Think Piece for Chapter 3

June 16, 2005

I have been wrestling with the conceptual framework for the new chapter three.

This is going to be a think piece where I try to figure out what I want to argue by explaining myself to an audience of general readers using conversational language. It may ramble, and it may make no sense, but if it helps me figure out how to frame things then it will have done its job. Some folks figure out what they think by explaining it to another person, some by writing a letter to a relative. I write blog posts.

Chapter three is about the interactions between law and civil religion, especially in blasphemy trials, in the notion that christianity is a part of the common law, and in state constitutional provisions limiting the right to give testimony in court to people who express the correct religious opinions.

The whole thing touches on two powerful but somewhat fuzzy notions.

The first is civil society, what some folks called the Commonwealth ideal. This holds that every society has a knowable common interest - almost like Rousseau's General Will. Government is a social compact instituted by men in order to carry out this common interest. Government can give special privileges, sharing the powers of the state with people or more commonly with organizations, and it should do so only because and only to the extent to which these privileged organizations are also serving the common good. The most common instance of these special grants is charters of incorporation, which were generally passed by special act of the local legislature until sometime in the mid 1830s when general incorporation acts were passed. Even then, special acts tended to be more favorable than general incorporations, and state legislatures continued to pass special acts until the 1840s and 1850s when most state constitutions were amended to prohibit all special charters.

There is an extensive historiography of these commonwealth charters, starting with Handlin and Handlin writing in the 1950s, continuing with the work of the legal-economic historians of the 1960s and 1970s, and it is still live today in work by folks like Johann Neem.

Furthermore, civil society - that society created by the civil compact - contains a very important law and order or social control aspect. Locke argues that people enter the social contract and move from natural law to civil law in order to protect themselves and their property. This protection is provided by law. Anything that undermines the law or the respect that people have to the law is a danger to civil society.

For many people in the early nineteenth century, religion supported the rule of law and was a crucial component of civil society. Americans generally repudiated the strong form of Christendom, the notion that a nation must share a single unified state religion if it is to maintain coherence, but they still responded to the weak form, in which a nation must share a set of common religious values in order to maintain coherence. They dropped sects, but retained a fondness for Christianity in general. Religion did not simply provide a common bond between citizens. Religious teachers taught morality, and everyone praised the civic nature of religious faith. A proper religion taught the being of a god and of a future state of rewards and punishments. This added a Divine sanction to the laws that governed daily life. You might be tempted to take advantage of your fellow citizens if there was no watchman around, but the knowledge that sins in this world would be punished in the next might still deter you. It is God as Big Brother, always watching and always judging.

Anything that undermined popular belief in God as Big Brother inherently undermined civil society. And, anything that undermined the shared beliefs and values that tied people together also undermined civil society.

What I want to examine in more detail are changes in the idea that Christianity is a part of the common law, and in the operation of that idea, and, more broadly, changes in the way that people imagined the connection between religion and civil society. That latter is, of course, civil religion. But I am trying to write about aspects of civil religion as a way to avoid the whole conceptual mess of defining and explaining civil religion. There is no single or simple civil religion, but there are a lot of aspects of civil religion.

What I am not sure is whether I should try to define the idealized community that goes along with the realm of civil society - christendom lite if you will. I spent much of yesterday thinking about it, and I am still feeling mighty nebulous. Right now I am going with the theory that if you can not explain what it is you want to talk about, then remain silent.

This chapter is about the intersections between civil society and religion, what was once called civil religion. That term has been defined and redefined so many times now that I use it as a general term for all the interactions between the religious and the civil. But, three aspects of civil religion seem to be very prominent in the materials I want to discuss this chapter: civic faith (religion constraining officials, oathtakers, and people who participate in the mechanisms of law and government), social control (keeping the lower orders from running amok), and legitimation (explaining why the society is structured the way that it is.) The thing to remember as I write this chapter is that many of the things that I want to take as givens - christian republicanism for example - were actually heavily contested during this era. Everyone agreed that there should be some mutually beneficial interaction between religion and civil society, and that government as the organization created to protect and preserve civil society had to take recognize the role that religion should play. But, within that recognition of an overlap, there was incredible disagreement about how to most efficiently manage the overlap. Madison said the best thing you could do for religion was to get government out of the religion business. Lyman Beecher agreed with him so long as folks were talking about state support, establishment, or the endorsement of a given sect or denomination. But, Beecher disagreed with Madison about the measures that government should take to preserve common Christianity. Beecher wanted the sabbath mails halted, Madison probably wanted them to continue.

So the case studies in this chapter are the notion of a christian nation, the notion that christianity was part of the common law (blasphemy trials, etc.), the problem of oaths as a moment where the religious is pressed into the service of the state, and sabbath rest. I will use those studies to examine civic faith, social control, and legitimation, all of which are aspects of civil religion.

Good, NOW I can write. I have a 40 page draft and another 5 pages on Sabbath mails that I can plug into the draft, and I should be able to use this framework to create a fairly tight 50 to 60 page draft chapter.

The scary thing is that I spent two, no three days, wrestling with the above rambling and discursive statement.

Posted by Red Ted at June 16, 2005 08:57 PM | TrackBack