Volume > Issue > Christianity's Great Rival

Christianity’s Great Rival

VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #6

By John Rossi | November 1990
John Rossi is Professor of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. He is Associate Editor of Four Quarters, La Salle's journal of contemporary culture, and author of The Transformation of the British Liberal Party, 1874-1880.

Nationalism: A Religion. By Carlton J.H. Hayes.

Carlton J.H. Hayes (1882-1964), during his 40 years of teaching at Columbia, essentially founded the American study of the historical significance of nationalism. His graduate students carried his ideas to every corner of the country through their writing and teaching, in the process alerting first the scholarly world and then the public to the power of nationalism.

Hayes was more than just a scholar. He was one of the founders of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the author of the first truly popular textbook of European history, The Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe, and finally Ambassador to Franco’s Spain during three crucial years of World War II, 1942-1945. He was also the first Roman Catholic to serve as President of that bastion of WASP elitism, the American Historical Association. His election in December 1944 caused an outcry in certain circles. He was accused of pro-Franco sympathies and his objectivity was questioned on the grounds of his Catholicism. Some of the leading lights of the American historical profession, such as the elder Schlesinger, rallied to Hayes’s defense. Hayes’s presidential address, “American Frontier: Frontier of What?” argued that many of the so-called unique features of American democracy noted by Frederick Jackson Turner in his frontier thesis were rooted in the European past. The paper was typical of Hayes’s work — scholarly, ingenious, and ably written.

But Hayes’s real significance for American intellectual life lies in his many studies of nationalism. His The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (1926) and Essays in Nationalism (1948) defined this area of European studies in America, raising it to a serious theme for investigation. All American research on modern nationalism flowed from his pioneering studies. For almost 50 years American scholars of nationalism, like Boyd Shafer or Lewis Snyder, built upon Hayes’s work. Among Hayes’s contemporaries, only Hans Kohn matched him in originality.

Ten years after his retirement from Columbia, Hayes produced a slim volume that distilled his ideas about nationalism and expanded on one theme that had long fascinated him — the relationship between nationalism and religion. Nationalism: A Religion appeared in 1960 to generally good reviews. It was not a work of original research. In Hayes’s own words, it makes “no pretense to being exhaustive. It is simply a precis, a brief summing up, of what one person, through a lifetime of study, has conceived and learned about nationalism, with special regard to its story in Europe….” The book remains a gem. In 182 crisply written pages, Hayes tells the story of the emergence of nationalism in the modern world and the havoc this “ism” has wreaked during the last two centuries. Every scholar who has underestimated nationalism, every student seeking to grasp what is happening in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union today would profit from Hayes’s little volume.

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