Tag Archives: Civil Religion

Machiavelli’s Civil Religion

This review by Professor Cary Nederman of Professor Maurizio Viroli’s Redeeming the Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece is very interesting (h/t Matt Lister). I have not read Viroli’s book yet (saving it for the summer!), but his reading of Machiavelli–and in particular his interpretation of the famously perplexing Chapter 26 (“Exhortatio ad capessendam Italiam in liberatemque a barbaris vindicandam”)–makes a fine textualist case for a kind of civil religion in his work. Here, Machiavelli pleads for an Italian redeemer who–”favorita da Dio e dalla Chiesa” (“favored by God and the Church”)–will deliver Italy from its present troubles. The troubles are pretty bad: “sanza capo, sanza ordine, battuta, spogliata, lacera, corsa, e avessi sopportato d’ogni sorte ruina” (“without a head, without order, beaten, denuded, wounded, run down, and having sustained all manner of ruin”). Here’s a bit from the review concerning what Machiavelli had in mind concerning the divine agent who would unify Italy and redeem its national promise:

In contrast to most scholars, for whom Chapter 26 cannot be reconciled with the previous body of the text, Viroli insists that Machiavelli’s “Exhortation” represents the very crescendo of The Prince. How does Viroli arrive at such an unconventional reading?….His overarching insight, I take it, is that we ought to take Machiavelli at his word when he speaks of religious matters and, in particular, mentions the workings of God. The prevailing tendency, of course, has been to dismiss such references as reflective of either his impiety or his wicked sense of humor. On this important point, I believe Viroli to be largely correct. Scholars have all-too-often filtered their readings of Machiavelli through a set of preconceived notions or impressions of what they assume he was saying, according to his longstanding reputation, rather than what the text actually states. This does not mean that Machiavelli’s political thought lacks an underlying agenda, but rather that we must always commence our investigations by taking the words he wrote seriously and at face value….

In particular, Machiavelli’s invocation of prophetic wording in Chapter 26, according to Viroli, reflects the overarching purpose of The Prince: the call for a redeemer, presumably Lorenzo de’ Medici, to unify Italy in order to remove the foreign elements that have dominated its politics. Machiavelli says that such a redeemer is sanctioned by God, who has rendered the moment propitious for such action. Viroli insists that we must take Machiavelli at his word in this regard, rather than dismissing it as incompatible with the general message of The Prince.

That supposed “general message” helps us to grasp the sense in which Machiavelli may be characterized as a realist for Viroli. Specifically, Viroli asserts that Machiavelli adopts the stance of a “realist with imagination.” By this he means that Machiavelli perfectly well understood the situation of Italy as it existed in his own day; this is his “realist” dimension. Yet he posits that Machiavelli was also engaged in an imaginative way to change such reality by promoting a savior, a redeemer, capable of instituting the reforms necessary to transform the realities of his day. On Viroli’s account, Machiavelli pursued this agenda by mythologizing the great men of bygone times as well as some of his contemporaries. Thus, he mythologizes the redeemers whom he lauds in Chapters 6 and 26 — such as Moses, Cyrus and Theseus — as well as recent political figures such as Caterina Sforza and (especially) Cesare Borgia, both of whom he had encountered during his days in the Florentine civil service. Their deeds are transformed by him without regard to their actual behavior, for which Machiavelli has no use. Machiavelli’s realism, then, is not confined to an effort to analyze and explain political events and personalities, past and present, in the manner of a political scientist. Rather, he renders his favored subjects larger than life, with the purpose of exhorting the redeemer to aim at their example, even if he falls short.

Szasz & Szasz, “Lincoln and Religion”

Next month, the University of Southern Illinois Press will 213-3603-SKU_LargeToMediumImage-thumbpublish Lincoln and Religion, by Ferenc Morton Szasz (University of New Mexico – Deceased 2010) and Margaret Connell Szasz (University of New Mexico). The book addresses the role of prayer during Lincoln’s presidency as well as changes in Lincoln’s faith. The publisher’s description follows.

Abraham Lincoln’s faith has commanded more broad-based attention than that of any other American president. Although he never joined a denomination, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Spiritualists, Jews, and even atheists claim the sixteenth president as one of their own. In this concise volume, Ferenc Morton Szasz and Margaret Connell Szasz offer both an accessible survey of the development of Lincoln’s religious views and an informative launch pad for further academic inquiry. A singular key to Lincoln’s personality, especially during the presidential years, rests with his evolving faith perspective.

After surveying Lincoln’s early childhood as a Hard-Shell Baptist in Kentucky and Indiana, the authors chronicle his move from skepticism to participation in Episcopal circles during his years in Springfield, and, finally, after the death of son Eddie, to Presbyterianism. They explore Lincoln’s relationship with the nation’s faiths as president, the impact of his son Willie’s death, his adaptation of Puritan covenant theory to a nation at war, the role of prayer during his presidency, and changes in his faith as reflected in the Emancipation Proclamation and his state papers and addresses. Finally, they evaluate Lincoln’s legacy as the central figure of America’s civil religion, an image sharpened by his prominent position in American currency.

A closing essay by Richard W. Etulain traces the historiographical currents in the literature on Lincoln and religion, and the volume concludes with a compilation of Lincoln’s own words about religion.

In assessing the enigma of Lincoln’s Christianity, the authors argue that despite his lack of church membership, Lincoln lived his life through a Christian ethical framework. His years as president, dominated by the Civil War and personal loss, led Lincoln to move into a world beholden to Providence.

Prtichard, “Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology”

Here’s an interesting new book, Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology Religion in Public(Stanford University Press 2013) by Elizabeth A. Pritchard (Department of Religion, Bowdoin) that considers and challenges the view that John Locke sought to privatize religion and instead argues that Locke’s political theology aimed to secularize religion and make it public. John Locke’s views about religion and toleration, of course, are important as intellectual sources for the religion clauses of the US Constitution. The abstract follows.

John Locke’s theory of toleration is generally seen as advocating the privatization of religion. This interpretation has become conventional wisdom: secularization is widely understood as entailing the privatization of religion, and the separation of religion from power. This book turns that conventional wisdom on its head and argues that Locke secularizes religion, that is, makes it worldly, public, and political. In the name of diverse citizenship, Locke reconstructs religion as persuasion, speech, and fashion. He insists on a consensus that human rights are sacred insofar as humans are the creatures, and thus, the property of God. Drawing on a range of sources beyond Locke’s own writings, Pritchard portrays the secular not as religion’s separation from power, but rather as its affiliation with subtler, and sometimes insidious, forms of power. As a result, she captures the range of anxieties and conflicts attending religion’s secularization: denunciations of promiscuous bodies freed from patriarchal religious and political formations, correlations between secular religion and colonialist education and conversion efforts, and more recently, condemnations of the coercive and injurious force of unrestricted religious speech.

Gardella, “American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred by Peter Gardella (Manhattanville College). The publisher’s description follows.

The United States has never had an officially established national church. Since the time of the first British colonists, it has instead developed a strong civil religion that melds God and nation. In a deft exploration of American civil religious symbols-from the Liberty Bell to the Vietnam Memorial, from Mount Rushmore to Disney World-Peter Gardella explains how the places, objects, and words that Americans hold sacred came into being and how Americans’ feelings about them have changed over time. In addition to examining revered historical sites and structures, he analyzes such sacred texts as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Kennedy Inaugural, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, and shows how five patriotic songs-”The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land Is Your Land”-have been elevated into hymns.
Arguing that certain values-personal freedom, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance-have held American civil religion together, Gardella chronicles the numerous forms those values have taken, from Jamestown and Plymouth to the September 11, 2001 Memorial in New York.

Reflections from the City of God: On the Role of Religion in Inculcating Civic Virtue

I’ve been delayed in writing about my next selection from the City of God–this view_of_rome_as_the_city_of_god_poster-r332f2a9125be4d48b9f3d29d2e055265_wve_8byvr_512one from early in Book II, a book devoted to exploring the extent to which the Roman gods did not protect Romans from sundry disasters. But the particular disasters Augustine has in mind are moral disasters–not disasters of the body but disasters of the soul–and he highlights the vice and civic decay not only enabled but positively stimulated by the Roman gods. Here is Book II, Chapter 6, in full:

This is the reason why those divinities [MOD: in the previous chapter Augustine discusses Cybele, the "Earth Mother," in particular] quite neglected the lives and morals of the cities and nations who worshipped them, and threw no dreadful prohibition in their way to hinder them from becoming utterly corrupt, and to preserve them from those terrible and detestable evils which visit not harvests and vintages, not house and possessions, not the body which is subject to the soul, but the soul itself, the spirit that rules the whole man. If there was any such prohibition, let it be produced, let it be proved. They will tell us that purity and probity were inculcated upon those who were initiated in the mysteries of religion, and that secret incitements to virtue were whispered in the ear of the elite; but this is an idle boast. Let them show or name to us the places which were at any time consecrated to assemblages in which, instead of the obscene songs and licentious acting of players, instead of the celebration of those most filthy and shameless Fugalia [MOD: civil feasts] (well called Fugalia, since they banish modesty and right feeling) [MOD: I think that Augustine is relying here on the root, 'fuga,' meaning 'flight'], the people were commanded in the name of the gods to restrain avarice, bridle impurity, and conquer ambition; where, in short, they might learn in that school which Persius vehemently lashes them to, when he says:

Be taught, ye abandoned creatures, and ascertain the causes of things; what we are, and for what end we are born; what is the law of our success in life; and by what art we may turn the goal without making shipwreck; what limit we should put to our wealth, what we may lawfully desire, and what uses filthy lucre serves; how much we should bestow upon our country and our family; learn, in short, what God meant you to be, and what place He has ordered you to fill.

Let them name to us the places where such instructions were wont to be communicated from the gods, and where the people who worshiped them were accustomed to resort to hear them, as we can point to our churches built for this purpose in every land where the Christian religion is received.

One of the interesting features of the this chapter and, indeed, the entire book is the extent to which Augustine believes it to be religion’s role to inculcate virtue–including civic virtue–in its adherents. The morality that Augustine is discussing is not a private or interior morality, at least not solely. In the previous chapter, he castigates the Romans for bestowing their finest citizens with the honor of a statue of “that demon Cybele.” Robert Dodaro writes: “[E]ven Rome’s best citizens are deceived by Cybele, the ‘Mother of the Gods.’” Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine 45. And here, Augustine specifically mentions the morality not of individuals, or even of families, but of “cities and nations.” The context in which he condemns Roman vice is not personal, but public–the feast of Fugalia, which so far as I can tell is a civic feast celebrating the expulsion of the Roman kings. And the fragment he quotes from the stoic Roman satirist Persius concerns both private and public virtue (“how much we should bestow upon our country and our family”).

Augustine clearly believes that it is an important function of religion to inculcate civic or public virtue and honor. Religion is not a privatized or purely personal phenomenon, and any religion worth its salt must do more than “whisper” “secret incitements to virtue” “to the elite” (notice that by highlighting the “elite,” Augustine is emphasizing the importance of religion’s influence on the powerful, including the politically powerful). It must inform their private and public lives. It must provide a public forum–a place of assembly–for the discussion of virtue to occur (not just a private “whispering”). And it must “vehemently lash” public men. Christianity, Augustine believes, performs these functions, while the Roman gods failed to do so.

A final aside: I was struck by the fragment of Persius, because it sounds so much like the words that Dante puts into the mouth of Ulysses in Canto XXVI of Inferno as he sails to the ends of the earth (118-20):

Considerate la vostra semenza:

Fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

“Consider your origins: You were not made to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Unfortunately for wandering Ulysses (at least in Dante’s telling), he was not in the end able to discover “by what art we may turn the goal without making shipwreck.”

Robert Bellah, RIP

Word comes that sociologist Robert Bellah (left) has passed away at the age of 86. Bellah was famous for his work on American civil religion–indeed, he reintroduced that concept to American law in the 1960s–and the magisterial Habits of the Heart, a book he co-authored in 1985. Habits remains remarkably relevant today, particularly in its famous discussion of “Sheilaism,” the thoroughly individualist spirituality that appeals to so many Americans, particularly the growing number of “Nones.” When he died, he was working on a new book, Religion in Human Evolution. Matt Schmitz has a tribute on the First Things site. RIP.

Mackil, “Creating a Common Polity”

This is a fascinating new book about the influence of religion in forging politicalCreating a Common Polity alliances and as an integrating force in unifying the political community (koinon) in ancient Greece, focusing especially (it appears) on the period from 500-200 B.C. The book is Creating a Common Polity: Religion, Economy, and Politics in the Making of the Greek Koinon (University of California Press 2013) by Emily Mackil (history, Berkeley). The publisher’s description follows.

In the ancient Greece of Pericles and Plato, the polis, or city-state, reigned supreme, but by the time of Alexander, nearly half of the mainland Greek city-states had surrendered part of their autonomy to join the larger political entities called koina. In the first book in fifty years to tackle the rise of these so-called Greek federal states, Emily Mackil charts a complex, fascinating map of how shared religious practices and long-standing economic interactions facilitated political cooperation and the emergence of a new kind of state. Mackil provides a detailed historical narrative spanning five centuries to contextualize her analyses, which focus on the three best-attested areas of mainland Greece—Boiotia, Achaia, and Aitolia. The analysis is supported by a dossier of Greek inscriptions, each text accompanied by an English translation and commentary. 

Varieties of Progressive Civil Religion

Here’s a very interesting short piece by Professor David Fontana (GW), which responds to Professor Fred Gedicks’s (BYU) longer article, American Civil Religion: An Idea Whose Time is Past.  Both papers are worth your attention.  What interests me is the taxonomy of progressive American civil religion that these papers go some distance to fleshing out (Steve Shiffrin’s book about the religious left is also useful).  It is sometimes assumed that all progressives are opposed to civil religion, while all conservatives support it; progressives are supposed to be for the naked public square, while conservatives prefer greater public modesty.  There is a little truth in this caricature, but the picture is more complicated.  Civil religion is neither the possession of the left nor the right.  Instead, the fight seems to be about the variety of civil religion that the country ought to embrace.  And as to that question, it seems that not only do conservatives disagree with progressives but progressives differ among themselves.  Fred’s piece, for example, is largely skeptical about civil religion but in the end calls for a “thinner,” “Rawlsian,” “procedural” version that, he claims, “can function to bind us together as a people and a nation.”  And though he does not believe “religion” can perform this function, the election of Obama made him “proud to be an American” and provided something like this “thinner” variety of civil religion (or civil civilianism).  By contrast, Fontana writes:

The issue with the American civil religion, though, is that it had come to be seen as so ideological and exclusionary that it alienated many mainstream and liberal voters. While advocacy of an American civil religion could have motivated those true believers, typically those on the political right that Gedicks discusses, a politically conservative civil religion that had “appropriated the symbols and practices of American civil religion and infused them with sectarian meaning” turned off many voters. An American liberal civil religion held out more promise as an inspiring American nationalism, but with a tolerant edge. Enter Obama onto the national political stage, perhaps “the most theologically serious politician in modern American political history,” whose speeches have been just as full with religious imagery and rhetoric as they have been with civil imagery and rhetoric. Obama’s speeches were full of references to civil ideas, or as Gedicks defines them, Rawlsian ideas, as well as to religious ideas . . . .

In other words, then, perhaps the American civil religion is not dead, but has been brought to life by our new President. Since Bellah’s concept of the civil religion was about the idea as a political tool as much as about a sociological concept, it has come to life again because it has been used by a group—and a political phenom—better able to use it in the political sphere. Indeed, just as maybe only Nixon could go to China, maybe only Obama can reinvigorate civil religion.

The claim that Obama is “the most theologically serious politician in modern American political history” is supported by a citation to Professor Charlton Copeland’s piece, “God-Talk in the Age of Obama: Theology and Religious Political Engagement.”  I’m not sure how one would measure such things; read Copeland’s paper to find out how he claims to do it.

But the interesting thing about both pieces is the durability of civil religion, the hardiness of this plant and its capacity to take root in what one might think would be the inhospitable, stony soil of the progressive heart.  For Fred, the terrain is truly rough and desiccated.  For Fontana, it’s a little richer, but only a little.

And that points toward another interesting feature of progressive civil religion.  What binds Fred’s and Fontana’s accounts is that for both writers, civil religion is feeble.  It lacks deep roots.  For Fred, civil religion is “thin” while for Fontana it has a shelf-life of roughly two and a half more years.  I am reminded of the following passage concerning the modern orientation toward tradition in the sociologist Edward Shils’s excellent book of the same name:

Tradition is like a plant which repeatedly puts down roots whenever it is left in one place for a short time, yet is frequently torn up and flung from one place to another, so that the nutriment of its branches and leaves is cut off and the plant becomes pale and enfeebled.  Traditions may be unavoidable but they are not always very strong.  Tendencies to seek and find traditions may be ubiquitous in human society and the tendencies to seek and find might always find a tradition to attach themselves to.  The tendency to seek a religious tradition may be present in all societies but if they are unaided by the availability of traditions and proponents of tradition, substantive traditions may become etiolated and very weak.  (315)

For progressive civil religion, that may be the point.

John Locke’s Constitution for the Carolinas (1669): Thoughts on “Churches”

John Locke drafted a constitution for the Carolinas in 1669, entitled, “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.”  His draft was never ratified, but here are some provisions relating to “churches” which may be of some interest, in light of the resurgence of scholarship involving the liberty of the church:

Ninety-seven. But since the natives of that place, who will be concerned in our plantation, are utterly strangers to Christianity, whose idolatry, ignorance, or mistake gives us no right to expel or use them ill; and those who remove from other parts to plant there will unavoidably be of different opinions concerning matters of religion, the liberty whereof they will expect to have allowed them, and it will not be reasonable for us, on this account, to keep them out, that civil peace may be maintained amidst diversity of opinions, and our agreement and compact with all men may be duly and faithfully observed; the violation whereof, upon what presence soever, cannot be without great offence to Almighty God, and great scandal to the true religion which we profess; and also that Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion may not be scared and kept at a distance from it, but, by having an opportunity of acquainting themselves with the truth and reasonableness of its doctrines, and the peaceableness and inoffensiveness of its professors, may, by good usage and persuasion, and all those convincing methods of gentleness and meekness, suitable to the rules and design of the gospel, be won ever to embrace and unfeignedly receive the truth; therefore, any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion, shall constitute a church or profession, to which they shall give some name, to distinguish it from others.


One hundred. In the terms of communion of every church or profession, these following shall be three; without which no agreement or assembly of men, upon presence of religion, shall be accounted a church or profession within these rules:

1st. “That there is a God.”

II. “That God is publicly to be worshipped.”

III. “That it is lawful and the duty of every man, being thereunto called by those that govern, to bear witness to truth; and that every church or profession shall, in their terms of communion, set down the external way whereby they witness a truth as in the presence of God, whether it be by laying hands on or kissing the bible, as in the Church of England, or by holding up the hand, or any other sensible way.”

Some thoughts on the language about “churches” and what constitutes them:

1. Locke seems to want to be generous for, among other reasons (some religious), the strategic reason of conversion.  He recognizes that the many “strangers” to Christianity will expect religious liberty, and maintenance of civic peace demands that they have it, but “by good usage and persuasion” these people are hopefully to be converted.  All of this is familiar from the Letter Concerning Toleration, but what really interested me was the final line of section 97: “therefore, any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion, shall constitute a church or profession, to which they shall give some name, to distinguish it from others.”  Notice Locke’s emphasis on, to use a legal term, numerosity!  What constitutes a “church” is in part a numerical characteristic.  You cannot be a “church” under Locke’s constitution with less than seven members.  This numerical feature highlights the sociality of an ecclesial structure.  And we continue to struggle with it today (compare, e.g., Psychic Sophie and related controversies).

2.  But there are also substantive characteristics that must be satisfied.  Belief in God, of course, but notice the public quality of the other two elements!  You cannot be a church unless you worship God “publicly.”  And there must be official rules for that public worship–the church must promulgate rules which “set down the external way” in which  church members will witness the truth as they apprehend it.  The emphasis on these external, public, ritualistic functions of churches–and therefore, in part, on the public functions that they serve, the ‘civil religion’ function–is perhaps not quite so common today but it is still present.

Berger on American Civil Religion and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Peter Berger has a very smart column describing both the shortcomings and the advantages of American civil religion, as expressed and manifested in the rituals and ceremonies after the Boston Marathon bombing.  A bit:

Soon after the bombings a makeshift memorial was spontaneously put up. A Globe article described it as “an eclectic collection of crosses, candles, teddy bears, medals, running shoes, and hundreds of other personalized items that reflect a common sorrow.” I don’t know when or where this practice originated, but it has occurred on other occasions of shared grief, for example following the death of Princess Diana. There were a few overtly religious messages inserted into the display, but the memorial as a whole had a clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character. People were coming and going, stood quietly in an attitude of prayer, wrote messages. A six-year old girl laboriously wrote a message saying “We love you so much!”. That was the major theme—expressions of affection for the victims. Then there were affirmations of resolve against violence, and expressions of the intent to run again in next year’s Marathon. Sacral ritual or not, no denominationally specific religion was visible here . . . .

The opening address at the Cathedral service was delivered by the Reverend Liz Walker, a Presbyterian minister. I was struck by the following passage: “How can God allow bad things to happen? Where was God when evil slithered in and planted the horror that exploded our innocence?” She said that she had no answer, and added, “But this is what I know: God is here, in the midst of this sacred gathering and beyond.”

I would not be misunderstood: I have no problem whatever for a minister not knowing “the answer” to the age-old question of theodicy. After all, I co-authored a book with the title In Praise of Doubt—by definition, I think, faith implies an absence of certainty—I don’t have to believe what I know. But that is not the point here. The point is this: The faith that Walker represents does have an answer, centered on the redemptive process inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating on that Day of Judgment when all evil will finally be punished. But what is more: She could not (whether in tones of certainty or not) explicate this answer in the context of this service. Once again, I would not be misunderstood: I have no criticism of Walker’s reticence about the Christian faith she is supposed to represent. It would have been inappropriate here for her to come out with overtly Christian (let alone with Protestant or, if such there are, Presbyterian) references.  But it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in this service . . . .

Grace Davie, a British sociologist, has written about the way in which established churches, in moments of collective grief, become the official mourners of the nation, even though only a minority of citizens worship in their services. The Church of England played this role at the funeral of Princess Diana, as did the Lutheran Church of Sweden (it has recently been disestablished) when the cruise ship “Estonia” sank in the Baltic Sea and a large number of Swedish tourists perished. The United States of course has no state church, but all the denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.

This is a very distinctive American version of the separation of church and state, a quite strict legal separation, yet with diverse religious groups noisily present in public life. I think that, by and large, this has been a very successful arrangement. It presupposes that a religious group, when it enters public space, must translate its commentaries into terms that can be understood and debated by all citizens, most of whom will not be members of the particular group. Put differently, if one wants to persuade fellow-citizens in public space, one must employ a secular discourse. That discourse does have a moral foundation, the value system of the “American Creed”. Adherents of this or that specific faith may find these values more vague, even superficial, than the ones derived directly from faith, and they themselves may understand their allegiance to the Creed in terms specific to their faith. Thus the secular discourse of the public space coexists with the plurality of specific (if you will, “sectarian”) religious discourses.

I wonder about the point about translation, which reminds me a little bit of Rawls’s proviso.  It may be more accurate to say that the specific religious discourses not only coexist with the civil religion, but themselves somehow constitute it.  That could be compatible with believing that the whole of civil religion is greater (and, of course, also less) than the sum of its discrete sectarian parts.  But it would also be compatible with rejecting the metaphor of translation.  Because, as Berger himself suggests, there are deep features of the specific traditions that do not translate (as in, for example, his example of theodicy) but may nevertheless in some way constitute part of the civil religion amalgam.