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Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Civil Religion

In the leisure of aging years, I struggle to understand the distresses of our present situation: the persistence of racism, deterioration of democratic institutions, wars without end, polarizing division in politics, growing gaps in equality, exercise of power through fear, hatred of others outside tribe or party, calls for obstruction over collaboration, protection of the instruments of violence. 

Why this concern, you ask. I love life; and life is prolonged and enriched through purpose and association. I care for my family and especially my grandchildren. I care for my friends. I care for my associates seeking social meaning and justice. I care for my community, my country, and a world whose future is in doubt. 
Guided by old mentors[i]and new ones,[ii]I have reviewed the fragile connection between politics and economy, American democracy and American capitalism, and discovered their contradictions. One is bottom-up with horizontal decision-making among persons who are equals deliberating on behalf of the common good. The other is hierarchical with vertical decision-making on behalf of private profit. 

The principle of democracy, presently in critical decay, is the subordination of economic life and institutions to public good. In politics, citizens and their representatives leave their households and businesses to form a public to oversee, limit, regulate, and protect the private sphere—including households, tribes, clans, companies, clubs, and other associations. In other words, the public good outweighs private goods; public happiness is a condition for private happiness.  When the goal of a public and its institutions (government) is subjected to private or special interests, both the public and privacy are jeopardized. 

And that is what many observers confirm is happening. The evidence is in the influence by lobbyists on political deliberation; oligarchs using their corporations to fund candidates and officials; the public good consisting in the sum of private goods; Gross National Product, rather than Public Happiness, as the criterion of success of the nation; bailouts for too-big-to-fail financial institutions; investment in private ventures rather than people; socialization of risks and privatization of profit; and tax breaks for the wealthy subsidized by lower classes. American politics and economy are not just out of sync; they are in contention. Some say that democracy cannot exist without free market capitalism. I discover the contrary.

But beyond the forms, objectives, nature, and ordering of economy and politics, it is important to see both in relation to culture. When Alexis De Tocqueville studied Democracy in America, he turned to the mores of people. He investigated how they lived with one another, what they considered good behavior, the values and the beliefs that shaped their behavior, their “habits of the heart” in order to understand the foundations of their private and public behavior. 

Culture consists in the myths, values, big ideas, worldview of a society as expressed in their religion, philosophy, arts, sciences, and education. The leaders of the Continental Congress founding the nation learned from the experience and philosophy of England from Magna Carta to John Locke.  They also learned from their colonial history and experience--from the self-ruling Puritans who settled Massachusetts and the tolerance of Roger Williams founding Rhode Island.  

When the framers of the constitution insisted on freedom of and from religion, the disestablishment of religion, they made the key distinction for democratic governing between the private and the public. They relegated personal persuasions, traditional beliefs, ethnic customs, tribal loyalties, family practices, local mutual associations to the private realm in order to form and enhance a public realm. The public would protect and support the private.  It would also assure that private behavior would not undermine or prevail over the public realm but support it through participation and representation.


There are other important distinctions that cut across both the private and the public realms, for example, individual and social, sacred and secular, virtues and vices. Each has its own culture to support it. Each has its own language, myths, habits, values.  Each has its own understanding of virtue and vice, of the individual in association, and of the sacred and secular.  Each has its own culture including myths, religion, and philosophy

While one realm supports the other, it is essential that each maintains the distinction between public and private and the division of its institutions.  It is so important to recognize when an individual or group of individuals acts privately or as a public citizen and when private behavior has public consequences. This is the distinction that allows for and applauds multiculturalism while at the same time enjoys unity and cohesion. That unity is achieved in the public realm where people from all cultures, ethnicities, traditions, religious persuasions, ideals, and aspirations create a civil culture, civic virtue, civic morality, civil religion, and civilization itself. The foundation of that unity is in human existence as reaching out to organize a common world, reaching in to the indispensable relationship to others, reaching up to continually transcend the products of our expression of the world with others. 

It follows then that the characteristics of a democratic republic are:

1.    Distinction from the private realm and division of their institutions. (e.g. church-state) [Big question: How do the private and public cultures and behaviors relate?] 
2.    Inclusion of all persons in constituting and shaping the public. (e.g. equal participation for persons from many traditions and persuasions, non-discrimination). [What is citizenship?]
3.    Priority of public good over private goods. (e.g. political (public) unity in cultural (private) diversity). [How far to regulate individual and corporate behavior for good of all? The rights of minorities and those without power?] 
4.    Protection and fostering of private rights of all persons and groups of persons. (e.g. religious/cultural/racial/sexual/age liberty). [Who is a person?]
5.    Equality under the law enacted by the public through its institutions. [Is criminal justice system fair? Is capital punishment acceptable?]
6.    Exercise of rights to speak, serve, and act, associate and organize, inquire, criticize, and protest (e.g. life, liberty, pursuit of happiness [What are minimum conditions for nutrition, shelter, education, safety?]

From its foundation to this very moment, the American experience and experiment with democracy and culture, including religion, has been an exercise in lofty ideals and hypocritical practice. The compromises on which the Republic was founded included 1) the maintenance of slavery and servitude, 2) the oppression, removal, concentration of native peoples, persons of color, and refugees, 3) the servility of women, 4) the harassment of different life-styles. All these practices were and are exercised through private institutions of households, churches, businesses, clubs and associations protected and often promoted through political parties, civic law, and public neglect of suffering Americans. 

In assisting working-class neighborhoods and communities of color organize themselves for equity and justice, Saul Alinsky would counsel leaders to make authorities live up to their own “bullshit.” Well the “bullshit” is the civic culture, the civil religion, the American myth, idea, ideal. He called it “bullshit” because it was not being realized. Granted that the American ideal of a democratic republic or freedom and justice for all or a more perfect union is aspirational, if citizens are not moving towards that ideal and embodying that ideal in their actions, then that ideal and its public has already ceased to be. 

The civil religion has a content: A language, a creed, certain rites, mores, and morality, carried forward by its traditions in history and evolving into the future as the public realizes its ideals in changing circumstances. Some of that content can be discovered in the founding documents, some in the farewell addresses of presidents and in the articulations of public historians and philosophers. Many are printed on monuments on the Public Mall in DC.

But like the religions expressed in churches, synagogues, mosques, and other private places, the civil religion is primarily expressed in the values and acts of its adherents, its representatives, its officers. And highest office in a democratic republic is that of citizen.


[i]John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Karl Polanyi
[ii]Roberrt Kuttner, Wolfgang Streeck,