Dishing Civil Religion

Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan argues that the Tea Party is like a religion (and is driven in large part by people who fuse religion with politics). I don’t have any problems with his analysis and think he is largely correct. However, the unstated premise of Andrew’s piece is that his politics are not akin to religion and therefore stand in contrast. This is false. His politics are no less “religious” than those of Tea Partiers.

All nation-states, even supposedly secular ones, cultivate a civil religion for purposes of cohesion and legitimacy. Political discourse is, as a consequence, structurally and functionally similar to religious discourse. In this revealing passage, we can see how Andrew contrasts their civil religion with his own:

This is a religion – but a particularly modern, extreme and unthinking fundamentalist religion. And such a form of religion is the antithesis of the mainline Protestantism that once dominated the Republican party as well, to a lesser extent, the Democratic party.

It also brooks no distinction between religion and politics, seeing them as fused in the same cultural and religious battle. Much of the GOP hails from that new purist, apocalyptic sect right now – and certainly no one else is attacking that kind of religious organization. But it will do to institutional political parties what entrepreneurial fundamentalism does to mainline churches: its appeal to absolute truth, total rectitude and simplicity of worldview instantly trumps tradition, reason, moderation, compromise.

In opposition to “extreme, fundamentalist, purist, unthinking, apocalyptic” political religion, we get Andrew’s preferred form of political religion: traditional, reasoned, moderate, and compromising.

This is a form of argument favored by progressive, liberal, and ecumenical Christians when they oppose or bemoan the excesses of their “fundamentalist” brethren. We sometimes see Muslims do the same thing when they feel compelled to defend Islam against the violent actions of their “fundamentalist” brethren. These are the kinds of arguments that are on regular display in the Huffington Post’s religion section. In that forum, ecumenical religionists of all stripes write articles reassuring one another that their preferred form of faith is — if read in the proper educated and moderate way — peaceful, progressive, and loving.

While I have considerable sympathy for all these moderates, this doesn’t mean their positions are any less “religious” than the others. They are just different.


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3 thoughts on “Dishing Civil Religion

  1. Bob Cranmer

    If anything Cris they are much more “religious” in their positions. The Tea-party folks are realistic and practical – government can’t continue on its current path of spending what you don’t have. The national debt has gone from 8 trillion to 17 trillion (approx.) since 2006 – it simply cannot continue to grow at this rate, as it will soon consume our economy.

    On the other hand the progressives-moderates believe that government has a fundamental obligation to provide services to citizens beyond the basics of defense, transportation, and trade regulation. It’s no longer business as usual, but “progressives” are driven by a type of blind faith that it will somehow all work out in the end…seems like a religious position vs. a practical one based on simple logic.

    The president others for making the same argument he made in 2006 when he voted against raising the debt ceiling…go figure?

  2. Cris Post author

    Thanks for the comment Bob. It nicely illustrates the way in which political argument (and positions) are akin to theological argument (and religions). Your views are of course debatable, both as a matter of fact and policy. But I won’t take issue with them because I don’t do theology or politics.

    Most political positions are metaphysical because they are grounded upon, and flow from, our views of “human nature” and a “just society.” These views are in most cases deeply ingrained in us and rarely subjected to critical interrogation or sustained scrutiny. This is why most people don’t change their minds on political issues and political debates have so little effect and impact. People just talk at and past one another. In this, politics are again much like religion.

    I’m always amazed at the amount of time and energy people devote to arguing about politics. I don’t know why they bother. Believers on one side preach to their choir, and believers on the other side preach to theirs. Almost never do believers on each side convince the other side of their rightness or righteousness.

    If you are interested in interrogating the ideological underpinnings of your own political-religious position, I recommend reading Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions.

  3. Larry Stout

    Paul Stephenson, scholarly historian, argues persuasively in his book “Constantine” that politics and religion were joined at the hip in the person of the first Byzantine, and first nominally Christian, emperor. But as Cris avers, this fusion is a universal, and is quite apparent in contemporary America.

    Tea Party “realistic”? How about “simple-minded”? Are Hoovervilles and soup-kitchens really “practical”?

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