Scottish Nationalism: Good or Bad for the Church?

Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon announced new plans to hold a referendum on Scottish independence by the end of 2023. Scottish Christians were passionately involved in both sides of the debate during the referendum of 2014, and will no doubt play a similar role in the next one. 

What is noteworthy, however, is what the Scottish Government’s last white paper on independence – Scotland’s Future – had to say – or not say – about the Church, religion, and many of the questions that Christians ask about Scotland and their place within it. In Scotland’s Future, apart from the reassurance that all basic rights and freedoms will be protected, there is only one substantive reference to religion toward the end of the document on page 564. In a Q&A section we find the following:

590. What will be the position of churches and religion in an

independent Scotland?

We propose no change to the legal status of any religion or

of Scotland’s churches.

To most Scots, this fleeting reference to religion will be sufficient, given that most of our neighbours have little interest in religion. Yet to Christians it raises many questions: how did religion become so marginal to the life of our nation that it is barely mentioned in the Scottish Government’s vision for our nation? How did Scotland – once famed for its religious zeal, missionary activity, and fraught debate over Church and State – become so indifferent to religion?

These questions become even more pressing when we consider the near universal connection between political nationalism and religion. Whether in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, and parts of the US, there is close connection to this day between nationalism and faith, while countless other examples from history – such as the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland during Soviet days – could also be cited. As such, why is Scottish nationalism so areligious? What’s going on?

In Mission in Contemporary Scotland, I agree with McCrone and other writers that a seismic change has taken place in the Scots’ national identity, one which has side-lined religion:

In previous centuries, the churches served as the primary agents for unity and identity in Scotland, whether this be Roman Catholic or Protestant. Yet while faith created unity within these religious groups, it also became a source of conflict between them. Whatever the merits of these forms of religious identity, because of the changes recounted in earlier chapters – chiefly secularisation and the privatisation of faith –  religion can no longer perform this unifying function for the majority of Scots. The result of this is that as religion has declined in importance as a source of unity and identity, so the role of national pride has increased. As McCrone puts it, ‘Just as religion had been losing its force as a key emblem of identity and political behaviour, so nationalism grew in importance.’

And later:

Nationalism offers the possibility of a new political movement that supersedes the old conflicts between socialism and capitalism, Protestant and Roman Catholic, a politics for the new Scotland, that unites Scots around the one thing they have in common: Scotland itself.

In the book, I explore these issues in more detail, and explain how we got to this point. I also make the slightly controversial argument that elements of Scottish nationalism – whether associated with the SNP or not – are examples of a secularised Christian eschatology. Elements of Scottish nationalism retain Calvinism’s belief in the Scots as a small but significant nation, who are destined to bless the world through their righteousness. Today, however, the Scots are not a covenanted people seeking a godly commonwealth, but a moral people seeking a progressive nation, one in which individuals are liberated to be their authentic selves, free from family, society and tradition.

The Old Scotland of Protestantism, Queen and Empire is gone, and many will not mourn its passing. But if religion plays such a small role in the national consciousness of our country, where does that leave the Church? Does it liberate us to be ourselves and serve our neighbours without hypocrisy or compromise, or does it leave us irrelevant to public life? Should the Church support this secular eschatology or critique it? What role – if any – does the Church have in relation to the State? These and many other questions are addressed further in the book, but what do you think? Is nationalism good or bad for the Church, or is that even the right question to ask?

3 thoughts on “Scottish Nationalism: Good or Bad for the Church?

    1. Thanks Edward. I enjoyed reading the little book that Christians for Independence produced recently. There is a fine history in Scotland of thinking about the relation between Church, nation and state, and a Christian case for an independent Scotland can certainly be made.


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