Promoting a Flourishing Society
 

Why We Must Reject Civil Religion in Favour of Civil Virtues

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

October 21, 2010

Rousseau’s discussion on civil religion is found in the penultimate chapter of the Social Contract.1 Its principle aim is to demonstrate that established religion and politics cannot co-exist. Rousseau first provides a background to the type of society that existed prior to established religion gaining prominence. These were societies usually characterised by paganism, theocracies, polytheism, and intolerance.

Rousseau’s discussion on civil religion is found in the penultimate chapter of the Social Contract.1 Its principle aim is to demonstrate that established religion and politics cannot co-exist. Rousseau first provides a background to the type of society that existed prior to established religion gaining prominence. These were societies usually characterised by paganism, theocracies, polytheism, and intolerance.

Rousseau writes that because “God was placed at the head of every political society, it followed that there were as many Gods as there were peoples” (Rousseau 1762: 142). Divisions within nations and societies seem to be the foundation of intolerance, according to Rousseau. Wars and battles would arise since armies could not obey the same master or chief. Rousseau says, “Two armies engaged in battle with one another could not obey the same chief. Thus from national divisions resulted polytheism, and from it theological and civil intolerance” (Rousseau 1762: 142-143).

Although pagan societies were not characterised by religious wars, Rousseau argues that in such societies, the laws and Gods were the same thing. In essence, a ”political war was also theological.” The various territories that the Gods ruled over were clearly demarcated—hence, the Gods of one nation could not infringe on the jurisdiction of another.

This gradual evolution of political society from polytheism to the monotheistic teachings of Christianity shows why Rousseau formulated his ideas on civil religion.

Rousseau rejected both polytheistic and monotheistic forms of religion because he felt they were politically flawed. Although conceding that the Enlightenment era was taking society in the direction of secularisation, Rousseau mourned this fact and argued that political society needed a religion. This is the point at which Professor von Heyking seems to adopt the essentially Roussean model.

Rousseau said that society needs a religion “which makes him [the individual] love his duties,” but that the articles of an individual’s faith “should only concern the state and its citizens.” He also argues that “no state has been founded without a religious basis.” These dogmas require its foundations to be moral in nature and “the duties which anyone who professes it is bound to fulfil it towards others” (Rousseau 1762: 150). In other words, this is a religion of civil principles, and the sovereign is in charge of enacting them. With minor adjustments, Professor von Heyking seems sanguine about the entire concept of “civil religion.” I do not share his comfort here and think the entire category is flawed, unworkable, and should be avoided.

In this response to his thought-provoking Hill lecture, I come not to praise Prof. Heyking, or to bury him, but rather to offer some challenges to what seem to be, in my respectful opinion, too ready an endorsement of the idea of civil religion.

I do not want to say that whatever the state puts in a position of ultimacy is its religion, as that would perhaps turn GNP and materialism into religion, and then the state’s quest for that into a kind of Gadarene or other rush to material success. No: I want to suggest that the State needs to have some of its tendrils trimmed, to recognize that its twin central engines—law and politics, both need a revisioning of their roles in our time.

Law and politics have a jurisdiction—an area over which they have proper competence. If they go beyond that, problems arise. The things that need to be grown just beyond the walls of the state and law may be threatened by overgrowth. Things sometimes need their proper light, and other things need to be cut back.

So it is, in our time, with law and politics. The tender shoots of associations need light, space, a place to grow and prosper. But there are great pressures upon them today. Individual rights threaten associations by giving a primacy to what is called the “individual,” but might more richly be understood as “the person.”

The African concept of ubuntu comes to our aid here: “I am a person because of my people.” Not that I am not “me” as an entity, not that I am lost in the cosmos or community or association, but that I am, actually, found there. There is a need for roots and it is in our associational groundings that we find our purpose. If the freedom of religion, for example, is boiled down too far—to individuals—then how could the individual choose religion?   Religions exist as associational realities and must be protected as such prior to individual choosing.
John von Heyking accepts, or seems to accept, the idea of civil religion. I think we need to challenge that acceptance. Religion is not a state function. Rousseau wrote before written constitutions and human rights legislation. Perhaps the “civic binding” he thought essential can be provided, in large part, through these endorsements without further divinizing the State?  I hope so.

What we need, it seems to me, are “civic virtues,” not civic religion, because a religion is something that would lead us to join one church, and the State should be plural. Virtues take us back to our associations for definition, more than a State religion or civil religion would.

I think the idea of civil religion is ineluctably bound to “convergence,” rather than the encouragement we so need towards modus vivendi or “living together with disagreement.”
That kind of living—with disagreement—is not a failure, but an achievement. Religious associations of various sorts that do not and will not believe the same thing are a key to the maintenance of diversity in our homogenistic times. The law and politics must recognize this.

Near the end of his illuminating talk, Prof. von Heyking states:

The freedom of religious organizations is a critical barometer of the overall health and openness of society because, as religious organizations, their traditions and purposes precede and transcend the scope of our political regime. How our laws treat them reveals something important about the self-limitations of our political.

One of the limitations of our political is that it is not an “established” state. It is not a “secular” state (meaning that religion has no place in the public sphere); it is something different, an “open-public sphere.” This is not best comprehended as an “open” or “closed” civil religion, but as something civil that is not, properly speaking, religious at all.

In the rejection of “civil religion” and the embrace of “civic virtues” lies the future of a co-operation that is not co-option and a diversity that is not just a cover for homogeneity. These civic virtues would be virtues rather than “values.” They would have content shared by the various religions and ethical traditions. They could be taught in public education and could be learned by citizens. They would give richer ground to our conceptions of associations and civil society itself. They would ground human rights and even the Charter of Rights itself. C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man hints at them, but they would have to be informed by developments since that.
At a time when almost any stigma seems to do to beat a dogma, we need to find the language of virtues and objective goods and the common good so that we may find a more substantive base for ourselves and our associations.

In this, Prof. von Heyking will, no doubt, play an important role. But he, in my very respectful submission, needs to come out as rejecting “civil religion” more than he has done in this lecture.

 

NOTES:

1. Rousseau J J 1762. The Social Contract,  Gourevitch V (eds) Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997: 39-152.