I recently received the first copy of my new book, God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (Rutgers UP) and in an attempt both to shamelessly promote it and to place it in some context, I am going to write a few posts related to the resurgence of civil religion in recent books.
While the touchstone for most discussions of *American* civil religion is Robert Bellah’s famous 1967 essay in Daedelus entitled, “Civil Religion in America,” the foundation for the philosophical understanding of civil religion is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract Book IV, chapter 8. Recently, the political theorist Ronald Beiner wrote a book length study of the term through the political philosophy of four dominant traditions: the original proposal of domesticating religion through a civil-religion in Machiavelli, Hobbs, and Rousseau; the liberal tradition from Spinoza to Rawls; the modern theocratic tradition represented by de Maistre and Schmidt; and the postmodern theism of Nietzsche and Heidegger. As I read through Beiner’s well-explicated treatment of civil religion, I was struck time and again by the clarity of Beiner’s definition of the term and the ambiguity of what the term has implied over time. For example, Beiner notes very early on that all the thinkers he profiles while contributing to the “radical secularization of modern politics,” have expressed “not a little sympathy for some manner of theocracy.” The twist here, of course, what kind of “theocracy”? Certainly not Christian or Muslim or Jewish but civil religious. Giants of western modern western philosophy have all pondered how best to appropriate religion by politics for their own purposes. As Beiner explains: “Civil religion is the empowerment of religion, not for the sake of religion, but for the sake of enhanced citizenship–of making members of the political community better citizens, in accordance with whatever conception one holds of what constitutes being a good citizen.”(2)
Rousseau believed, as Beiner establishes forcefully, “a state has never been founded without religion serving as its base.” But to what end? After all, “the religion that dominates Western political communities is in radical tension with the needs of political authority,” Beiner argues, “yet religious profession of some kind is indispensable for a sound political order.” To Beiner, it is Rousseau’s inability to resolve this tension between politics and religion that demonstrates both the philosophical allure of civil religion and the many unsatisfying versions of it. The tension is unresolvable and therefore the term, while relatively easy to define, is frustratingly impossible to realize in practice. In Rousseau’s mind, a “real” civil religion would require the practical application of a transcendent politics. Beiner points out the obvious contradiction–“we are left with two unhappy alternatives of a morally true religion that is in its essence subversive to politics, and a sound civil religion that is both morally unattractive and, historically, an anachronism.”(14)
The alternative to Rousseau’s unresolved contradiction is Machiavelli’s paganization of Christianity. Beiner writes: “What Machiavelli is saying to us is that it remains open to us as a civilization (or to some enterprising innovator within our civilization) to reinterpret Christianity in such a way that is secures the political advantages that the Romans were so adept at exploiting through a judicious manipulation of religious beliefs and practices.”(20) Rousseau and Machiavelli represent the two most widely understood versions of civil religion–neither is acceptable to true believers of religion and yet neither can be realized without some version of belief in religion. Robert Bellah’s innovation was to couple a Rousseauian version of civil religion with Durkheim’s milder version of Machiavelli’s faith in ritual over abstract belief.
I have done very limited justice to Beiner’s expansive reading of the civil religion discourse, but would like to conclude this particular post with a nod to an ongoing conversation at this blog. I have suggested in the past that the debate over American civil religion can be fruitfully understood in conjunction with (if not as an alternative) to the culture wars of the last 40 years. Beiner points out that Machiavelli proposed a civil religion for his own period of culture wars. In Machiavelli’s Discourses, Beiner relates that a central theme is the contrast between founding and refounding or “how one restores a set of institutions to their original principles over against the inescapable process of decay and decrepitude to which earthly institutions are subject.”(21) Indeed, in my work on American civil religion, the use of real war (in Machiavelli’s design, priests and philosophers as well as warriors and generals) attempted to refound the nation in successive generations. As the American version of the culture wars were being waged over the role of women, the limits of marriage, the definition of art, etc., there were wars of sacrifice that consistently revealed how both armed and unarmed prophets (both warriors and pacifists) pushed refoundings of the nation. And just like the culture wars, the key to the longevity of the debate over the refounding of the nation lie in the realization Rousseau made regarding civil religion–it is, as Beiner concludes, “a paradox rather than a proposal.”(18)