U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Civil Religion: The Revival of a Slippery Term

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)

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Congratulations Ray! I can’t wait to read your book.

    So I’m obviously curious about how your historical analysis of civil religion overlaps with the culture wars. Do Americans have competing notions of civil religion, a la Rousseau and Machiavelli, and is this part of what divides us? Or do some Americans practice civil religion, and others avoid it and instead seek out alternative political and epistemological foundations–and is this division what forms the culture wars? Genuinely curious.

  2. Two comments.

    1) It’s no accident that Machiavelli and Rousseau are the main progenitors of the concept of civil religion. Both were profoundly influenced by classical antiquity, where they found (or so they thought) civic cults which buttressed the state without subverting it by the doctrinal and sectarian strife of Christianity. The extent to which early modern political theory is a reaction against (the post-Reformation politicization of) Christianity really can’t be overstated.

    2) But that leads me to ask this question. To what extent is the idea of civil religion by necessity a post-Reformation phenomenon? Or to put it another way, could someone have come up with the idea of a civil religion before Luther made the traditional union of Throne and Altar a subject of political controversy? I can’t speak to later writers, but Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, et al. are all in one way or another attempting to transcend the strife unleashed by the Reformation. If this is so, does this fissure continue in the debate about civil religion (i.e., competing Catholic and Protestant varieties of civil religion), or does that get subsumed by the advent of disestablishment and official (and unofficial) toleration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so that the debate moves on to other terrain?

  3. First to Varad’s questions–and Varad, as I was writing the post I was looking forward to your response. Beiner notes that Machiavelli was especially taken with St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic as figures who challenged the idea of the Church by demanding a return to its founding and this way became representatives of a refounding. So if Luther is fundamental to the rise of civil religion, then his contribution is to one part of it–as you point out, the corrupt intersection of state and religious authorities. But according to Beiner, Machiavelli far more focused on the political skills of the prophets of Islam and Judaism than he was on Luther (whom he overlapped with for just a decade, right?)

    To Andrew’s giant question: there are competing schools on American civil religion. Robert Wuthnow believes there are two competing versions quaintly reflected in the pledge of allegiance, one side want “one nation under God” the other fights for “liberty and justice for all.” Stanley Hauerwas sees it as those who have a faith (as in a real religion) and those who have confused their faith with their temporal politics and thus end up with a civil religion. I see the civil religion debate playing out perhaps closer to the way Hauerwas views it, but with a significant caveat. I think there is very small (though sometimes influential) minority who are able to resist the allure of combining their respective faiths with their politics–in short, most Americans have a civil religion that is reasonably similar to each other especially in times of war. That is why I find the appeals to God in the time of war so important and so troubling and why Abraham Lincoln was at once the most astute practitioner and judge of this kind of civil religion. His Gettysburg Address can be terrifying if you consider what he is saying about war and his Second Inaugural is devastating if you consider what he is suggesting about the American proclivity to read divine motives into their history.

  4. Mary Beard, the English classicist, pointed out that for the Romans the difference between religion and superstition was not that the former was true and the later false, but that religion (religio) was the moderate form of piety that honored the traditions of the state while the later was immoderate and unprecedented even if it honored veritable divine powers. In effect, religion, to put things in Aristotelian terms, is the mean between impiety and fanaticism. I don’t know off the top of my head whether writers of the 16th and 17th Century ever put it exactly that way. One usually thinks of the secular justification of religion is its role in maintaining social trust and political peace, but you could also look at established religion as a way of keeping the dangerous religious impulses of mankind under some kind of control. That was Nietzsche’s opinion–he wasn’t very comfortable with the collapse of traditional churches because getting rid of organized denominations wouldn’t get rid of the passions that give rise to religion in the mass of humanity. It would simply remove the priestly experts who had learned how to manage superstition and fanaticism. The question is, can civil religion really make the furies into the kindly ones?

  5. I read with interest these exchanges in response to my book on Civil Religion. Two corrections:

    1. Varad Mehta writes that Machiavelli, along with other civil religionists, was “attempting to transcend the strife unleashed by the Reformation”. But the works in which Machiavelli articulates his idea of civil religion were written in the decade leading up to Luther’s revolt against the papacy. So therefore, whether Machiavelli was aware of Luther or not, he obviously *wasn’t* attempting to respond to the strife unleashed by the Reformation, & in that sense, his version of civil religion would have to count as at least one case of a pre-Reformation (modern) civil religion. (There are obviously pre-modern articulations of civil religion as well.)

    2. Jim Harrison writes: Nietzsche “wasn’t very comfortable with the collapse of traditional churches”. Not so: Nietzsche, in common with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, & Rousseau, was violently anticlerical. He hated priests of all descriptions. And he was especially the enemy of any Christian priesthood, both because of his uncompromising hostility to priests as priests, and because he regarded Christianity as decidedly inferior to all other world religions.

    In my book I present Nietzsche as a kind of civil religionist because he was open to instrumentalizing religion (not Christianity!) on behalf of his preferred post-Christian culture. But he clearly is very different from the other theorists of civil religion treated in my book. Machiavelli & Hobbes & Spinoza & Rousseau all believed strongly in the authority of the state, & therefore, for each of the them, the problem of civil religion was to contain or domesticate religion insofar as it posed a challenge to state authority. (This is especially true of Hobbes, which is why, for me, Hobbes rather than Machiavelli or Rousseau is the archetypical civil religionist.) Nietzsche, by contrast, hated the state as much as he hated any priesthood; so his “civil religion” was atypical: assertion of the state’s authority in the face of religion wasn’t his project, so in that sense domestication of religion wasn’t an issue for him as it was for the others.

  6. Ronald–

    Nietzsche obviously detested priests, though he sometimes acknowledged his affinity with them; and he certainly didn’t desire the continued prosperity of the old faith. What he did sometimes note, and hence my comment about not being comfortable about the disappearance of traditional priesthood, was that the same priests who benefited from the envious and resentful emotions of the herd, also served to keep these feelings under control.

    One can assemble a very long dossier of quotes in which various thinkers pointed to religion as having the political function of promoting unity. I simply wanted to point out that there is a second way of thinking about civil religion as a backfire against the evil of uncontrolled religiosity. One honors the traditional gods/god by way of paying protection money to a priestly mafia as preferable to dealing with an anarchic situation where superstition and fanaticism rage uncontrollably.

    By the way, you write about Nietzsche’s postmodern theism. In what sense was Nietzsche ever any kind of theist? Does not compute.

    • Jim:
      That sounds like an interesting text by FN. Is it from the Genealogy?

      I’m fully aware that it sounds hugely paradoxical to refer to Nietzsche as any kind of theist. He was a “theist” in the civil religionist way: we want gods who will promote humanly desirable purposes, whether they exist or not. (Cf. Nietzsche’s statement in Will to Power that Muhammed’s only mistake was in actually *believing* in the God he promulgated!) Nietzsche put a lot of intellectual effort into *ranking* the world religions, an enterprise that obviously makes no sense from a strictly anti-theist perspective; which entails that N’s *theoretical* atheism doesn’t rule out practical “theism” (i.e., a version of theism imposed by a new cultural-political elite in order to serve particular cultural-political ends). Sounds crazy, to be sure, but Nietzsche (like Plato, in my view) was indeed capable of entertaining such designs. For a full account, see Chap. 30 of my Civil Religion book.

    • Yep, I’m thinking mostly of the Genealogy, mostly the third essay. For example, “The end is always to render the sick, up to a certain point, harmless.” (XVI)

      I’m glad to exchange messages with somebody else whose ideas sound crazy. I’ll look at the argument in your Civil Religion book, though I’m a bit skeptical about constructing a coherent political or political/religious project out of Nietzsche’s writings, having attempted something like that myself a long time ago.

    • Ronald-

      In what may be a first for the Internet, I actually fulfilled my promise and read your argument. Indeed, I read your whole book. I can see what you mean by calling Nietzsche a “theist,” but you have to admit you are expecting an awful lot from the quotation marks. As a political scientist, you presumably read the various texts in a somewhat different way than I do: by my lights, a philosopher may indeed propose to lie for his cause but the lie itself isn’t part of his philosophy especially when, as in Nietzsche’s case, it involves the postulation of a being that makes no sense in terms of the rest of your philosophy. (In this connection, may I suggest that there are really two versions of what you call the paradox of civil religion. There’s the practical problem of recommending the holy lie publicly and the existential problem of trying to believe it yourself or at least keeping everything straight in your own mind. The first isn’t much a problem—Republican candidates for president have been running on a platform of 2 + 2 = 5 since the late 90s–the plebs simply do not notice. The personal problem is actually more dire, though only if you happen to be a philosopher. You may end up hugging a horse.)

    • Jim:
      I never said that Nietzsche’s “theism” was philosophically coherent. If one writes: “God doesn’t exist, but let’s pretend that He does in order to secure desirable cultural-political purposes,” one is expecting an awful lot from one’s readers if one actually thinks that that project will have much traction. On the other hand, when Nietzsche writes that Christianity is a catastrophe *because it helps to bring about atheism*, this is an aspect of Nietzsche’s thought that generally isn’t appreciated, and taking Nietzsche seriously — one isn’t obliged to do that, of course, but *if* one wants to take him seriously — requires exploring more deeply why he said that. That’s what I try to do in my Nietzsche chapter.

      Thanks for reading the book.

  7. Ronald: Now that we have you here in person as well as in ideas, has the reception of your book surprised in any way? As the title of my blog suggests, I think there has been a revival in the use of civil religion to explain a wide variety of topics, but also know that many, many scholars avoid the term altogether and that outside of academia the term doesn’t typically get much bounce.

    Any comment?

    • Ray:
      I’m grateful to you for initiating this interesting set of exchanges.

      I’ll offer a couple of comments. First of all, I use “civil religion” as an umbrella term to cover the philosophical problem of how to regulate the commerce between religion and politics *in general*. The problem that the *whole* political philosophy tradition is wrestling with is how religion can be “made civil,” that is, reconciled with the needs of political authority. That’s a tough problem to solve (21st-century societies are still very much grappling with it!), & the political philosophy tradition offers a wide variety of theoretical initiatives in trying to cope with it. So in that sense, Lockean liberalism, for instance, defined by Locke’s resolute separation between the realm of state (coercive) authority & the realm of conscientious (free) belief, is wrestling with the “civil religion problem” no less than Machiavelli & Hobbes & Rousseau are.

      Secondly, insofar as academics (especially in the U.S.) do use the term “civil religion,” they do so primarily with Robert Bellah as their central reference-point. So the issue, for instance, is the continued salience of the Pledge of Allegiance, or how often American presidents refer to God in their speeches. By contrast, my usage of “civil religion” has little or no relation to Bellah (I cite him in my book mainly to distinguish my enterprise from his). My defining reference-point is Book 4, Chap. 8 of the Social Contract, which is entirely focused on historical world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism) & how they bolster or subvert (or their *potential* for bolstering or subverting) political authority. That, in my view, is a quite different set of questions from the ones that Bellah put on the agenda. Naturally, I don’t object if historians or sociologists of religion mainly oriented towards Bellah take a side-glance at my book, which is thoroughly anchored in the political philosophy tradition (Hobbes, Harrington, Spinoza, Rousseau, etc.). But insofar as one is using the same word to characterize these two very different enterprises, one should be careful not to assimilate them to each other more than is warranted.

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