The Fate of Civil Religion

To describe faith in progress as a religion, as I’ve done in these essays numerous times, courts a good many misunderstandings.  The most basic of those comes out of the way that the word “religion” itself has been tossed around like a football in any number of modern society’s rhetorical scrimmages. Thus it’s going to be necessary to begin by taking a closer look at the usage of that much-vexed term.

The great obstacle here is that so many people these days insist that religion is a specific thing with a specific definition. Now of course it’s all too common for the definition in question to be crafted to privilege the definer’s own beliefs and deliver a slap across the face of rivals; that’s as true of religious people who want to define religion as something they have and other people don’t as it is of atheists who want to insist that what they have isn’t a religion no matter how much it looks like one. Still, there’s a deeper issue involved here as well.

The word “religion” is a label for a category. That may seem like an excessively obvious statement, but it has implications that get missed surprisingly often. Categories are not, by and large, things that exist out there in the world. They’re abstractions—linguistically, culturally, and contextually specific abstractions—that human minds use to sort out the disorder and diversity of experience into some kind of meaningful order. To define a category is simply to draw a mental boundary around certain things, as a way of stressing their similarities to one another and their differences from other things.  To make the same point in a slightly different way, categories are tools, and a tool, as a tool, can’t be true or false; it can only be more or less useful for a given job, and slight variations in a given tool can be useful to help it do that job more effectively.

A lack of attention to this detail has caused any number of squabbles, ranging from the absurd to the profound. Thus, for example, when the International Astronomical Union announced a few years back that Pluto had been reclassified from a planet to a dwarf planet, some of the protests that were splashed across the internet made it sound as though astronomers had aimed a death ray at the solar system’s former ninth planet and blasted it out of the heavens.  Now of course they did nothing of the kind; they were simply following a precedent set back in the 1850s, when the asteroid Ceres, originally classified as a planet on its discovery in 1801, was stripped of that title once other objects like it were spotted. 

Pluto, as it turned out, was simply the first object in the Kuiper Belt to be sighted and named, just as Ceres was the first object in the asteroid belt to be sighted and named.  The later discoveries of Eris, Haumea, Sedna, and other Pluto-like objects out in the snowball-rich suburbs of the solar system convinced the IAU that assigning Pluto to a different category made more sense than keeping it in its former place on the roster of planets.  The change in category didn’t affect Pluto at all; it simply provided a slightly more useful way of sorting out the diverse family of objects circling the Sun.

A similar shift, though in the other direction, took place in the sociology of religions in 1967, with the publication of Robert Bellah’s paper  “Civil Religion in America.”  Before that time, most definitions of religion had presupposed that something could be assigned to that category only if it involved belief in at least one deity.  Challenging this notion, Bellah pointed out the existence of a class of widely accepted belief systems that had all the hallmarks of religion except such a belief. Borrowing a turn of phrase from Rousseau, he called these “civil religions,” and the example central to his paper was the system of beliefs that had grown up around the ideas and institutions of American political life.

The civil religion of Americanism, Bellah showed, could be compared point for point with the popular theistic religions in American life, and the comparison made sense of features no previous analysis quite managed to interpret convincingly.  Americanism had its own sacred scriptures, such as the Declaration of Independence; its own saints and martyrs, such as Abraham Lincoln; its own formal rites—the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, fills exactly the same role in Americanism that the Lord’s Prayer does in most forms of Christianity popular in the United States—and so on straight down the list of religious institutions. Furthermore, and most crucially, the core beliefs of Americanism were seen by most Americans as self-evidently good and true, and as standards by which other claims of goodness and truth could and should be measured: in a word, as sacred.

While Americanism was the focus of Bellah’s paper, it was and is far from the only example of the species he anatomized.  When the paper in question first saw print, for example, a classic example of the type was in full flower on the other side of the Cold War’s heavily guarded frontiers.  During the century and a half or so from the publication of The Communist Manifesto to the implosion of the Soviet Union, Communism was one of the modern world’s most successful civil religions, an aggressive missionary faith preaching an apocalyptic creed of secular salvation. It shared a galaxy of standard features with other contemporary Western religions, from sacred scriptures and intricate doctrinal debates on down to steet-corner evangelists spreading the gospel among the downtrodden.

Even its vaunted atheism, the one obvious barrier setting it apart from its more conventionally religious rivals, was simply an extension of a principle central to the Abrahamic religions, though by no means common outside that harsh desert-centered tradition. The unyielding words of the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” were as central to Communism as to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; the sole difference in practice was that, since Communist civil religion directed its reverence toward a hypothetical set of abstract historical processes rather than a personal deity, its version of the commandment required the faithful to have no gods at all.

Not all civil religions take so hard a line toward their theist rivals. Americanism is an example of the other common strategy, which can be described with fair accuracy as cooptation: the recruitment of the deity or deities of the locally popular theist religion as part of the publicity team for the civil religion in question. In this case, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words:

I hope I don’t need to point out to any of my readers that the US constitution, that cautious tissue of half-resolved disputes and last-minute compromises, was not handed down by Jesus to the founding fathers, and that it’s even a bit insulting to suggest that a document needing so much revision and amendment down through the years could have come from an omniscient source.  I also hope I don’t need to point out that most of the founding fathers shown clustered around Jesus in the painting were Deists who were deeply suspicious of organized religion—and of course then there’s Ben Franklin, skeptic, libertine, lapsed Quaker, and sometime member of the Hell-Fire Club, standing there with a beatific smile on his face, one hand over his heart, and the other doubtless hiding crossed fingers behind his back.  Still, that’s the sort of distortion that happens when the emotions evoked by civil religion shape history in hindsight.  The Communist Manifesto and the October Revolution came in for the same sort of hagiography, and inspired even worse art.

Other examples of civil religion would be easy enough to cite—or, for that matter, to illustrate with equally tasteless imagery—but the two I’ve just named are good examples of the type, and will be wholly adequate to illustrate the points I want to make here. First, it takes only the briefest glance at history to realize that civil religions can call forth passions and loyalties every bit as powerful as those evoked by theist religions. Plenty of American patriots and committed Communists alike have readily laid down their lives for the sake of the civil religions in which they put their faith.  Both civil religions have inspired art, architecture, music and poetry along the whole spectrum from greatness to utter kitsch; both provided the force that drove immense social and cultural changes for good or ill; both are comparable in their impact on the world in modern times with even the most popular theist religions.

Second, the relations between civil religions and theist religions tend to be just as problematic as the relations between one theist religion and another.  The sort of bland tolerance with which most of today’s democracies regard religion is the least intrusive option, and even so it often involves compromises that many theist religions find difficult to accept. From there, the spectrum extends through more or less blatant efforts to coopt theist religions into the service of the civil religion, all the way to accusations of disloyalty and the most violent forms of persecution. The long history of troubled relations between theist religions and officially nonreligious political creeds is among other things a useful confirmation of Bellah’s thesis: it’s precisely because civil religions and theist religions appeal to so many of the same social and individual needs, and call forth so many of the same passions and loyalties, that they so often come into conflict with one another.

Third, civil religions share with theist religions a curious and insufficiently studied phenomenon that may as well be called the antireligion. An antireligion is a movement within a religious community that claims to oppose that community’s faith, in a distinctive way:  it embraces essentially all of its parent religion’s beliefs, but inverts the values, embracing as good what the parent religion defines as evil, and rejecting as evil what the parent religion defines as good.

The classic example of the type is Satanism, the antireligion of Christianity. In its traditional forms—the conservative Christians among my readers may be interested to know that Satanism also suffers from modernist heresies—Satanism accepts essentially all of the presuppositions of Christianity, but says with Milton’s Satan, “Evil, be thou my good.” Thus you’ll have to look long and hard among even the most devout Catholics to find anyone more convinced of the spiritual power of the Catholic Mass than an old-fashioned Satanist; it’s from that conviction that the Black Mass, the parody of the Catholic rite that provides traditional Satanism with its central ceremony, gains whatever power it has.

Antireligions are at least as common among civil religions as they are among theist faiths. The civil religion of Americanism, for example, has as its antireligion the devout and richly detailed claim, common among American radicals of all stripes, that the United States is uniquely evil among the world’s nations.  This creed, or anticreed, simply inverts the standard notions of American exceptionalism without changing them in any other way. In the same way, Communism has its antireligion, which was founded by the Russian expatriate Ayn Rand and has become the central faith of much of America’s current pseudoconservative movement. There is of course nothing actually conservative about Rand’s Objectivism; it’s simply what you get when you accept the presuppositions of Marxism—atheism, materialism, class warfare, and the rest of it—but say “Evil, be thou my good” to all its value judgments. If you’ve ever wondered why so many American pseudoconservatives sound as though they’re trying to imitate the cackling capitalist villains of traditional Communist demonology, now you know.

Emotional power, difficult relations with other faiths, and the presence of an antireligion:  these are far from the only features civil religions have in common with the theist competition.  Still, just as it makes sense to talk of civil religions and theist religions as two subcategories within the broader category of religion as a whole, it’s worthwhile to point out at least one crucial difference between civil and theist religions: civil religions tend to be brittle. They are far more vulnerable than theist faiths to sudden loss of faith on the grand scale.

The collapse of Communism in the late twentieth century is a classic example.  By the 1980s, despite heroic efforts at deception and self-deception, nobody anywhere on the globe could pretend any longer that the Communist regimes spread across the globe had anything in common with the worker’s paradise of Communist myth, or were likely to do so on less than geological time scales. The grand prophetic vision central to the Communist faith—the worldwide spread of proletarian revolution, driven by the unstoppable force of the historical dialectic; the dictatorship of the proletariat that would follow, in nation after nation, bringing the blessings of socialism to the wretched of the earth; sooner or later thereafter, the withering away of the state and the coming of true communism—all turned, in the space of a single generation, from the devout hope of countless millions to a subject for bitter jokes among the children of those same millions.  The implosion of the Soviet empire and its inner circle of client states, and the rapid abandonment of Communism elsewhere, followed in short order.

The Communist civil religion was vulnerable to so dramatic a collapse because its kingdom was entirely of this world. Theist religions that teach the doctrines of divine providence and the immortality of the soul can always appeal to another world for the fulfillment of hopes disappointed in this one, but a civil religion such as Communism cannot.  As the Soviet system stumbled toward its final collapse, faithful believers in the Communist gospel could not console themselves with the hope that they would be welcomed into the worker’s paradise after they died, or even pray that the angels of dialectical materialism might smite the local commissar for his sins. There was no refuge from the realization that their hopes had been betrayed and the promises central to their faith would not be kept.

This sort of sudden collapse happens tolerably often to civil religions, and explains some of the more dramatic shifts in religious history.  The implosion of Roman paganism in the late Empire, for example, had a good many factors driving it, but one of the most important was the way that the worship of the old gods had been coopted by the civil religion of the Roman state.  By the time the Roman Empire reached its zenith, Jove and the other gods of the old Roman pantheon had been turned into political functionaries, filling much the same role as Jesus in the painting above.  The old concept of the pax deorum—the maintenance of peace and good relations between the Roman people and their gods—had been drafted into the service of the Pax Romana, and generations of Roman panegyrists insisted that Rome’s piety guaranteed her the perpetual rulership of the world.

When the empire started to come unglued, therefore, and those panegyrics stopped being polite exaggerations and turned into bad jokes, Roman civil religion came unglued with it, and dragged down much of Roman paganism in its turn. The collapse of belief in the old gods was nothing like as sudden or as total as the collapse of faith in Communism—all along, there were those who found spiritual sustenance in the traditional faith, and many of them clung to it until the rising spiral of Christian persecution intervened—but the failure of the promises Roman civil religion had loaded onto the old gods, at the very least, made things much easier for Christian evangelists.

It’s entirely possible, as I’ve suggested more than once in these essays, that some similar fate awaits the civil religion of Americanism. That faith has already shifted in ways that suggest the imminence of serious trouble.  Not that many decades ago, all things considered, a vast number of Americans were simply and unselfconsciously convinced that the American way was the best way, that America would inevitably overcome whatever troubles its enemies and the vagaries of nature threw at it, and that the world’s best hope lay in the possibility that people in other lands would finally get around to noticing how much better things were over here, and be inspired to imitate us. It’s easy to make fun of such opinions, especially in the light of what happened in the decades that followed, but it’s one of the peculiarities of religious belief—any religious belief, civil, theist, or otherwise—that it always looks at least faintly absurd to those who don’t hold it.

Still, the point I want to make is more specific. You won’t find many Americans holding such beliefs nowadays, and those who still make such claims in public generally do it in the sort of angry and defensive tones that suggest that they’re repeating a creed in which neither they nor their listeners quite believe any longer. American patriotism, like Roman patriotism during the last couple of centuries of the Empire, increasingly focuses on the past: it’s not America as it is today that inspires religious devotion, but the hovering ghost of an earlier era, taking on more and more of the colors of utopia as it fades from sight. Meanwhile politicians mouth the old slogans and go their merry ways.  I wonder how many of them have stopped to think about the consequences if the last of the old faith that once gave those slogans their meaning finally goes away for good.

Such things happen to civil religions, far more often than they happen to theist faiths. I’d encourage my readers to keep that in mind next week, as we focus on another civil religion, one that’s played even a larger role in modern history than the two discussed in this post. That faith is, of course, the religion of progress.