Ever since Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, analysts have turned to religion for some answers, separating the message about Vladimir Putin’s intentions and the war. Putin’s nationalist vision portrays Russia as a defender of traditional Christian values against a liberal, secular West.
Putin’s Russia, however, is only the latest in a centuries-long line of nations using religion to fuel their political ambitions. As a Jesuit priest and scholar of Catholicism, I have observed in my research on nationalism and religion how patriotic allegiance and religious belief readily borrow each other’s language, symbols, and sentiments.
Western Christianity, including Catholicism, is often listed as arousing patriotic fervor in support of nationalism. Historically, a distinctive aspect of the Catholic approach has been to link devotion to the Virgin Mary to the interests of the state and military.
birth of a faith
An Egyptian papyrus fragment from the 4th century is the first clear evidence of Christians praying to the Virgin Mary. The brief prayer, which seeks Mary’s protection in times of distress, is written in the first-person plural – using language such as “ours” and “we” – which suggests the belief that Mary can communicate with groups of people. – Will also respond to individuals.
This belief appeared to grow in later centuries. After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD, the new faith developed a close relationship with his empire, including the belief that Mary paid special attention to the capital of Constantinople.
Political and religious leaders asked the Virgin for victory in war and shelter from adversity. In 626 AD, Constantinople was besieged by the Persian Navy. Christians believed that their prayer to the Virgin destroyed the invading fleet, saving the city and its inhabitants. The Akathist hymn, which has since been prayed in both the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, gives Mary the military title of “Champion General” in thanks for that victory.
In the Catholic West, military successes such as the European victory over the Ottoman Empire were attributed to Mary’s intervention. His blessings are sought on imperialist efforts, including Spain’s conquest of America.
Even today, Marie holds the title of general in the armies of Argentina and Chile, where she is considered a national protector. The same connection between Marian devotion and patriotism can be found in many Latin American countries.
Outside of the battlefield, many Catholic cultures have historically felt that they had a special relationship with Mary. In 1638, King Louis XIII formally dedicated France to the Virgin Mary. After 23 years of waiting for a male heir, popular belief interpreted the birth of the future Louis XIV as a miraculous reward for Mary.
Nearly two decades later, the Polish king Jan II Kazimierz dedicated his country to Mary in the midst of the war. Both acts reflected the beliefs of church and political leaders that their countries had a sacred mission and divine approval for their political ambitions.
When such beliefs become widespread in a society, many scholars refer to them as religious nationalism – although there is a long-standing debate about when affection for one’s country becomes “nationalism”. However, there is widespread agreement that religion is one of the most common elements of nationalism, and many nationalist projects have invoked Mary’s blessing.
For example, Polish territory was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria for more than a century. But Polish Catholics continued to address Mary as “Queen of Poland”. Its title emphasized the existence of the Polish people as a nation. And it was meant to be a heavenly assistant in efforts to re-establish Poland as a sovereign country.
Similarly, in the 19th century, Queen Victoria and the Virgin Mary were both referred to as “Queen of Ireland” in different contexts, expressing two rival views of Ireland: part of the Protestant United Kingdom, or A separate and essentially Catholic country.
Many different movements have used the figure of the Virgin to support their agendas. In colonial Mexico, the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a title for Mary, was originally interpreted as a champion of the Spanish native “criollos”. During the 1810–21 War of Mexican Independence, “La Guadalupana” was put on the banner of the “Independence” forces. Meanwhile, the Spanish army adopted “Virgin of Los Remedios”, another title for Mary, as its own patron. He would later be invited to support indigenous peoples and mestizos, both indigenous and people of Spanish ancestry.
Mary is invoked not only for nationalist reasons. Sometimes she is the inspiration for counter-cultural or protest movements, from pro-life causes to Latina feminists. Labor leader Cesar Chavez carried the image of Guadalupe on banners as his organization marched for farmers’ rights.
All of these experiments are based on the ancient belief in the power of Mary to intervene in times of trouble. However, ideological, political and especially military ambitions and religious sentiment are an unstable mix. As the current war in Ukraine shows, allegiance to one’s nation, especially when it claims Christian inspiration, can inspire both imperialist expansionism and heroic resistance to it.
This makes a better understanding of religious nationalism immediately important, especially for the Church. Popes of the twentieth and 21st centuries have condemned aggressive nationalism but have not clearly defined it.
In cultures that are largely secular, appeals to Mary’s protection or claims that she has a special relationship with a single nation are now likely to appear archaic, outlandish or sectarian. But everything I know about both Marian devotion and national identity has convinced me that ancient patterns often survive and reinvent themselves in new times and places.
Even where the practice of Catholicism has declined, the cultural significance of Mary remains strong. And religion remains a regular element of many nationalist agendas.
My guess is that we haven’t seen the last of the Warrior Virgins.