. They had pressing, pragmatic problems of governing to be addressed and shutting down the ancient tribal traditions of warring polytheistic gods was helpful in quelling internecine violence.
Internecine Balkanization always leads to violence. It is to be avoided at all costs. Yet we are letting our country slip further and further in this direction. The problem with our post-modern pluralistic reality, which is so clearly present in American society today, is that it tends to blow a country apart.
Simply waving our flag and chanting we have our individual freedom because “we live in a country ruled by laws” is true enough, but it does not necessarily answer our deeper needs or the deeper needs of society. Laws are cold, heartless things and they cannot, by themselves, provide the kind of glue that binds us together. There has to be something else, something more visceral, more ancient and more spiritual. That thing is religion. Whether we like it or not, it is a fact of life.
Often language itself, when examined carefully, holds answers for deep questions right in front of our eyes. The word “religion” comes from the Latin root “ligo” meaning to bind and connect together, and “religo” meaning to reconnect, to bind again. The Latin word “religio” referred to obligations to family, neighbors, rulers and to the gods and later to God. Making use of religion, most especially Christianity, to do the opposite, to break us apart and make us less connected to each other is a very bad thing — actually a form of Christian heresy. The New Testament makes it very clear that we are to love one another, even our enemies, care for one another, and welcome everyone into our church regardless of place of origin or race or social standing.
We are not the Balkans and we must never allow religion to Balkanize us. This would be an excellent New Year’s resolution for us this year.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.