Beheading the Saint Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec
by Geneviève Zubrzycki
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-39154-0 | Paper: 978-0-226-39168-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-39171-7
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226391717.001.0001


Through much of its existence, Québec’s neighbors called it the “priest-ridden province.” Today, however, Québec society is staunchly secular, with a modern welfare state built on lay provision of social services—a transformation rooted in the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s.
            In Beheading the Saint, Geneviève Zubrzycki studies that transformation through a close investigation of the annual Feast of St. John the Baptist of June 24. The celebrations of that national holiday, she shows, provided a venue for a public contesting of the dominant ethno-Catholic conception of French Canadian identity and, via the violent rejection of Catholic symbols, the articulation of a new, secular Québécois identity. From there, Zubrzycki extends her analysis to the present, looking at the role of Québécois identity in recent debates over immigration, the place of religious symbols in the public sphere, and the politics of cultural heritage—issues that also offer insight on similar debates elsewhere in the world.


Geneviève Zubrzycki is associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


“Zubrzycki’s analysis is a tour de force and a real contribution to visual sociology and the history of material culture. She brilliantly unpacks the cultural and iconographic logics of the various visual symbols and argues convincingly that these iconographic struggles were not merely products of the political and cultural change taking place in Quebec society, but themselves important agents producing the change. Beheading the Saint is beautifully written, splendidly illustrated, based on extensive research, much of it archival, and extremely original. Its subject is one of the most interesting, but insufficiently well-known, social and political transformations of the past half-century. This is a superb book.”
— William H. Sewell, Jr., University of Chicago

“Elaborating the ‘national sensorium’ through which French Canadians became Quebecois in the late twentieth century, Zubrzycki skillfully deploys the tools of sociological, historical, and visual analysis to reveal a new national identity in the making. Zubrzycki’s deep and detailed readings of holidays, parades, symbols, and political debates brilliantly illuminate the contingent dynamic interrelations between nationalism, religion, and secularism. An important book for our own symbolically charged times.”
— Robin Wagner-Pacifici, the New School

“In this richly detailed historical investigation of religion and politics in Quebec, Zubrzycki provides an impressive new approach to the study of visual culture, identity transformation, and symbolic politics. Beheading the Saint is a major theoretical and methodological contribution to the study of culture, religion, and nationalism.”
— Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University

“In Beheading the Saint, Zubrzycki offers a fascinating analysis of how French Canadians became Québécois at the speed of light. She also provides a much-needed non-reductivist analysis of the unfolding of chains of signification that transform collective identity. This book will be of great interest to an interdisciplinary audience aiming to understand the changing relationship between secularism and nationalism at the level of narratives and experiences.”
— Michèle Lamont, Harvard University

“An unprecedentedly nuanced account.”
— Times Higher Education

“The dramatic nature of social change in Quebec is a fascinating story skillfully told by Geneviève Zubrzycki in this beautifully written and deeply researched book. . . .Zubrzycki’s analytical attention to visual materials is exemplary. . . .A must-read for anyone interested in religion, nationalism, culture, politics, and research methods.”
— Sociology of Religion

“Religion and nationalism can be intermingled in various and ever-changing ways based on the course of sociopolitical as well as cultural-symbolic contentions. Zubrzycki’s work is proof that historical sociological perspectives have a lot to say on the matter.”
— Trajectories

“Zubrzycki’s contributions are methodological as well as historiographical. . . .Zubrzycki provides a model for how to incorporate the intuitions of the new materialists into cultural analysis. . . .Of particular note is Zubrzycki’s emphasis on the aesthetic logic of political contestation. . . .Beheading the Saint shows us what is to be gained from going back around the corner again to retrieve material culture.”
— Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“Zubrzycki demonstrates fluency in multiple scholarly conversations, offering a historically embedded examination of the complex ways in which the meanings of Quebecois or French Canadian modes of identification are articulated, practiced, reproduced, and subverted. . . .Beheading the Saint offers an insightful account of religion and nationalism that is teachable and exceeds the specifics of the Quebecois case.”
— American Journal of Sociology


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226391717.003.0001
[quiet revolution;Quebec;secularization;cultural sociology;materiality studies]
The book’s introduction presents the case and the empirical questions, discusses the theoretical framework and methodology, and specifies the book’s three main objectives: The first is theoretical and aims to interpret the role of religious and secular ideologies and practices in the making of national identity and its transformation. The second objective is empirical: it seeks to highlight the role of symbolic politics in shaping new identities and advancing institutional transformations. The third objective of Beheading the Saint is to provide a methodological blueprint for a visual and material sociology of identity transformation.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226391717.003.0002
[Patriots' Rebellions;clerical nationalism;Catholic Church;St John the Baptist;St-Jean-Baptiste]
Chapter 2 discusses the construction of Catholic French Canadian identity in the mid-nineteenth century and its narrative elaboration in the figure of St. John the Baptist. The chapter discusses the broad historical and political contexts in which the ethno-religious vision of French-Canadianness was discursively articulated and analyzes the narrative’s iconic embodiment in the Saint by looking at his representations in popular iconography and performances in nineteenth-century processions and twentieth-century parades. The author explains why and how that specific vision of national identity flourished, becoming the dominant version of national identity from the mid-nineteenth century until the Quiet Revolution.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226391717.003.0003
[Quiet Revolution;Québécois nationalism;St-Jean-Baptiste Parades;protests;aesthetic revolt]
Chapter 3 analyzes debates about the traditional representation of the Saint and the parades in his honor. As the site of performance and subversion of an established national narrative embodied in the saint, parades providing the stage for the spectacular articulation of new secular national identity in the 1960s. Because St. John the Baptist embodied the dominant national vision, and the celebrations on his name day pictorially narrated that vision in elaborate allegorical floats and tableaux vivants moving through public space, the saint became the object of protests through which social actors and political contenders performed and ultimately transformed their national identity in the 1960s. The vehicle of these protests was the parade itself. The material form of the saint and of his core attributes fomented a debate about national identity and religion in the public sphere, and the altering of the physical aspect of the icon—its iconoclastic unmaking through what I call an aesthetic revolt—was a turning point in the articulation of a new, secular national identity in Québec.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226391717.003.0004
[fête nationale;national sovereignty;referendum;Meech Lake Accord]
Chapter 4 tackles the aftermath of the dramatic end to the parade and the institutionalization of the new Québécois identity, still very much a work in progress. Drawing on a range of archival sources as well as on participant observation, the chapter examines the making of that new identity through a reconfiguration of the St-Jean-Baptiste holiday as la Fête nationale, a religio-secular hybrid. It also considers the impact of the 1980 and 1995 referenda as well as the failed Meech Accord of 1989.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226391717.003.0005
[nationalism;secularism;cultural heritage;reasonable accommodations;Charter of Values;crucifix]
In chapter 5 the author turns her attention to the relationship between religious symbols, cultural patrimony, and secularism in an analysis of the debates over “reasonable accommodation” and the Charter of Values/Charter of Secularism proposed in 2013, finding trances of the ghostly presence of Catholicism in Québec society.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226391717.003.0006
The final chapter of the book summarizes the arguments and discusses the findings.