American Religions, Christian and Civil

American Religions, Christian and Civil

We are informed by an ancient fable that Ixion was invited by Jupiter to a banquet, fell in love, and began to court Juno herself; offering to embrace her, he clasped a cloud, from whence the Centaurs proceeded, by nature half men, half horses, a fierce, a fighting, and unquiet generation, the source of all contention and bloodshed…
—Thomas Hobbes, De Cive (1641)

Born into one world, yet longing to live in another, man stumbles as he jumps, then settles in awkwardly between the two worlds, a discontented and dangerous halfway creature. Therein lies his ruin. To what examples might we allude for confirmation?

Anticipating the catastrophe of the English Civil War, Hobbes (see above) proposed that its cause would lay in man’s inability to accept that justice exceeds mortal grasp. Man cannot jump that high. Purporting nevertheless to be able to achieve a Divine vantage point on the matter, English citizens would give birth to monstrous ideas about justice. Monstrous crimes followed.

Consider Plato’s Republic. Positioned halfway between darkness and light, man dwells in a cave-like world, amidst shadows, neither quite alive nor dead, neither ignorant nor knowledgeable, swayed by the half-truth of opinion. Misunderstanding where real substance lies, he seeks instead to possess all things among the shadows and, so, succumbs to tyranny. Thrasymachus is everyman.

Consider Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Dwelling halfway between the aristocratic age and the democratic age, man alternates between looking back longingly with the hope of reenchanting the world; and looking forward, with revolutionary rage, to abolishing the past and the present altogether. Here are the conservatives and the radicals, at war with each other, but alike in their inability to live without thorough-going parsimony, as a good liberal must be able to do.

Consider Nietzsche, in his assorted writings on the genealogy and fate of Europe. Claiming to have overcome Christian religion via the Enlightenment, European man nevertheless remains halfway Christian, adhering to Christian moral claims about equality, though now dissevered from Christian religion. “It is the church, and not its poison, that offends us,” European man declares. Unable to fully destroy the Old Tablets, so that new ones may be written, European man is suffocating from the Christianity he thinks he has renounced. Ensnared halfway between a Christian past to which he cannot return and a truly post-Christian future he dares not embrace, European man has no basis for believing anything and, so, he “feeds parasitically on every civilization under the sun,” in a multicultural orgy that masks a hunger he cannot sate.

What shall we make of civil religion? Is it, too, a tempting halfway measure, alternatingly dangerous and impotent, “operating in a realm distinct from both church and state, though borrowing from both,” as Richard Gamble writes in this fine essay about civil religion as it was crafted by Robert Bellah? Many of us know of Robert Bellah the sociologist, who is his classic work, The Habits of the Heart, carved out a halfway position between Weber and Tocqueville, declaring at one moment that the world has succumbed to the instrumental rationality of the former, and at the next moment that only the civic institutions defended by latter can save us. Gamble’s fine-grained account of Bellah, an advocate of American civil religion in the late twentieth century, is a welcome point of departure for us to re-engage a question that has loomed over America since she has come to occupy a halfway position that is neither fully Christian nor quite post-Christian.

This haunting question is, for us today, more than merely scholarly. The political left increasingly has both Christian ideas and the churches that profess them in its figurative gun sights; and in the wake of the near collapse, on the political right, of Reagan free-marketism and Bush II neo-conservatism, an emerging chorus of public intellectuals, courageously or recklessly, depending on your judgment of the matter, ponder a return to pre-modern political Catholicism of early modern Reformation nationalism. For us today, the question is whether a civil religion can bring coherence and purpose to a nation that seems on the verge of being torn asunder. If it cannot, as so many of us suspect, what next? Are we seeing the beginning of the mobilization for war between those on the left who want to destroy every vestige of Christianity, so that the world it has stained may be bleached clean; and those on the right who believe that without the whole cloth of Christianity, our nation cannot endure?

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