The attraction between religion and politics is perennial. Sometimes, in its long and checkered history, it has led to an adulterous affair. I want to ask what lies at the heart of this attraction, and whether that can shed any light on the current religious/political scene. But the romance-metaphor is at bottom not a good one. I shall argue that, in their originary condition, religion and politics are "closer," both ontologically and in their motivation, than woman and man, closer than siblings. Perhaps the image of siamese identical twins would serve best as a figure for the union which binds together these domains, in spite of the peculiar political history which has, in the West and especially in this country, attempted to sunder them. Let me emphasize right here that my project is a descriptive one: I am seeking a deeper understanding of the phenomena, not attempting to develop a prescriptive or normative position concerning what is to be done. Indeed, I shall only be able to sketch the outlines of the descriptive position I shall propose.
Among Christian attitudes towards politics, we might distinguish a quietist pole and an activist one. (Of course this landscape is by no means as unidimensional as that figure suggests.) In the minds of quietists looms large the thought that the Kingdom of Heaven is "not of this world" (Jn. 18), and that it is our duty as Christians to lay up treasures in heaven, not pursue the corruptible earthly ones (Mt. 6:19f). Of course, all that is compatible with political activism–e.g. as a means to achieve the Kingdom–but other passages (the "render unto Caesar," (Mt. 22) and injunctions to submit to rulers and powers (Tit. 2, 3; I Pet. 2, 3)) might be understood to enjoin quietism.
Christian activists, for their part, can find plenty of scriptural backing for their proclivities. Activists on the left find their inspiration in the social-welfare injunctions of Jesus (e.g. Mt. 5: 1-15, Mk: 10:17f) and the later Hebrew prophets, and deem it appropriate to institutionalize such injunctions, as they were institutionalized in Judaism and the early Church. The right wing, for its part, also gravitates toward various moral injunctions (e.g. Rom. 1), and is finally attracted to the Torah, which, after all, establishes the dominion of the Lord over His people in the concrete forms of the Law and the institutions it creates.1 Activists of both stripes are motivated, I think, by extra-biblical moral intuitions and political instincts; but both are right in seeing that Scripture has deep social implications (though I would disagree with many of the interpretations offered on either side). But let us gain a bit of perspective by stepping back a bit from our own traditions.
One of the great problems confronted by anthropologists since before the turn of the century has been to understand the nature and origin of religion. It was understood from the start that religion is a deeply social phenomenon; and it was remarked early on that recognizably religious traditions and institutions characterize every human society. But in what terms are religious beliefs and practices to be understood? Why are they universal? In both conceptual terms and as regards their epistemic status, religious beliefs–at least those of cultures foreign to us–appear deeply puzzling. A multitude of theories has been offered to explain–or explain away–the religious side of human nature. My own views are deeply influenced by those of Durkheim, but with some fundamental differences. I shall suggest that the natural conceptual home and indeed the conceptual ancestry of religious ideas is politics. That explains why religion is universal: politics itself is, as the natural corollary of social existence.
Here I shall develop this theme in only the very sketchiest of ways, by showing how two central religious notions can be understood in political terms. What I shall say will be profoundly unappealing–indeed conceptually quite alien–to those unfamiliar with anthropological analysis. That is a measure of how far we have come, conceptually at least, in divorcing the two arenas. But I would argue, ultimately, that Durkheim’s approach gives us the most powerful hermeneutic we have for understanding religious thought.
Alisdair MacIntyre once complained of the conceptual impenetrability of the Arunta2 belief that certain sticks are their souls, or are to be treated as if inhabited by their souls.3 Of course the term ‘soul’ is one we Westerners invented, and MacIntyre, interestingly, does not pause to reflect upon what we mean by it–or even on whether we know what we mean by it. Its appropriateness for interpreting the Arunta belief might, at the very least, be questioned.
But I am going to proceed instead by turning the tables. I shall interpret some of our pneumatic notions in terms of the Arunta conceptual framework. The Arunta have sacred sticks called churinga. They are actually flat boards or stones, and some finely decorated ones are the exclusive property of clan chiefs. These are passed from father to son, and on them is inscribed the lineage of ownership–hence, a history of clan leadership. Functionally, the churinga serves as a scepter of authority: when the chief passes it on to his chosen successor, that person is thereby invested as the new chief. But what can it mean to say that a person’s "soul" (in fact, the chief’s soul) resides in the churinga–as well as (of course) in the chief himself?
It will help to consider the rather widespread belief–shared by the Arunta–in reincarnation. An Arunta infant is said to be "ambushed" by the Kuruna, the spirit or soul, of an ancestor, which is then reincarnated in that infant. Functionally, this means that the infant inherits the social position held by that ancestor. But if that is so, why not just suppose that Arunta "souls" are social roles; that in reincarnating my ancestor’s soul, I assume, or am in a position to assume, his or her station in my society? What is passed along from generation to generation is not persons, we might say, but personages. Which ancestor’s soul takes possession of my body is–in Aruntaland as elsewhere–of course, no accident. It is a function of my position (and my ancestor’s) in the kinship system, which in turn determines almost all social roles and relations.4
If that is right, Arunta beliefs about souls in sticks can hardly be convicted of bald irrationality. To be sure, such a belief is metaphysically interesting. It involves reifying social roles, or personages. A stable social structure, we might say, is a stable structure composed of roles standing in certain moral and jural relations to one another. A person is situated within a structure by occupying one or more such roles. People may move from one social role to another–becoming new personages–and social roles must be passed along, in some ordered way, through a succession of persons. Persons are, it follows, distinct from the roles they occupy, or the personages which "occupy" them. Two persons can successively "be"–that is, embody–one and the same personage. And two personages can (either successively or simultaneously) inhabit the same person.5 But it is plausible (more on this shortly) that one cannot be a full-fledged person without also being a personage.
Nor are these conceptions as alien to our own cultural heritage as they might seem. A signal instance is the medieval notion that a king has two bodies: a familiar mortal body, and an immortal one which is passed on to the king’s successor, who thereby becomes the king.6
We can now explain the Arunta treatment of their churingas. A churinga is the insignia of office for a clan chief. But it is, in a sense, more than that. It "carries" the office from chief to successor. As such, it can be said to be an embodiment of the soul or social role: clan chief. And its status as such an embodiment can be jurally sanctioned.7 That is, the chieftainship can be seen as having a kind of dual embodiment: first and foremost, in the person of the chief, but secondarily, in the churinga which carries the record of his lineage and gives physical representation to the continuity of the office.8 This analysis of the Arunta’s way of understanding souls provides a small sample of the ethnographic evidence that ‘soul’ was originally a social/political category.
What about the gods themselves? Durkheim’s view was that the gods are unconscious projections of human corporate groups, reified by them (as Durkheim himself was prepared to do) as social agents. That is too simple on a number of counts, but it is, I believe, more nearly right than wrong. The gods are, Durkheim observed, the source of moral norms, social customs and institutions, and of the power that enforces these. And that source, Durkheim argued, is just society itself, conceived as an agent, a person whose "collective" will is not reducible to the summed individual wills of the group’s members.9
The resemblances between gods and corporate groups conceived as agents are much farther-reaching than that. Let me just list a few of these, and observe that they characterize as well our own way of conceiving and speaking about corporate entities. Thus a corporate entity–e.g. a nation–is not itself a material particular (though it can be variously and multiply embodied); it is supernatural (that is, nations are not items of the natural word, but supervene, perhaps, on certain natural facts); it has, for its members, a kind of final authority and power, and jural status as "supreme legislator." One could extend this list, but it will suffice.
I think Durkheim is wrong that the "projection" is (or was) unconscious; but I want to discuss another, rather obvious objection. Gods are often conceived as distinct from a society, even as perennially opposed to it. Besides, the gods are prescient, whereas society stumbles along in all-too-unprescient a fashion. So gods can’t just be societies qua corporate agents.
This objection relies upon a too-naive analysis of the way in which we think about agency. Take individual persons. We can describe a person’s actions and, if we know enough, what their reasons for acting are. But we can also make normative judgments, judgments about the rationality and wisdom of their actions, the intelligence and perspicuity of their thinking, their moral character, and the like. The measures for some of these assessments are universal: they apply to human beings in general, in virtue of their rational capacities and the universal needs that must be satisfied in order to flourish. Others are more individual: they are a function of the particular proclivities, talents, circumstances and (as existentialists are fond of saying) life-projects that particularize our judgments about how successfully someone pursues "their life." Take the late Mother Teresa, who perhaps fulfilled more fully than most of us do, her special telos. Mother Teresa, no doubt, did well; but to the feet of even the saints, a bit of clay clings. In some ways, Mother Teresa surely fell short of that perfection which constitutes the ideal that we implicitly envision and employ when we judge that she lived her life well or not so well; that in a given action, she did or failed to do the best that was possible for her.10 With just a bit of hyperbole, we might say that such normative judgments presuppose a conception of the Platonic form of Mother Teresa. (We might, e.g., ask what action Teresa would have performed had she had perfect relevant knowledge, perfect deliberative faculties, no weakness of the will, etc.)
Now in a similar fashion, those who normatively judge the actions of a corporate agent such as a nation (e.g. its social and foreign policies) must implicitly measure that performance against an ideal, an ideal that might envision, e.g., perfect knowledge, perfect deliberation, a perfect vision of the unique world-historic role or mission of that nation, etc. But now we have something–a reified ideal–that looks very like a god: the Platonic Form of "the Arunta," or India, or the U.S. Lest this seem a bit outlandish, let me remind you that the patron goddess of Athens was Athena; the patron goddess of Rome was Roma. And, within the breast of medieval kings there lived a goddess named Iustitia (she epitomized a social function of the king–the king as agent of justice).11
But why be a Platonist about all this? Why reify corporate agents, and take the reification seriously? One answer, very briefly, takes us to a watershed issue in political theory. Modern Western democracies trace their theoretical roots to the social-contract theories of the 17th and 18th centuries. The social-contract approach, which is fundamentally individualist or reductionist,12 is so deeply imbedded in our thinking about political rights, legitimacy, and institutional structures that we have a hard time conceiving of a society as anything other than an entity whose existence is parasitic upon the wills and actions of private individuals. In other words, we conceive of individuals, fully endowed with reason, private interests, and will, as otologically primary; corporate agents are created by, and dependent upon, private agents.
But this is not the only plausible position. One might argue that, absent socialization into a group, replete with social roles, customs, traditions, and the like, a human being is incapable of even the rudiments of personhood. On that view, we are social creatures, so fundamentally and biologically, that we owe our development into persons to the existence of a social group. Feral children, grown to adulthood in a state of nature, could not fashion a social contract. In the beginning was the corporate agent; it was this that created Man and Woman.
On the view I have hastily sketched, two religious concepts–that of the soul and that of a god–originally were political concepts.13 Why accept this suggestion? One reason is fairly simple. In every culture, people need to deliberate about fundamental political issues–about their social institutions, practices, and traditions. These things do not just happen automatically. Moreover, we know that some people in every culture have the capacity for abstract intellectual thought, for theorizing. After all, they engage in theological speculation. But where do we find their political theories? Where do we find their understanding of who they are as a people? Roughly, the answer–for tribal societies–is that we find no such domain of discourse outside their theology. In short, tribal theology is, or serves the purposes of, tribal political theory.14
What can all this tell us about our current religio-political scene? While religion and politics have always been entangled in our history, both on the right and on the left, this engagement seems to have risen in both volume and shrillness in the past two decades, thanks largely to the emergence of a powerful and vocal religious right wing. Why?
A standard view is that, though deeply engaged, religion and politics occupy fundamentally distinct ontological spheres, their interaction being mediated by a mutual concern with ethical issues. I am arguing that, even though our cultural history has largely obscured and partly dissolved the connection, religion and politics overlap much more fundamentally than that–in their origins, and in the psychological and conceptual resonances which remain even today.
Religious conservatism has traditionally provided a social haven for the marginalized and disenfranchised (in part by providing access to "respectability"). What is new, I think, is the burgeoning realization by the political right wing that religious conservatism is an effective medium for forging an alliance with a constituency whose natural interests and affiliation lay historically on the left. The irony is that the fervor of the revival, and concurrent religious transformation from quietism to activism, is largely fueled by the rapid social change which has accompanied industrialization and the shift from an agrarian society to a technologically advanced, capitalist economy: changes wrought by the very industrialists who encourage religious conservatism as a panacea.15 Rapid change invariably leads to deep insecurities about social order, and a nostalgia for an often mythicized past. The right has capitalized on that nostalgia. The left, in seeking new solutions to new problems, has not managed to speak with nearly as much effectiveness to those whose lives and social traditions have been most severely affected by economic change.
But my present point is that the religious rhetoric of the right is effective, not merely because it resonates with the old and the familiar, but because, implicit in its moral messages, is the promise that people can regain control over their lives and the social arrangements which order their lives. And that category of control is a fundamentally political one.16 In fact, what is on offer is both social respectability and political power. When, for example, the right invokes "family values"–which, taken at face value, might appear a purely moral appeal–it employs discourse that mobilizes a wide range of insecurities on behalf of political interests whose real concerns and proposed policies may have very little to do with realistic responses to the forces that actually threaten family stability. Given the conceptual roots of religious thought, this rhetorical effect should hardly come as any surprise.
But I want to conclude with a look at a more theoretical issue. In a recent essay,17 Nicholas Wolterstorff charges that there is an inconsistency between what he calls the Idea of liberal democracy and what he calls the liberal position. The Idea is that government shall grant to all citizens (a) equal protection under the law, (b) equal freedom to live out their lives as they see fit, and (c) an equal voice in governance. Further, government shall be neutral with respect to religious and other comprehensive ideologies. The liberal position, on the other hand, includes the doctrine that, in the making of political decisions, appeals to religious reasons will be disqualified.
As Wolterstorff sees it, the exclusion of religious reasons from political thought and discourse is inconsistent with at least part (b) of the Idea of liberal democracy. He says:
The restraint [on religious reasons] appears, on the face of it, to violate the equal freedom component within the Idea of liberal democracy. On the face of it, the Idea of liberal democracy implies the absence of any such restraint. A significant part of how some citizens exercise their religion is that their decisions and debates on political issues are in good measure based on their religious convictions. Using their religious convictions… is part of what constitutes conducting their lives as they see fit.18
Can a justification for the disqualification of religious reasons be found that is compatible with the Idea of liberal democracy as Wolterstorff envisions it? I think so, if the affinity between religious and political traditions is taken seriously enough.19
Appeals to religious reasons become significant when the conclusions they support cannot independently be justified on religiously neutral grounds–that is, on the basis of reason and empirical evidence.20 Absent grounds of the latter sort, religious justification amounts to appeal to authority, or tradition, or simply personal predilection. Appeals to authority and tradition are not always disallowed in liberal-democratic discourse. On the contrary: we often, and quite properly, appeal to our traditions and to legal authority, as embodied, e.g., in legal statutes or a constitution.21 But not every such appeal is given weight. Suppose, for example, that someone in this country were to argue for a social policy by appeal to the fact that it is enjoined by the constitution of Sweden. Such an appeal would, naturally and properly, be discounted. (Of course, there might be good reasons for the Swedish law, and appeal could be made to those. But such an appeal would not be one that invokes the authority of Swedish law; it would be tradition-neutral.) This much is obvious; but we can say more: it would not be improper to be positively hostile to the injection of appeals to foreign legal/political traditions into domestic debate; not only is there no proper basis for loyalty to exotic traditions, but there are good reasons for a studied independence from them.22 Here lies one of the less visible reasons why religious conservatives are so intent upon arguing that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. Were such arguments to fulfill their intended purpose, they would show that the United States is in fact not a liberal democracy; arguments predicated upon the assumption that it is would be non-starters.
Historical questions aside, one of the most strident proponents of the view that the United States ought not to be a liberal democracy–or indeed, a democracy at all–is J. R. Rushdoony, the founder of a movement which calls itself Christian Reconstructionism (and which is certainly more extreme in its views than Wolterstorff, though it shares a Calvinist background). In Rushdoony’s view, Biblical religion is inescapably political and legal in its implications. A few quotations will serve to convey the flavor of his thinking. Thus he says concerning the connection between religion and law:23
Law is in every culture religious in origin… in any culture the source of the law is the god of that society… no disestablishment of religion as such is possible in any society… there can be no tolerance in a law-system for another religion. [emphasis in the original]
This theme is central to Rushdoony’s view of the role of religion in human life. Thus, he draws the conclusion that "All law is religious in nature, and every non-Biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion,"24 and that "Every law-order is in a state of war against the enemies of that order, and all law is a form of warfare."25
Now Rushdoony is no deft theoretician. His intellectual weapons are to careful reasoning and analysis what the broadaxe and bludgeon are to the stiletto and well-aimed longbow. But there is something refreshing about his dogmatism, and the consequent transparency and candor of his ideological commitments. He brings into open view the political tendencies which are implicit in enduring religious traditions.
It will be obvious what I am leading up to. To the extent that loyalty to religious traditions, and appeal to religious authority, are analogous to an appeal to alien political traditions–to that extent a discountenancing of such appeals will be, by parity of reasoning, appropriate within a liberal democracy. Citizens should be free to pursue their religious commitments, so long as those are not incompatible with secular order; but religious reasons as such, not otherwise warrantable, have no place in our political discourse. That is not because they are not "political reasons", but precisely because they are–or are too close to being so. They retain, in spite of their historical divergence from politics, a structurally identical role for appeals to authority, tradition, legal precedent, group solidarity, and the like. The strength of this argument depends, of course, upon the strength of the analogy between religion and alien powers. Whether religions, as they are practiced in contemporary America, are sufficiently like alien political traditions, I shall leave for the reader to decide.26 I have tried to argue only that such an assessment would not be implausible.27
1 Some on the right would also cite, within a larger exegetical framework, Rom. 13: 1-8, I Cor. 15: 24-28, and the great commission given to Jesus at Mt. 28:18.
2 The Arunta are one of the desert tribes of central Australia.
3 A. MacIntyre, "Understanding Religion and Believing," reprinted in Rationality, ed. Bryan Wilson (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 68.
4 For the somewhat more complex details, see Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Arunta, (London: MacMillan, 1927), chap. 4.
5 In many cultures, individuals have or may have more than one "soul".
6 This distinction played an essential role in medieval political theory and jurisprudence. The problem was whether the king, as the supreme legislator, was above the law. The solution was that the immortal king–identified with the corporate state–was indeed "above" the law. But the mortal king was subject to the law. Thus, the British Parliament, prior to beheading Charles I, divested Charles of the immortal body, which, they declared, now resided in Parliament. See Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957) for details. The origins of the idea are ancient–it is prefigured for example in the Egyptian doctrine of the pharaoh’s Ka, or spirit–but the direct precursor of the medieval formulation was the doctrine of Christ’s two natures.
7 It is interesting that some people seem analogously to behave toward the American flag as if it were more than a mere symbol for this country–as if trampling the flag constitutes not a mere insult, but a real assault upon the United States itself. For more on the ontology of social roles and their embodiment, see Evan Fales, "The Ontology of Social Roles," Philosophy of the Social Sciences 7 (1977): 139-161.
8 A similar role was played in ancient Roman society by the genius which, in Roman families, carried family identity and authority from father to son through the generations.
9 I cannot argue the reducibility issue here; see Evan Fales, "Truth, Tradition, and Rationality," Philosophy of the Social Sciences 6 (1976): 97-113 and "The Ontology of Social Roles," Philosophy of the Social Sciences 7 (1997): 139-161. Briefly, I think corporate entities are irreducible agents if (a) jural decisions have performative force–i.e., if corporate or institutional agents can be created or destroyed within a legal tradition as the sorts of entities their constitutive rules declare them to be, and (b) there are–as I think–legal systems which institute corporate agents conceived as not reducible to individual persons. The ontologically challenged may prefer to speak here of "legal fictions" instead.
10 If Christopher Hitchens is right, Teresa in fact fell very short indeed. See Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practise (London: Verso, 1995).
11 Kai Nielsen may be right in claiming that a naturalistic account of the meanings of religious utterances cannot be "cognitive"–i.e., construe the referents of religious terms naturalistically–for many contemporary religions. I am arguing that he is mistaken, however, when it comes to their original referents. For institutions, though not natural entities, are nevertheless not supernatural in any sense involving the literal existence of disembodied consciousnesses. Though their reification does not comport well with a strict naturalist ontology, it can be accommodated without opening the door to the spirits and ghosts that are the real bone of contention in these disputes. Nielsen himself counts Durkheim, who nonreductively reifies institutions, in his short list of naturalistic explainers of religion. See Nielsen, "Naturalism and Religion: Must Naturalistic Explanations Explain Religion Away?," Philo 1 (1998), pp. 52-53.
12 Though it is arguable that for Rousseau, the will of the people was not the sum of individual wills, but rather what ideal reason could dictate.
13 To provide a convincing theory of religion, this approach would have to do far more, of course. At the very least, it would have to give a political account of numerous other religious concepts and categories (e.g., of clan totems, rites of passage, angels, demons, prophets, heaven, hell, etc.)–both of their original content and of how that content evolved in a given tradition; and it would have to provide a satisfying and methodologically defensible hermeneutic, in those terms, of religious texts and practices. Readers will perhaps wonder whether I am prepared to defend this thesis only for so-called "primitive" religions, or also for the great world religions. Such questions must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. But I would certainly defend the claim with respect to first-century Christianity.
14 This is an oversimplification, but near enough.
15 It may be worth remarking that, whatever its inadequacies as a general theory of religion, Marx’s class analysis appears to apply quite nicely in this case.
16 The message is, to be sure, Janus-faced: one regains control by giving up control; by letting the Lord, through His representatives, take charge over one’s life.
17 Nicholas Wolterstorff, "The Role of Religion in Political Issues," in Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds. Religion in the Public Square, ed. Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).
18 Ibid., p.77.
19I shall not discuss here Wolterstorff’s negative grounds for according religious reasons parity with secular ones. He attacks Locke’s appeal to the use of natural reason as a route to objective knowledge of fundamental moral, political, and religious truths, and hence as a common basis, shared by all intelligent individuals, for the settling of political disputes. In rejecting this idea, Wolterstorff courts a kind of skepticism or relativism which I believe undermines the very possibly of liberal democracy. But there is no space to pursue this issue here.
20 Some religious reasons might themselves ultimately qualify as religiously neutral in this sense–for example, there might in principle be sufficient empirical evidence to establish the existence of a God who has ordained certain moral principles.
21 Of course the justice of the laws can (and should) itself be examined in the light of more fundamental principles. But that does not undermine their authoritative status. A duly enacted law, even if unjust, has authoritative force.
22 We owe no formal debt to Swedish traditions (only an indirect and informal one, to the extent that Swedes have contributed to American culture), nor have we entered into any explicit or implied contract that binds us to the Swedish legal system. Of course, a Swedophile is welcome to her affection for Swedish laws, and should be free to express that affection. That is to be distinguished from countenancing the legitimacy of appeals to Swedish law in public policy debates. (To develop this argument more fully, it would be necessary to discuss whether it would be acceptable, even in a town most of whose citizens were of Swedish descent and possessed a strong sense of Swedish identity, to institute local laws on the grounds that they mirrored Swedish law, and thus were a way of expressing that cultural identity.)
23 See Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), pp. 4-5.
24 Ibid., p. 113.
25 Ibid., p. 93.
26 Lest one think that this is merely an academic concern, let me mention two manifestations of the kind of direction I am claiming religious commitment can take. A group in Brooksville, Alabama, spearheaded by a local minister, recently hoped to incorporate the town under a local government based upon Biblical law. Second, we have the suggestion, made by University of Notre Dame law professor Charles Rice, that the pope be made a "supralegal arbiter" who would decide the validity of U.S. constitutional law. (Both cases are cited in Church and State 52, no. 5 (May 1999). Church and State is a publication of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.)
27 In these closing comments, I have to some degree strayed from my announced project, which was to confine myself to description and abjure normative claims. Still, there is a descriptive point in the near vicinity, viz., that the instinct or intuition, deeply felt by many liberal democrats, that the injection of religion into political discourse is not merely harmful but inappropriate–that this intuition is a perhaps inarticulate reflection of a sense that religious appeals are by their nature appeals to institutionally alien authority. This is a quite distinct point from the observation that religious disagreements are prone to arouse passion and discord.