Toward a Healthy Society

The Problem of Civil Religion: A Response

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

The problem of civil religion is a perennial one for political order. In living together, we strive to create a society that is not only just and good, but truly just and good. We strive to create a society to which we owe allegiance, and that deserves our allegiance.

I thank Iain Benson and Hubert Krygsman for their insightful responses to my 2010 Hill Lecture, "The Persistence of Civil Religion in Canada." In that lecture, I argued that modern progressivism, which has a way of divinizing the state and the individual while undermining practices of self-government, can be described as a form of civil religion, even while its adherents regard themselves as "secular." Both Benson and Krygsman appear to share broad agreement with my analysis of this civil religion. However, they each take issue with some part of my attempt to outline what a more open, pluralistic, and free society would look like. Both take issue with my use of the concept "civil religion" in describing this new arrangement, but I think their responses indicate that even though the concept or terminology may be flawed, the concept still points to something more enduring in Canadian, or any, political order.

Civil religion may not persist, but the political problem that civil religion attempts to address does persist. In my Hill Lecture, I suggested the problem of civil religion arises out of our collective efforts to legitimate our regime according to cosmological, historical, and anthropological truth. Put more succinctly, the problem of civil religion is the problem of reconciling what is good and what is our own. While I used the term "civil religion," which has a link with philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I could just as easily have referred to historical precedents including "civil theology," a term from the Roman republic that entered debates on political order in the Middle Ages via St. Augustine through to the Renaissance in Giambattista Vico. I might also have referred to the concept of 'asabîyah, a term used by medieval Islamic historian Ibn Khaldûn to describe the concrete and unique identity of a political society.

The problem of civil religion finds its classic formulation in Plato's Republic, where he shows how reconciling love of one's own with love of the good is the central problem for politics. Plato understood that we too frequently identify our own with what is truly good. We identify our opinion of what is good with what we think is the truth. This is problematic when some, like Socrates, point out to us that our opinions are flawed and that knowledge of what is truly good is absent. Today, thanks mainly to modern progressivism, we tend to go too far in the other direction. We tend to appeal to universal goods (e.g., universal human rights, humanitarianism, cosmopolitanism), but we have difficulty expressing why our own attachments should be worthy of allegiance. Cosmopolitanism trumps particular attachments that form our daily lives.

But the problem is even worse than this. When people appeal to universal goods, they are not really appealing to what is truly good, but they try to make those universal goods exclusively their own. This is dangerous because it makes it impossible to imagine how someone opposing your opinion might be correct. Instead of treating them as either mistaken or having different (but justifiable) interests, your political opponent is now immoral or, worse, inhumane. This is the danger of progressivism and why I called it a "closed" form of civil religion. Its adherents imagine they behold the universal good but have only turned that good into a prejudice. In the spirit of journalists who frequently asked former President George W. Bush if he had made mistakes in waging war against Iraq, I once asked a progressivist judge if she had ever delivered a mistaken judgment. She looked at me as if I had asked the most bizarre question possible. Progressivism simply cannot conceive how it might be mistaken, because it identifies itself with universal goods.

Iain Benson rejects my usage of civil religion and would prefer me to speak of civic virtues, and then suggests philosopher John Gray's concept of modus vivendi is a useful way of conceiving and defending public pluralism. I agree that Gray's prescription, which takes its bearings from the English liberalism of J. S. Mill, is preferable to that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Benson cites as the precedent of my discussion of civil religion. However, Gray's prescription suffers the same problem that modern progressivism does by failing to give due weight to what is our own. Gray would have us associate with one another as beneficiaries of laws that secure our freedom. However, his methodological individualism does not give due weight to reasons one would prefer to practice freedom with this group of people rather than that one. As former Hill Lecturer Roger Scruton observes in another context, the laws we create to protect our freedom presuppose our visceral attachment—friendship—with one another. Even John Locke understands this when he notes that the social contract presupposes "acquaintance and friendship."

Put concretely, I teach students at a university one hour north of the U.S. border, and many of my students have numerous family attachments in places like Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. The arbitrary location of the "Medicine Line" between Canada and the U. S. is palpable for people in my part of Canada. Thus, the question of why my students should prefer to associate freely with people from Newfoundland rather than their attachments in Utah, which is closer, is alive to them. Benson is correct to see the drawbacks of civil religion, but I submit that the notion of civic virtue is substantially linked to at least the problem of civil religion because the nature of civic virtue depends on the nature of the civitas in which they are practiced.

Hubert Krygsman acknowledges the persistence of the problem of civil religion when he asks how Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other spiritual and lay philosophies can obtain solidarity with one another in Canada, especially when so much of modern technological civilization depersonalizes us and our relations. In what sense can we make those who differ from us our own? Mr. Krygsman doubts the personalism that I allude to can withstand the dehumanizing effects of modern technological rule, as articulated so profoundly by Canadian philosopher George Grant.

I am inclined to think that Grant overstated things when he, following post-World War II declinist thinking, regarded such dehumanizing rule as our fate. True, his narrative of modern society shares much with Eric Voegelin whom I mentioned, but he missed key ingredients, noticed by Voegelin, of what recovery might look like.1 Indeed, even to speak of the dehumanizing effects of technological rule is to recollect what genuine humanity is about. As David Walsh observes, the critique of modernity that thinkers like Grant and others have conducted points toward a new configuration of modernity that deepens awareness of non-technical reason in such a way that reveals the reliance reason has on faith.2

If imperious technology can be reined in by a more robust, faith-sustained reason, then there is hope for the human person and our relations with one another. My reference to personhood is not the modern belief in the inner goodness of the human person, but rather to that of classical Christianity and its transmitters in the modern world (such as Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Voegelin, and Tocqueville), in which humans, fallen though they be, retain an element of divine love in their souls that needs to be oriented toward the source of that love.

Dr. Krygsman rightly points to the challenge we face in appealing to such a sense of personhood in our own pluralistic world. We are only too familiar with inter-religious rivalries (not to mention rivalries with non-religious perspectives) concerning the source of love. Provisionally, I appeal again to Plato, the first but not the last philosopher to face this problem. In his Laws, he suggests a "minimum dogma" that would leave utmost liberty to individuals while also creating a sufficient bond for political community. Briefly, he suggested the "minimum dogma" comprises three dogmas: 1) belief that god or gods exist, 2) belief they take care of human beings, and 3) belief god or gods cannot be "bribed" by sacrifice or prayer (Laws 885b). Writing in seventeenth century Holland as a Maranic Jew, Baruch Spinoza developed something similar in his Tractatus Politicus. Jean Bodin developed something similar in France during the wars of religion in the sixteenth-century.

Of course, the major drawback of the language of "dogma," as with the language of "civil religion," is that it implies a top-down authoritarian model of institutionalization. This is why, in the second part of my Hill Lecture, I argue that self-government is a moral practice where the human person is revealed in the activity itself. The truth of existence is found in existence, not in predetermined abbreviations that we are forced to sign on to. However, I think there is an important part of our practice of self-government together that implicitly acknowledges the spirit of the "minimum dogma" to which these thinkers allude.

Self-government is a moral practice that still requires education. Or, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, there exists an "apprenticeship of freedom" of which there is no more difficult task. Part of this apprenticeship includes obedience to moral and religious law as a way of practicing genuine liberty, instead of materialistic licentiousness. Appealing to Grant, Mr. Krygsman worries that there is no "God-given order" for Canadians to develop their solidarity for the good reason that there is deep disagreement about God, whether God exists, and so forth.

But I think we practice the minimum dogma in our self-government without actually recognizing it as such. Canada is a country of immigrants. Each of us either personally or through a not-so-distant ancestor has gained the "apprenticeship of freedom" in immigrating to Canada. The immigrant arrives with next to nothing and makes something of him or herself. The immigrant is like the Old Testament Jew, who acquiesces before God in the wilderness of the soul in order to enter into the promised land of freedom. This is how Tocqueville understands the religious dimension of the "apprenticeship of freedom," and I think it is implicit in Canada's immigrant experience.

A Hungarian immigrant who fled communist persecution can understand an Ismaili Muslim from Uganda. The election of Naheed Nenshi was "no big deal" in Calgary, because the "apprenticeship of freedom" still resonates strongly with Albertans.3 The immigrant is thankful for her freedom, and is fully aware of the precariousness and fragility of her existence. She knows implicitly that god exists, cares for her, and she knows that god cannot be bribed because she has learned the hard way that existence is a gift. Immigrants know that other immigrants know this, and are the first to point out when they do not. This is the experiential core of modern liberty as practiced by Canada, a society of immigrants, which permits, in Tocqueville's words, the "sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another."

In challenging my usage of "civil religion," Benson and Krygsman deepen our awareness of the challenges facing the construction of a pluralistic and meaningful political community. While various accounts of "civil religion" share the exclusionary elements of progressivism, the problem of civil religion is a perennial one for political order. In living together, we strive to create a society that is not only just and good, but truly just and good. We strive to create a society to which we owe allegiance, and that deserves our allegiance. Two thousand five hundred years ago years ago, Plato identified the central political problem as one of reconciling the love of one's own and love of the good. Twenty-first century Canadians grapple with the same problem.


1. For details see my article (co-authored with Barry Cooper), "‘A Cow is Just a Cow': George Grant and Eric Voegelin on America," in Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant's Theology, Philosophy, and Politics, eds. Ian Angus et al., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), pp. 166-89.

2. David Walsh, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990); The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997); The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). See my review of Walsh's effort: "David Walsh's Anamnesis of Modernity: A Preface to a Preface," Political Science Reviewer, Vol. 39 (Spring 2010). Forthcoming.

3. Kevin Libin, "Why Race Doesn't Matter in Calgary," National Post, October 20, 2010.