In a New Yorker interview, Simon Critchley discusses his recent The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, which raises fundamental doubts about the possibility of a secular political order: “Even if you look at things like social democratic forms of government, which would believe themselves entirely secular, they’re not. If you look at a country like Sweden, it has taken the moral teachings of Lutheranism and combined them with a form of utilitarian ethics into a form of social behavior, which people think of as just the way things are. But for me, different forms of political life are different forms of what’s sacred.” In short, every political order has to have “something that sanctifies it.”
We’d be much clearer if we dispensed with the notion that history moves from religious to secular: “You wouldn’t look at history in terms of some movement from the religious to the secular —you’d simply look at different societies in terms of how they articulate their religiosity. And that allows you to get around this secular-religious distinction, which causes all sorts of problems, between we reasonable secular people in the West and those crazy religious fanatics elsewhere who are trying to blow us up. We do believe in a different set of things. But they’re religious, too.”
And it would be better if we didn’t aspire to a secular order:
Critchley says, “If you look at a counterexample, the problem with the European Union is that it doesn’t have those rituals. It tried to bind a polity together through a constitution, but it was so weak. There’s been a total failure to craft something like a European identity—the problem hasn’t even been recognized. So we’re left with a unity which is simply monetary. And that seems to be screwed.”
He gets the American religion almost right. The interviewer, Rollo Romig, summarizes: “Ours is a nation founded on a creed, the Declaration of Independence, and guided by a sacred text, the Constitution, which, as Critchley puts it, ‘you can’t be against—it’s just a question of how you’re gonna be for it.’ And our history has long been presented to us in religious terms. As Michael Kammen writes in his epic study of how Americans interpret their tradition, ‘Mystic Chords of Memory,’ historic sites such as Mount Vernon or colonial Williamsburg were conceived not as living classrooms or tourist traps but as ‘shrines,’ as stops on a pilgrimage. But American civil religion really took hold—and, not coincidentally, America first became a coherent nation—with Abraham Lincoln. ‘Lincoln gave voice to the providential aspect of American civil religion,’ Critchley told me, ‘the sense that the force of history is with the United States, and war was a necessary crucible out of which the new American identity had to be formed, and that was somehow also the will of God.’ Lincoln was even a martyr, shot down on a Good Friday.”
The one place where he goes wrong is in describing the American creed as “deism”: ”Liberal democracy, Critchley argues, is simply the political form of deism. Natural law and natural rights, so central to the American creed, are fundamentally theological concepts. Thomas Jefferson may have been a freethinking, Bible-revising iconoclast, but he wasn’t just being figurative when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that such rights are endowed by a Creator; that’s what deists believe. And even without prayer in schools, the deist creed is coded into every national ritual we have, from the courtroom to the ballpark.”
Deism is incorrect. American civil religion is too biblical for that, and too bound up with an America-centered idea of providence. The god of Americanism is not a distant one, but a transformation of the interventionist God of Calvin. The god of Americanism isn’t a dispassionate god of deism; the god of Americanism plays favorites.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, February 27, 2012 at 10:22 am
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