American Civil Religion and the Enlightenment

In his theory of American Civil Religion, Robert Bellah attempted to attribute America’s sense of community to a common religious factor independent of the church. He said that a specifically American ideology has worked to form a homogenous and unified culture from unrelated immigrants. Because of the United States’ unique beginning, Civil Religion is uniquely crucial to Americans’ sense of unity (Bellah, Robert Neelly, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. University of Chicago Press. 1992). However, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who first argued that every society needs a purely civil profession of faith to integrate all members. For this reason, the idea of civil religion should be examined in the context of the Enlightenment.

Surveys have shown the concept of Civil Religion is a useful model in analyses of American attitudes (Baker, Wayne. America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception. Princeton University Press. 2006). However, after the attack on the Twin Towers some were shocked when they observed that the concept has no brakes. Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, went willingly to war in Iraq based on questionable evidence for the presence of al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. Apparently Civil Religion provides no moral compass. The same has been said of the Enlightenment.

One goal of the Enlightenment was the end of Europe’s Absolutist political organization.  Although Absolutism had been a response to the religious wars of the Reformation, it was seen by the ‘Philosophes’ as an unnecessary annoyance.  Two additional Enlightenment concerns were the equality of man and the place of morality in politics.

The Enlightenment was an historical period beginning with the eighteenth century and ending with the French Revolution in 1789. The term Enlightenment also refers to a method of thought developed during this period, which remains influential in political theory. The movement has always inspired a certain degree of mistrust. In the eighteenth century, the term ‘philosophe’ was meant to distinguish Enlightenment writers from other philosophers. The Philosophes were considered ‘popularizers’ of a doctrine, working to influence public opinion in their favor. In the most violent years of the French Revolution, the ideas of the Enlightenment were further discredited because of their perceived role that revolution.

The theory of political Absolutism, which the Philosophes worked to discredit, is attributed to Thomas Hobbes, who observed during the turmoil following the Reformation that humans fear each other. Hobbes argued that an external sovereign was necessary to maintain order in society. But Enlightenment thinkers had a very different view of human nature, arguing that reason creates a virtuous public individual. In the Absolutist pursuit of peace, Hobbes had declared that personal beliefs must remain private. Publicly, people were expected to agree with the religion of the monarch. The Philosophes had no memory of the religious conflicts that Absolutism had tried to address. This ‘forgetfulness’ has been an enduring characteristic of modern political rhetoric, one result being that Enlightenment assumptions were in conflict with the experience of the past (Koselleck, Reinhart. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Oxford, New York. 1988).

The Enlightenment’s religion was deism, which holds that although God created the world, he is no longer directly concerned with the trials and tribulations of humanity (Deism. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.] 3rd ed. CD-ROM. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1992). According to critic Reinhart Koselleck, Enlightenment thinkers put reason and the will of society in the place of God. In retrospect, it seems clear that one of the unforeseen functions of the Absolutist state was to transition from the Christian focus on the heart of man to the Enlightenment’s obsession with society as a whole. Along the way, the foundation of western thought became a philosophy of materialism.  Now all causes are economic or social.  In this view, Capitalist ideology and Marxist ideology can be seen as two sides of the same materialist coin. Critics have argued that if the Enlightenment was not successful it is because the system had no transcendent values. Such a system degenerates to physical, biological, and economic considerations, and causes more problems than it solves.

Strangely, although Enlightenment thought has become inseparable from Christianity their former differences are no longer discussed. In an older critique from the Catholic point of view, Hilaire Belloc argued that both Absolutism and Enlightenment were solutions for society in lieu of former religious solutions and interpretations. More specifically, he argued that unrestricted capitalism was not a Christian concept. True to his religious point of view, he also argued that it was only made possible by changing social circumstances and by Calvin, who divorced good works from the possibility of human salvation. The only motivation that was left for industry was personal economic gain (Belloc, Hilaire. The Crisis of Civilization. Fordham University Press. New York. 1937).

Of course, the guilds and city-states of the middle Ages were another restraining influence on unbridled capitalism. For the guilds, capitalism differed from the economy of the free cities only in its requirement for large amounts of capital. Guild rules guarded against this type of competition making it possible for the common man to become a master of his craft and establish his own shop. The cities of the middle Ages had become free by petitioning the king for a charter. In this way they had cut out the middlemen in the collection of rents and taxes, including Catholic bishops who were an integral part of the feudal system and who collected rents in their own behalf.

The theory of civil religion assumes that other countries differ from America because they share a cultural and religious background that Americans never had. However, Europe and America were involved in many of the same philosophical and political debates. And both countries have struggled to find a basis for community in lieu of the church’s influence.

See Also:

Nomads and City Dwellers: Institutions, Worldview

The Current Political Discourse: America’s future

From Thomas Hobbes to John Locke: Putting Ayn Rand Through Her Paces