Chosen Peoples by Anthony D Smith OXFORD £20 (330pp) £18 (plus £2.25 p&p per order) from 0870 800 1122

Beware of God's own countries

We are currently witnessing a worldwide religious revival and a resurgence of national feeling. In some of their manifestations, both these enthusiasms are highly problematic. Chosen Peoples explores the connection between the two. Even though modern nationalism is secularist and a product of the Enlightenment, ideologues have often used the shared belief systems of the past as building blocks when turning disparate populations into a single nation.

In this lucid and wide-ranging study, Anthony D Smith has confined himself to the influence of the Judaeo-Christian ideals on the concept of nation-ality. He notes that nationalism and religion have crucial themes in common: both require faith; both are concerned with the rediscovery of roots and cultivation of the true self. The value of authenticity, so central to the nation, comes close to holiness. Like the sacred, it denotes what is pure, genuine, and so quintessential that it is non-negotiable.

Since both religion and nationalism are concerned with the creation of identity, it is not surprising that they overlap. But Smith also shows that Jewish and Christian themes have been particularly important in nation-building, especially the idea of divine election. Time and again, nations have believed themselves chosen by God for a special covenant or mission. This was true of France from the medieval period. Russians saw their land as having sacred value. The Afrikaners believed that they had been set apart by God, and had entered into a covenant relationship with him, like the people of Israel.

Even nationalists with no religious affiliation have been drawn to the myth of the chosen people. The Zionist enterprise, a defiantly secularist movement, would have been unlikely to put down deep roots among the Jewish people as a whole had the leaders not been able to draw upon biblical notions of election, exile and return. A sacred homeland is another religious resource that has contributed to nation building, as is the longing to realise the spirit of a golden age of heroism and creativity which illustrates the nation at its best.

Finally, the classical and religious ideal of heroic self-sacrifice has helped strengthen national identity. After centuries of devotion to martyrs and heroes, there is widespread belief in the regenerative power of mass and individual sacrifice to ensure the triumph of the people. The war dead are honoured in state shrines. Like any faith, nationalism needs ceremonial and ritual to affirm its common values.

Smith makes a sound case, but no moral judgement about whether this connection between religion and nationalism has been beneficial to humanity. But his account raises disturbing questions. In the Bible, divine election often meant the exclusion and dispossession of others. The Afrikaners' conviction that they were superior to other peoples certainly contributed to apartheid. The American painters who depicted the wilderness as sublime, Edenic and remote made no reference to Native Americans.

The Franks became convinced they were God's chosen people after the slaughter of some 30,000 Jews and Muslims during the conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099. And the veneration of the glorious dead, who lay down their lives for their country, recalls the carnage of the First World War, which could be described as the collective suicide of Europe. The cult of martyrdom cannot but remind us of the suicide bombers and hijackers. Nationalism seems to draw upon some of the worst aspects of religion, an unhealthy blend of denial, chauvinism and aggressive righteousness that is the breeding ground of atrocity.

Karen Armstrong's memoir, 'The Spiral Staircase', is due from HarperCollins