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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Two Notes on Civil Religion

I don't have the time to do this properly now, as we're heading out of town for a Memorial Day weekend holiday on Thursday, and I have a writing project (and little things like packing) that will occupy most of my day tomorrow. But a long and productive e-mail exchange with Caleb Stegall, and this post by Jacob Levy, have convinced me I need to say something more about what I meant in this post by, and more broadly what I think people can hope to get from, a "civil religion." Plus, I think Damon Linker may be cooking up something as well. So, next week, perhaps. But for now, I want to emphasize--or extend my typically rambling arguments to include--two points:

1) I didn't mean to claim--and was wrong if I did claim--that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is right now, under President Obama, the clear majority civil religion of the United States. It's not, for reasons I'll elaborate in the next point. All I meant to do was explore some of the "liberal" and "therapeutic" and "consensus-and-conversation-and-common-ground" elements of Obama's own religious and moral rhetoric (as demonstrated by his speech at Notre Dame, for instance), and draw out the parallels it has with (as well as the possible conceptual and historical roots it may share with) MTD, all for the purpose of suggesting that MTD isn't necessarily the complete collapse of substantive Christian civil politics that some people make it out to be. I freely admit that there is much to MTD, to the extent that one takes it as an accurate description of what many young people in America believe (and, with some qualifications, I think it probably is), that is simply stupid, hollow, and repulsive. But not all of it is, and I think Obama's rhetoric can help us discern elements worth trying to build up and instantiate.

2) Jacob notes correctly that I spoke of a civil religion being unavoidable, because people are religious, and people will take their religiosity with them into democratic politics, through which majorities will bring about through acts of legislation and just their ordinary civic practices some reflection of what they happen to believe. But the problem with this, of course, is that in democratic societies, you don't ever really have majorities which achieve Rousseauian consensus, even if that may happen to be one of the operating aspirations of the civil religion in question; rather, you have majority coalitions which outvote others, and get to do their religious reflecting...until they start losing, at which time those other expresses of civil faith, which never disappeared, will come right back. Speaking specifically of MTD at the present time, Jacob claims that

...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.

Exactly true. Now, I like Rousseau enough to be willing to argue that his particular model of civil religion, whatever its relationship to MTD, is important enough to out thinking about political things to be a cause to inquire into whether our current construction of democracy, with majority coalitions and like, isn't going about things the wrong way; maybe we should be looking at some polity that is smaller, more participatory, more communal. But we have what we have, and what we have isn't at all bad. And so I have to admit the point of Jacob's observation; that anytime we get to talking about civil religion, we potentially get ourselves into a frame of mind which asks how appropriate this conception may be, how well it will "work," for everybody. And that's a bad frame of mind, because it won't include everybody; it will, by contrast, almost certainly be an instantiation of some form of exclusion or another. Which gets us into a discussion about boundaries and limits and so forth, and that's a good discussion to have. So consider this just an introduction to such, for now.


Doug said...

Well, "the" black church is a misnomer for starters. You can talk about tendencies within historically African-American denominations, or trends among African-American congregations, but I don't think you can talk about "the" black church in the same way that you can get away with talking about the Catholic Church, the Mormons or the Episcopalians. And lots of black churches are Baptist (of one flavor or another), which means, as I understand it, that above the congregation there is at most a convention but otherwise no earthly power.

It would also be a mistake to ignore history. In this case, African-Americans came into the mainstream of civic America in alliance with the more liberal white denominations. (Look at where King and his peers went to seminary, for example.) However conservative pastors, congregations or individuals might be, I think it is unlikely that they will forget which view of the intersection of civics and religion welcomed them to the American table.

Jacob T. Levy said...

You're right that it's a misnomer, but it's a well-established misnomer. (c. f.) On the other hand, neither evangelical-Catholic fusion nor Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the name of a denomination, either. I don't think "the black church" is any more misleading as the name of a cluster than are those two. All three denote general trends within general groupings of denominations and congregations.

Doug's second paragraph seems like a mistake to me. The liberal white churches with which some parts of the civil rights movement were allied have since become something different. To the (very real) extent that they've morphed into MTD, I think that they've become progressively more alien from (what I understand of) (most of) African-American Protestantism. The grandchildren of the civil rights generation don't have, and won't feel, an obligation of gratitude to somehow side with the grandchildren of the liberal white Protestants of the 50s and 60s on questions of religiosity and politics today. The trends that have led American northern white Protestantism to become the thing that it has become haven't been mirrored in African-American religious traditions, and so it's a mistake to generalize from MTD even to the civil-religious sensibility of Democrats as such or liberals as such, to say nothing of Americans as such.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I think I would have to come down somewhere between Doug and Jacob. Not in regards to the reference to "the black church"; obviously it's a misnomer, but it's also an oft-used one, quite frequently by members of predominantly black congregations themselves, as it captures fairly well, as Jacob puts it, some general trends in African-American worship, belief, and hence civic-religious practices. But in regards to the historical evolution of the black church and the white (mostly mainline Protestant) congregations that historically supported black preachers in both their training and their protests, I think Jacob is obviously correct that the "[black] grandchildren of the civil rights generation don't have, and won't feel, an obligation of gratitude to somehow side with the grandchildren of the liberal white Protestants of the 50s and 60s on questions of religiosity and politics today"; just look at the African-American opposition to (or at least reluctance about) same-sex marriage for the proof of that. However, I do think Jacob goes too far when he claims that "it's a mistake to generalize from MTD...to the civil-religious sensibility of Democrats as such or liberals as such"; part of my argument is that, however vapid elements of MTD are, there are, I believe, nonetheless liberal elements to it which borrow from and continues to at least partially advance certain civil-religious sensibilities which white civil rights leaders (like Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, as Obama mentioned in his talk) made use of in their efforts to find "common ground" and similarities between folks with opposing agendas during the 1960s. Again, MTD isn't the same as that robust, confident liberal Christianity of the past, but neither is it, I think, utterly disconnected from it.

Camassia said...

During my break from blogging I read a book about the history of the Baptists (well, most of it; I'm still not very good about finishing long books!). It occurred to me then that if America has a civic religion, it's Baptist. I don't mean just because that's by far the largest self-identified Protestant group in America, but because of the original character of the movement. It was theologically diverse from the beginning -- including both Calvinists and Arminians, puritans and antinomians -- but was based on a certain ecclesiology. Church is a voluntary association of people moved by personal faith; it's local and congregational in structure; and it eschews sacrament, mystery and tradition in favor of textual authority. This naturally leads to a separation of church and state, but here the Baptists departed interestingly from their Anabaptist forebears. They were OK with serving in government and in the army, but exactly how far you could go with this and still keep the separation was something that was never quite worked out, and you might say is still being worked out.

You could say, then, that the U.S. constitution almost establishes Baptism as a state religion precisely by not establishing a state religion and yet basing government on citizen participation. The fact that the Baptists went a marginal little group at the time of the Revolution to the behemoth they are today has many causes, but I think that's one of them.

The thing is, precisely because the Baptists' ecclesiology meant no central magesterium, it was bound to open things up to a lot of different theological ideas. So in that respect, probably most American religious viewpoints, from fundamentalism to moral therapeutic deism, owe something to the Baptist mindset. It may not seem like a coherent religion at all, but I think its coherence can be seen in who it marginalizes. I think that's a lot of the reason why American Catholic politicians have trouble being both Catholic and American politicians, for instance. Catholicism has a whole different idea of church, which doesn't fit easily with the American civic religion, whatever you want to call it.