September 30, 2009

american political religion

One necessary lack (because he is talking about Europe) in Burleigh's Earthly Powers is much discussion (amounting to a few paragraphs) of American political religion, and its consequences. Generally, Burleigh seems to adopt the Burkean view of the American Revolution–that it was about the restoration of traditional rights and liberties–and leaves it at that. There is some discussion about American exceptionalism later on, and a bit about slavery, but that gives a rather poor outline of the role of political religion in the US, not that it needed to do more.

However, I'd like to provide an outline for talking about the history of political religion in the US. I find that the term "civic religion" is fairly useless in American discourse. We use it both to embrace typical usage of rhetoric and themes from the dominant religion of the country, and actual exhortations of a special role, ethics or place in the cosmic order for the US. What follows is not particularly deeply considered, I would like to call it a collection of notes on the idea of American political religion.

In recent times, left-wing writers have used the term "civic religion" as a contrast to Republican messianism; right-wing writers are only now using this same contrast to the messianism of the Obama administration. Our current and prior administrations have both been well within the parameters of American political religion as it has developed over the years–apostasies among their followers notwithstanding.

If modern Evangelicals and their atheist opponents are equally confused as to the religious backing of the American experiment, they can be forgiven for both using the blunt instruments of trying to match current religious expectations to the past. It is hard for us to imagine today how Enlightenment expectations conditioned the attitudes towards religion across the elite classes of Europe and North America. (In France–for an example–there was little resistance amongst the elites and bourgeoisie to the dissolution of the monasteries by both the kings and their revolutionary successors. The vita contemplativa had no place in the Enlightenment sensibility.) This is why it is hard for us to distinguish between the uses of religious rhetoric between a relatively orthodox Anglican figure like Washington, a radical like Jefferson or a still-half-Puritan Unitarian like Adams. Much like many Christians today, traditional Christians of the educated classes in the late 18th c. conformed their traditional theologies with Enlightenment ideological positions.

This means that it is hard to separate the more traditional invocations of a Washington from the more secular, political religion, inherent in a Jefferson. The tenants of this American political tradition have changed in emphasis over the years, but we can list a few dogmas (sharper folks out there can probably list many more):

1. America is good, a "city on the hill" with a unique mission to broadcast its goodness to the world.
2. It is America's destiny to expand
3. Democracy is the natural form of government because people naturally will the good and the best.

And so on. All of these have gone through significant changes, but the second and the third have been the most notable. The second initially focused on the American destiny to dominate the continent: Jefferson in particular saw a grand march of history ending in US domination of North America, its native inhabitants either to conform ("mix" their "blood with ours" to dominate the continent together as he once put it) or die away. Today it is primarily expressed, not in territorial annexation, but ideological annexation. Bush and Obama both proposed it; they differed on the means.

Americans, I believe, tend to ignore the role of actual political religion versus our imagined "civic religion" (outside of narrow applications for partisan warfare), because of the general lack of a conservative party and of a radical one. We are, generally speaking, all Enlightenment liberals, and our political debates happen within that tradition, where the role of political religion is strong, but largely without self-consciousness (in this country: view France or risorgimento Italy for examples of self-conscious liberal political religion). Furthermore, Southerners typically blame American political religion on New England, and New Englanders on the South. Today we are treated to the spectacle of Southern apologist-libertarians ridiculing Yankee paternalism and moral uprightness, and New England liberals commenting about Southern expansionism and religious justifications of various freedoms from Federal interference. Neither understand the common territory.

It is also because we believe that our political religion has not claimed victims. I think I have a reasonable counter-examples in the form of Indian Removal (which is probably the first major conflict between the wings of American political religion, as well), the religiously-infused bloody-mindedness of the Civil War (on both sides), Theodore Roosevelt's ideological presidency (which has a strange cathedral in the form of the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History), the rhetoric surrounding US entry into WWI, and so on.

However, I would also contend that the political religion of the US–on both wings–has reached a state of decadence. It can no longer clearly articulate itself ideologically, and has lost much of its previous power to motivate the masses. This is why those handful of demonstrators who seem to worship the idea of national healthcare seem like such oddballs (and are primarily populated by remnants of the older upper classes, like Episcopalians), rather than an expected part of the political scene. The Tea Partiers seem to largely represent followers of the Jeffersonian wing of American political religion. (Enjoy the irony: The followers whose beliefs most resemble Christianity now follow the wing of American political religion that initially had the least to do with Christianity.)

Any additional thoughts? I'm out on a limb, here.


  1. As much as I like common denominators, would attributing the American modus operandi to the Enlightenment be reductionism, also a product of the Enlightenment? And is this also Newtonian metanaration?

  2. I suspect you're probably making a joke here, as well as being serious, so I'll just respond as seriously as I can.

    It's not reductionism to see the roots of American political religion in the Enlightenment. In fact, I'm not sure that a definition of the Enlightenment which excludes documents such as the Constitution or the Declaration has any coherence left. I am in no way implying some sort of historical inevitability, here. I think there is some justice in saying that differing currents of historical circumstances can overdetermine most historical artifacts, but that does not make them belong less to one or the other.

  3. I thought the irony humorous if it were true, and I was serious as you also suspected.

    I am surprised that the Protestant Reformation is not given more attribution for the elevation of reason and equality over authority. It is interesting that the rhetoric and values ushered in by the Enlightenment could trump orthodoxy in Washington. I think one of the challenges for Orthodox in the west is to learn this rhetoric, making it reasonable to accept authority, without compromising Orthodoxy, which I suspect is what Orthodox philosophers in the west try to juggle. "Because the Church says so" doesn't seem to go far enough here and now.

    And could the decadence that you speak of be a result of entropy caused by a lack of an orderly, orthodox authority (assuming Washington's was compromised)?

  4. Well, Washington was orthodox by the (even already) lax standards of 18th c. Anglicanism. He seems to have taken his religious duties seriously and steadily, but also had a cast of mind very much of his age. This isn't surprising; rarely are men remarkable in all respects.

    The problem of natural reason and revelation is certainly not new to Orthodoxy, and it is not a problem that is going to go away. Just this evening I had to disagree with a fellow parishioner who asserted that the Latins were the sole cause of atheism. There's a lot to be said for the assertion that atheism in its current form exists in a space granted to it by Christianity, but I do not see how those conditions are unique to the Roman and Protestant churches. In any case, Orthodoxy has provided no sure cultural inoculation against the philosophical horrors of the last 200 years, so I do not know why we'd brag about it.

    "Because the Church said so" was never a great line to begin with, because the teaching authority of the Church in Orthodoxy is not understood in the terms of a Magisterium. That is to say: We believe the Creed because the Church confesses it, but there was the use of natural reason in formulating it. What the Church protects us from is the self-defeating, insular use of the reason against its own products, which tell us nothing.

    The amount of room to discuss and debate within the Church is sometimes frightfully large, especially to those who maybe saw Orthodoxy as a refuge from the total voluntarism of our modern condition (unfortunately, when voluntarism is the default option, it is hard to "escape" it). We're like children who have been allowed infinite license: We desperately want the adults in charge again.