Re: Modern American True Civic Religion vs. Pre-Modern Cultish Religion in North Carolina

Still intend “light to no posting,” but couldn’t resist extending dialogue at the League on “Playing With Constitutional Fire,” an informative and thoughtful post by lawyer Burt Likko that also inspired some useful discussion. My main comment was approximately as follows (I’ve done some post-“submit” proofing, and added some I hope helpful notes):

@Burt Likko

Well, thanks for indulging me, as I see now I got a little carried away1 with paradoxes of civic religion on an abstract level. I don’t disagree with you on the practical-political question, but I also don’t presume that my agreement or disagreement matters to anyone practically-politically. I’m more interested in the theoretical questions.

So, on the latter score, we may be able to distinguish between a declaration of “establishment” and an actual or effective establishment.

The 1st Amendment even read as applying to Congress only2, in combination with the No Religious Test Clause3, would seem to make actual establishment virtually impossible at least for now, since a declared-established religion with no supporting legal or administrative structure would be an empty signifier. President Obama could declare the Navajo Way the official established religion of the United States, and the main effect would be on his political future, possibly involving the 25th Amendment, not on the actual status in law and society of the Navajo Way.

On the other hand, we could imagine a mass conversion of the American population to the Navajo Way, so that a Navajo Way president could easily fill all appointive offices with NWers, and pursue an agenda along with a compliantly NW Congress and NW Supreme Court that ensconced NW precepts as well as faithful NWers pursuing an NW agenda at every level of the federal government. Eventually, they might, by constitutionally valid process, partly nullify the 1st Amendment and Article 6, and, by some logic of Incorporation, fully elaborate NWism at state and local levels. Or they might not bother, since by NW philosophy it might not make any difference whether the state attached whatever signifiers to an effective, but undeclared, NW establishment.

In short, until there was a will to make a new religious establishment actual and effective, any declaration would just be words, but, if and when there is a will, it will find a way.

We can still abide presidents making references to “God,” and possibly, at least from conservative presidents, to “Judeo-Christian values,” but under conventional understandings of religion -as essentially pre-modern cultish or sectarian, dogmatic religious organization – that’s as far as we go. The difficulty comes with the recognition that modern secularism or pluralism or liberal democratic ideology, articulated in relation to pre-modern religion, is a successor or child of pre-modern theocratic religion, necessarily with many of religion’s or theocracy’s essential characteristics. In this sense the will has found its way, but the way involves what can be seen as a fundamental self-deceit – which we may not be able to presume is a bad thing, or which, if it is a bad thing, we may not be able to presume or show is the worst thing or an avoidable thing.

The NC people are, I suspect, attracted as much by the principle of nullification as they are by the idea of establishment. They may see themselves both to be affirming their religious freedom as well as restoring rationality on behalf of an originally Americanist libertarianism. Their “free exercise” extends, in their view, to the creation of a sanctified community. They themselves may generally also work from a conventional understanding of what “religion” really is. Some among them may, however, also view “humanism” or “secularism” or “secular liberalism” as religion under another public name.

Since Rousseau, schools of political philosophers and later of sociologists have recognized this possibly indispensable mass democratic ideology as a “civic religion.”4 The problem for the NCers is that this civic religion that does not know or acknowledge itself to be religious, or to be religious in the way that all of the lesser cultish religions are merely “religious” (rather than true and truly desirable for governance of a mass nation-state), would seem to amount to the actual established religion of the United States of America, not to mention the world America made. It is even “declared-established,” just not as a “religion.”

The would-be North Carolina establishers of a modified pre-modern Christian cult cannot rise without the True Civic Religion of American Constitutionalism under Holy Democratic Popular Sovereignty5 falling that same little bit. But the True Civic Religion is powerful and pervasive. It would have a very long way to still to fall, even if the reactionary cult happens to seize control of a city council somewhere for long enough to have a few somewhat sectarian prayers said before sessions, or to put the emblems of the cult on the same level as a team mascot.

Notes:

  1. Prior comment:

    You ask, “Are we comfortable with a Constitution that allows this?” I think you mean “Are or would we be comfortable with a mode of interpretation of the Constitution that leads to this conclusion allowing establishment of religion?” Or do you mean, or also mean, “Are we actually comfortable with certain aspects of the Constitution as written that force us to resort to legal constructions whose rationality may seem other than obvious?”

    I’m not sure how to take this matter further without delving into the mysteries of authority, obedience, and belief, the limits of language, the situation of the law under popular sovereignty, and the paradoxes of our established religion whose first tenet is that it is not an established religion.

    We can creep up to the edge of such a potentially very distracting examination by noting that, if we can imagine that an internally quite logically consistent “literal approach” does already deny Incorporation, then in this way “the Constitution” already does or may (or can reasonably be construed to) “allow” local “Establishment.” Therefore, what the NC Establishers are really preparing to defy or nullify isn’t, from their point of view, “the Constitution,” but two sets of interpretations: a secondary set of interpretations regarding Incorporation via the 14th Amendment as we have discussed, and the set of primary interpretations that make doctrines like Incorporation possible in the first place, regarding Supreme Court jurisprudence within the constituted order, specifically the ability of the Supreme Court to choose one interpretation over another, and, ahem, establish a manner of speaking that implies a mode of compulsory belief.

    So maybe the real question is whether we would be comfortable under some other system, or with the costs and risks of attempting a transition to it. As of now mostly not, it seems, but one aspect of the system as it is that the impossibility of the full and complete, uniform elaboration of its self-contradictory tenets is the only full and complete, uniform elaboration of its self-contradictory tenets. IRL, that means that there will always be someone proposing something whose implications are the complete overthrow of a system that exists only to the extent that we believe it exists independently of our belief in that existence independent of our beliefs. And so on. []

  2. …i.e.,  taken merely literally as a restraint on Congress alone, prior to any expansive reading of 14th Amendment Due Process in relation to the 1st as under the doctrine of Incorporation []
  3. …of Article 6: “…[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” []
  4. Coinage of the term “civic religion,” or “civil religion” is credited to Rousseau in The Social Contract, but the concept has, arguably, been implicit and fundamental in political philosophy and politics at all since the origins of political philosophy and politics. []
  5. …realized political theological anismism in the age of nation-states []

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33 comments on “Re: Modern American True Civic Religion vs. Pre-Modern Cultish Religion in North Carolina

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  1. Semantics confuse this discussion further. The way different groups of Americans understand religion as a word, in addition to their varied emotional responses to the word, gives a wild range of stories about how it functions as an establishment (or not.) An established religion, as a concept, can be analogous to an organized religion for many people. That is not to say that there may not be a quantifiable difference, but the stories behind both concepts, particularly for the self identified non-affiliated religious, are intertwined.

    A common self description is of course “spiritual but not religious.” While many of this group appear to be agnostic or interested in religious experience without commitment, there are also those who have a stringent fundamentalist/literalist vision of religious experience that makes it difficult for them to tolerate the social expression of religion as community. There is a flavor of American Civil Religion that goes with that, focusing on separatism and a distinct narrative of history and culture that functions as scripture. Actions which embody values of wealth, power and autonomy (according to the group narrative) are ritualized. While from the outside they are assumed to be part of a protestant Christian culture, they frequently identify religion as irrelevant, and are deeply suspicious of any self-reflection or critical thought as being in direct opposition to a “lifestyle” which is in fact, fraught with religious experience.

  2. Agree that it’s a matter of semantics, but religion in any form will be “semantical”: a doctrine or dogma is a kind of semantic machinery, a system for the attribution of special, intrinsic meanings – including immediate force or realizable power – to particular statements, phrases, and words as well as other signs and symbols.

    Could you be more specific about the last group you describe? Whom do you have in mind?

    • The issue of semantics I’m thinking about is culturally subconscious, and were it named religion, would be rejected by its adherents.

      There are lots of examples, but here’s one of my favorites. The group that values reality television and its surrounding culture. There are significant numbers of Americans who find their highest values expressed by say, the Kardashians, and more than that, see those values as being the most exemplary of American culture. Wealth, desirability and fun are a modern definition of happiness, and one to which many Americans feel is not only a right but a commandment. Those same people might reject a traditionally structured religion specifically because it is in conflict with this. Gratification is not just desirable and available but a moral good.

        • I hesitate to use the pagan description, as it implies a pre modern religion heavily informed by animism. Pagan ideas about hedonism are also not necessarily connected with “happiness,” and certainly not postmodern happiness. I feel where Cervantes is coming from with his source about a relationship to God, but religion is not defined by a God concept.

  3. The now apocryphal comment attributed to Chesterton, seems apt, a real relationship with God is anything but semantic, because it is about hard and fast understandings about what the world means.

    • But “real” is subjective. If we are describing a phenomenon we see in the world, whether from the inside or the outside, we have to do so with intellectual rigor. It’s hard work to tease out one’s own feelings and beliefs from what is really functioning as religion, but it is vital in order to talk about human experience.

      I’ve also been reminded over on Facebook of the impossibility of defining a religion solely as “Christianity.” What subset would a mandate require?

      • The assertion of “real” is the assertion of objectivity. The counter-claim, that the assertion is merely subjective, is the assertion of an alternative “real” or “true” condition or objectivity, and so would be subject to the same counter-counter-claim, etc. Taken on its own level, the counter-claim simply repeats the initial set of contentions: Miguel answers a claim of subjectivity with a claim of objectivity; one responds to the claim of objectivity with the claim that it is subjective, and so on. We are trapped in the prison-house of language on both sides, though this fact ought to make us wonder how much of the disagreement is, as you were saying earlier, semantic – profoundly so: not just over the meaning of particular words or the relationship of particular words to particular ideas or experiences, but over the possible meaning of words at all in relation to what would be the primary, all-conditioning condition of all ideas and experiences.

        I’m having difficulty processing the second paragraph, especially the second sentence regarding mandates, but I believe that another way of framing the same problematic is that a sociological approach to religion, religion as “definable,” is never the same as a religious approach to religion from “within” belief. To the sociologist and the “modern” theologian (the theologian or the student of religion in the age of “natural science” or scientism), who is or strives to be impartial, which means professionally unconscious of his or her own true commitments, every religion is a dogma, a doctrine, a subjective approach to objectifiable experiences, a mytho-poetic narrative. For the scientist of religions, religion exists as a phenomenon or large set of phenomena to be understood within a scientific and essentially materialist larger discourse. It would be absurd or anyway unheard of, for the contemporary sociologist as sociologist, to aim to prove that Judaism is superior to Hinduism, or Baptism superior to New Atheism, etc., and much current scholarship consists of faulting previous scholars for having mutilated their own work with such prejudices, conscious or not. For the scientist, religions reduce to facts, experiences, events to be fully historicized and finally fully biologized and physicalized – scientized. To the believer, by primordial contrast, his or her religion is or refers uniquely to the larger truth. It is not merely a “belief system,” but the essence, pre-supposition, and pre-condition of belief at all, being at all. Science, or formerly natural philosophy, exists within and after that truth. To treat religion or the religious “object” as anything other than the whole prior to whatever particular is already to commit to the other side.

        So, Strauss argued regarding the basic conflict between reason and revelation that “In every attempt at harmonization, in every synthesis no matter how impressive, one of the two opposed elements is sacrificed, more or less subtly, but in any event surely, to the other: philosophy which means to be the queen, must be made the handmaid of revelation or vice versa.” (“Reason and Revelation,” in Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, p. 150.

      • Should add: I think Strauss is right, but by his own admission not wholly right. I wish he had at some point more directly and systematically addressed the Hegelian “impressive synthesis” that he typically observes, but, to my knowledge, does not fully engage on its own terms.

      • My guess, based on geography is Southern Baptist. Another guess is the type of person who thinks the idea is a good idea also thinks that Catholics for examle are not Christian.

  4. Real is with how it informs behavior, example the Protestant work ethic discerned by Weber, Real Christianity, is more durable then whatever false belief system, has been put forward to replace it

    • By replace do you mean any that follow, chronologically? Does existence over time indicate durability or must it be growth over time?

      Ok, I get that, Colin (and Leo.) But I wonder how to talk about religion as it could be mandated as official by a law if we only talk about one religion, unless we call it Christianity and say, yeah, Christianity is the subject.

      • Well, the beginning of this conversation is the notion that a bunch of wanna-be establishers are trying to do just that – talk about religion in such a way that it or its tenets could somehow be mandated – and that it’s a no-no even in North Carolina. To American universalist liberalism, though it is (or we are) usually careful not to say so, either for fear of giving offense, or (unless it’s another way of saying the same thing) because it prefers (we prefer) unconsciousness of its (our) own uniquely religious anti-“religious” inclinations, all pre-modern religion is cultish religion – just as for pre-modern monotheism, including as still very widely practiced or articulated today, there could be one’s own true religion and everyone else’s false, misleading, dangerous, and in the end evil or damnable would-be religions.

  5. Well it is possibly the most tone deaf to express, what they really wanted which was autonomy from government intervention, but government must be involved everywhere, so go with the flow.

      • Mr. Likko at the linked post delves into the constitutional legal framework, but there are differences of opinion over the implications of what the NC people are seeking. They would in no way acknowledge that they are rejecting the Constitution as a whole: The original Nullificationists didn’t do that: They claimed to be upholding the Constitution against unconstitutional federal acts, and even the Confederates believed that Secession from the Constituted US of A ought to be acceptable. The local-establishers believe the Constitution, even after the Civil War amendments, ought to allow their version of Free Exercise. I’m not sure how far they’ve gotten into Supreme Court jurisprudence, whether it should or whether it does, two different things, bar them from what they’re doing.

  6. Like I said it’s the worst way to go about it, better an informal framework then a hard and fast rule, but thanks to the Lemon test, there can be virtually no assertion of faith in a public sphere, which surely Jefferson didn’t intend, in the Danbury letter.

    • So if there can be zero assertion of faith in a public sphere, where does that leave all the politicians and pundits who proclaim clearly that their vision of leadership is informed by or often directly attributed to a particular religious adherence? How is it that they continue and are often quite successful?

  7. You’re kidding right, those who publically profess are called the Christian Taliban, are accused of inciting to murder, and all other disencentives.