by Erik Twist
As William Cavanaugh notes in his The Myth of Religious Violence, civil religion was, for Rousseau, “a cure for the divisive influence of Christianity.” We see that “Rousseau does not want to erase Christianity entirely, but to reduce it to a ‘religion of man’ that has to do with the purely inward worship of Almighty God and the eternal obligations of morality, and nothing more.” Cavanaugh argues that this distinction between civil religion and religion, however, makes little practical difference, for (as was noted in the previous post) the state retains sovereignty over the lives of its citizens.
We can look to France as one historical example of Rousseau’s ideas being put into effect shortly after the revolution of 1789. Here, an “active cult of the French nation” was created. First, according to Cavanaugh, “Catholicism was actively suppressed and attempts were made to invent structures and rituals to inculcate devotion to France itself.” In this fashion, “altars to the fatherland were erected,” where throughout France they were engraved “with copies of the French Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man…above them as objects for worship.” In addition to this, “rites of civic baptism and civic funerals were invented.” It was even declared that the Declaration of the Rights of man was to be the national catechism.
Yet, of all the western nations the primary example of civil religion cited by scholars is the United States.
“As early as 1749,” writes Cavanaugh, “Benjamin Franklin had argued for ‘the Necessity of Publick Religion,’ by which he meant a cult of the nation and the duties of the citizen.” Jefferson is explicit about what he believed should be included in the cult of the new state: “Small things may, perhaps, like the relics of saints, help to nourish our devotion to this holy bond of Union.” He even felt that the desk upon which he drafted the Declaration of Independence ought to be “carried in the procession of our nation’s birthday, as the relics of the saints are in those of the Church.” Cavanaugh points out the irony:
“Throughout the nineteenth century, virulently anti-Catholic leaders were inclined to borrow Catholic imagery to describe the nations founding. The founders were ‘saints,’ they raised ‘altars’ of freedom, their houses were ‘shrines’ containing ‘relics’ and so on.”
What is especially interesting about the American expression of civil religion is that it has tended to operate with the support of the churches. In this respect, it is, according to Cavanuagh, “a curious blend of Enlightenment and Christian themes and symbols” which have brought about a “‘transfer of sacredness’ from traditional Christianity to the United States itself.” In other words, the American experience is one that blurs the lines between traditional Christianity and the Republic. Cavanaugh writes,
“With the separation of church and state after the American Revolution…the new Israel came to be identified not with the church, but with the United States itself. In American civil religion, the new Israel was not to bring the messiah of Israelite prophecy to the world; rather, the United States would save the world through its creation and spread of democracy, freedom, and progress.”
This separation in the United States between the church and the state is not, in any way, the separation of religion and state. In fact, “Religion as such is not privatized; traditional religion is privatized, while the religion of politics occupies the public realm.” In the United States, the citizen is surrounded with civil religious traditions/liturgies that narrate to him his national/human identity. American religion has, according to Cavanaugh,
“…its saints (the founding fathers), it shrines (Independence Hall), its relics (the Liberty Bell), its holy scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), its martyrs (Lincoln), its inquisition (school boards that enforce patriotism), its Christmas (the Fourth of July), and it feast of Corpus Christi (Flag Day).”
Of all of these, we might say, the flag stands in place of the traditional cross. To it the American gazes with hope and expectation. It is the symbol of the great calling which America feels obligated to pursue: freedom. And it is the flag that has garnered the American’s most solemn reverence. It is the American’s “central object of worship…and curious liturgical forms have been devised for ‘saluting’ the flag, for ‘dipping’ the flag, for ‘lowering’ the flag, and for ‘hoisting’ the flag.” From an early age men are taught to “bare their heads when the flag passes by; and in praise of the flag poets write odes and children sings hymns.” In fact, the author of the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy, meant for it to “sink into children through ritual repetition, and added, ‘It is the same way in the catechism, or the Lord’s Prayer.” All of this is, for Cavanaugh, emblematic of a deeper truth about the United States flag, namely, “The flag is of crucial importance for the U.S. religion because it is that for which Americans will kill and die.”
The liturgical expression of American civil religion can be understood as the mechanism by which not only national identity is formed, but also individual self-consciousness is codified. Traditional religion, which used to serve this function, is relegated to the Rousseauian sphere of internal devotion. Certainly, “Christian denominations still thrive in the United States, but as optional, inward-looking affairs. They are not publicly true, ‘[f]or what is really true in any community is what its members can agree is worth killing for, or what they can be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.’”
The Christian and Civil Religion
In light of its historical practice—especially in the United States—civil religion looks diametrically opposed to the gospel. Yet this is not because the gospel demands indifference toward the state. In fact, Christian theology upholds a serious attachment and submission to the authority of the state. We must, in light of this, explain in what way civil religion uniquely undermines not only the Christian citizen, but also the integrity of the state itself.
The Rousseauian proposition of consigning traditional religion to an inward, private affair—replacing it with a civil religion developed with the intention of both preserving the state and unifying its people—is, in the end, naively utopist. It assumes that the adherence to a moral norm is dependent upon a robust religious faith, but one so diminished and compartmentalized that it has no voice in the public square. The Christian, therefore, takes up an awkward position. He brings to society moral elements that are necessary to the order of the state, yet that same ethic precludes him from worship of the state. The attempt to reconcile this contradiction has proven difficult.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus attempted to address the problem “that among the American people, religion and morality are conjoined.” The problem, of course, is a consequence of how often appeals to moral norms are argued from traditional religious worldviews. Yet the absence of religious arguments from public life has, Neuhaus fears, “created a moral vacuum.” Civil religion, to an extent, has proven effective in its ability to nationalize identities, yet ineffective in providing the strictures necessary for a moral life, strictures vital to the very order of the state. As it turns out, the articles of faith which Rousseau believed should be upheld to the fullest extent of the law are insufficient to compel compliance. Neuhaus believed that
“The only way out of this predicament is to mend the rupture between public policy and moral sentiment. But the only moral sentiment of public effect is the sentiment that is embodied in and reinforced by living tradition. There are no areligious moral traditions of public, or at least democratic, force in American life.”
Still, for Neuhaus, the remedy is not the blunt force of traditional religion: “Publicly assertive religious forces will have to learn that the remedy for the naked public square is not naked religion in public.” Instead, the traditionally religious “will have to develop a mediating language by which the ultimate truths can be related to the penultimate and prepenultimate questions of political and legal content.”
Neuhaus was hopeful that such mediation is possible, for in the American “traditions there are rich conceptual resources for the development of such [language].” Such attempts are of great importance because this type of “civil engagement of secular and religious forces could produce a new public philosophy to sustain this American experiment in liberal democracy.”
Rousseauian civil religion, however, is not sufficient to produce anything of the kind. In fact, when the temporal ideals of the state supplant the real and binding communal values of the Church, both suffer. As Jean Danielou has argued, “unless we relate all things to God, neither man nor city can survive.” This is to say, political notions cannot stand independent of religion. When enshrined as autonomous truths, the highest ideals of the state ring hollow without their submission to yet a higher authority. No laws are self-justifying.
In Danielou’s words, “[A] relationship to God is a constitutive part of human nature as such, and therefore also a constitutive part of the earthly city as such; and this is quite anterior to any ordering to a future world and a supernatural life.” Rousseau finds man in nature free from all alterity and from this builds a notion of the state that serves to uphold his lonely anthropology. God himself becomes but the inward sentiments and desires of a private, autonomous man. The city, therefore, is a confederation of men contracting with one another for mutual benefit and protection. And the law serves only the continued realization of contractual relations. It is not, as Aristotle would argue, to direct each citizen toward the Good. Civil religion is practical atheism.
Danielou suggested that “when Christians defend God’s place in the city as being an essential element of the city, it is not God whom they defend…but man himself.” In contrast to Rousseau, Danielou finds man a communal being, one whose purposes are intimately contingent upon those outside of himself: God and fellow man. Ultimately, therefore, “Two things are necessary: that men live in fellowship with each other, and that they live in communion with God.” Civil religion robs the former of significance as it renders the latter, at best, politically inconsequential, at worst, treasonous.
Men must be allowed to flourish as men. Any government (liberal or statist) whose politics are liturgically narrated to the people as offering a sufficient space for human thriving undermines human dignity. Certainly, the city must be free and available to all men. All other cities are strictly inhuman. Yet so too are cities where God is replaced with civil religion. Ironically, this supplanting of God in the name of civil freedom ensures civil enslavement. The loss of God is the loss of transcendent, universal value; it is the loss of truth and the loss of law. Democracies are especially susceptible and America has been no exception.
Worship of the values of the nation—freedom, independence, self-sufficiency—are touted as self-justifying, self-evident truths non-negotiable whether in the pulpit or public office. These are the values of both the left and the right.
This, not surprisingly, has led to confusion as to the meaning of those values. Democracy leaves the individual “free to choose” and in so doing leaves the individual without a guide. Civil religion cannot light the way, as it has not the ability to define, only the ability to name. Democratic civil religion is inherently agnostic when confronted with absolutes. In fact, as John Paul II noted in Centesimus Annus,
“Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends.”
This is, in the end, detrimental to all of society for, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.” Civil religion serves, more than anything else, as the locus of such manipulation. It is in and through civil religious exercise that the citizen is made a worshiper of the state. “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” The worshiper believes what he worships is the Good, yet it is only a simulacrum, one which quickly devolves into lusts for power. Civil religion builds the house within which such worship can and must be practiced. Before long, the patriot replaces the saint.
Within this entire structure, the state is constantly in the business of proclaiming its role in bringing justice to the world. The Christian could easily begin to believe that submission to all governing authorities obligates the Church to accept the state’s secular theories of justice as instituted by God. In other words, God gives us the governing authorities as the originators of impartial mediation. Yet, it must be remembered that, “Paul here [Rom. 13] calls believers to consider ‘public servants’ as God’s servants only insofar as they ‘continue to attend to’ the right administration of justice to the wrongdoer.”
In light of what has been said above, we see that the state cannot self-justify its actions; its notions of justice are beholden to those transcendent truths which govern nature. The theories of justice which the state attempts to enshrine in its civil religious praxis are only legitimate inasmuch as they imitate the justice which God himself permits. The Christian, therefore, is in no need of a theoretical and malleable civil religion to orient his notions of the Good. As Stanley Hauerwas notes, “one needs a theory of justice when one no longer assumes that the very existence of the church is a social stance.”
What civil religion has as its ultimate aim is de facto state absolutism. The relegation of Christianity to the inward, private practice of the individual permits the nation to fill the social void. A dualism is at work and man is free therein to exercise power without regard for personal conscience; God may occupy his heart, but the nation will occupy his feet, his tongue, and his mind. The nation carries all the existential weight. The nation is the absolute temporal reality. For all practical significance, the nation stands unparalleled, unmatched in the affairs of men. Civil religion codifies this reality and offers the citizen the liturgical and sacramental alternatives necessary to a patriotic identity.
Civil religion, therefore, is antithetical to Christian theology and as such is condemned by it. As Pope Pius the XII stated in On Democracy and a Lasting Peace, “State absolutism…consists in fact in the false principle that the authority of the state is unlimited…” While “a man penetrated with right ideas about the state and authority and the power that he wields as guardian of social order will never think of derogating the majesty of the positive law within the ambit of its natural competence,” it must be remembered (as has been noted above) that, “this majesty of positive law is only inviolable when it conforms—or at least is not opposed—to the absolute order set up by the Creator and placed in a new light by the revelation of the Gospel.”
Man, in this sense, must not inhabit social space that leaves the priority of God as a private afterthought. In addition, the name of God must not be utilized as a means of underwriting the ambitions of nation-building.
Civil religious environments (especially in America) blur the lines between the authority of God and the authority of the state. The goal is to convince the citizen that worship of God and worship of the body politic are identical. God’s purposes, therefore, are manifested in and through the will of the nation. The Church, as a consequence, does not simply fade into the background, but is expected to participate in the patriotism of the state as an act of fidelity to God; e.g. as one could read on American church signs during World War II, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammo.”
The Christian must remain submissive to the state inasmuch as it serves the role of maintaining order in the world. Yet this order is for the sake of the gospel, not the sake of the nation-state. To the extent which the state begins to expect the citizen to pay public homage by remaining privately religious; and to the extent that the state catechizes and habituates the citizen in a civil praxis which provides an alternative space wherein the citizen can offer his very body as a sacrifice; it is here the Christian must guard his soul against the encroachment of statist schemes. The Christian’s only duty is to love God with all his heart and to love his neighbor as himself. When the state provides the space and participates in this action, the state does well. However, when the state builds alternative ends for man, expecting him to serve her instead of God, and when such ends are enshrined in the acts of civil religion, the Christian is bound to civil disobedience for both his sake and the sake of the very state he fights against.Share on Facebook