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Civil Religion in Political Thought

Civil Religion in Political Thought

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    Civil Religion in Political Thought
    Book Description:

    The essays in this volume blend historical and philosophical reflection with concern for contemporary political problems. They show that the causes and motivations of civil religion are a permanent fixture of the human condition, though some of its manifestations and proximate causes have shifted in an age of multiculturalism, religious toleration, and secularization

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-1814-4
    Subjects: Political Science, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)

    This collection of essays is both welcome and extremely timely. The term “civil religion” has become such an object of reflexive contempt among those who employ it, who generally see in it only a form of dangerous idolatry, that the term’s analytical and descriptive purposes seem to have been forgotten. But such a dismissive position, although having the advantages of perfect clarity, fails to do justice to reality, and more particularly to the enduring needs of actual human beings living in real communities. There are good reasons to be profoundly wary of civil religion. But there are equally good reasons...

  2. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Civil religion has been a political and theological problem of enduring concern across the centuries because of both the potency of its promises and the intractability of its hazards. Indeed, recent appeals to religion by former U.S. president George W. Bush and controversies over the Pledge of Allegiance demonstrate the endurance of civil religion in contemporary politics. There is a rich heritage of philosophical, theological, and political reflection on the problem that extends at least as far back as Plato’s Laws.¹ This volume includes essays on significant philosophical, theological, and political expressions of civil religion from a wide variety of...

  3. One. The Legacy of Civil Religion in the History of Political Philosophy

    • 1. Gods for the City and Beyond: Civil Religion in Plato’s Laws
      (pp. 19-46)

      Plato’s teaching on civil religion in the Laws reflects the complexity of that dialogue’s more general themes and, indeed, those of Plato’s political philosophy as a whole. The foremost of those themes is the possibility of a politics consistent with the highest human potential. This theme is most present in those dialogues concerning the trial and death of Socrates and in the Republic. There it is pursued largely from the Socratic perspective and plainly asks whether and how the philosopher can pursue his way of life, which aims to understand “all time and all being,” within the city, which, even...

    • 2. Truth versus Utility: The Debate on Civil Religion in the Roman Empire of the Third and Fourth Centuries
      (pp. 47-65)

      One of John Stuart Mill’s late essays is entitled “The Utility of Religion” and starts as follows: “It has sometimes been remarked how much has been written, both by friends and enemies, concerning the truth of religion, and how little, at least in the way of discussion or controversy, concerning its usefulness.”¹ A few lines later, he adds: “The utility of religion did not need to be asserted until the arguments for its truth had in a great measure ceased to convince.”² Mill is right in one respect; truth and utility are two essentially different ways of looking at religion....

    • 3. The Humility of True Religion: Augustine’s Critique of Roman Civil Religion
      (pp. 66-92)

      In a.d. 410 the Eternal City was given a shocking reminder of its mortality. The Visigoth invasion of Rome prompted immediate accusations against Christians that the ascendancy of their faith in Rome had invited the catastrophic events of the early fifth century. Christianity enervated Rome’s political strength and martial resiliency at the same time it offered no coherent political system of its own, Roman critics charged. Christianity sapped Roman virtù of its vitality. Saint Augustine counterattacked with vigor. The accusers of Christianity should look instead at their own vices, he countered, for the pride Romans took in their political and...

    • 4. Forgiving Those Not Trespassing against Us: Hobbes and the Establishment of the Nonsectarian State Church
      (pp. 93-120)

      Hobbes writes as if he expects disagreement to turn into violence swiftly and surely (v:3).¹ “Rage,” he says, follows from “vehement opinion of the truth of anything, contradicted by others” (viii:19). Great disagreements are often manifestations of competing claims to rule. Ordinary disagreements are taken for indications of idiocy, indictments of immorality, or allegations that one is a perpetrator or victim of duplicity. Religious disagreements are especially volatile. Like Socrates says in Plato’s Republic, the hatefulness of finding falsehoods deep inside oneself regarding the greatest questions is unrivaled.² Disagreements regarding religious matters are readily interpreted as condemnations, adverse judgments regarding...

    • 5. Civil Religion as Political Technology in Bacon’s New Atlantis
      (pp. 121-144)

      In the New Atlantis, Francis Bacon presents a fictional island civilization, Bensalem, kept secret from the rest of the world. His purpose in this is to illustrate the unrestricted development of his new science. What is striking in the tale, however, is the prominence of religion on the island. The reader’s first impression is that Bacon’s rhetorical purpose in advancing this new science is not only to suggest to a skeptical establishment the many attractive ways in which life could be improved but also to show the compatibility of the new science with the reigning religion, even the godliness of...

    • 6. Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Civil Religion: Freedom of the Individual, Toleration, and the Price of Mass Authenticity
      (pp. 145-166)

      It is no accident that Rousseau treated the problem of civil religion as such a central one in his political writings.¹ His apparently strong commitment to freedom of the individual required a level of extreme unity within the state that made the spiritual force of public religion indispensable. The spiritual force of public religion is the one basis for attachment between citizens that rivals the power of the state itself. It is, therefore, the one powerful basis for unity between citizens that, if not incorporated into the power of the state, diminishes the unity available to the state. So, the...

    • 7. Alexis de Tocqueville on “Civil Religion” and the Catholic Faith
      (pp. 167-204)

      In 2004, Marcello Pera, philosophy professor at the University of Pisa and president of the Italian Senate, addressed a letter to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. In the course of the letter, Pera, generally thought to be a secularist, proposed to Ratzinger the advantages of a civil religion for awakening Europe from its state of moral and spiritual indifference. In his reply, Ratzinger states that Pera’s proposal reminded him especially of the view articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, which he summarized as follows:

      During his study of the United States, the French scholar had...

  4. Two. The Enduring Relevance of Civil Religion in North America

    • 8. Rational Theology: Thomas Jefferson and the Foundation of America's Civil Religion
      (pp. 207-235)

      Americans commonly believe that the United States was founded on the idea of religious liberty. Did not the early European settlers come to America in order to worship God as they saw fit? Do not the very first clauses of the First Amendment protect religious freedom? To the American mind (and perhaps the modern mind more generally), the free and equal way of life of democracy is impossible without this most fundamental of freedoms; the presence of religious liberty, we might say, ultimately defines whether a country is free. While acknowledging that America has been by no means historically free...

    • 9. Unsettling Faith: The Radicalization of the First Amendment and Its Consequences
      (pp. 236-261)

      Struck by America’s thriving religious life, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the explanation for it offered by clergymen. “[A]ll thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that.”¹ Writing in the 1890s James Bryce also concluded, “It is accepted as an axiom by all Americans that the civil power ought to be not only neutral and impartial as between different forms of faith, but...

    • 10. The Personal (Is Not?) the Political: The Role of Religion in the Presidency of George W. Bush
      (pp. 262-279)

      It is impossible to discuss the presidency of George W. Bush without taking into account the role that his religion plays in it. Pollsters have consistently found a “God gap” in the electorate, with frequent church-goers (who tend to be traditionalist) overwhelmingly approving of him and voting for him and those who rarely if ever darken the door of a sanctuary almost equally overwhelmingly opposed.¹ There is a perception, in other words, that religious traditionalists have “one of their own” in the White House. Commentators—especially those critical of the president—see untoward religious influence in a wide range of...

    • 11. Sacred Words, Fighting Words: The Bible and National Meaning in Canada, 1860–1900
      (pp. 280-297)

      In 1839 Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that Britain needed to “atone” for the historic role it had played in the expansion of slavery. Around the same time John Williams, a British missionary in the South Pacific, said that Britons should plant a “tree of life” in the Pacific islands, around which civilization and commerce could entwine their tendrils. Meanwhile, Sir Charles Trevelyan wrote that teaching English to India’s Hindus and Muslims amounted to a “sacred duty.”¹

      These examples reveal some of the ways the language of the Bible, and ideas derived from it, was employed to different ends. In some...

    • 12. Civil Religion and Associational Life under Canada’s “Ephemeral Monster”: Canada’s Multi-Headed Constitution
      (pp. 298-328)

      Canadian evocations of civil religion receive less attention than those of their southern neighbor because they appear to us more as phenomena associated with an earlier historical epoch in the nation’s history or as symbols of specific regions, rather than as evocations of a pan-Canadian identity. For instance, in the nineteenth century, Anglican Bishop John Strachan invoked the British Empire as a providential and civilizing force to justify Anglo dominance in what was then Upper Canada (now Ontario), while Québecois Catholics often characterized Québec as a latter-day Promised Land of a latter-day Chosen People (which still persists among Québec separatists...