Thursday, August 23, 2007

States and Stages on American Civil Religion

Robert Bellah, the great American sociologist, postulated the notion of an American civil religion which combined the Enlightenment notions of optimism, progress, and rationality along with the Biblical notion a chosen group of people who are the bearers of salvation in the world. (Those people in this case being the Americans).

With all religions they begin with a state/revelation. One could point for this religion to George Washington's famous mystical vision. Washington interpreted that vision through his Masonic-Deist leaning frame. Both more so through the civil religion frame. Both elements (Western Enlightenment and Chosen People Motif).

Religions then are meant to translate and help repeat that experience (or similar ones) and cement its theology in a larger scale.

Religions then as the vehicles for the great meaning-events of transcendence have an ambiguous nature. To the degree they help create the conditions for the revelation (assuming it is a good one), they are beneficial. To the degree they don't, they tend towards the metaphysical.

That is they speak about the experience, or more typically, the interpretation of the experience/revelation (the latter slipping away), not towards it or from it.

The American Civil Religion, which is Religion, holds a similar ambiguity. Like all mystical traditions, this one, has yet to take clearly into perspective, the notion of the intersubjective, Heideggerian, post-metaphysical turn.

In the case of Washington's mystical vision, for example, the difference has serious implications. If you take his vision at pure face value, as "the truth", then the descendants of the Europeans are destined and chosen by God, to overrun the indigenous populations.

If we take Washington's vision as a genuine one (which I do) and add the intersubjective, then I need not hold that the interpretation/background factors that influenced the content of the vision, are automatically forever and ever the truth.

Just as I have a pro/con relationship with Christianity (esp. its amber traditional form), so I do with the American civil religion. It is a better religion--particularly after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement--than amber-aristocratic mythic theocracies the world over. (Present and past).

For those who practice the "orange" civil American religion, then they should seek out the more esoteric roots of that tradition, so they can experience its heights for themselves, as true Enlightenment inner scientists.

It also makes clear for those who critique the religion, they receive (very often) ir-rational response mechanisms. As a religion, myth is strong and exerts a powerful hold on its believers. Criticism=heresy.

Better is to understand the symbols/myth (from the state and stage pov) and learn how to tweak the symbols to criticize from within. To subvert the typical pattern/establishment that they are used to often cement.

Both the Enlightenment and Biblical tenets of the American Civil Religion are a two-edged sword.

For the Enlightenment belief: Americans can always be called back to a pragmatism, to the so-called can do spirit, to audacious plans and goals.

On the downside--failure is one's own fault. There is nothing in the world that is not rational by this view (hence problems with religious states and mysticism in general in this religion though sourced in it). Nothing that can not be systematized. No fallow ground. No place for mourning. No great understanding of cultural-historical diversity.

On the Biblical belief. Plus Side. Always call Americans, e.g. Lincoln, to their better angelic side. On the torture question, calling to the American soul and saying this is not us. Volunteerism.

On the negative side--enforcing Americanization. Mythic American faith ("My country right or wrong, but my country") nationalism.

If the religion takes the place of it being the vehicle for the revelation, then idolatry is afoot. If the US is the only nation founded on the belief in God, then the US of all suffers from the danger of idolatry. [I'm not sure that's the right formulation, but it doesn't really matter for the point I'm making].


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