Secular Religion: Mosse’s Nationalization of the Masses
The Nationalization of the Masses is not one of George Mosse’s best known works, but it remains a stimulating and relevant analysis of the rise of mass movements in Germany through the nineteenth century and on to the rise of Nazism. Though Mosse’s book remains focused on Germany and, to a lesser degree France and Italy, the questions he raises about mass politics, mass movements, and nationalism have much broader applications.
In a series of posts, I will examine some of the ways this book has stimulated my own research, which is entirely outside of the German context. Mosse’s legacy, while most immediately felt in modern European cultural history, has in fact extended far beyond that field through the support of the George L. Mosse Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a PhD candidate at UW-Madison (2010-2016) researching Christian Zionism, I was able to study in Jerusalem and conduct archival research through the support of the Mosse Exchange Program with the Hebrew University for the 2012-2013 academic year.
A review quotation on the back of the 2001 paperback edition published by Howard Fertig Inc. praises Nationalization as “an important and unique contribution to the literature on nationalism and totalitarianism.” As a historian of American politics and religion, interested in how Protestant religious practices contributed to the politicization of evangelicalism after World War II, I discovered a number of questions raised by Nationalization which helped me conceptualize a recent article on the role of revivalism in evangelical politicization. The first, and perhaps the most pressing question appears in Nationalization’s first pages: what does it mean for a population to become nationalized or politicized?
Early in the book, Mosse indicates his scope and the process he is most interested in explicating: “The new politics [of nationalization of the masses] attempted to draw the people into active participation in the national mystique through rites and festivals, myths and symbols which gave a concrete expression to the general will” (2). Already on page two Mosse has given a few of these phrases – new politics, general will – specific definitions, but the point here is more general. Framing, in the American context, a question based on Mosse’s approach to German nationalization provides the skeleton of a research question: how have rites, festivals, rallies, myths, and symbols provided ways for American evangelicals to concretely express their political agenda in the context of American democratic processes?
While the question of evangelical politicization has received steady attention among historians, especially in the twenty-first century, Mosse’s particular interests in rites and festivals have received less attention in the American context. At once this may seem surprising, but in many ways, the study of American politics diverges from the study of European politics. One possible reason for this, which is more speculation than historiographical intervention, is that the rise of fascism, Nazism, and the much vaster appeal of communism and socialism as political ideologies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe have shaped and sharpened scholarly questions. The idea of American “exceptionalism,” after all, originates in asking why communism failed to appeal to most American workers. That exceptionalism is even more ensconced in American religious history, which remains more beholden to an assumption of separation between religion and politics, though much recent scholarship has pushed against this dichotomy.
Mosse introduces us to mass politicization as a necessary process of the new “secular religion” of Germany. Mosse’s phrase is striking. Its closest American analog, the concept of “civil religion,” carries much less heft than secular religion. In the United States, the iconic civil religion of the early Cold War was a vague “Judeo-Christianity,” ecumenical in temperament and a matter of discourse as much as of institutions. It gave the nation a sense of coherence and purposes in the face of a communist enemy, but its practices and slogans – “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” – were as much products of corporate America, religious America, and partisan politics as they were a coherent theology of religion. Mosse’s secular religion, however, is more defined and more robust. The ideological arguments that went into German national monuments, Volk festivals, and war memorials – as we will see in future posts – appear more central to the German story than the same practices do to an American story.
Of course, this is in part due to the different ends of these stories. The Nazi Party’s “aesthetic of politics” hovers over every page of Nationalization. There is no similar climax in American politics. Even so, Mosse’s focus on political events and ideologically-infused practices has been helpful in looking afresh at how American evangelicals encountered and consumed political ideas. I argue that the revival – an ostensibly spiritual gathering to save individual souls – provides one such venue. My inspiration for treating revivals in this way is owed in part to Mosse’s analysis, and will be the focus of a subsequent post on revivals as political rallies.
Originally published: 2017. 02.06 at 12:41PM