Language and religion are arguably the two most socially and politically consequential domains of cultural difference in the modern world. Yet there have been very few efforts to compare the two in any sustained way. I begin by aligning language and religion, provisionally, with ethnicity and nationhood, and by sketching five ways in which language and religion are both similar to and similarly intertwined with ethnicity and nationhood. I then identify a series of key differences between language and religion and draw out their implications for the political accommodation of cultural heterogeneity. I show that religious pluralism tends to be more intergenerationally robust and more deeply institutionalised than linguistic pluralism in western liberal democracies, and I argue that religious pluralism entails deeper and more divisive forms of diversity. The upshot is that religion has tended to displace language as the cutting edge of contestation over the political accommodation of cultural difference – a striking reversal of the longer-term historical process through which language had previously displaced religion as the primary focus of contention.
Nations and Nationalism, Volume 19, Issue 1, pages 1–20, January 2013