Thursday, April 17, 2014

Haberski’s Defense of Civil Religion Raises More Questions Than It Answers

God and War: American Civil Religion since 1945, by Raymond Haberski Jr., is a history of the way religion has been used in American politics since the end of World War II, especially regarding war (including the cold war). Dr. Haberski, a history professor at Marian University, discusses how various presidents have related to and used religion in this regard, as well as clerics and intellectuals. He sees the use of religion as pretty ubiquitous, though varied in purpose and effect.

Presidents in particular often try to use religion to rally and unify the nation. For example, Dr. Haberski discusses Richard Nixon’s first inaugural address wherein he says, “We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit.… We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment.… To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.”

It seems, in Dr. Haberski’s telling, that there is greater variety of opinion among intellectuals and clerics in the use of religion in politics. Some of those are opposed to American civil religion, or at least highly critical of it. For example, the politically conservative Jewish author, Will Herberg writes, “Aside from occasional pronouncements by a few theologians … religion in America seems to possess little capacity to … bring to bear the judgment of God upon the nation and its ways.”

By contrast, another writer, Sidney Mead, says, “A nation is ‘essentially a spiritual society,’ its soul created in the compact of the people.” And he further says of the civil religion of the United States, “its ideals and aspirations stand in constant judgment over the passing shenanigans of the people.”

Dr. Haberski’s history gives one a good sense of the complexities, tensions, and variations of the connection of religion, civil or otherwise, and politics in the United States. Indeed while the author thinks he is writing about American civil religion in particular, I think he has succeeded in writing about religion more broadly. For example, the book discusses the left-wing evangelical minister Jim Wallis, who rejects American civil religion precisely from a Christian standpoint. Billy Graham is also discussed, and it is, I think, impossible to consider him as other than deeply Christian even on those occasions when expresses himself in more general religious or spiritual terms.

Although the appeals of presidents and other politicians are generally and necessarily nondenominational and the United States has no official religion, the citizenry are subject to multiple religious and ideological influences. Dr, Haberski thinks civil religion is necessary and good: “We cannot live without myths.… And we cannot function as a people without a way to talk about, believe in, and yes, critique those myths.” Yet I find the whole concept of civil religion to be a tricky one.

What exactly is a civil religion? Do national or tribal religions like Judaism, Hinduism, or Native American religions count as civil religions? What about a secular ideology that provides myths for a nation but makes no pretence to religiosity like Marxism in the USSR or liberalism in Napoleonic France? Is civil religion ideology masquerading as a religion? Is it a melding of ideology and religiosity? What is the distinction, on the political plane, between ideology and religion? Can a religion with universalistic pretensions and aspirations and missionary impulses such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam serve as, or at least undergird, a civil religion and maintain its own integrity? Is Buddhism the civil religion of Taiwan and Catholicism that of Poland

Is Dr. Haberski correct when he says, “civil religion is not a set of laws but a collection of myths”? I am not an adherent of the U.S. civil religion myself, but the Declaration of Independence, with its talk of “unalienable Rights,” seems to me to have its share of mythology while justifying the creation of laws to secure those supposed natural rights.

Dr. Haberski, who strikes me as a leftish Niebuhrian, has written an informative intellectual history that raises the above questions, at least in my mind. That he does not, I think, provide answers to any of these questions may be a weakness . It seems to me that without a clear conception of civil religion we cannot know if it really is necessary and good in general or in any particular instance.

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