Regulating Difference

Religious Diversity and Nationhood in the Secular West

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Marian Burchardt
  • New Brunswick, NJ: 
    Rutgers University Press
    , January
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The question of religious diversity is one that has received more attention in the last few years, as executive orders targeting Muslim-majority countries sought to exclude migrants on the basis of religious affiliation. But in the ensuing discussions about this development, it was less clear why religious diversity was in fact desirable or how religious affiliation relates to the legitimacy of a migrant’s application or for an asylee’s claims. What is the relationship between religious identity, migration, and national identity?

In Regulating Difference: Religious Diversity and Nationhood in the Secular West, Marian Burchardt builds on two very different case studies—that of Catalonia and Quebec—to explore the ways in which religious diversity and nationhood intersect. These two stories, despite their different histories, are drawn together by their desire to create a cohesive regional identity over against their country (Spain and Canada), the ways in which public arguments over migrant religion became important features of those public struggles, and how their inherited religious heritage informs their attitudes and approaches to the religious identity of migrants. Counterintuitively, Burchardt argues that religious diversity can become central, rather than a deterrent, to nationalist projects (3).

The stories of Quebec and Catalonia begin in self-consciously different places: Quebec, in 1975, began to enact an explicitly secularist trajectory, while Catalonia took the opposite approach, moving away from an anticlericalist posture and embracing religion in multiple public forms. Secularity was present not only as a way to value the rights and liberties of all members of the nation, but as a way to balance religious diversity, integrate all persons into the nation, and allow all institutional aspects of the nation to develop without linking their development to one religious vision. It is through these multiple forms of secularity, which negated a link between confessional identity and national identity, that made it possible to both welcome of religious forms alien to the nation, and to integrate the immigrant into a cohesive national project.

The degree to which the region was invested in secularism as the national identity (as opposed to a functional position which allowed for religious difference) was related to whether the nation struggled to incorporate religious identity as anything beyond opinions. In Quebec, for example, the commitment to secularism as a national identity was intrinsic to its history of Quebec freeing itself from its Catholic colonial past. As such, any thick religious public display, such as the wearing of the hijab, public prayers, or public processionals, were seen as being at odds with commitments to laicity. In Catalonia, by contrast, laicity meant simply opposing Catholic privilege, not denying the public presence of religion by migrants.

The nation’s relationship to new religious bodies was not mediated directly by laws concerning what kinds of confessions a Catalonian or Canadian resident could hold, but by laws concerning public assembly and the relationships of religious communities to elected officials. It is through these bureaucratic arrangements that religious bodies were not only included, but that these cultures began to change their host nations’ understanding of their national culture and history. As religious minority groups began to engage in public ways, they provoked new discussions about the relationship between a nation’s heritage and religions. In Quebec, for example, though officially secularized, church buildings and religious patrimony were upheld as a way to value Quebec’s history and national heritage, though not as the philosophical framework for how the nation operated. Likewise, the presence of Islamic migrants in Catalonia prompted new discussions about how to structurally instantiate religious pluralism as something other than an idea about rights.

Burchardt’s study is illuminating in that it offers new frameworks for thinking about the relationship between national identity and religious identity. By examining the procedural and governmental frameworks that both enable and inhibit the inclusion of religious migrants, his study offers a needed corrective to studies that look to philosophical concepts such as “rights” to understand what it means for religious migrants to belong to a nation. But beyond this contribution, Burchardt’s study provides a textured account of the ways in which religious migrants alter the host nation’s account of itself: new uses are made of religious histories that might have otherwise been discarded, and new rules emerge that require national members to commit to their ethos not just as ideas but as policies, tax structures, and forms of governance.

The comparison of two Western countries coming out of a predominantly Catholic past is a logical choice. It would have been too far afield, comparatively, to include a country that had a constitutionally supported religious identity to explore how migrant inclusion operated. But the limits of this particular study are one of its strengths, producing grounded reflections on the ways in which religious practices (as opposed to doctrines) rework notions of nationalism in ways that require nations to honestly contend with religious histories they would rather dismiss.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marian Burchardt is a professor of sociology at the University of Leipzig. He is the author of Faith in the Time of AIDS: Religion, Biopolitics and Modernity in South Africa.


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