Marcela Cristi - From Civil to Political Religion

January 17, 2006

From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion, and Politics
Marcela Cristi
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Waterloo, Ontario 2001

Cristi is critical of Bellah and most other formulations of civil religion.

As she argues it, civil religion comes in two varieties, Rousseau and Durkheim. The first is national ideology, imposed from above for the purpose of legitimating the power of the state. The second is consensual and cultural. It grows out from the people spontanously and binds them together. She argues that historians of American civil religion have cited Rousseau, then used Durkheim exclusively, imposing a level of consensus that did not exist in the past. Instead she proposes that civil religion forms a continuum from the strict Rousseau ideology on one end to strick Durkheim culture on the other. This continuum can then be applied to other cultures and other societies as a useful sociological model.

Rousseau called it civil religion, but Cristi argues that his is "political religion" - a state religion of "dogmas that every citizen must subscribe to on pain of exile or death."

Durkheim discusses a "civic creed." He gets there by looking at primitive religious groups, who share a totem or symbol of collective identity. In the modern world, the totems are the nation and the idea of moral individualism (not "the utilitarian egoism of Spencer and of the economists"). Durkheim's quote. Cristi summarizes: "In Durkheim's cult of the individual, each person is the repository of the sacred, and the symbol and source of a new morality." 37 Every gathering is a feast, every feast a celebration of the group, every feast an occasion where individuals join together.

Cristi summarizes Durkheim
"Religion is not something to be imposed on the individual. Rather it is a cultural and social force acting upon him. Citizens are not expected to endorse the creed (or the religious sentiments associated with collective gatherings); Durkheim assumes that they spontaneously or naturally do so. Civil reliion springs from society itself and nis carried on every time the group meets and celebrates together. Social representations, values, beliefs, ingrained in the collective mind, are carried from generation to generation. It is not the power of the soveriegn (or the state), but the power of society that acts upon the individual." 39-40

Summarizes the historiography of civil religion, 1950s-70s, then does her own brief historical summary. Argues that "the civic-religious dimensio of the american experience is often traced back to a blend of idea stemming from its puritan tradition and from the Enlightenment. . . . Civic virtues was equated with political obligations, and political obligations with a duty to God. Simply put, civic responsibilities became infused with ethical significance." 49


Focuses on the relationship between power and civil religion, both flavors, including several case studies of political religion in international context.
"Civil religion is neither simply civil nor purely religious, but it is also centrally political." 235

Concludes that civil religion, as construed by Bellah et al using Durkheimian assumptions "has proven to be deficient on several grounds: nit does not provide an adequate solution to the problem of conflicting interests that divide society, whether this conflict is expressed in terms of race, class, or politicial ideology; it is often not useful to evaluate significant differences or shades of civil religions, both ebtween societies and within them; it is inadequate to investigate civil religious belies as expressions f ideologies produced by some groups; it is inadequate, again, to analyze politically motivated uses of civil religion.
"The critique presented in this study does not necessarily mean that the civil religion concept is sociologically useless. On the contrary, I remian convicned that it addresses an important sociological topic of investigation -- the 'religio-political problem.'" 242 The idea may be inadequate, but it is not false.

Posted by Red Ted at January 17, 2006 02:02 PM | TrackBack
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