Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pluralism and civicness

I'm going to past here something that could have been a comment on this post of Russell Arben Fox's. But it ends up being my own rant about the idea of civil religion more than an engagement with Russell's own arguments-- I'm interested in using one paragraph of his as a point of departure, while recognizing that he goes from it to other ideas to which my comments below aren't really germane. And that gives me the excuse to get a new substantive post up on this site!

Russell is investigating the potential contours of an era-appropriate civil religion.

But rather than picking apart different aspects of the thread, I want to focus on [Damon Linker's] original claim: namely, that with the fortunate passing of the Bush administration's attempt to instantiate a more or less "public orthodoxy" of a particular evangelical-Catholic persuasion, and with the tremendous unlikelihood of any kind of liberal mainline Protestantism regaining its hold upon America's character, what then will be our civil religion? This, of course, is really a two-part question: first, do we need one, and two, if we do, what should it be? My answer to the first part is, very simply, yes, because you can't not have one; religious establishments--defining the term fairly broadly, of course--our an inevitability in democratic societies, because people the great bulk of human beings bring religion with them wherever they go, and so long as you allow the unwashed masses to occasionally vote and even run for office--that is, so long as you actually have some elements of democracy--then you're going to have majorities looking to order their communities along the lines of their beliefs, and so some kind of "civil" belief ought to emerge and be established so as to provide such majorities with both guidelines and boundaries.

Note: he asks "do we need one?" and answers "yes, because you can't not have one."

But it seems to me that there's important omitted emphasis: one might ask "do we need one?" And the response "yes, because you can't not have one" seems a little more suspect when phrased that way.

Russell notes that we will inevitably have "majorities looking to order their communities along the lines of their beliefs." Sure. But "majorities" and "communities" are both plural nouns; and minorities will try to do the same thing, as well. The national unity that "civil religion" arguments aspire to seems to me illusory.

For the current era, Russell notes the likely triumph of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism over the conservative evangelical-Catholic fusion. But the latter cluster of beliefs doesn't thereby disappear. It's not held a Rousseauian minority that is at all likely to think "the fact that we were outvoted shows that we were wrong." But that's just what Rousseau thought minorities were like in a well-ordered society. And a Rousseauian civil religion is one with boundaries between the permissible and the impermissible-- between, in the local context, religious beliefs that are American and those that are un-American.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may be one of two things going forward. One, it may be the language that state officials are permitted to use in talking about religion in public. Two, it may be the de facto religion of a majority of northern whites. I can't see anything more than those that it could possibly be. To name only the two biggest outlier groups: The black church rests on beliefs and languages that are incompatible with it; neither jeremiad nor prophecy sits at all comfortably with this other thing that sits halfway between Episcopalianism-lite and Unitarianism. The white southern evangelicals, charismatics, and fundamentalists (overlapping, not identical, groups) who made up the core constituency of the Republican civil religion (Catholics were well-represented among its intellectual class but not its voting class) aren't going anywhere, and aren't going to be persuaded to join the MTD civil religion. They never have been; they might withdraw from politics as they did post-Scopes, but that only makes them a disaffected, partly-seceded internal minority, not part of the hoped-for consensus.

And if I'm right that MTD can't be a consensus set of actual substantive religious commitments, then it also can't be a permanent set of parameters or guidelines around public religiosity. Rejecting MTD isn't un-American, and won't become un-American. When the electoral tide turns again, MTD's conservative rival will again look like the dominant expression of white Christianity. And, again, it will be no more than that.

There are a variety of different ways of political-religious being in a religiously plural society. The attempt to have a civil religion, whatever else it means, is typically an attempt to willfully deny that fact, or to make it cease to be true through especially coercive denials that it is true. Consider one of my betes noirs: the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Pledge is perhaps the apex of American civil religiosity. It states a public creed, one that eventually (though not originally) incorporated God, one that is recited ritualistically like the Lord's Prayer in front of an idol fetish golden calf object of veneration. It was the creation of the nationalist Protestant socialist Francis Bellamy, at a moment of very high immigration from southern and eastern Europe-- and very high native anxiety about that. It was also written within living memory of the Civil War. "One nation, indivisible" was not neutral consensus talk! The Pledge insisted that Lost Causers were un-American, as were the ultramontanist immigrant believers in post-First Vatican Catholicism (whose allegiance couldn't be pledged in the same way, or so it was thought-- foreign princes and potentates and all). It was an episode in a particularly ugly era in American nationalism-- the era of the Spanish-American War, allotment and a new level of brutal assimilationism directed at Indians, the coerced 1890 Declaration from the Mormons and the concomitant Late Church of LDS vs US, which held that Congress could dissolve the Mormon Church and confiscate its assets (not merely criminalize polygamy), the Chinese Exclusion Act, and all of the well-known ideological panic about southern and eastern European immigrants. I think it's important that we remember the Pledge as part of that era, and as expressing the same determination to coerce one American identity.

The Pledge was Liberty Cabbage for the previous generation-- an attempt to simultaneously claim a greater national unity than actually existed and to bring it into being by casting dissidents beyond the pale. But the substantive pluralism and disagreements remained. And the boundaries of the pale were only as stable as a victorious electoral coalition.

Yes, free persons organizing their lives democratically will do so in ways that are informed by their religious commitments-- no doubt to a degree that I as a nonbeliever find unpalatable. But they will do so according to their various religious commitments. Sometimes some of them will say that their cluster of political-religious views represent the unified view of a nation; but their saying it doesn't make it so. And so I think Russell's wrong to say that we must have a civil religion, because we will have a civil religion-- where a is a singular article. We have religions, and hence in a democratic society we will have politicized religions, and religiously-infused political movements, and local religious minorities of varying stripes. By saying that I don't mean to say that the story ends there; I'm all for constitutional constraints on the ways and degree to which religion can legitimately infuse politics. But I don't think there's some plausible future in which those constitutional constraints become a new consensus religion that trumps the religious pluralism of the society, and I oppose dressing up my understanding of the appropriate constraints in nationalist-religious garb. And I don't think that the attempt to do so-- the attempt to marry the attenuated religiosity of some northern whites to a vision of the American constitutional order-- will do much of anything to prevent the next turning of the religious-political wheel.


Russell Arben Fox said...


Great post--which, of course, I've had to respond to (though only briefly for now), right here. Simply put, you're right about the transitional and exclusionary nature of religious establishments as an expression of majority beliefs; I should have been more careful in my language. But then, I also should have been more careful with the post as a whole; that bit you excerpted had simple spell-check errors that embarrassed me...

Andrew March said...

great post

Todd Seavey said...

I have often lamented that Deism missed its chance to become a more widely-held national faith back in the eighteenth century (but have never suggested we resurrect it now, when we have actual modern science and stuff), sympathize with the paleo desire to avoid yoking everything into a monoculture, often recall your description a decade and a half ago of American liberty as more of a truce than a single shared philosophy, have often of late been seen in the company of a Southern Catholic woman with no sympathy for MTD, and am just finishing reading Edward Bellamy's painfully naive socialist novel _Looking Backward_ (making his brother's Pledge that much creepier-seeming), so needless to say, I loved this post.

Todd Seavey said...

Make that Bellamy's _cousin_.

The Bellamy Brothers is a whole different outfit.